I was saddened but unsurprised to hear the recent news that film critic Roger Ebert does not expect to return to television, having lost the use of his voice in the course of treatment for cancer of the salivary gland. Fortunately the treatment was successful, and Ebert will continue reviewing films—in print and online—for the Chicago Sun-Times.
I owe a lot to Roger Ebert. When I was growing up in Duluth, I’d venture out of the children’s section of the public library to the adult non-fiction section (I remember feeling very adult and holding my nose high in the air as I strode into the quiet stacks) to peruse the film books. It was there I discovered Ebert’s Movie Home Companion, an annual compilation of his reviews and essays. I read the library’s copy cover to cover, and thereafter I’d save my allowance for a big annual purchase at B. Dalton when each new edition was issued.
What was the appeal, for a ten-year-old boy, of a compilation of writing about films that for the most part he had never seen—and in many cases never would see? (I Spit on Your Grave, anyone?)
Part of the appeal was that Ebert is simply fun to read. It’s obvious that he loves movies and loves writing about them, and he isn’t shy about sharing his very personal reactions. (July 1980: “A vile bag of garbage named I Spit on Your Grave is playing in Chicago theaters this week.”) I was also intrigued, however, by the very premise of criticism: the idea that one could approach something as polished and confident as a major feature film and actually question whether it’s any good. Is it possible that a movie could cost millions upon millions of dollars and be bad? (January 1981: Heaven’s Gate “is a study in wretched excess. It is so smoky, so dusty, so unfocused and so brownish yellow that you want to try Windex on the screen.”)
Inspired by Ebert’s panache, I assumed film criticism as a career ambition. Upon matriculating at St. Agnes High School, I made my way straight to Señora Cowan—the Spanish teacher and newspaper advisor—and announced my interest in reviewing movies for the St. Agnes Hi-Times. I was pleased when she immediately accepted my proposal, despite the fact that she also fancied herself a matchmaker. She envisioned me in a reviewing duo with my classmate Andrea; we’d be sort of a Siskel and Ebert with awkward flirting. (“You two are so similar—you’re both so mature. You can go out to a movie together, and then discuss it over an ice cream sundae!”) No romantic sparks flew between Andrea and me, but we did collaborate by phone on several reviews and ultimately became co-editors of the newspaper.
By the time I was college-shopping, I’d traded Roger Ebert for Isaac Asimov—another prolific writer with large glasses and a cult fan base—and forgot about film criticism while I headed to Boston University to pursue the study of aerospace engineering. I cut my own engineering career short; the turning point may have been a rainy Boston Harbor ferry ride where a professor of environmental engineering enthused at length about the sludge digesting tanks on Deer Island. Later, I similarly abandoned preschool education (the early mornings killed me) and sociology (fun though it was to write sentences like, “The teaching and research emphases of universities worldwide at any given point in time are the manifestation of a globally institutionalized cosmology”).
Now, I find myself having come full circle. After finishing graduate school (and starting again, and finishing again), I returned to Minnesota, resurrected a version of my teenage career goal, and started writing about the arts. As arts editor here at the Daily Planet, I am fortunate to have the opportunity to write news and reviews on everything from books to theater to rock concerts. (The one thing, ironically, that I haven’t written about is film—but luckily we have Stephen Sporer on that beat.)
When I decided to return to arts journalism, I did stop for a moment to ask myself why. Not why would I want to—I’m having the time of my life—but why it’s worth devoting my professional life to writing, sometimes critically, about plays and music and books and paintings. The importance of journalism is indisputable—witness the Daily Planet’s important coverage of issues like education and the environment—but what good does it do anyone to share my thoughts on whether “Oxford Comma” was or was not the best single of 2007? (It was.)
Why? Because writing about the arts affirms that the arts are important. As I write this, Dwight Hobbes’s interview with jazz musician Jaime Paul Lamb appears on our front page. It’s a bold move to put a story about jazz on our front page alongside stories on racial discrimination and sexual assault, but it’s the right move. Jazz is important. Movies are important. Books are important. Theater is important. The arts are important. The arts can educate, agitate, unite communities, and help us deal with tragic events. The arts are meaningful in any number of ways—and they’re just plain fun.
By publishing writing about the arts, the Daily Planet and other media emphasize the arts’ importance. We sometimes publish critical writing about the arts, for the same reason that we sometimes publish critical writing about politics or health care. If something is important, it’s worth taking seriously. Giving careful thought to an artist’s work and publishing a fair and honest appraisal—even a negative appraisal—is a gesture of respect to both the artist and the art form.
So I suppose there’s a sense of mission in my rediscovered vocation, but I’d be lying if I said that a burning desire to legitimize artistic expression is what gets me out of bed in the morning. I love my job, and for a model of a critic’s life joyfully lived, I have no better model than Roger Ebert. Ebert’s devotion to film and his craft is such that he personally attended his 2007 Overlooked Film Festival despite being visibly ill from his cancer treatment. “I wouldn’t miss the Festival for anything,” he wrote.
Thumbs up, Mr. Ebert. Two thumbs up.