You may not have realized it, but Roger Ebert and his wife tried this past year to revive an “At the Movies” style two-critic television film review program. It was apparently pretty well-received, but it turns out they were funding it themselves. Now they can’t afford to do that anymore, and they’re looking for a way to keep it alive.
I love Ebert. He’s going to be the last real film critic* left standing, I think (and I’m sorry to say I expect that to come to pass in my lifetime, just as I don’t expect Ebert to last too many more years either). But I have some serious reservations here.
First off, as I noted elsewhere, I’m surprised that this arrangement ever happened in the first place. Ebert can be naive about business, I gather, but his wife is not, and it startles me that she would ever agree to a financing arrangement that looks like it was pretty much guaranteed to be a loss for them no matter what. Very strange.
Second, and more germanely, I’m really not convinced that any televised film review show has a niche/purpose in the world anymore. I’m sure it’s a good show. Did you watch it? I didn’t either. Do you get your film reviews from television anymore (if you get them at all)? Nor do I.
It’s worth noting at this point that a significant number of the comments on the article linked above distill, with varying degrees of force, to “Roger, why the hell aren’t you doing this online where the audience is and avoiding dealing with all those idiotic, expensive TV folk?” I agree with these comments. Ebert has been remarkably bright about establishing a web presence for a man his age - you usually don’t find someone of that generation understanding the importance of the web nearly as well. To go back to television seems like a deliberate reversion to me; the atavism surprises me. Ebert is much given to nostalgia these days; maybe this is his way of trying to recapture some of his past? If so, I forgive him. But I’m not convinced it’s an idea worth saving.
More to the point, film criticism as a whole is a dying genre. I agree with the commenter who said
Roger. I love you. But film criticism is dead. You’re fighting a losing battle.
It’s nothing personal. It’s just business.
The corporate owned studios, combined with the shallow geekification of the culture, have destroyed the art. It’s all marketing & recycling now. If you don’t live in one of four American cities, you may go years without seeing a truly great new film.
Yes, moviegoing still exists. But nobody goes into a multiplex these days expecting something great. Just a quick escape. A reason to get out of the house.
That’s why the conversation in the past decade has changed from criticism to weekend box office reports.
Focus on your online reviews. Let go of the past.
Ebert already has the loyal audience he needs to continue until his death, to be the last of his breed standing. He should stick with that and not try a doomed crusade to revive film criticism. It’s a lost cause, in my opinion.
And now it’s time for that asterisk.
* I think there are plenty of people writing intelligent and interesting film reviews, if you can find them among the noise in a genre that is increasingly “oh, anyone can write a film review” crowdsourced. I have a good friend who writes intelligently and entertainingly about films. She has friends who write intelligently and entertainingly about films. I have been known to write intelligently and entertainingly about films myself.
But the film critic who actually writes analysis of the genre - who is interested in the study and the history of film, who wants to fit films into the context of what has gone before and what will be next - that’s a very hard sell these days. Ebert survives by not dipping his toe any further into that pool than he believes his audience will tolerate, and by being a good writer. That’s a hard line to walk - the line between “bring deep ideas” and “don’t discourage your readers” - and it gets harder to walk every day as the audience gets shallower. And Pauline Kael, who will never be equalled at walking that line, is dead and forgotten.
Film analysis is now an academic discipline, practiced by wonks who write in a format which is not especially entertaining and unsuitable for the public, especially a public which - collectively - has less sense of or interest in the history of anything than any generation that has come before them. We live in the world of NOW now, and what the public wants from a film critic is not analysis but just whether they should waste their money.
And since increasingly everything from Hollywood is a waste of money, and films not from Hollywood don’t get marketed, distributed, or seen (at least not in theatres), the more general question of whether even the shallowest of film reviewers will continue to have value in the future remains an open one.