Chances are if you're a certain age you recall film critic Roger Ebert's work with a mix of pleasure and annoyance. You might have agreed with his movie assessments one week, and 100% disagreed with him the next. Opinions aside, the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic is arguably one of the most famous film critics in history. His work made people care about movies, and, more specifically, it made people care about movie criticism in a way that democratized the writing process. Ebert's work, and acceptance of the medium, paved the way for how we talk (and write) about movies on the Internet today.
A new documentary Life Itself based on Ebert's memoir of the same name, takes on these topics highlighting Ebert's career while simultaneously spotlighting the lasting impact he's had on this generation of cinephiles. Life Itself traces Ebert's life and work, and highlights the integral role Ebert played in making film writing the inclusive, populist art we know it to be. During his decades-long tenure at the Chicago Tribune, Ebert developed his iconic "thumbs up/thumbs down" assessment and cultivated how we think and talk about movies. He turned it into a pretension-free conversation, at once informed and colloquial.
"Before there was an Internet, he was writing in a voice suited to the Internet,"" Life Itself director Steve James said in an interview with Mic.
Along with remembrances and interviews, Life Itself focuses on the idea of how Ebert anticipated the tone and style of the Internet through his writing as well as his role on television with critic Gene Siskel — the critic who provided the second "thumb" in critical assessments.
The pair made regular appearances on The Tonight Show, and their thumbs up/thumbs down metric turned them into a verifiable brand in the 1980s. As New York Times critic A.O. Scott notes in Life Itself, Siskel & Ebert helped seed the "movie geek culture." The "thumbs" system built a new way for people to ponder and discuss works they loved (or hated). It predated Internet memes and even Facebook's "like" by decades.
"He was the most significant — by far — old-school critic to very early on embrace it," James told Mic of Ebert's acceptance of the Internet. "He was always forward-thinking about technology. People tell me he was one of the first people to have Compuserve."
His Internet affinity came into hyper-focus later in his life, when Ebert became ill. Ebert had to stop his television appearances in the early 2000s after health complications; he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002, and later had his lower jaw removed, rendering him unable to eat or speak. Though Ebert had already been blogging online, he then whole-heartedly embraced net culture, engaging more fully and using digital technology as his preliminary means of communication. The Internet was a medium that suited his style and his restrictions.
"The Internet was an extension of what he could no longer do easily," James notes. "When he embraced Internet criticism, it brought a legitimacy to that form that wasn't there prior."
That legitimacy has manifested in a number of ways. Internet movie critics are now viewed as go-to sources for smart writing, with online critics and sites enjoying a legitimacy that was once the sole domain of journalists in the print world. In a piece for the Wall Street Journal in 2011, Ebert commented on this historical progression of film writing, and how the new generation of online writers are stoking the art form's coals: "These new critics are New Media to their bones. They exploit every available technical resource. Their essays employ streaming audio and video, dazzling links to citations and resources, and endless threads of comments. They say '"frame grab'" the way we used to say '"publicity photo.'"
It was through Ebert's personal embrace of technology that he was able to foster the development of arts writing online and encourage others in that same passion. Chaz Ebert, Roger's widow, told James how her husband "went to bat for Internet film critics when they were being barred from attending film screenings — they weren't considered legitimate. His attitude was, "‘Yes, they are legitimate, and they deserve to be here.'" That support extended to Ebert'’s inviting critics of all stripes to contribute to his website, where they still post stories on a variety of timely cultural matters. His own blog — where he wrote on everything from food to gun control — remains intact as well, with his final, moving entry, "A Leave Of Presence," posted April 2, 2013, shortly before his death.
The online outpouring of emotion when Ebert passed away in 2013 gave a hint as to his cultural influence; old and young writers, filmmakers, film enthusiasts, and bloggers joined together to salute a man whose work endeared — and endured — across generations. "It's amazing how many younger people — even really young people — say, 'Oh yes, Roger was so important to me,'" James notes. "He found his new audience through the Internet."