I have just returned from a weekend trip to Washington, D.C., visiting with family and being a tourist. Of the rather grueling museum-hopping upon which I embarked, the highlight was probably my extensive self-guided tour of the National Gallery of Art, situated along the northern edge of the Mall, custodian to an almost unfathomable trove of masterworks from all corners of the globe.
“You seem to have an appreciation for art—you ‘get’ it,” said my brother, with whom I was spending quality time. He inquired as to my personal favorites, and as I began to tick off some examples—French impressionism, Dutch landscapes, the collected works of Salvador Dali—three thoughts occurred to me, one after the other.
First, that my tastes in fine art are disparate, having very little in common thematically. Second, that, for all the museums I have frequented in my life, my actual knowledge and understanding of both the history and ascetics of the paintings and artists I so cherish is, despite my brother’s impressions, rudimentary and rather shallow.
And third, that I don’t terribly care about either Thought Number One or Thought Number Two. It doesn’t matter. I can amble through the galleries of a great art museum and appreciate its contents for their own sake. If a particular work draws me in, it is due not to whatever its creator might have intended it to mean, but rather to what I, the vulgar audience, derives from looking at it.
Art, in all its forms, is ultimately a personal experience.
If there is an art form of which I do possess some expertise—or, at any rate, a bachelor’s degree—it is the cinema, which last week lost one of its most prolific and essential advocates and critics, Roger Ebert, at the age of 70.
While it would be hyperbolic to say that everything I know about movies I learned from Roger Ebert, I would nonetheless go as far to say that, in an alternate universe in which Ebert did not exist, I might not have pursued film as a vocation and, consequently, would have lived a very different life than I have thus far lived.
Ebert, whose knowledge of film history and technique was peerlessly encyclopedic, received no formal film schooling. He studied English in college with the intention of being a newspaper reporter—which, for a time, he was—and wound up the best-known movie critic of his generation for no reason except that he enjoyed movies so goddamned much.
That might seem a rather flippant and facile summation of a career that spanned nearly half a century, but to me at least, it is the key to explaining the significance of Ebert’s life and his so-called legacy in the canon of film criticism.
By his own admission, Ebert’s verdict on a given movie was based predominantly on emotion rather than intellect. “If I have a criterion for choosing the greatest films, it’s an emotional one,” he once wrote. “These are films that moved me deeply in one way or another. The cinema is the greatest art form ever conceived for generating emotions in its audience. That’s what it does best.”
David McCullough, the biographer and historian, defined a great teacher as someone who shows what he loves to his students, enticing them to love it right back.
That was Ebert’s gift in his most ecstatic reviews: His ability to express his affection for a particular film, and for film in general, in a fashion that inspired equal passion in his readers.
A favorite quotation of his was from Robert Warshow, a film critic from an earlier generation, who asserted, “A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man.” In other words, don’t believe those who claim movies can be judged objectively or academically, reduced to some kind of a math problem.
No. Their value lies in the connection they forge with an individual, no matter how misguided that individual might be.
It is curious that I, who attempts to apply cold reason to all things, would be so drawn to such a subjective approach to the cinema, but then I regard movies as a love, and love is not rational.
Of love, of movies and of writing as well, Roger Ebert, whom I never met, was as essential a teacher as any I have ever had. I will miss him terribly.