Roger Ebert, Film Criticism, and Writing

I had no plans to blog about film criticism or review, about Roger Ebert, or about blogging. But then again, I read that today is Roger Ebert’s 70th birthday, and thought I ought to pay the man homage in the only way I know how: talk about film criticism.

Gary Susman wrote a fascinating article about Ebert on MovieFone, titled “Roger Ebert at 70: Did He Save or Destroy Film Criticism?” (I highly recommend you movie buffs read it.) And instead of regurgitating the article to you here, there are a couple interesting points that Susman brings up that I’d like to discuss. He inserts Ebert only part of the time, primarily talking about how film criticism and review differ, whether film criticism is dead, and essentially, the roots of film criticism, with Ebert’s almighty thumb heading it–and now all his fingers typing away to keep the film criticism wheel turning.

Susman does all of us a favor and differentiates between film review and criticism. Take a look:

“There’s a lot of confusion over the difference between reviewing and criticism, and what each ought to be, or that there even is a difference. It’s a distinction that confuses even many critics and reviewers. One way to look at it is this: reviewing is a consumer service, directed toward people who haven’t seen the film yet, telling them whether or not it’s worth their money. Criticism is an analysis of a movie for people who’ve already seen it, part of the never-ending conversation that exists about each film. Reviewing is based on the (perceived) taste of your audience or readership; criticism is based on your own taste. “

I agree with the unfortunate thought that Susman makes on criticism in general today: it’s based on one’s own taste. It’s a popular thing to have an opinion and to be independently-minded today. Being learned and educated on a topic isn’t nearly as popular. Many readers and consumers today don’t seek enough counsel, review the options, or consider the possibility that words or products are(n’t) accurate today, depending on the source of the words or product.

I know I’m preaching to the choir when I say this, but perhaps the choir could use a little preaching once in a while. My opinion and your opinion don’t lack importance, but rather, are often based too much on the importance in which we place upon our own opinions. Each of us is a little voice in this loud and crazy world called the “Internet,” and I daresay that your voice and my voice do matter and have value. My point, however, is that is all that our voices have become today: opinions. An opinion about this movie, an opinion about the music, the acting, the visuals in this or that film.

And I would believe that to be a neutral thing. It’s neither bad nor good that an opinion is just that: an opinion. But when does a person’s opinion become just another voiceless blog in the Internet crowd, and does it matter whether it attains to be more than that?

An old friend and I used to joke about how many views we would get on our sites. He has an entirely different site than I have–a photography one, and he doesn’t score nearly as many views on average as I do. But how many of my views are from search engines, and how many are from actual people? I brag on my film blog community–it’s the first time I think I’ve ever had a voice on the Internet. He expresses himself via photos, while I use words on a specific topic: film. What I’ve learned is that in the beginning, being heard is far more important than influence. Because in order to influence at all, you first have to be heard.

Roger Ebert would never be such a huge voice of influence, previously on TV and now on the Internet, until he got his start at age 16 as a copywriter, living in an entirely different time and world than what today’s world has become. And not only us lowly film bloggers aspire to write about film the way he does. So do the other critics on Rotten Tomatoes. Ya know, the ones we’ve never heard of, but tend to grab attention when they disagree with the mass and purposefully write some cynical review in order to gain an audience? Susman lays it out.

“Unfortunately, what the inevitable copycats took away were the elements that made for good spectacle on TV: the pithy verdict and the heated rhetoric. Pretty soon, movie reviewing on television — and in print — was something anyone with an opposable thumb could do. Audiences became lazy, demanding no more of their reviewers than thumbs-up or thumbs-down. So newspaper editors and TV news producers filled reviewer jobs with people who lacked Siskel and Ebert’s qualifications or love of movies. (You can’t imagine news bosses hiring political pundits or sports commentators just on the basis of gushing fandom or snark, but that’s often how they hire movie reviewers.) Even in magazines that prided themselves on the literary quality of their prose, reviewing and criticism became acts of performance, meant to show off the writer’s erudition and wit rather than to engage the movie on its own terms.”

Speaking for myself and the friends I have made on the blogosphere, I believe I speak in truth when I say that we write because we love the movies. We love the analytical process of peeling apart each element of a film and putting it back together again, the creative process of understanding how each part of a film makes it a whole, and the enjoyably lazy process of escaping into a film and not thinking a single intelligent thought for a full two hours.

We notice the little details and appreciate the inspiration books have had on film. We make fun of the Kristen Stewarts and Katherine Heigls and we never forget the scenes in the movies that make us hold back a few tears so our friends don’t think we’re weird for crying. We love movies because they’re complicated and full of complexity, and at their foundation, are just simple entertainment that are fun to watch.

I’ve watched Ebert on his TV show since I can remember, and when he lost his ability to talk, I arduously followed his regular column on the Chicago Sun-Times. I still do, probably like many of you. Ebert believes that we live in “the golden age of movie critics.” Everything has moved on to blogging. When I first read that, I thought, Oh no, that must be a bad thing. Ebert doesn’t think so. Perhaps because he’s found some film blogs out there worth his time. In his article about this golden age, he praises many of the young critics he has found. In fact, he even offers great advice, first given by a friend of his named David Thompson, about whether or not a person with a love and interest in film, ought to pursue a career in it. Both Thompson and Ebert reached the same conclusion, summed up in one line:

“Don’t train for a career–train for a life.”

I’ve also often read and heard the popular cliche that you must write what you know. WordPress offers lots of cute little ditties after you publish a post, often some general and witty quotes about writing. I don’t remember the exact quote, but I do remember the gist of one of the sayings went along the lines of, “the greatest ideas for writing come to you not when you’re sitting down at your desk, but when you’re out living.”

I couldn’t agree more. I started blogging way back when because I loved writing. I didn’t know what I wanted to write about then, so my posts were much more limited. Even on days when I’m facing a little bit of writer’s block, I’m assured that tomorrow or next week, I’ll have something to write about, because the film world keeps turning. It doesn’t stop. And I love that aspect about writing and blogging as well. There will always be something to write about. There will always be something to blog about. And when I need inspiration, I turn to my friends’ blogs, and I read Roger Ebert’s blog, and wonder if someday I’ll be able to write to the level he does. I guess it’s not so important to be able to write like one of the world’s top film critics. As a writer, as long as you write about what you love, what else matters?

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22 thoughts on “Roger Ebert, Film Criticism, and Writing

  1. Thta was awesome Kristin! I’m glad to hear the difference between film review and criticism. As I find reviews pretty damn hard to write and am not that interested in other people’s opinion on whether a film is any good, I’d much rather read an analytical piece that expresses what the write thinks the film means and why or why not it is important. Then again, I heard someone say that film reviewers are divided into those that think it is an art and those that want to entertain. I like to think reviewing can be entertainment whereas criticism is treating the film like art and so is therefore closer to being an art itself. Anyway really enjoyed reading this!

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    • Glad you enjoyed it – it was such a great article on him and film review, I knew I had to write something about it! I think it’s hard to distinguish between film criticism and review, because oftentimes both writers for well-established magazines/websites as well as bloggers like you and me review films in our critiques and critique films in our reviews. But it was nice to get a definition from him 🙂

      I think film criticism probably does err on the side of being qualified as more artistic, although I’m still not quite sure what to make of a lot of the “art” out there today then, haha. Glad you enjoyed the read, Pete!

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    • Happy Birthday to him indeed! You’re absolutely right, Ruth — he really is one of the best reviewers in the business, and he’s done so many great things for the film blog community in general. I definitely applaud him and appreciate all he’s done, and I have so much respect for him, from both a writing perspective and a film perspective!

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  2. Enjoyed reading this–good distinction to make–way too many film reviewers out there today! Love Roger Ebert–don’t know how the film community will be able to replace him when he finally decides to retire.

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    • Glad to hear it! I know, right? If you like film at all, it’s definitely not to love and appreciate Roger Ebert. He really isn’t replaceable. I hope he never retires.

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  3. Sigh. That was lovely.

    “We love the analytical process of peeling apart each element of a film and putting it back together again, the creative process of understanding how each part of a film makes it a whole, and the enjoyably lazy process of escaping into a film and not thinking a single intelligent thought for a full two hours.” I think that in a way Roger Ebert was the first film critic who managed to truly combine all those three traits into his reviewing style. He somehow never talked down to you even though you could tell he was probably working on a deeper level than any of us.

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    • Aww, thanks, Nick! There’s nothing like being inspired by others and getting to write about it!

      I would agree — he really is such a skilled writer who balances all the necessary elements and tones in his writing. I think his life experience, and perhaps his choice to use his attempt at living a full life, not so much aimed pointedly at one career, that really enabled him to be able to write and talk with a deeper knowledge on such a variety of topics.

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  4. Wonderful post, Kristin. It’s a bit sad that film criticism is dying but it’s a fact. The vast majority of people aren’t interested in anything than superficial discussion of whether a movie is worth their time or not (often summarized by a score/grade/thumbs up…).

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    • Thanks, Castor! I feel like film criticism isn’t necessarily dying–perhaps the skill of “criticism” itself is, but I think as more and more people critique online, the quality is a bit lessened. It’s definitely more superficial today! Good point.

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  5. Such a good read. Thanks Kristin.

    I love Ebert he never holds back with his reviews, plus he is a proper dude.

    When it comes to criticism, I try my hardest to stay away from personal feelings, although it is hard, and try and stick to whether it actually works as a film.

    Thanks for sharing.

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    • Thanks, Scott! And welcome to the site!! Yes, I love that he always goes all in when he writes. You know you’re getting his honest opinion when he reviews.

      That’s definitely a good way to go about reviewing. My beef is that I feel like if you stay away from your personal feelings, what scale do you base a film off of? One that you come up with yourself–in which case, wouldn’t that be making it based off personal thoughts/analysis? Just a thought and question.

      You bet! Thanks for stopping by. Will definitely check out your site!

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  6. I don’t think film criticism is dying, or criticism generally. What’s happening now I think is that more people are doing it and that means since more people are doing *it* chances are that a significant amount of them might not be doing it in the way that’s best (specious term, but I can’t think of a better adjective). The internet allows for literally everyone to have a voice, and sometimes the louder voices are the more discordant ones (also, the internet allows us to be able to view the mass available and we might be unlucky to see the ones which annoy us more often).

    Most of what I put into actual film criticism is from school and literary criticism, and the nature of the beast is such that if you’re not putting your personal take on the art you’re presented with then it’s not quite criticism (at least, I don’t think). But, the line is often difficult to draw – where does random opinion end and true criticism start. I suspect the line is where you use facets of the art itself to back up your opinion.

    And, not to get too finicky, but I think that to some extent the reason “criticism” is not as popular, though, is “critics” themselves (excuse the quotations). There’s been a trend in the end-all more than the prose, and true longer criticism isn’t necessarily better criticism but to some extent I worry that fellow writers aren’t as willing to read through potentially lengthy prose.’

    Apologies for THAT lengthy comment, your article is a thinking piece and it gets the brain moving. Sometimes I worry that it might come off too maladroit to talk about reviewing, but sometimes it’s essential.

    Long story short, good, thought-provoking piece.

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    • Wow, great thoughts, Andrew. Never apologize for a lengthy response — I thoroughly enjoy reading other people’s thoughts and having discussion. So keep it coming! 🙂

      That’s a really excellent point you make — it really does tend to be the discordant voices that are the loudest. And if not the loudest, they still gain the most attention, because most people enjoy argument/drama/fighting than agreeableness.

      Well, it sounds like you’re qualified, and probably more than a lot of us, given your experience with literary criticism. Your line — “where does random opinion end and true criticism start?” — great question! Also, I tend to wonder if “facets of the art itself to back up your opinion” almost becomes circular reasoning. There’s a formula to practically everything, but does it make something “good” because it follows the formula and “bad” if it diverts from it? Another question to think about.

      You’re absolutely right, people today — writers, bloggers, the whole bunch — no one’s interested in reading through lengthy prose anymore, whether it’s better or worse than the average critique. People are always in a “go, go, go” mode, and if not that, look at the current generation coming up — no one has an attention span anymore. If you look at how slowly films moved from the 60s and 70s and compare them to the high tech, action-packed, entertaining state of popular movies today, the difference is incredible!

      Glad this gave you an opportunity to ponder some interesting ideas, Andrew. Thanks for your thoughts — I enjoyed reading them!

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    • Glad to hear it, Keith, and glad to have you back! Actually, when Ebert paired up with Roeper, I actually tended to side with Roeper more often than Ebert. But you’re right – Ebert has given an incredible contribution to film through the TV show and his writing. Thanks!

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  7. Excellent post. I have to admit, I’m a bit ignorant to Ebert. I’ve not heard of him until this post of yours.

    It’s not just film that suffers from the thumbs up/down mentality that people seem to want these days. It’s everything from film, TV, tech, holidays. We’ve turned into a society that doesn’t seem to have time for anything more than the conclusion. Like reading the last page of a book. It’s a big shame really.

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    • Thanks, Jaina! Well, he’s Chicago-based and you live in London, so you definitely have a good excuse 🙂

      Really good point you make – people really care only to rush through things nowadays. It’s too bad, because there’s a lot of good writing and shows out there, but a lot of people don’t want to dedicate their “precious time” to it.

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    • Ryan, this is TOTALLY way late in saying, but THANK YOU so much for the link love and shout out. I really appreciate it and I’m so happy to be back to blogging. Also, I finally got around to listening to your Prometheus podcast. Will say more on your site! Cheers!!

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