Roger Ebert has, for decades now, been one of my favorite writers. He is of course our country’s most famous film critic; he has also, of late, had an impressive second career as a blogger. So I look forward very much to his new book, a memoir titled Life Itself. I have yet to see a copy, but Janet Maslin has given it an excellent review in the New York Times, calling it “the best thing Mr. Ebert has ever written” and saying “it will surprise even those already familiar with his huge body of work.” A second NYT review appears in today’s Sunday books section; in this one, Maureen Dowd objects that the book is too long, but says that it’s nonetheless “hard not to be swept up in [Ebert’s] enthusiasms.” In her case, some similarities with Ebert probably helped: “Ebert and I had a similar Catholic-working-class upbringing, with the Lone Ranger and Lawrence Welk, and we share the same passions: old-school newspapering, Shakespeare, Mark Twain, tuna melts, Robert Mitchum, the Latin Mass, film noir, used-book stores, hoarding.” (Because both Dowd and Ebert are well-known liberals, that part about the Latin Mass may surprise some conservative Catholics. But I can testify that love of the traditional Mass is not limited to conservatives — or even Catholics, for that matter: I have at times, only partly in jest, flirted with the idea of founding a pressure group called Protestants for the Latin Mass.)
I suspect that many people have internalized the culture-icon of Ebert as “a guy with a thumb” who does consumer movie reviews — in other words, not too far above the Muppets’ Stalter and Waldorf characters in his level of seriousness. I concede that he is one of the masters of the consumer-review genre, telling viewers and readers succinctly why he thinks they should or should not go to a particular film. But he is also a cinephile of great intellectual seriousness and honesty. He is, for example, a Jean-Luc Godard admirer who can nonetheless tell when Godard has descended into worthless, pretentious twaddle —and is willing to say so. (Compare his essay on 1960’s Breathless with his review of last year’s unwatchable Film Socialisme.)
He has been struggling with some serious health problems, so we should be especially grateful for his continued efforts in the face of what must be substantial incentives to slacken his pace. Ad multos annos, Roger Ebert.