One Film Lover’s Opinion – Roger Ebert Should Retire

Sometimes the great ones just stay around too long. They are the ones who, for whatever reason, can’t say goodbye. The ego is accustomed to the spotlight that has been shining on them – and still craves it. They enjoy what they do too much and the prospect of “hanging ‘em up” sends chills down their spines. So they linger…they stay. And in doing so, the legacy takes a hit. The work weakens, the talent deteriorates. Athletes are notorious for this. I was never old enough to watch the renowned Willie Mays play, but his outstaying his welcome is legendary, as every baseball fan knows that he was a shell of his former self when he was traded from the San Francisco Giants to play haplessly for the New York Mets. I witnessed Michael Jordan dominate the basketball court for years, seizing every MVP award and championship that he could. How many times did he “retire” before being outplayed by a younger generation as a member of the Washington Wizards? Of course, it isn’t just athletes that suffer from this inability to make a graceful exit. I’m sure it happens in many walks of life – and apparently, a career in film criticism is no exception.

So, ok…I’ll be the one to say it. Roger Ebert and the most famous thumbs in the country need to retire. In fact, this should have happened a few years ago. Political correctness and being kind simply for the sake of being kind can be damned. I’m just telling it like it is. As a film enthusiast, I have read and learned from countless reviews by Mr. Ebert, watched the famed “Siskel and Ebert” program, and bought a few of his books on film criticism. His writing never analyzed and appraised films academically or as in-depth as colleagues such as Pauline Kael or Jay Hoberman, but his clarity and conversational tone always did the trick. He seemed to review movies for the everyman – and since the mid-70’s, there hasn’t been a more famous film critic, a name with more marquee value than his. Hell, he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 – how many film critics can say that? I particularly love his writing from the 1970’s – a remarkable decade for film – and the selected reviews for his Great Movies books.

But let’s face it, the once mighty 68-year old critic isn’t much of a critic anymore. Have you read some of his recent reviews??? This guy likes just about everything nowadays! He is not nearly as discerning as he once was, finding greatness in the mediocre and lacking the wit and bite that put him on the map in the first place. Mr. Ebert has made obvious factual errors from time to time and even posted a film review, while openly admitting to watching only the first 8 minutes. Talk about mailing it in! I know a number of film bloggers who take their websites more seriously than this — many who write very intelligent and insightful film critique and would kill to be making a career out of it. I used to look forward to reading his reviews of the movies I was looking forward to and putting some credence in it. I haven’t felt that way in years, looking elsewhere for sharp and astute criticism. When I see a movie trailer or billboard boasting a small quote with his name beneath it, I am aware that it is there because the name ‘Roger Ebert‘ carries with it tremendous cache, as it should. After all, the man worked hard to earn that reputation. We see his name and think, “Oh, it must be good. Roger Ebert liked it!” But that hasn’t been the case for some time now.

Of course, Mr. Ebert has been fighting a courageous battle since being diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer in 2002. He has undergone numerous surgeries, lost his voice, underwent rehabilitation and has encountered many setbacks (i.e. a hip fracture in 2008) during the past eight years. And, thankfully, he is still with us. I don’t believe the man should retire because he is ill — or because he is older. That is not what I am saying at all. But since he decided to fight his serious health problems in such a public venue, it has become painfully obvious that his weakening condition (he has a full-time live-in nurse since early this year) has affected his work. He is Willie Mays making that egregious error in centerfield for the New York Mets. He is a shadow of his once formidable self. And as a tremendous fan of his past work, it is upsetting to see. Fans want to see their heroes bow out gracefully…while still on top. We don’t want to see the slow collapse of talent and success, having only the memories of old to cling to. Mr. Ebert still screens films and writes about them. And God bless his determination and will. But it is only human nature that, as we age, most of us grow more forgiving, kinder, and less judgmental — all fatal traits in describing any film critic worth his weight in salt. I would speculate that these attributes are magnified more so when that age is coupled with such considerable health issues.

I don’t write this intending to be a slap in the face to Mr. Ebert. Far from that. I write this because I love movies — and his work has played a small part as to why I love them so. I am an admirer…a fan. I wish him well.

17 Responses to One Film Lover’s Opinion – Roger Ebert Should Retire

  1. Jay says:

    Peter, you were ahead of your time. When I read about the recent state of Mr. Ebert’s health, I browsed for a place to voice my concerns. The article online did not leave a place for comments. After searching the Internet, I found your article. I agree with you, it has to be ego, that is driving this puppy.

    He is a mere shadow of himself. Just looking at him provokes mixed emotions. Mine, unfortunately is not compassion. When is enough, enough! Where are his priorities? I am a twice breast cancer survivor. Having gone through such a grueling illness, you can bet that I have reassessed what is important to me.

    The late columnist Erma Bombeck voiced great regrets about where she had placed her priorities after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She wished she had “danced like no one was looking and sat on the good furniture.” She added, and this is really important, that “she had spent more time with her husband.”

    I give Ebert a thumbs down for not figuring out his priorities.

  2. PaxChristi2U says:

    I absolutely agree with your commentary that Mr. Ebert should have retired years ago (three stars for the recent lackluster Woody Allen film “To Rome with Love”?); but I would disagree with your comment that he was ever akin to “Willie Mays” in terms of greatness. I would say he was competent at what he did and drew out some interesting dimensions of the movies he reviewed. In terms of ability, I would put his former partner Gene Siskel well above him as a critic, despite my personal dislike of his style. Also, I preferred Michael Medved’s critiques, as I do not think it is possible to separate ones values from what one thinks about the merits of a film – something Mr. Ebert has always refused to acknowledge. I do wish him well in his present struggles.

    • Thank you for your very thoughtful and well-worded comments here. Greatly appreciated. I agree with you on Siskel. I always preferred him over Ebert. Perhaps Ebert was never the master at putting his opinions into words as well as some of his colleagues did (Kael, Canby and the like)…but it was surely Ebert who made America recognize the role of the critic and give it such prominence. He is probably the country’s most popular critic. But again, the past few years, he is much too easy and predictable. I was never a Medved fan, but acknowledge his importance as well. Thanks again for writing…

  3. Aaron Weiss says:

    In someways I agree and some I do not. I do think he should ease back on the amount of stuff he is doing. Producing a new incarnation of At the Movies, his blogs, etc etc. He should focus on just writing reviews, albeit some of them are ridiculous.

    Like nearly everyone who sits in front of their computer, all of us included, he has gained an uncanny sense of power that provokes him to create this constant stream of information, and it all becomes unfocused and muddled. Have you seen his twitter status updates? You can’t keep up with him, and he certainly can’t keep up with himself.

    I recently read a story by Wes Anderson after Rushmore was released where he went to visit Kael to show her his film. His description of her (at the time almost 80) is one of physically frail, but intellectually on fire. I’d have to say the same Ebert, although he is not of the frailty age.

    • Great commentary, Aaron (btw, I can’t comment on your blog because of an error with the typing of the code). I haven’t looked at his Twitter yet – but will check it out. I believe you though. He does have tremendous power. A lot of critics do and they know this. Unfortunately, none have more power than him. He has made many films a great success because of his support — and he has ambushed a few as well. He called “Leaves of Grass” a masterpiece. A masterpiece? A very good movie, but he just throws that word around and in years past, would never have done that. No, he is not of the frail age at all, but his health certainly is. He does need to ease up and we certainly agree on that.

      • rorydean says:

        Hello…just jumping in the fray here. I wanted to add on the subject of ‘masterpiece’ and how, as of late, the term ‘best film of the year’ has similarly been employed. I for one take everything with a grain of salt, Mr. Ebert included, and these days often postpone reading the reviews (especially since starting my movie review blog in May) until after I’ve watched the film in question. I have a handful of reviewers that I rely on their opinion of films, filmmakers and trends but more times than not am at odds with what constitutes a mediocre, good, great and masterpiece these days.

        • Masterpiece is tossed around so recklessly — Ebert does this alot, as do most critics. I read bits of reviews until AFTER I have seen it — like you. I don’t like my opinion to be clouded. I have a handful of those reviewers who I now respect and have similar viewpoints with…I think most movielovers have their “go-to’s” when it comes to this…

    • rorydean says:

      @Aaron – I would have to agree that Mr. Ebert is stretching himself a little thin these days. I suppose his age and health would be the root cause. Who doesn’t want to write one more review before turning the lights out after a twenty-two hour day, or read another chapter in a good book or hug your kids again or play fetch the stinky, wet mess of a rag doll for your dogs, snuggle with your wife and watch the clouds covering up the most perfect moon in the sky. I’m not making excuses or condoning what Peter compares to outstaying your talent in baseball (nice comparison, btw) but I can understand why he is desperate to keep his name in the lights.

      Great point about Wes Anderson and Kael – loved Rushmore, btw.

  4. Castor says:

    Great piece of writing Peter. I think the fact that Roger Ebert has “mellowed out” is due to his new found outlook on life after battling his illness for so long. I think his review still are somewhat valuable and insightful. Maybe not as much as they used to, but still they are discussion-worthy and sometime thought provoking.

    • I can buy that. Your “mellowing out” theory goes with what i was trying to say near the very end. That it is only natural for the man to become more mellow/easy with increasing years and of course, his health. Thanks for reading, Castor!!!!

  5. rtm says:

    What a thoughtful post, Peter… I commend your honesty and for putting your feelings so eloquently and respectfully. I don’t see this as a dis to Ebert at all, and I hope people don’t misconstrued it as such. There is an art to a graceful exit that many fail to recognize… I think your argument about ego playing a big part is spot on, though for some people I think they simply don’t know what to do with themselves if they retire. That’s the only world they know and their identity is firmly attached to what they do. In any case, I do wish Mr. Ebert well and I believe his work will be remembered and cherished by many.

    • Thanks for the articulate comment, Ruthie! Great point about people not knowing what to do — after. Very true, I think. Of course, Mr. Ebert LOVES movies. It is his life and he, like many of us, has a tremendous passion for the art of moviemaking. His work will always be remembered and he helped to make film criticism popular. I give him mucho props. But I do honestly feel that his time has long since passed. Hatter brought up an interesting point saying he should do it as long as he loves what he is doing. I get that and part of me agrees. But I believe it is hurting his legacy…and he is not half the critic he once was. I stopped putting much into what he was writing a while ago and sadly, I think the illness took a great toll on him. I am glad you did not see this as any “dis” to him, as it was not meant to be at all.

    • rorydean says:

      I can’t agree more, rtm. This article is insightful and respectful and rather urges conversation about Mr. Ebert rather than just blowing hot air into the wind. I just found Peter’s site from a mention by Richard over on blah. I’ve been making the proverbial ’rounds’ looking for like minded reviewers and am really glad I stumbled over here to magiclanternfilm.

      • YEA!!!! Thanks so much. I am glad you stumbled upon this little blog too! Always great to have new readers — and find blogs of others who know something about movies and write well. You should check out RTM’s blog at FlixChatter as she does great work too! I am glad you saw my article as being respectful and trying to start a dialogue about the issue — this was my intention…not to rip Ebert apart at all. That would just be silly.

  6. David Bjerre says:

    Damn! That needed to be said!

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