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?