Rest in peace, Roger Ebert

His love of movies made us all feel like experts.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert

Today brings the worst news for movie lovers: Roger Ebert, a pioneering figure of film criticism, has died at age 70, of cancer. As recently as two days ago, Ebert posted a hopeful "leave of presence" from his duties, future plans brewing even as he decided to slow his weekly reviewing responsibilities. Still, the end is a shock. A majestic 2010 Esquire profile left readers in tears—not at the cosmic injustice of Ebert's inability to speak (thyroid and salivary-gland cancers left him ravaged), but at his unbowed love of life. Ebert became a model of dignity in the face of the worst.

Ebert set off a seismic wave in film criticism over a career that spanned 46 years in print at Chicago's Sun-Times and, notably, 31 years on television, where he recast the role of the brainiac movie snob into a person of passion, humor and worldliness. To his early detractors, he was all "thumbs," yet Ebert had not only the journalistic bona fides (he earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1975) but a vision for a more democratized field of response. We all caught up to him eventually. The prominence he brought to the field of film criticism was nothing short of a revolution, waged now by millions of bloggers, tweeters and empowered cinephiles.

I feel this loss in my heart, not only as a fan and one of the many inspired writers, but as a colleague: In my earliest days on the beat, as a cub critic in Chicago, I made my way to the Lake Street Screening Room, where Ebert could be found in his favorite seat in the back row, left aisle. He loved to chat with anyone; I sometimes had to pinch myself. We talked about American Psycho, Road to Perdition, the varying quality of the pizzeria downstairs. Far from being all-encompassing, his film love was a conduit to a greater engagement with the world. I had no better role model.

Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf