I miss Roger Ebert already

The "best known film critic in America" has died, aged 70.

I miss Roger Ebert already. His great achievement as a critic was to make discussing movies personal. He was a great anti-intellectual and a populist - in the best sense of the word - in that that he approached pop culture with a liberal spirit: hoping for the best, eviscerating the worst. Reading Ebert on film provided more than one generation with the confidence to talk about their experiences at the cinema, for work, or for fun. You didn't even need to speak, if you didnt want to. Everyone has thumbs after all.

Ebert began his career as a reporter and features writer, hired by the Chicago Sun-Times in 1966. When he moved on to reviewing the following year, he took the narrative-driven fundamentals of beat reporting with him to the arts desk. He had a prodigious memory, a head full of stories. His memoir, Life Itself, published in 2011, allowed him to focus on the activity that had come to define his life, movie-going, and providing him with a unique way of understanding the life it produced: “I was born inside the movie of my life,” the book begins. “The visuals were before me, the audio surrounded me, the plot unfolded inevitably but not necessarily. I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me.”

His accidental entry into criticism, regular appearances on television (on Sneak Previews and At the Movies), led to disgruntlement from thoroughly-schooled rivals who accused him of reducing the art of reviewer to a series of subjective gestures. But all criticism is, to some degree, subjective – is it not? Orwell testified to the idea that a writer simply likes a book or does not. The challenge comes in attempting to justify that emotion. Ebert did it daily, for over forty years.

Only three days ago Ebert announced on his blog that he was taking a “leave of presence”. In recent years, I have followed his thoughts on illness, religion, and the future of criticism, almost as regularly as his reviews (astonishingly, last year was Ebert’s most prolific – he reviewed 306 movies and wrote weekly blog posts). Despite having undergone a series of debilitating operations since his diagnosis with thyroid cancer in 2002, he planned to oversee a series of projects (including a new website, the annual Ebertfest and an upcoming documentary on his life), while reserving the right to “wax ecstatic about a movie so good it transports me beyond illness.”

For many, Eberts “leave of presence” has become an almost palpable absence of presence: in print, online (despite his best intentions, Ebert became a prolific tweeter) and on television. President Barack Obama paid him tribute: “For a generation of Americans – especially Chicagoans – Roger was the movies. When he didn’t like a film, he was honest; when he did, he was effusive.” 

At the last, he addressed his readers, to whom through writing about film he had become a sweet great-uncle, in the conspicuous glasses and over-sized jacket of a local oracle. His final blog post ended with an expression of gratitude: “So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.”

The American critic in 2006. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage