A Personal Appreciation of Roger Ebert:
The first time the Rude Pundit had any idea who Roger Ebert was happened way back in 1977 when he turned on PBS to for a new show, Sneak Previews, with Ebert and Gene Siskel reviewing movies. They were talking about Close Encounters of the Third Kind. To a young Louisiana kid, it was an immediate connection to an assertive, passionate world of criticism he didn't know existed. This was before the internet, children, and the Rude Pundit had to get taken to the library to read Ebert's reviews in the Chicago Sun-Times. Ebert led the Rude Pundit to other movie critics, like Pauline Kael and Vincent Canby (and even a book of old school reviews by Bosley Crowther).
Ebert inspired the Rude Pundit to begin doing film commentary in his elementary school newspaper. He still has his first review, The China Syndrome, which was as good an imitation of Ebert that that tween could manage. He wrote movie reviews into college, and the Rude Mom was sure he was going to be, specifically, the next Roger Ebert.
The movies Ebert forcefully championed became a large part of the Rude Pundit's cultural and political education. He became aware of independent film because of Ebert's love of John Sayles's Return of the Secaucus Seven, and, when he was old enough to drive, he would head out to Baton Rouge or even New Orleans to see films like Michael Moore's Roger and Me and Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. That was partly because Ebert, as a writer and a presence on television, urged you to seek them out and sit in an audience and take part in the act of viewing a film.
And Ebert's reviews even led the Rude Pundit into controversy. When Ebert and other critics praised Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, he crossed a picket line of crazed evangelicals to see it at the single theater in the entire state where it was playing.
One of the key moments for the Rude Pundit politically was seeing how appalled Siskel and Ebert were by the slasher films of the late 1970s. Ebert was no shrinking violet about violence: he admired Wes Craven's Last House on the Left, which is one of the most horrific films ever made, still hard to watch even today. And they both praised John Carpenter's Halloween. But after a string of movies that featured sexualized teenage girls getting murdered, with the low point being the original I Spit on Your Grave, the pair of Chicago movie critics devoted an entire episode of their show in October 1980 to violence against women in films. Agree or disagree with their perspective, it was ballsy as hell.
For the Rude Pundit, this half-hour was crystallizing in many ways. It revealed and contextualized the pervasive sexism of mainstream entertainment to a disturbing degree. It demonstrated how pop culture was intertwined with worldly matters, the merging of the personal and the political, a merging that the Rude Pundit has attempted in this blog.
The Rude Pundit has concentrated on Ebert's work from two or three decades ago because that was when Ebert had the most impact on him. While he still read Ebert's reviews, he lost interest in the TV show after Gene Siskel died because Ebert had lost his greatest foil. Besides, you've heard plenty about the valiant, public battle Ebert waged with the cancer that eventually did him in. You can read about his shift to more directly political commentary, even though he was always offering political and social insights through his film criticism. When he lost his voice, he used Twitter like an enthralled teenager, and that introduced him to a new generation, who have hopefully sought out his books and reviews. Ebert once retweeted the Rude Pundit, and he will not lie: he was as blissed out as a fan girl getting a wink from Justin Bieber.
It's silly, now, isn't it, to think of a critic with that much power? Siskel and Ebert's thumbs up was actively courted by foolish film executives, and they were excoriated by industry figures, even actors. But there was a time when there were such unifying cultural figures. We are poorer without Ebert, without those people who crossed all kinds of boundaries, who were widely accepted as taste makers and mind expanders, and who conveyed their views in everyday language, people who believed that there was a stake in broadening oneself intellectually and that mass culture - film, in particular - could be part of that. Or it could just mean a damn fun time at the movies.