Roger Ebert Taught People How to Argue About Movies


In the pantheon of movie critics, there are few who can claim as much influence as Roger Ebert. You could reasonably argue that Pauline Kael was more important, that her influence on the form was deeper and more lasting, that she, unlike Ebert changed the way that movies were made.

Yet there's a crucial distinction between the two: Despite Kael's love of glorious trash, she was, at heart, an elite moviegoer writing for other elite moviegoers. Ebert, on the other hand, was far more concerned with mass appeal, and his straightforward prose was accessible and to the point in ways that Kael never really attempted.

That's no small thing for a pop culture critic, whose ultimate job is to educate the wider public about the form. And his insistence on accessibility not only helped Ebert reach a bigger, broader audience than Kael, it made him a more popular cinematic guide for the general public. Kael may have changed movie making, but Ebert changed movie watching.

And a big part of the way he did that was by making debate about film accessible. Siskel & Ebert, the TV show he co-hosted with rival Chicago movie critic Gene Siskel, was billed as a movie review show, and that's true enough. But as much as it was a show about reviewing films, it was even more a show about arguing about movies.

The cantankerous duo showed viewers what it meant to enjoy movies in the company of another, offering a feisty, competitive model of film-fan friendship. Their unscripted on-screen dialogues, meanwhile, helped a generation of moviegoers understand that it was not enough to merely have an opinion about a film; you also had to defend it. Indeed, a round of opinionated post-film jousting could be an essential part of the moviegoing experience.

That sensibility helped put movie watching in a social context. The show recognized that movie viewing and criticism was not a strictly solitary affair, but a community project; it operated on the assumption that a critic's views are shaped as much by the people he argues with as the movies he watches.  That, in turn, allowed the program to transform the lonely work of critical assessment and argument into a popular and engaging spectator sport, and inspired legions of film nuts and amateur film critics to engage in their own friendly duels with each other.

That probably explains a lot about why Ebert took so well to new media late in life: It wasn't just that he had always written in the conversational style that became the norm on the web. It was also that he relished the sport of debate, the ruckus of freewheeling conversation about the things he loved and hated in the world, with movies at the top of the list.

At times Ebert was a hater; more often he was prone to celebration (a little too much, in my opinion). But a subtext of virtually all of his life and work was that if you loved movies, you would argue about them — and also for them.

The same, I think, should go for those of us who also love movie criticism. I disagreed with many of Ebert's critical judgments, and I wasn't particularly drawn to his plainspoken style of reviewing, which often seemed hasty and, at least when reviewing new releases, could be overly focused on character and story basics at the expense of cinematic craftsmanship.

Yet I've always appreciated Ebert for the simple fact that he did more than anyone else to make film criticism—and film arguments—available and accessible to the world at large. In the end, I'm glad he was there to argue with, to offer and defend opinions, and, most of all, to show so many readers and viewers that the arguments were not only worth having; at their best those arguments could be as much or more fun than the movies themselves.

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32 responses to “Roger Ebert Taught People How to Argue About Movies

  1. Did Roger Ebert die? Wish someone would write about it.

    1. I heard something about it on reason, but mostly they’ve been pretty hush-hush about the whole thing.

  2. Wow – thank God for another Roger Ebert article.


    What ever did happen to the Ground Zero? Mosque? I’ve heard nothing – I used to LOVE those threads! Isn’t that where HERCULE SAVAINEN WHATEVER HIS NAME WAS (HERC) introduced itself to us?

    Good times, good times…

    1. If only Ebert had died during an argument with Sarah Palin about the ground zero mosque while attending a gay wedding, the Reason servers might have exploded.

      1. Only if there was Monocle Foods brand artisanal mayonnaise and delicious thin-crust pizza on the buffet…right net to where the photographer that was forced to take pictures against his will had his equipment set up.

        1. And when the cops and EMT arrived to tend to a dying Ebert, they shot a dog.

          1. The Reason Singularity would be reached.

            1. I thought that would happen anyway when Banjos and I have another baby naming contest.

            2. Hardly, unless you throw some anarchist atheists in there somewhere. At least then you’d be closer.

    2. What ever did happen to the Ground Zero? Mosque?

      It opened on 9/21/11.

      1. That’s like 9/11 times 101!

  3. Damn you, George Bush. Damn you.

  4. FFS the guy was a movie reviewer.

    1. About as relevant as sports writers.

      Just tells you how much surplus food, time and labor we have available.

  5. Interesting article, but why did you feel the need to include a picture of a bespectacled John Blutarsky with it?

    1. That’s Senator Blutarsky to you.

      1. On the 25th Anniversary Edition DVD of Animal House they put an extra mochumentary about where the members of the Delta House are now. They get all of the old actors to talk in character about their lives since. It is great. But the best part is how they handle Blutarsky. Obviously they can’t interview Belushi and saying he was dead would be decidedly unfunny. So, (remember this was in 03 with GW Bush was President) they show a picture of the White House and say they unable to obtain an interview with now President and Mrs. Blutarsky. It was one of the best, least mean spirited, and clever political jokes I have ever seen.

      2. You made me think of this. Thanks.

  6. The Onion has a surprisingly poignant tribute to Roger Ebert via his review of ‘Life’.

  7. How come nobody talks about Ebert and his movies, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens, and Up

    These were the highest form of movie art if by art you mean woman with very large breasts jumping up and down.

    1. …if by art you mean woman with very large breasts jumping up and down.

      Yes. And…?

  8. Uh, yes, this guy died. He watched a lot of movies and had opinions about them.
    Got it.

    1. Hey pal, he also lost his jaw and wrote mean spirited leftist tweets and blog entries…so there!

    2. The Beltway Cosmos have to pump up these cultural Marxist types and conflate them to a level of importance far beyond that of real life so they’ll keep getting invited to the right cocktail parties.

  9. As a kid I loved the show because they would talk about movies I liked. For example Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark which were basically kid movies.

    Siskel & Ebert legitimized my kid shows.

  10. And now we have IMDB, so DC fans and Marvel fans can rip each other’s movies irrespective of their merits, and trolls can “debate” movies long before they even come out.

  11. I want to argue about alt-text. Mainly the lack of it.

  12. NBC doesn’t have a headline but his official site does:…..ebert.html

    Between improving internet technologies and his medical condition, Ebert became more accessible to readers than ever, and even responded at length to one of my comments. You should also look up his recollection of interviewing John Wayne during the production of “The Green Berets.”

  13. I recall that Ebert recanted his first review of Nurse Betty. After a repeat viewing, he gave it a thumbs up.

  14. The negative side is that the popularity of film review shows allowed folks to be empowered that their opinions about a movie mattered. Every one is an expert now, and is to be given equal validity.
    As a result, people who like Avatar are not dragged away for involuntary forebrain scrapings as any rational society would insist upon. Fans of the Scary Movie and Paranormal Activity franchises are allowed to remain fertile, against all reason. It is also a crime for me to savagely hit anyone who claims Will Ferrell is in any way relevant.

  15. Hollywood is a rich old man standing on the corner cackling madly and continuously shitting his pants.

  16. Those guys were prettty cool. Wow.

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