To be fair, it should be noted that Ebert’s career has not been entirely without merit. He championed Scorsese before it was fashionable, and has taken the occasional unpopular stand, most notably on behalf of Sam Peckinpah’s demented classic Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) which occasioned one of Ebert’s few genuinely insightful remarks. “Courage usually feels good in the movies,” he writes, and he is right, “but it comes in many moods, and here it feels bad but necessary, giving us a hero who is heartbreakingly human — a little man determined to accomplish his mission in memory of a woman he loved, and in truth to his own defiant code.” Somewhat maudlin, perhaps, but an admirable sentiment nonetheless, and worth being reminded of.
Such moments are few and far between in Ebert’s work, however, and perusing it, one is struck throughout by what can only be described as a persistent inability — or perhaps refusal — to actually think about what he is watching, and to provide his readers with something more than a mere reiteration of events and a handful of apparently arbitrary judgments. Ebert’s theory of cinema in effect amounts to little more than “I liked this, I didn’t like that.” Or, perhaps, “This happened, and I liked it. Then this happened, and I didn’t like it.” This is cataloguing, not criticism, and while it may lend itself to the fast-food style of movie reviewing that assigns stars and a thumbs up or down, it abdicates entirely the role and responsibility of the critic, which is to discern what the object of his criticism is, what it says about itself and its medium, and what it says, also, about we who are witnessing it and the society that created it. Ebert has made pale and stumbling attempts at one or two of these things, and they merely serve to throw his limitations into ever more devastating relief. When it comes to America and it’s often fraught relationship with what may be its greatest art form, Roger Ebert is heard everywhere; but, ironically and unfortunately, he has proved to have remarkably little to say.