CATEGORIES Hot Topic, Columns
EbertArmond White, the controversial film critic for the New York Press, is back in the news. Not for trashing another popular movie like 'Toy Story 3,' but for trashing the best-known and perhaps most popular critic in the business, Roger Ebert.

White told reporters for the movie website SlashFilm that through the thumbs-up/thumbs-down edicts that Ebert and the late Gene Siskel expressed on their syndicated TV show, that "It is fair to say that Roger Ebert destroyed film criticism."

White also said that when Ebert became a critic for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967 he didn't have the knowledge or foundation for that job. "I'm a pedigreed film critic," White said. "I've studied it. I know it. Ebert just simply happened to have the job ... He does not have the foundation." EbertArmond White, the controversial film critic for the New York Press, is back in the news. Not for trashing another popular movie like 'Toy Story 3,' but for trashing the best-known and perhaps most popular critic in the business, Roger Ebert.

White told reporters for the movie website SlashFilm that through the thumbs-up/thumbs-down edicts that Ebert and the late Gene Siskel expressed on their syndicated TV show, that "It is fair to say that Roger Ebert destroyed film criticism."

White also said that when Ebert became a critic for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967 he didn't have the knowledge or foundation for that job. "I'm a pedigreed film critic," White said. "I've studied it. I know it. Ebert just simply happened to have the job ... He does not have the foundation."

Given their relative readerships and reputations, we could dismiss White's comment as a gnat biting an elephant on the ass, just as we should dismiss as a cheap shot, Ebert's description of White as an Internet "troll." But let's not dismiss the volleys; let's use them as an opportunity to discuss the two schools of film criticism. No one represents elitism better than White, and no one represents populism better than Ebert.

The critics may quibble over those labels, but for this discussion, an elitist is a critic who believes his primary responsibility is to educate readers so they may better understand the film medium while a populist, using his knowledge and tastes, sets out to explain his responses to films. One assumes the voice of authority, the other assumes the voice of a confidant.

WhiteWhite is a classic, unapologetic elitist and one of the few to ever work for a general interest or mainstream publication. For good reason: As White's editors are being constantly reminded, the inherent insult to readers' intelligence by White's approach is risky business. His haughty, theoretical approach is the stuff of academia and film journals.

On the other extreme, there couldn't be a greater symbol of populism than a thumb being aimed up or down in judgment. If all popular criticism followed that example, White would be right in saying that Ebert destroyed film criticism. A simple up or down vote on any subjective issue obliterates all nuance, which is the essence of criticism.

But that thumb was a gimmick for a syndicated TV show, and I don't think many people who watched Siskel and Ebert depended on the compass headings of their thumbs in deciding which movies to see. I would argue -- and I did argue during their show's halcyon days -- that Siskel and Ebert imparted more critical thought into the brief time they had on the show than one would have thought possible. Their uniqueness has been proved by the failure of every other critic team that has tried to duplicate their formula.

White's major bone of contention is that the rabbit-quick proliferation of amateur critics on the Internet, something Ebert has praised and encouraged, has created a critical white noise so loud it drowns out the voices of the professionals still grinding out thoughtful analysis at newspapers and magazines. Roger has more time than God if he's actually reading much of that stuff, but it's not his fault it's out there.

As I said in an earlier post, I know and like Armond, and his contrary views are useful in that they make you defend your own opinion. What really distances him from the great majority of both critics and movie fans is a purist sentiment that is utterly naive. He and I were discussing Baz Luhrmann's 'Moulin Rouge' on a film panel when it came out in 2001 and he said it was ruined by the casting of non-musical actors Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, and that they should have used unknowns who could sing and dance.

Moulin Rouge"A studio is not going to invest $100 million in a musical with no stars," I said.

"They should," he responded.

So, Armond is a critic in a world of cinema that does not exist, except in the margins of independent and avant garde film; and Ebert is a critic for all seasons. Who're you going to call?

Whenever I've been asked to discuss the tools of criticism, I've gone to the analogy of the three-legged stool. One leg is knowledge, one is taste and the third is the skill to combine and communicate the first two to an audience. Armond, who has a Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University, does have knowledge, that formal foundation he rests his reputation on, and he is a compelling, if antagonistic writer. But his tastes? How shall we say, unfathomable?

Contrary to White's most outrageous criticism of Ebert, Roger has stores of knowledge and a fluid, conversational writing style that has the effect on readers of received wisdom. His flaw, in the eyes of other critics, is his admitted inclination to review popular -- i.e., formulaic -- Hollywood movies for their intended audiences. That may be helpful for those eager consumers of multiplex pap, but it necessitates compromise, and compromise erodes credibility.

Nonetheless, Ebert's reputation is as untouchable as that of fellow Chicagoan Elliot Ness; and in attacking him personally, White has started a fight that he cannot win. The only question is whether Ebert will take the bait or -- like that elephant being assaulted by a gnat -- even feel the bite.