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Must Read: Roger Ebert Criticizes the Death of the Film Critic

by
November 30, 2008
Source: Roger Ebert's Blog

Sunday Discussion: 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.

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  • Mark
    Ebert says. "The celebrity culture is infantilizing us. We are being trained not to think." That's rich coming from Ebert, who pimped Obama in his nauseating reviews.
  • I choose to read firstshowing.net because you ARE a film critic, and (I have to say) a good one at that. I might not always agree with your opinions -- and sometimes not even with the way you express them -- but being able to write about movies and enjoy them at the same time is the mark of a true cinephile, the kind which sadly seem to be disappearing both from print media and the online world. This is the way the current cinematic landscape lies, but that doesn't mean that -- even in a world where The Hottie and The Nottie can be allowed to exist -- film criticism should be allowed to go gently into that good night. Ebert has it spot-on, and long may firstshowing.net's style continue.
  • buza
    i love this
  • Alfredo
    I guess the lack of depth and critical thinking..ness in the movie-watching community is evidenced when you visit the imdb forums, where the majority of opinions are nothing but "this is the worst movie ever.... this movie is gay... i don't care what you say this movie is awesome... the movie sucked but at least we got to see some hooters." Real movie dissecting and discussing is hard to come by. And in turn people like these are the ones that are less and less interested in a real critic's engrossing opinion and instead are more interested in whatever gossip a movie might carry behind it.
  • Marco
    I agree. The mark of a real film critic isn't whether he works for Newspaper A or Magazine B. Yes, those things factor in when it comes to flexing your power to get VIP screenings or celebrity interviews but a real critic is someone who is a true cinephile. Someone who loves movies and doesn't see this as "a job." I've met several unnamed critics who don't even like movies and hate writing about them, these are people who work for very powerful magazines and newspapers. You are a "real" film critic Alex. Don't let anyone tell you different just because you're "online." :)
  • L
    I think there is a big difference between having an educated opini0on or being a critic. While neither is better or worse than the other, I think Alex is right that he is not a critic. From what i have seen, he has given technical input as well as opinionated value to his set of articles as opposed to some obnoxious profession spitting bile on everything that isn't a well structured epic. I would personally love to have this as a profession, because we all come here for one common purpose; we love movies. There will always be there share of fan boys or girls for any particular film or subject matter. But in the end, isn't that what is important? Cheers, Alex. Love your site and love your articles.
  • Georgiana
    I definitely agree with what Ebert has to say here. As a 16-year-old girl I am constantly surrounded by movies like Twilight, who like to draw young viewers in with an interesting plot summary, but then end up ingraining them someone elses opinion. What disgusts me about that movie is that it doesn't only tell you what to think, it tells you what you should be doing with your body, something that no one else but you should decide. I think Twilight in itself is a perfect example of this sort of "loss of free thought" in that way. The loss of free thinking is an epidemic that starts with the young, and then gradually affects the older generations. For example, how many times have you gotten an email from an adult that has the words "lol" or "lolz" at the end of a sentence? If this epidemic rages on any longer, who knows, we might actually end up with Paris Hilton as president.
  • Johnny Crow
    @1- I was thinking the exact same thing! Haha awesome. And Alex, always have been a fan of this site, and I am glad I can come to FS.net and read thought provoking articles about movies and the enjoyment of going to see them! Keep up the awesome work!
  • Gloria Mundi
    I wish you were more of a critic. Quoting Roger Ebert again, as a critic, you "must know why you like a film, and be able to explain why, so that others can learn from an opinion not their own. It is not important to be 'right' or 'wrong.' It is important to know why you hold an opinion, understand how it emerged from the universe of all your opinions, and help others to form their own opinions. There is no correct answer. There is simply the correct process. 'An unexamined life is not worth living.'" You have a tendency to just say something like "This looks awesome" or "That one sucked - I just don't like that genre", or you even form an opinion ahead of time, like "Look at this trailer - this can't possibly be any good!" And while those are all valid opinions, they don't really help me figure out if I would like or dislike the film you are talking about. I scan your reviews, but if you don't explain WHAT it is that makes a film good or bad, I don't finish readin them. So please, by all means, be a critic! I'd love more critiques on this site.
  • Gloria - I don't really like doing that. I get enough crap from readers as is when I say something looks bad and explain myself. For certain things, like trailers, photos, and so on, I don't want to add too much of my opinion. I tend to cover news more as "hype" - I think it's awesome and want to just show it to you so you can choose what you think about on your own. Reviews, however, are a different story. And I try to do my best but I've lost so much steam over the years that really all I care about is providing my own opinion and trying to be insightful. Everyone has their own opinion on every movie - one could love it and someone could hate it. And I know that going in so all I try to do is give you a bit of insight into why I personally enjoyed it... Also, most reviews on this site are written by Kevin, not me... :) I cover a lot of films at festivals and so on. Just look in the reviews section and organize it by the reviewer.
  • david
    LOL @mark with his anger over Obama. A Cult of Celebrity over LACK of thinking would certainly be all about Sarah Palin. Yet isn't this a movie blog, talking about Movie Critics? And somehow you boil it down to politics and disregard the message of Roger Ebert over his political choice rather than the matter at hand. Awesome. Ebert is right. Soon it will all be down to tripe like TMZ.com, PerezHilton.com, etc. Newspapers are dying as the advertising which supports them has left for the internet and TV. Just look at Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood and their ilk, all PR fluff and BS over the latest celebutards. Pitiful.
  • Peloquin
    Was Ebert the one who walked out in the middle of Clerks 2 in Cannes? If so then I find it hard to take anything he says seriously as I'll always support and look up to Smith more as a film maker rather than Ebert as a critic. If I am wrong than I apologize...
  • david
    @Peloquin, It was Joel Siegel who walked out of Clerks 2. Kevin Smith confronted him about it on one of the NY Radio shows.
  • peloquin
    Thanks for clearing that up David...Ebert's okay in my book then...fuck Siegel
  • Couldnt possibly agree more with both Ebert and yourself Alex. I dont really have the energy to debates this topic any more than I already have (I've been complaining about this development for a couple of years now). This celebcult-thing is eating up not just the movieindustry, but the society on a whole from the inside, and I hate it deeply. Thats part of the reason I keep coming back to this site, it focuses on what I care to read about; the movies themselves, not the actors, celebs or stars who occupy them. Theres more than enough crapsites doing that already.
  • dave13
    Alex, I wanted to say that I think this was one of your best written articles, and I enjoyed reading it. I very much agree with what Ebert is saying, and celebcult and 'critic proof' movies are what often piss me off, especially a movie like Twilight. Film is an art that seems too often bastardized by celebcult. I wish more critics were like Ebert. 9 times out of 10 I agree with him, or at least understand where he is coming from. Reviews by others often leave me wondering why I bothered reading them, b/c they were useless. What is best though is Ebert's essays. Very thought provoking and insightful, and go beyond just a review. I love his books, I have two: The Great Movies 1 and 2. :)
  • Great read.

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