These days, where the battlefield of the yuppie journo is a scrolling newsfeed, his sword is his Tweet. But tonight, upon the news of the passing of the great Roger Ebert, the glib guns fell silent, and all were as one in 140-character memoriam. Beside the revolving door of online snap-and-forths, one could always imagine Ebert perched in an old chair - pen in hand, specs on.
That this vapid playground should hold vigil for one of so many and so meaningful a word is illustratively ironic. The condensation of his gymnastic mental capacity was reserved exclusively for the cartoon desk of the New Yorker, with whom he publicly lamented a belle dame sans merci relationship - his caption entries perpetually, brutally, rebuffed (one win, on the 281st attempt, slipped by security into their cerebro-comic fortress).
His prose - beyond that charitably donated to the New Yorker - was loose, expansive, and braised with an Uncle Sam benevolence. For Ebert, a humanist in the broadest sense of the word, to speak of the movies was to speak of the people before, behind, and within them. As such he posited himself as arbitrator, the popcorn priest, channelling the voice of the director into the ears of the reader. As a firm believer that a film without an Ebert review is not worth watching, I find myself accordingly, as of today, in celluloid creek without a paddle.
A critic for the Chicago Sun-Times for forty-six years, the Ebert era has bracketed the better half of film history. Unlike the fanatical doctrines of Pauline Kael, the humility of his observations broke through the cultural feudalism of cinema snobbery to land right aboard the brains and the breakfast tables of the American family. With syndication in more than 200 national newspapers, his voice of easy reason trickled from Chicago to Hollywood.
Never has a thumbs-up been so consequential (disregarding the real-life precedents for certain scenes in Gladiator). Ebert's branded approval was the film exec's El Dorado - movies have lived and died at the mercy of his supine hands. What gave him weight (proverbially - he was a big guy) was the temperate nature of his judgements: every star on the rating was argued, narrated and landed upon with conviction. No film was too big or too small (even Freddy Got Fingered bagged itself 500 words). Superlatives, billboard one-liners - and not to mention the grotesque hashtag - would have been reductive to a medium on whose behalf he had picketed for so long.
The Ebert model is of more relevance than ever in the 'new media'. He was a triumph of artistic brains over marketing brawn - I do hope he never lived to hear the phrase 'Search Engine Optimisation'. With the growth of hipster hypocrisy, the pressure to state one's indie allegiance is a blinkering influence, and in the search for great movies, our eyes are increasingly wide shut. For Mr Ebert, a good picture, whatever the origin, was worth writing about: his love for film had the longevity and impish magic of a Fellini screenplay. There is a wonderful circularity that he will be muse for Martin Scorsese in a now-posthumous biopic, himself a longtime beneficiary of Ebert adulation.
As Roger Ebert leaves his post as critic for the Sun-Times and the world, we must gather what we can from his legacy (if a BBC producer should stumble upon Siskel and Ebert at the Movies, for example, they might reconsider the flat crassness of Film 2013). In excavating his gargantuan body of work, I would guide the reader to a piece on Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York. In a rare lapse of focus, Ebert wanders - fittingly, for a Kaufman review - into the dunes of abstract thoughts: "A lot of people these days don't even go to a movie once. There are alternatives. It doesn't have to be the movies, but we must somehow dream. If we don't 'go to the movies' in any form, our minds will wither and sicken." His never did.