Roger Ebert has a lot to celebrate when he turns 70 on June 18. Despite the horrible ailments of the last decade that have taken away his ability to eat, drink, or speak, he's still America's leading movie critic, a distinction he's held for more than 30 years. (Of course, he shared the honor for much of that time with his TV frenemy Gene Siskel, until the latter's death in 1999.) An avid adapter to social media, he's used the Internet to make his reviews more widely read than ever. (You can read some of his most memorable critiques in the gallery at the bottom.)
But what does it mean, at a time when film criticism as a profession is all but dead, to be the top critic? And what role has Ebert's own career played in making criticism what it is today? By bringing criticism to TV, did he (however inadvertently) dumb it down to the point where it became disposable? Or did he, through his own personal example and high standards, manage to keep film criticism alive for another generation?
Ebert is unique among film reviewers, both for what he is and for what he isn't. Unlike others in his profession, he actually has a scholarly background; he can analyze a movie frame-by-frame and teach others how to do the same. He curates his own film festival, making sure people get to see unsung movies instead of merely championing them on the page. He's also made a movie, having written the screenplay for Russ Meyer's "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls"; that means he can write from experience, but it also means he's no film snob.
However, he is not the leader of a school of critical thought, like the writers who shaped criticism when he was coming of age (Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael, Manny Farber, etc.). Ebert simply likes what he likes, and doesn't like what he doesn't like. Not only does he analyze each movie on its own terms (he doesn't just reflexively praise indie movies or condemn expensive blockbusters, but determines whether each film does what it sets out to do), he also analyzes each movie on its own audience's terms (he knows a horror movie isn't necessarily going to please Woody Allen fans, and vice versa). In short, he's a great consumer-oriented critic. No wonder he was the first movie reviewer to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism -- though, of course, he won it for reviewing.
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.
What Siskel and Ebert did was to reduce reviewing down to its essence: Should you pay to see this movie, yes or no? Thumbs up or thumbs down? Remarkably, they also found time, in many of their brief reviews, to throw in some critical context -- about where the film fit in terms of genre, film history, the director or star's career -- along with what in the movie worked and didn't work. The show packed a surprising amount of worthwhile information about each film into its format before rendering Roger's and Gene's summary judgments at the end of the episode.
For a generation of movie lovers, the show offered a broad education, exposing viewers to independent and foreign films they might not otherwise have heard about (or whose reviews they might have passed over in a newspaper) alongside mainstream Hollywood releases. Moreover, the duo's sometimes passionate debates taught would-be critics how to argue about films with intelligence and civility.
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.
It's easy to pin the demise of film criticism on the Internet, which has made it possible for anyone to be a critic, making opinion plentiful and cheap to the point of worthlessness. But the trend was in place long before the user reviews pages at IMDb went up. Moviegoers had already decided that reviewers and critics (not that they made a distinction) were elitist snobs who hated anything populist or mainstream. (This was the opposite of the truth, since many reviewers had no more credentials than the average moviegoer, and many reflexively shilled for popcorn movies while ignoring art-house fare altogether.) If they trusted professional opinionators at all, it was only in the aggregate, with the average score on Rotten Tomatoes replacing the old Ebert-style thumb rating. (Of course, the Rotten Tomatoes score is an accurate gauge of consensus opinion only if there's a broad sample of reviewers to number-crunch. If all the critics lose their jobs -- well, you can't divide by zero.) These sentiments, plus pressure from advertisers (that is, the studios, who don't like negative reviews, or who've dropped newspaper advertising altogether, forcing movie review pages to fold) has led editors to lay off movie reviewers by the dozens over the past few years.
The only critic who seems immune is Ebert, who's an institution. He's been a selling point for Chicago Sun-Times subscribers for 45 years, and you can assume that he'll get to keep his job for as long as he wants it. You may not be able to blame Ebert for the current dire situation wrought by his inferior imitators and others who learned the wrong lessons from his show -- he surely never intended to cause the avalanche that wiped out his profession -- but he and Siskel are the ones who started the snowball rolling. And even Ebert has suffered from the collapse of criticism, in that he is no longer as influential as he once was. His thumb will never again have the Roman imperial power that it could wield 30 years ago to make or break a movie.
Not that I think Ebert ever wanted that kind of power or influence over the fate of individual movies. Like all critics, he wanted to influence cinema as a whole. He's done that, not just by spending a lifetime championing good work and discouraging bad work, but also by advocating for or against other aspects of filmmaking and film distribution. He's long been ardent about the failures of the current movie ratings system (he's called for an adult rating that protects the viability of grown-up but non-pornographic movies, something that the R and NC-17 ratings have failed to do), presentation issues (decrying, for example, how overly dim many screenings are because theater owners think they'll save money on projector bulbs if they don't run them at full intensity), and 3D (he thinks it's more a liability than an asset). Plus, there's his educational outreach, in his lectures, seminars, and Ebertfest programming, all of which help cultivate a populace of informed moviegoers -- not so that they'll see movies the way he does, but so that they'll approach them with critical and independent minds the way he does.
Most of all, there's his blogging and tweeting. It's a bitter paradox that the man who first gave criticism an audible voice should lose his own, but now that typing is the only way he can express himself, he's been on fire as a writer. Ebert was always a solid writer, one whose reviews gave him space to discuss in detail what he could only hint at on TV, but his prose was spare and direct; now it's both more emotional and more elegant. He's also been freed up to write with cool, rational eloquence about other topics, like politics, creationism, and his own horrific health woes. If he's no longer the most powerful thumb in showbiz, he's still happy to be king of the film bloggers.
And film blogging, he suggests, will keep film criticism alive. Despite the attrition rate of professional reviewers, Ebert has written that we live in "a golden age for film criticism." Sure, the Internet has flooded the zone with cheap and uninformed opinion, but it has also given voice to inspired and fiercely knowledgeable amateurs. Plus, it's enabled us to read -- and interact with -- those smart film lovers, even if they live halfway around the world, and to see cinema from all sorts of perspectives, not just the fairly homogenous one that has comprised American film criticism for decades. Ebert hasn't just read these voices, he's curated them and enlisted them as his "far-flung correspondents."
No one, including Ebert, can predict what film criticism will look like in 20 years (or even in two years), but he's surely correct in recognizing that it'll be shaped primarily by the Internet. He's also optimistic and brave in trying to play a role in shaping it by setting an example of informed discourse and by elevating the most resonant voices that engage with his. Most of all, he's wise to recognize that criticism, from now on, won't be a single Olympian voice -- or thumb -- but an ongoing conversation.
'Gone With the Wind'
"'<a href="http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19980621/REVIEWS08/401010323/1023" target="_hplink">Gone With the Wind'' presents a sentimental view of the Civil War</a>, in which the ``Old South'' takes the place of Camelot and the war was fought not so much to defeat the Confederacy and free the slaves as to give Miss Scarlett O'Hara her comeuppance."
"<a href="http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19770101/REVIEWS/701010315/1023" target="_hplink">The journey from one end of the galaxy to another is out of countless thousands of space operas</a>. The hardware is from "Flash Gordon" out of "2001: A Space Odyssey," the chivalry is from Robin Hood, the heroes are from Westerns and the villains are a cross between Nazis and sorcerers."
"<a href="http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19720101/REVIEWS/201010312/1023" target="_hplink">Coppola has found a style and a visual look for all this material</a> so "The Godfather" becomes something of a rarity: a really good movie squeezed from a bestseller."
"For the kids in the audience, <a href="http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19951122/REVIEWS/50208001/1023" target="_hplink">a movie like this will work because it tells a fun story</a>, contains a lot of humor, and is exciting to watch. Older viewers may be even more absorbed, because "Toy Story," the first feature made entirely by computer, achieves a three-dimensional reality and freedom of movement that is liberating and new. The more you know about how the movie was made, the more you respect it."
"After seeing "Platoon," <a href="http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19861230/REVIEWS/612300301/1023" target="_hplink">I fell to wondering why Stone was able to make such an effective movie without falling into the trap Truffaut spoke about</a> -- how he made the movie riveting without making it exhilarating. Here's how I think he did it. He abandoned the choreography that is standard in almost all war movies. He abandoned any attempt to make it clear where the various forces were in relation to each other, so that we never know where "our" side stands and where "they" are."
'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'
"<a href="http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19750101/REVIEWS/501010348" target="_hplink">That sort of observation, when it's allowed to happen, is what's best about "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."</a> We meet a classic outsider -- R.P. McMurphy, a quintessentially sane convict sent to the institution as a punishment for troublemaking -- whose charisma and gall allow him to break through to a group of patients who've mostly fallen into a drugged lethargy."
'2001: A Space Odyssey'
"<a href="http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19680412/REVIEWS/804120301/1023" target="_hplink">There is hardly any character development in the plot, then, as a result little suspense</a>. What remains fascinating is the fanatic care with which Kubrick has built his machines and achieved his special effects. There is not a single moment, in this long film, when the audience can see through the props. The stars look like stars and outer space is bold and bleak."
'E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial'
"<a href="http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?aid=/20020322/reviews/203220304/1023" target="_hplink">This movie made my heart glad</a>. It is filled with innocence, hope, and good cheer. It is also wickedly funny and exciting as hell."
"<a href="http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19800101/REVIEWS/1010328" target="_hplink">Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull" is a movie about brute force</a>, anger, and grief. It is also, like several of Scorsese's other movies, about a man's inability to understand a woman except in terms of the only two roles he knows how to assign her: virgin or whore."