Three score and ten is the life expectancy the bible allots us, and that is the age at which the film critic Roger Ebert died on April 4. He was, as the lengthy obituaries declared, the most famous movie critic of our era, and, in an epoch in which fame is measured in television time, so he was. In this, no one could compete with him.
“A Critic for the Common Man,” read the headline of the New York Times obit by Douglas Martin on April 5. On April 6, came an appraisal of him by A. O. Scott, one of the Times film critics, who, a fellow Chicagoan, grew into film criticism under Ebert’s initial skepticism and eventual patronage. That article was headlined “Critic Whose Sting Was Salved by His Caring.” On television’s “Nightline,” a segment was dedicated to Ebert, who was hailed as not one of those highfalutin film critics, but one of us.
The Times also quoted Mick LaSalle, movie critic of the San Francisco Chronicle: “In the century or so that there has been such a thing as movie criticism, no other movie critic has ever occupied the space held by Roger Ebert. Others as influential as Ebert have not been as esteemed. Others as esteemed as Ebert have not had the same direct and widespread influence. And no one, but no one, has enjoyed the same fame.”
Well, yes: he was the first movie critic to win a Pulitzer, the first to be honored with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, and the first to be memorialized by a president, Obama, another Chicagoan, who said in part, “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—capturing the unique power of the movies to take us somewhere magical.” That last bit sounds like escapism, not the most praiseworthy characteristic.
Most interesting to me was his own estimate of his TV show that went by various titles and was always shared with one other critic. It was not, he told Playboy, “a high-level, in-depth criticism,” but it demonstrated to younger viewers that one can bring standards of judgment to movies, that “it’s O.K. to have an opinion.” His own opinions could be gleaned also from his Sun-Times column, as well as his blog, Facebook and Twitter, where he had more than 800,000 followers.
Now, I wonder: unless those younger viewers were the age group from 8 to 12, why should they need to be told to have opinions about movies? And what is the value of opinions that need this kind of coaxing? Even more questionable is the whole thumbs up, thumbs down critique Ebert practiced, inherited from the Roman emperors who thus granted clemency or death at the gladiatorial contests. In Ebert’s case, the thumb was mightier than the word: wouldn’t such a shortcut take precedence over whatever verbiage followed it?
Never mind, though. I do not wish to minimize the importance of Ebert, who, I gather, wrote 15 books, some extending beyond film criticism to rice cookery and rambles through London. My unawareness of them, and never hearing a reference to them from anyone in my circle, are no proof of unimportance, merely a reason to give us pause.
I had very little contact with Ebert, though our paths occasionally crossed at screenings or film festivals. I know we exchanged words at a chance meeting in a video or music store, though I can’t recall any of them. I was once on a Telluride panel with him and 11 others, where we managed to disagree about the quality of writing about film in general. And I once published a brief comic piece about Siskel and Ebert in Chicago magazine. That is all.
What it all comes down to is this. I have doubts about someone who wrote screenplays for the soft-core pornographer Russ Meyer, and apparently “never tired of talking about it.” But my main problem is the notion of the critic as a common man, no different from the masses of moviegoers except for writing out his opinions and opining on television.
I firmly believe that the film critic should have a special expertise, like any kind of art critic. Like a physician, he should know more about medicine than a layman who picks an over-the-counter drug for a cold; like an architect, he should know more about architecture than a mere gaper at buildings.
The opinions of common men about film may be of genuine interest, but are of no major importance. To be sure, a failure in medicine is made manifest by the patient’s demise; a failure in architecture, by a collapsed building or a permanent eyesore. For failure in criticism, there is no such manifest evidence. Only time has the last word, but the good critic foreshadows it.
Granted, Ebert knew more about films quantitatively than the average moviegoer, but qualitatively—when it comes to taste and intellect—I very much doubt it. I feel truly sorry for Ebert’s sufferings from cancer: his loss of a jaw and the inability to eat, drink or talk. I do admire his staunch defiance of these depredations. But I must disagree about his alleged esteem, which, however widespread, does not seem to come from artists, scholars or intellectuals. I must also take issue with A. O. Scott’s contention that “wielding the thumb of judgment takes more dexterity, more art, than you might think.” Except from the palsied or mentally defective, it takes no dexterity whatsoever, let alone art.
And what about a “sting salved by caring”? No one who writes steadily about film (or any other discipline) does so without caring. Furthermore, a critical sting is not like a slight flesh wound, treatable with ointment. If intentionally negative, it has to sting. This is the only way it is noticeable, the only way it could make a difference. That is to say if any criticism makes a difference.