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More than a film critic: the passing of Roger Ebert

Kayhan Parsi, JD, PhD

Why does film critic Roger Ebert’s passing matter to those of us who study bioethics and health care humanities? In part, because so many of the films he reviewed over the years centered on issues that matter to those of us in our field. For instance, in his review of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Ebert stated in the first sentence: “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a film about a man who experiences the catastrophe I most feared during my recent surgeries: “locked-in syndrome,” where he is alive and conscious but unable to communicate with the world.” Thankfully, Ebert was still able to write and communicate. And although Ebert himself never had to confront the syndrome that the protagonist of the film faced, Ebert’s own journey with cancer is worthy of a film itself.

In the brilliant Pixar animated film Ratatouille, the dour food critic Ego recites the following soliloquy about the work of a critic:

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends. 

With the passing of Roger Ebert, film lost a true friend. Ebert was a champion of new talents, new creations. As a talented writer and the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, Ebert could have pursued the life of a conventional journalist or political reporter. Yet, early in his career, he connected with film in a way that most of us reserve for our most intimate relationships—a true love and passion. Most of us view movies as opportunities for mere escapism or trivial entertainment. Ebert viewed movies as an opportunity for personal transformation. (As he said in his book, Awake in the Dark: “What does it mean to love the movies? It does not mean to sit mindlessly and blissfully before the screen. It means to believe, first of all, that they are worth the time.”)

Being a film critic is a job that inspires both envy and disdain. Envy in that everyone thinks it’s an amazing opportunity to be actually paid to sit and watch films for a living. Disdain in that everyone thinks anyone can do it. But Ebert elevated film criticism. Rather than viewing it as an elite activity reserved for certain East Coast intellectuals, Ebert democratized film criticism. His famous television shows with Gene Siskel and Richard Roeper engaged a broad audience of cinephiles. As Ebert said in an interview with my brother Novid Parsi:

Several Sundance directors have told me, “I got hooked on movies because of your show.” Kids learned at early ages that it was expected they have an opinion on a movie, and not just take it in passively. We were able to materially affect the destinies of a great many smaller films. For in-depth criticism, any sensible person would have looked further.

He was an informed, thoughtful critic of the movies, but he wasn’t highfalutin. He understood film as primarily an emotional art. Despite his emotional connection with film, Ebert never allowed himself to indulge in self-pity or maudlin sentimentality when he himself was faced with the cancer that finally took his life this week. He was someone who was fascinated by science, embraced new technologies, and confronted his own mortality with an ecumenical approach:

Raised as a Roman Catholic, I internalized the social values of that faith and still hold most of them, even though its theology no longer persuades me. I have no quarrel with what anyone else subscribes to; everyone deals with these things in his own way, and I have no truths to impart. All I require of a religion is that it be tolerant of those who do not agree with it. I know a priest whose eyes twinkle when he says, “You go about God’s work in your way, and I’ll go about it in His.”

Despite the loss of his speaking ability and disfigurement of his famous face, Ebert never lost his voice. Thanks to the technology he embraced, his words and voice will live on for generations of film lovers.

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