Roger Ebert (1942–2013)
Rodney F. Powell, our editor for film and cinema studies, remembers Roger Ebert:
Alas, Roger Ebert has passed, too soon at 70. The University of Chicago Press has been privileged to publish three of his books—Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert, Scorsese by Ebert, and The Great Movies III. I worked on all three, and Ebert’s professionalism and good humor were always evident. It was also a pleasure to note his passionate advocacy of the printed word—as a voracious reader, as well as an enthusiastic film-lover.
Ebert’s celebrity status tended to obscure the fact that was hidden in plain sight throughout his career—that he was, first and foremost, an excellent writer. His ability to recognize the essential in films was matched by his ability to write clearly, concisely, and evocatively about those essential qualities, with a welcoming, unforced ease. He brought those same qualities from his daily reviews to the longer and more reflective essays he wrote for his Great Movies series. And, at his best, there was something more. Like other lasting critics, he could make his readers understand the moral qualities of the works he valued most by revealing how they made audiences think about the Big Questions—not by preaching, but by engaging with the dramatic complexities at the core of those films.
That core belief in the power of the best films fueled Ebert’s ability to function as a teacher for many who read him first for his reviews of contemporary films and then followed him as a trusted leader to the exploration of a much larger range of works. As he wrote in “On the Meaning of Life . . . and Movies”:
“…the movies don’t top out; as you evolve, there are always films and directors to lead you higher, until you are above the treetops with Ozu and F. W. Murnau, Bresson and Keaton, Renoir and Bergman and Hitchcock and Scorsese. You walk with giants.”
Ebert could take readers on that journey because he was such a good writer. Take a look at his wonderful piece on Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (in his first volume of Great Movies essays). His description of its qualities takes readers inside the world of this “perfect film” in ways that help them understand its emotional richness—because of the power of Ebert’s words, our responses to the work itself are clarified and sharpened.
If writers give us the best of themselves in their writing, Ebert’s gifts to his readers were abundant—intelligence, wit, clarity, and generosity expressed in prose that is both engaging and thought-provoking. As long as the printed word survives, those gifts of his large spirit will be available. And death shall have no dominion.
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