Archive for the ‘scott tobias’ tag
If you are on Twitter (like I am) and follow pop culture creators and critics (like I do), you may know about the rebirth of Roger Ebert. If not, then it is worth taking a moment to see why his is one of the more remarkable stories of the last six months.
A recent article by Chris Jones in Esquire discussed his battle with cancer, which led to his jaw being removed in 2006. (Ebert talks about why he agreed to give the interview and have his photo taken at his wonderful blog. Also, there is a wonderful piece there on his not being able to eat or drink.) He now has new technology that allows him to speak, as demonstrated on his recent appearance on Oprah. (Here is a clip with Ebert’s wife Chaz.)
Ebert has embraced other technologies, too, becoming one of the most prolific Twitterers around; he has a following of nearly 100,000 people.
And if there was ever a question about whether Ebert is a nice guy, this remarkable story about his mentorship and forgiveness should settle it.
The story of Roger Ebert is not just the story of a remarkable person with a remarkable story, it is also the story of film criticism in America. For decades, people have fretted over the state of film criticism, particularly in America. “It’s dying.” “It’s dead.” “It’s pointless.” “It’s all about celebrity.” Ebert is sometimes seen as the major culprit behind the last charge. Ebert, first with Siskel, then with Roeper, became the face of film criticism in a way that earlier critics were not. He was a minor television celebrity who reached a national audience and whose “thumbs up” could lead any advertisement for a motion picture. The worry is that film criticism, partly because of television avenues like At the Movies, has become more about celebrity and less about the art of criticism.
There is a kernel of truth to this charge, but it’s largely off point. Film criticism serves a number of functions, and Ebert excelled at a number of them. First, he is a film lover. Critics can inspire love for films in us by demonstrating their love for films. And Ebert has always been a champion of film. Second, he is a lover of storytelling. Ebert, more than many critics, is interested in the story of a film more than many of its other artistic aspects. This is partly why he gives such favorable reviews to mainstream Hollywood films. Hollywood films tend to employ certain storytelling techniques, and Ebert is quick to praise films that tell conventional stories in a competent way. Third, and relatedly, Ebert has very populist tastes. One thing we look for from critics is the standard, “should I see this movie that opens tomorrow?” And Ebert is a great barometer of mainstream tastes. For a long time, especially when I first started paying attention to film criticism, I realized that no film critic was as good as Ebert at predicting whether I would like a given Hollywood film. And that is still valuable. Finally, Ebert is a very fine writer, who has an above-average prose style and a good sense of when to connect film reviews to larger truths, which makes his writing even more compelling.
There are other important roles that a film critic performs that Ebert has been less successful at, and I think this is the source of many complaints about him. For instance, his populist taste and preference for classical Hollywood storytelling lead to somewhat bland and predictable grades. While he champions films in his Great Movies series, they are usually films already part of the canon. You’re not likely to find many surprises in there. Also, Ebert has never focused on the close analysis of film. Now, this is moving more toward the domain of academic film studies since it is often not possible to do this in a newspaper review with a set word limit, but film critics also should have an eye for various formal elements of film, and many reviewers find ways to incorporate this into their writing. There is one other complaint about Ebert’s mainstream sensibilities: many of the most interesting films are those that divide critics. Some films deserve both passionate defense and full-on ridicule. (The films of Lars von Trier come to mind here, as well as what appears in Scott Tobias’ New Cult Canon or Manohla Dargis’ defense of Southland Tales.) Which means that we don’t always want critics that we agree with. Sometimes a critic’s job is to defend something we hate or devastate something we love. That makes us better film viewers.
The various roles that critics perform also suggest why we should read many different critics. Sometimes we simply want to know whether it is a movie we are likely to like, articulated very clearly or cleverly. (Ebert and A.O. Scott are good at this.) Sometimes we want consistently sharp or provocative reactions, even when they disagree with our own. (Here I like Mike D’Angelo and Stephanie Zecharek.) Other times, we want more historical and scholarly discussions. (David Bordwell and Matt Zoller Seitz.) A good critic can teach you how to watch film; engaging multiple critics can teach you how to understand film.