What made him the one movie critic people really listened to?
One of my fondest memories of the work of the late, great Roger Ebert is a book he wrote, one that contains no film criticism at all, doesn’t even mention movies. It was a strange thin volume that floated around the house where I grew up, titled The Perfect London Walk, and it was a block-by-block, turn-by-turn illustrated stroll through several miles of the best London had to offer.
There’s something about that book that encapsulates, for me, the unique value of Ebert’s approach to the world. The baldfaced arrogance of its title, for one thing: of all possible walking routes through London, can anyone define a single one as “perfect”? And if anyone could, wouldn’t it be more likely to be a native Londoner, rather than a proud Chicagoan? Who even pays that much attention to walking routes anyway?
But Roger Ebert was a man who paid attention to things. Reading his reviews, one finds the same measured consideration given to big-money Oscar bait and to schlocky little horror films. (Perhaps appropriate from a man who collaborated with Russ Meyer.) He was willing to take Meatballs 2 as seriously as Philadelphia, and even more valuably, he didn’t necessarily take Philadelphia more seriously than Meatballs 2.
There is something admirably democratic in that. Ebert gave every movie a fair shake. If you’d blown $100 million making a sloppy, ill-constructed mess with A-list stars phoning in their lines, you didn’t get a free pass. Better, if you’d barely managed to get your microbudget indie film out to a half-decent distributor, you didn’t get dismissed or ignored because you were a nobody. Ebert spent decades championing low-budget dramas and foreign movies to an American public that has always been resistant to them, because a good movie is a good movie, period.
What that meant, over his career, was that people trusted him. You might not agree with him; I myself think he was dead wrong about some movies. (Though there were some I liked as a teenager that I’ve since realized he was right about.) But you don’t have to agree with someone to trust them. We all knew, reading his reviews, that we were getting the honestly considered opinion of someone who cared deeply about this artform. Better, it was also the opinion of someone capable of admitting when he was wrong. That’s what trust is built on, and that was the role he filled.
So if he’s going to pick a walk through London and say that it is objectively the best London walk, I’m willing to at least hear him out.
Photo—from “The London Perambulator” by Roger Ebert