Must Read: Roger Ebert Criticizes the Death of the Film Critic
Over the last year, the death of the film critic has become an increasing popular topic of discussion amongst, ironically, film critics. I've personally stayed out of it because I don't consider myself much of a critic, hardly a "reviewer" if anything, and decided to leave that discussion to the professionals. However, our own favorite critic, the legendary Roger Ebert, wrote another brilliant blog entry last week just before Thanksgiving titled Death to film critics! Hail to the CelebCult! In it, he addresses the phenomenon (if I can call it that) of the rise of celebrity infatuation, nicknamed the "CelebCult", and the death of the film critic, and their connection. And just like his great blog on 3D, I think he nails this topic on the head.
The one thing that can't be argued is that more and more "professional" critics (e.g. those who work for newspapers) are losing their jobs and disappearing. So is film criticism a lost art? With every passing weekend, we discover even more movies that are critic proof, like Twilight just a few weeks ago. But what does that even mean? "Critic proof" is just a term that means that no matter what critics say (good or bad), the movie will still perform well at the box office. The bigger question is how we even got to this point where these kinds of films exist more than regular "non-critic proof" films. And instead of beating around the bush, I'll just let Ebert explain what has gone so horribly wrong with our society.
Ebert explains that his frustration finally boiled over when the Associated Press imposed a 500-word limit on every review, interview, news story, and article related to movies. "They want to devote less of their space to considered prose, and more to ignorant gawking… Why does the biggest story about Twilight involve its fans? Do we need interviews with 16-year-old girls about Robert Pattinson? When was the last time they read a paper? Isn't the movie obviously about sexual abstinence and the teen fascination with doomy Goth death-flirtation?" He adds: "The CelebCult virus is eating our culture alive, and newspapers voluntarily expose themselves to it. It teaches shabby values to young people, festers unwholesome curiosity, violates privacy, and is indifferent to meaningful achievement."
But that's not it, Ebert doesn't stop there. Why do we need critics? "I don't believe readers buy a newspaper to read variations on the Ed McMahon line, 'You are correct, sir!' A newspaper film critic should encourage critical thinking, introduce new developments, consider the local scene, look beyond the weekend fanboy specials, be a weatherman on social trends, bring in a larger context, teach, inform, amuse, inspire, be heartened, be outraged." Ebert couldn't have said it better, I just wish more of that intelligent journalism could be found today. Unfortunately most critics end up frustrating me with their "I'm better than you" attitude and lack of an ability to enjoy films anymore. So there is still a place for film critics, just not in newspapers, not in a medium that's dying anyway. That's part of the problem, but not all of it.
"It is not about the disappearance of film critics. We are the canaries," Ebert says. "The celebrity culture is infantilizing us. We are being trained not to think." So film critics aren't really dying - it's just that society on a whole has become less interested in criticism and intelligent discussion and more interested in every last detail of the celebrity life. So who, or what, is to blame for this then if that's what our cinematic society has become interested in? "It is about the death of an intelligent and curious, readership, interested in significant things and able to think critically. It is about the failure of our educational system. It is not about dumbing-down. It is about snuffing out." This is why I still love reading what Ebert has to say.
The one thing you may notice about what I choose to write about on FS.net is that I consistently stay far, far away from gossip. Only occasionally do we profile actors and that's to focus on their acting abilities rather than their personal life. We even pass on major articles that every other movie website has covered because I still believe in the integrity of high quality cinematic journalism - at least in order to promote good movies. I don't read gossip blogs, I don't read gossip magazines, and I don't care what goes on in the personal lives of celebrities. You don't see me interview that many actors because not that many have that much interesting to say in regards to their work. Ebert has only further solidified my anti-gossip policy.
As I stated at the start, I don't consider myself a critic. I love films for what they are, not for the ability to critique them. Most newspaper critics that I've met, except for those like Ebert, have a cocky attitude that makes me question whether they really do still enjoy watching movies as much as I do (maybe they don't?). Maybe this is something that has grown more poignant with the rise of the CelebCult? Or maybe I just consider myself such a cinephile that it's painful to see so much work put into a film that I love only to have it be torn apart by a critic. I still love insightful criticism, but I find that it's tough to come by.
But maybe that's exactly the point - it's not how many films they've seen or their technical background that makes a critic qualified, it's their voice and intelligent opinion. I just happen to disagree with many of them. And maybe the problem is that those who are still qualified have left the newspaper world and moved to the online world, joining the ranks of us "fanboys" (that's what they call us). Critics won't ever disappear forever (just look at every film festival, you'll find at least 1,000 of them, myself included) but our society has changed and in turn they're forced to modify the way they write. Newspapers won't run reviews due to this CelebCult, but critics still exist. You'll just find them in them in a different place.
If you want to read some intelligent opinion, start with Ebert. Even after 47 years, he's still going strong, and his reviews are still insightful. They still do show up in a newspaper, but you can also find them online, too. And you might as well start by thanking him for writing an article that accurately criticizes society and the state of cinema better than any other real critic ever has done before. Two thumbs up, Mr. Ebert.
Critic photo at top courtesy of Kirkbride Palace on Flickr.