Thursday, April 4, 2013

Thumbs up

It took me awhile to truly appreciate the kind of film critic Roger Ebert was. I remember watching At the Movies during the 90s, when I was first getting seriously into movies, but at the time, I didn't think what he and Gene Siskel were doing was so unusual. By that time, there were similar film review shows on TV, and I figured these guys were simply part of the trend, though they were certainly more popular than most. I thought that was because they argued so much.

Film criticism in general was easy to take for granted back then, partly because it was so ubiquitous. Back then, I didn't necessarily have any favorite writers. I remember always being frustrated with the reviews in the Village Voice because it never seemed like they told you outright whether a given movie was good or bad, which is what I wanted nine times out of ten.

Over time, however, I began to recognize film criticism as an end in itself, and not always a means to an end. When I first started working video retail, I began buying books about film history and theory in order to bone up on the subject, and one of the books I bought was Roger Ebert's Book of Film. I highly recommend it; it's a collection of writings about the medium from a wide variety of conventional and unconventional sources. Seeing how film has been dissected and analyzed and appreciated over the years helped me gain a deeper understanding of the value of film criticism.

Nowadays, critics seem less relevant; partly because they're no longer as ubiquitous (at least not in print), but mostly because so many movie-goers continually disregard authoritative critical opinion, especially when it comes to lowest-common-denominator Hollywood tripe, of which there's no shortage.

Roger was different, though. His opinion still mattered, still counted for something, and if that was the case, then that must mean that authoritative critical opinion still mattered too. He spoke with erudition and candor, but was never too high-falutin' for the average person - and if a movie was bad, he had no qualms about saying so.

When the cancer and the surgeries wrecked his health and his appearance, he didn't hide. I remember gasping when I saw that full-frontal Esquire portrait shot of him post-surgery. It took guts for him to let the world see his face that way. I couldn't have done it. He didn't look so bad, in fact. He simply didn't look like the Roger we remembered from TV... but that was okay.

Today feels like the end of an era. Online film bloggers have become the new paradigm for film criticism (though I do not consider myself a critic). Tweets have assumed a new level of importance in analyzing a movie for the masses, for better or for worse. Who knows if any one critic will ever again have the same level of authoritativeness as Roger, or Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris. Doesn't matter though. While we had him, Roger Ebert taught us more about movies than we ever could've hoped for, and for that, we should all be forever grateful.

Variety obituary


  1. Rich,
    A very touching tribute! It feels like the end of an era to me too. I suppose tweets are the appropriate medium for "analyzing" most Hollywood product these days.

    It's sad, but who needs a critic on the order of an Ebert, Siskel, Kael or Agee with a film industry that spits out stuff like the Evil Dead remake, The Call, The Host, and GI Joe: Retribution. Even tweets are overkill.

  2. Well, with Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, it's become less about one person's opinion and more about a collective opinion, but even within such a format, I think people still care about individual voices - if for no other reason than to complain about them when they post a dissenting opinion on a popular movie.

  3. Some of my favorite film critics over the years have been John Simon, Stanley Kauffmann (who's still writing criticism as the age of 96 - he was born in 1916) and George McCartney. There are still plenty of good foreign and indie (and the occasional good mainstream) films being released and these and other critics I enjoy give me insight into the films I often wouldn't otherwise have. I wish that was worth more in today's society (the days of film criticism collected in book form seem to be gone).

  4. A 96-year-old film critic? Wow...

    I still see new books on film criticism in bookstores; most recently, off the top of my head, I've seen new books by J. Hoberman and David Denby. Perhaps they're not as popular as similar ones from the past.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.