Roger Ebert's honest, and dishonest, criticism

In response to Proof We Can Reach Anyone:

I would like to be counted among those who respected Roger Ebert’s achievements, Lisa – and, of course, mourn his passing on a human level, with heartfelt condolences to his family and friends.  Neither compassion nor professional appreciation should ever be contingent upon political agreement.

Ebert was an excellent writer, with a wonderfully relaxed, conversational style.  His best movie reviews captured the feeling of watching the film, conveying an accurate sense of how different audiences might enjoy the picture, or fail to find much enjoyment.  He was very good at understanding there were different types of audience, which was somewhat revolutionary thinking in his younger days.  

Reading his reviews was like sitting down for coffee with a film-fanatic friend after the show.  The new generation of amateur and semi-pro online film critics – who often got into the game because they were tired of high-toned professional critics dismissing good films out of genre snobbery – should view Ebert as their godfather, and he was generally supportive of their efforts.

Watching Siskel and Ebert in their glory days on TV made me wonder what the true purpose of film or literary criticism was, and I came to think there were several valid objectives.  At the most elementary level, people tend to read film critics to decide whether or not they want to go see a particular movie, which is an increasingly important decision in this age of soaring ticket prices, concession stand pocket-picking (itself a consequence of Hollywood greed, because theater owners need that concession money to turn a profit) and lavish IMAX 3-D extras.  I thought Ebert had a pretty good batting average at conveying whether a particular film was worth my while, even if it was something I thought I might enjoy more than he did, or vice versa.

For example, the most unpleasant waste of my hard-earned box office money in recent memory was “The Master.”  It got rave reviews from many critics, but watching it was like getting waterboarded, without the interrogator ever bothering to ask any questions.  Ebert was more generous than I would have been with his 2.5-star rating, but here’s how his review begins:

Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” is fabulously well-acted and crafted, but when I reach for it, my hand closes on air. It has rich material and isn’t clear what it thinks about it. It has two performances of Oscar caliber, but do they connect? Its title character is transparently inspired by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, but it sidesteps any firm vision of the cult religion itself — or what it grew into.

That sums the experience up beautifully.  I wish I’d had a chance to consult Ebert before deciding to see it.  I would often look up his reviews after seeing a film, just to compare notes, and even if our opinions sharply diverged, it was usually enjoyable to read his thoughts.  I don’t know that any critic could ask for higher praise, because that’s one of the other important purposes of criticism.  It can be more than a buyer’s guide to movie tickets.  It can enhance the experience by helping us process a film after the credits have rolled, and it can provide valuable education for aspiring storytellers.

Ebert wrote some bad reviews too, and they suffer from the same problem that weakened his political eruptions: dishonesty.  Sometimes he seemed to decide he liked or hated a particular film on a whim, or for external reasons that didn’t seem related to anything up on the screen.  His ability to empathize with different audiences – his often remarkable knack for allowing that others might find entertainment or intellectual stimulation more readily than he could – would desert him at such times.  In his later years, he seemed more likely to celebrate or castigate films based on whether he approved of their ideological content.  

That’s a pity, because it interfered with the exercise of his remarkable analytic and literary gifts.  But I’m willing to cut Ebert some slack, because art produces visceral reactions, and it can be difficult for even the most accomplished reviewer to find quality surrounding a message he cannot accept.  Call it the “Triumph of the Will” test: is that legendary artifact of Nazi propaganda, which was also a groundbreaking work of cinematic art, a “good movie” or not?  You could milk a graduate thesis out of whether that even qualifies as a “yes or no” question.

A challenge to anyone who hasn’t read Ebert’s criticism: the bulk of it is available online.  Look up his reviews of a few films you love, plus a few you didn’t like.  Even if you disagree with where he come down on both the good and bad films, you’re likely to end up appreciating the good ones more, and better understanding why the movies you disliked didn’t work for you.  That’s the mark of great criticism.  Rest in peace, Mr. Ebert.