(Note the second half of this is what was published as Wonkette’s eulogy for Ebert. Think of this as the director’s cut for that).
The distilled truth about the progress and problems associated with digital age and ubiquitous internet access is that we are now part of a society where any individual can utilize a distributive model that allows the entire world to see their opinions on any given subject. Obviously this means that plenty of incredibly stupid or hateful people are allowed to spill their contrived and disorganized bile all over the marketplace of ideas. Hate speech and other forms of worthless expression now proliferate every aspect of our media under the guise of irony, sarcasm, and wit. At the same time traditional centers of journalism and criticism are generally operating at a loss in the competition for readers, who seemingly value vicariously experiencing pure rage over stodgy credentialism. The importance of a individual writer’s analytical abilities, observational skills, or grasp of ethics is not nearly as important today as their individual desire to do whatever it takes to grab as many clicks or as much billionaire grift as possible.
Then there was Roger Ebert.
Those of us who have always struggled to express ourselves through writing owe a massive debt to Ebert. The process of finding one’s voice in writing is a difficult and perilous journey of missteps and blank screens. For those of us interested in the wild and broad world of political reporting and analysis, the temptation to swan dive directly into hackdom is incredibly strong. Putting forth an opinion through the use of verifiable facts does actually require some degree of talent. That is why Roger Ebert’s mastery of artistic criticism is so profoundly important beyond those who trusted his evaluations of movies, and it is why his passing is having such a dramatic effect on the media world today.
The explosion of sympathy on Twitter and the rest of the web is a testament to Ebert’s vision about the role of technology and his desire to be both simultaneously professional as well as approachable to the masses. It was Ebert who pioneered the use of television, and then the internet, to ensure that the entertainment industry maintained an objective and powerful critical voice to work as a safeguard ensuring quality and substance within the otherwise unregulated marketplace of the film industry. The fact that Hollywood has seemed content on heaping ever-increasing piles of expensively produced yet entirely meaningless pieces of crap on audiences during the same time in which Ebert struggled with a myriad of health problems is no coincidence.
Ebert’s voice was literally silenced by cancer in 2006 but the world was graciously still able to experience his invaluable thoughts on an array of subjects through his prolific blogging and twittering. In many ways this particular forum for his final contributions to the world was the most appropriate. The utterly devastating, yet precise way in which Ebert approached a movie that he felt warranted negative criticism serves as the unquestioned template that all of us wannabe snarky bloggers have mindlessly appropriated when discussing art, politics, technology, etc.
But he was more than just another well read wise-ass who knew how to craft a universally accessible message. For all the power that he had as America’s most notable critic, Roger Ebert was a man who deployed his well-regarded opinions through the lens of a strong and brave moral constitution. It was Ebert who more than anyone else realized the importance of Michael Moore’s narrative documentary “Roger and Me” and why a movie about the existential war on the working class needed to be seen by a country still huffing the fumes of Reaganomics. It was Ebert who understood the visual impact of his own fragile human form and used it to force Americans into understanding the moral importance of establishing healthcare as a right within our modern democracy.
But for those of us snide liberals who look at every major political decision since the election of Nixon and feel nauseated, it is Ebert’s clarion call against the rising tide of fascism within this country as evident by our fascination with simplistic, yet enticing films celebrating social order through violence that forces us to pause and remember the man. Reading Ebert’s 1971 review of the entirely awful “Dirty Harry” in 2013 should send shivers down the spine of anyone who has paid attention to how our society views the existential issues democracy and safety:
There is a book named ‘From Caligari to Hitler’ that tries to penetrate the German national subconscious by analyzing German films between 1919 and the rise of the Nazis. I have my doubts about the critical approach (it gets cause and effect backwards), but if anybody is writing a book about the rise of fascism in America, they ought to have a look at “Dirty Harry.”
It is possible to see the movie as just another extension of Eastwood’s basic screen character: He is always the quiet one with the painfully bottled-up capacity for violence, the savage forced to follow the rules of society. This time, by breaking loose, he did what he was always about to do in his earlier films. If that is all, then “Dirty Harry” is a very good example of the cops-and-killers genre, and Siegel proves once again that he understands the Eastwood mystique.
But wait a minute. The movie clearly and unmistakably gives us a character who understands the Bill of Rights, understands his legal responsibility as a police officer, and nevertheless takes retribution into his own hands. Sure, Scorpio is portrayed as the most vicious, perverted, warped monster we can imagine — but that’s part of the same stacked deck. The movie’s moral position is fascist. No doubt about it.
I think films are more often a mirror of society than an agent of change, and that when we blame the movies for the evils around us we are getting things backward.
Ebert’s unassailable integrity, unmovable moral convictions, and fantastic sense of humor will always be an essential guide to those of us who look at the world and feel the need to make a few publicly accessible cogent remarks about it. Furthermore his bravery in facing such a painful and prolonged march to death has undoubtedly touched us all as we ponder our own inevitable future. So tonight in his honor feel free to make something from his wonderful rice-cooker cookbook while watching Citizen Kane for the umpteenth time.