Friday, April 26, 2013

ROGER EBERT & FILM CRITICISM



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.

27 comments:

  1. When I first started reading Ebert, I was a kid in a suburb of Chicago. He seemed to be a new voice in newspaper criticism. He wrote vigorously, knew his film history, made interesting connections between the films and the larger world, and readable without being simplistic. The TV show popularized him, but there was more to him than the thumb. Before dismissing him, you might run the audio commentary track he recorded for the DVD of CITIZEN KANE. It's filled with observations about the technical innovations in the film, points of film technique that had escaped me (and I majored in film with Scorcese as a professor), and historical context. Being popular is not always correlated with mediocrity. Being condescending is rarely correlated with wisdom.

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  2. "Soft-core pornographer..."?!

    It seems my browser has directed me to www.dailymail.co.uk by mistake.

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    1. Well, Meyer was a big fan of breasts. However, "soft-core pornographer" or not, he did make some wonderful films - "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" included.

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  3. This article definitely isn't one of Simon's brightest moments. The condescension is palpable ("Well, nobody in MY circle ever talked about him"), and you largely rely on hearsay without ever actually turning to the words of Ebert himself.

    As for the imbecilic "nobody 'important' cared about him" bit: Listen to Bahrani, or Herzog, or Scorsese talk about him, and you'll realize how wrong you are.

    He also introduced a lot of people, myself included, to major filmmakers like Herzog, Renoir, and Ozu, setting them on the path to cinephilia. And that counts for a lot.

    No, his writings never went as deep as the best of Rosenbaum or Kehr - but he was accessible, and he helped educate people in film history and technique without sounding pompous (you could learn a lot from him in that regard.) Few people who are just getting into film are going to start out with the alienating, theory-heavy "elites" of film criticism. As a mentor for those early days of "getting into" film - that period when an individual is just starting to appreciate film as something more than just a passive medium of disposable entertainment - Ebert was better than most.

    Yes, knowledge and understanding are important. I also reject the notion that "all opinions are equally meaningful" - however, nobody is going to acquire that knowledge or understanding needed to write meaningful criticism if people like you are the only gatekeepers. You turn people away, while Ebert invited them in.

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  4. I'm an admirer of Ebert's DVD commentary for "Citizen Kane," which has been justifiably praised here and elsewhere. But film criticism is a type of essay, and it requires (and benefits from) explication, exhortation, historical and formalistic analysis, pedagogy, verbal artistry, and no small measure of alchemy and prognostication. In the exalted realm of the essay, Ebert was no match for the titan critics: Agee, Warshow, Macdonald, Kauffmann, Kael, Young, and Simon.

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  5. I saw him laugh - laugh - with his cohort Siskel - at Jan Troell's magnificent film, The Flight of the Eagle, precipitating its disappearance from American theaters. I was lucky to have seen it at the Denver Int'l Film Festival. Otherwise, thanks to so-called "critics" like Ebert, I would never have seen it.

    He was a movie reviewer, not a film critic.

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    1. You are correct, Dan. I saw and recall Ebert/Siskel's review of Troell's masterpiece after having the privilege to see that towering film at an early screening. They came across, even more so than usual, as simpletons and buffoons, who like to side with the least intelligent but devoted moviegoers watching their show.

      Ebert, a soft-core pornographer himself, will definitely be missed, but not by those with good taste and refinement when it comes to the cinema.

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    2. Trolls writng about troell!

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    3. I cannot find a review by Roger Ebert of this particular Troell film.

      I believe all or about all of his reviews and film criticism is available at http://www.rogerebert.com, and there is no mention of "The Flight of the Eagle."

      I wasn't there, so I can't say he didn't laugh - laugh - at this magnificent, towering film. Haven't seen the film, either, so I can't say it isn't laugh-worthy.

      However, it's worth noting that Ebert was very much of an admirer and supporter of Troell. In his review of Troll's brilliant film "Everlasting Moments," he had this to say:

      "The film reflects the great self-assurance by Jan Troell, whose work includes such masterpieces as `The Emigrants,' `The New Land' and `Hamsun.' All of his films are about lives striving toward greater fullness. He respects work, values and feelings. He stands apart from the frantic hunger for fashionable success."

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  6. On their TV show, I was often amused by the opposable thumbs of both Ebert and Siskel slowly evolving into gymnastic contortions requiring exegetical verbal nuance: "I gave this film a guarded thumbs down, even though my thumb wanted to go up..." etc.

    No one ever mentions a certain film critic I enjoyed far more than Ebert, Siskel, Kael, Maltin, Maslin, Canby, et al. -- Mary Brennan; though even so, the candle she holds to Simon pales by comparison. (I note that I mentioned her in a comment here on Simon's blog back in October of 2011!).

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  7. “I must disagree about his alleged esteem…”

    Thank God someone finally has, publicly, and John, you’ve gotten to the punch bowl ahead of Armond White, making this essay a double coup.

    Ebert was a vulgarian, a minor talent in the right place at the right time, who would have been relegated to complete-nothing status were it not for the idiot box where he could, giving his teleprompter-fed attitudinizing free reign for a half-hour each week, appear to be something vaguely approaching a genius. He was a hack reviewer, not simply unintellectual, but anti-intellectual, a form of reverse snobbery much more insidious than what it supposedly counters. Ebert was common: his success was based on persuading other small-minded haters to regard themselves as egalitarian giants of the art-house (cross-reference the career of Matt Zoller Seitz).

    And Ebert, even in death, shut down critical thought. Gape at the unearned sentimentality in Justin Chang’s Variety piece wherein the younger reviewer turned backflips over the late industry bulwark’s cruddy taste, notably over the godawful “Crash.” 2005 was an unusually rich year for movies: there was Brokeback Mountain, 40 Shades of Blue, The New World, Ballad of Jack & Rose, and Bergman’s Saraband, to mention a few, and yet Ebert thought a potboiler piece of trash trumped them all, artistically. That alone should have called the Chicagoan’s lack of discernment into question.

    I’ve read neither his cookbook nor his London travelogue, yet I’ve tried to get through some of Ebert’s collected volumes of “criticism,” and there are valid reasons you’ve never heard anyone in your circle refer to them: his books are excrement. Ebert adored writing in passive voice—seemingly, there was no strong verb he couldn't steamroller with "is."

    “For failure in criticism, there is no such manifest evidence.”

    I disagree, because the evidence surrounds us. It’s easy to spot the Ebert-influenced “critic.” They all strike grandstanding postures of generosity while being aggressively and condescendingly middle-brow, utterly devoted to missing a film’s point, if there’s one to miss. Sean Axmaker could serve as an example, James Rocchi, another, to say nothing of the insufferable A.O. Scott, a perennial lightweight who, to the extent he can be thought of as a critic at all, amounts merely to a Bosley Crowther for the Rudy’s Barbershop crowd.

    Ebert, through his televised kowtowing, could thus stand-in as an Ideal Critic for innocents of all ages who have never gotten beyond their shallow dependence on movies to reinforce their own rather dismal version of sensitivity.

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  8. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rB3V3qyZiFM

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  9. http://siskelandebert.org/video/DA4M667GBYG7/Roger-Ebert-on-his-life-as-a-film-critic-1997

    Roger Ebert on his life as a film critic (1997)

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  10. Can't Mikos be banned from leaving comments on this site? He's nothing but a boring anti-Semite egomaniac.

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    1. Looks like he's been banned. The jury rests...

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    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    3. How about banning pompous windbags like you?!

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  11. A true Ebert fan.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gMTNLG3IHJo

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  12. Will always be thankful for the laughs John supplied when failing to perceive how he thumbnailed TV when carping in his review of “Network” that it “floundered between grim exposé and absurdist kitsch.” What’s telling about John’s commentary, whether on movies, on Roger or anything else, is his insistence on remaining categorically “elitist” — on a free blog. He smirkingly fibs, “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.” Not so sure Subotica’s version of Anton Ego hasn’t “gathered” more than a pause when in his memoir “Life Itself,” Roger wrote, “I feel repugnance for the critic John Simon, who made it a specialty to attack the way actors look. They can’t help how they look, any more than John Simon can help looking like a rat.” Simon’s pretense seems exposed in a not so stealthy response: “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.” In John’s case it clearly smarts — he’s using photos that avoid his present condition at 88, unlike Roger who refused to hide his physical disfigurement. Roger might not be one of the giants of movie criticism but then, he hadn’t John’s desire to be immortalized as one in future obits by his peers, a short list getting perilously shorter. John’s been cloistered in snobbery for so long that he believes he’s already elevated as royalty in the art of criticism, yet even his remaining equals aren’t likely to rush to anoint him a prince, not when he poops out this Romneyesquer: “The opinions of common men about film may be of genuine interest, but are of no major importance.”

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  13. John Simon has always stimulated thought and discussion; I relish reading his writing, because he excels at his craft of criticism. Siskel and Ebert offered up a pablum of mush, often all right if you were starving, but if it a feast about film or plays you want-go to Simon's. If you can't stand the heat of his kitchen, well...you know the rest.

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  14. Roger Ebert on the DVD commentary to pop art masterpiece BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS claimed that John Simon gave the film a sympathetic enough,if bemused review. Ebert's contribution to the CITIZEN KANE/BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN of psychedelic sexploitation validated his existence more than any of his film criticism.No need to throw Meyer under the bus.

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  15. To the readers leaving comments concerning the arrogance of John Simon in this editorial, all I can say is that it's his blog to say whatever he wishes. He can be as pompous, insensitive and as disrespectful as he wants. Personally, he just strikes me as troll with a larger than average vocabulary, but there's places for trolls in the world, too, and I'm glad it's mostly kept in this small box here.

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  16. filme onlinefilme Online Hd, Vizioneaza filme online subtitrate 2013 gratis traduse in limba romana la calitate HD, filme hd online

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  17. For the poster complaining that Simon picked a younger version of himself for this blog's photo: you have only to do the standard Google search to elicit a more recent photo: http://www.google.com/#q=john+simon+critic

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  18. Okay, as to the 'soft-core pornography' bit, let's look at another source:
    Wikipedia; (partial):

    Production

    Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was originally intended as a straightforward sequel to the 1967 film Valley of the Dolls. Jacqueline Susann, author of the novel Valley of the Dolls, had been asked to write a screenplay but declined. Susann herself had come up with the title while she was writing her second novel The Love Machine. 20th Century Fox rejected two screenplay drafts, and the final version, written by director Russ Meyer and novice screenwriter Roger Ebert in six weeks, was not only a spoof of the original film, but, in Ebert's words "a satire of Hollywood conventions, genres, situations, dialogue, characters and success formulas, heavily overlaid with such shocking violence that some critics didn't know whether the movie 'knew' it was a comedy."[4] Meyer's intention was for the film to "simultaneously be a satire, a serious melodrama, a rock musical, a comedy, a violent exploitation picture, a skin flick and a moralistic expose (so soon after the Sharon Tate murders) of what the opening crawl called 'the oft-times nightmarish world of Show Business.'"[4]
    As a result, the studio placed a disclaimer at the beginning of the film informing the audience that the two films were not intended to be connected. Posters for the movie read, "This is not a sequel——there has never been anything like it".
    Upon its initial release, the film was given an X rating by the MPAA;[5] in 1990, it was re-classified as NC-17. Meyer's response to the original X rating was to attempt to re-edit the film to insert more nudity and sex, but Fox wanted to get the movie released quickly and wouldn't give him the time.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beyond_the_Valley_of_the_Dolls

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