Thursday, April 4, 2013
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.