Roger Ebert: The Last Critic Who Mattered?

Roger Ebert dead

The Web, social media and newspaper cuts have all worked to fragment and kill off serious voices in the mainstream media

This week’s opening night tribute to the Toronto Film Festival’s chief cheerleader, the late Roger Ebert, will beg a key question: Can anyone fill his shoes? No other critic ever possessed the international platform of his TV gigs, his visibility or his celebrity.

To put it another way: Was Roger Ebert the last film critic who mattered?

Chaz Ebert echoes the sentiments of many when her husband passed in April. “His criticism was infused with a history of film; with a history of people, and a life well-lived that gave him background and context…. He loved what he did and how it connected him with the dreams of moviegoers everywhere.”

Bizwatcher Paul Dergarabedian of places him into an historical context. Criticism began as “an esoteric exercise” before the thumbs up-thumbs down Chicago duo “brought film criticism into the mainstream.”

Agrees historian Danny Peary, “They were part of the regular entertainment regimen for people, for the masses….Ebert genuinely loved movies and encouraged people to see them.”
So did many of his peers, of course. The defunct Boston Phoenix’s scribe Gerald Peary created a feature doc celebrating his profession’s “rich history, putting it together with lives and real faces” hoping to “usher in a Renaissance in film criticism. But clearly it failed on all counts.”

The doc, “For the Love of Movies,” sells well on the Internet, even as upwards of 100 critics have been laid off since its 2009 release.

“Film criticism doesn’t have a great sway over the masses of people’s taste,” he mourns. “The object is to put pants in seats, and I regret we film critics aren’t doing anything about that.”
Undisputed once and future locus of opinion is the Internet. Notes Dergarabedian, “The bastion of the elite has become populist. Social media have become the critic. It’s a collective, a co-op.”

Says one filmmaker who wished to remain anonymous, “Twitter and Facebook have replaced (critics). ‘Do my friends like it?’ That’s probably a better indication of whether I’ll like it as well.”
Today’s critical essays are reduced to mere percentages points on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. “It must feel like such an insult to the critics, being reduced to a data point,” says one bizzer. “The Time Magazine guy has the same status as Chucklefuck Film Blog. That must kill him.”

If critics are now unpaid bloggers, print outlets are vanishing and filmmakers don’t give a shit, is there anything of value left? Actually, admiration for serious film writing can be found in unlikely places. Admits one filmmaker, “Great critical writing is a wonderful thing, and when there’s a movie I love or hate, I’ll dive into 10 or 20 reviews for a conversation with them. That fascinates me.”

Jonathan Rosenbaum feels “more part of a community” at his website than in 20 years at the Chicago Reader. “For me, the main function of film criticism is to facilitate and sometimes improve discussions of films….Critics tend to matter more today to filmgoers and readers who know what they’re looking for.”

Monthly visits to his site are a fraction of his print readership, “but these visits have come from over 150 separate countries and have been far more focused and, I think, meaningful and consequential.”

Rosenbaum believes “the cinephiles I meet in their 20s and 30s…know far more about film than I possibly could have at their age.” And if among them is “the next Ebert,” that would please the first one greatly.

“Roger expressed optimism in the democracy of online writing,” Chaz relates, having revamped his own site “to leave more room for other voices….That’s just the way he rolled.”

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  1. Foo Bar says:

    I’m a huge fan of Ebert’s reviews, because he was a first class writer. Siskel once said something to the effect that Ebert was a better writer, but that he (Siskel) was the better reviewer — and he was right. Ebert’s fascination with Herzog particularly was embarrassing, also his glad-handing anything to do with drunks. I cried when he passed on, but because of how entertaining he was, not because he was reliable at critique.

  2. CLM says:

    Considering that Roger Ebert was an objectively awful critic who frequently wrote reviews for movies without watching them, nitpicked over the most asinine details, rated movies solely based off his personal political dogma and was an immense hypocrite (for example, his nonsensical whining about how the vigilante movies of the 70’s were decaying our moral fabric while simultaneously praising the outright glorification of ACTUAL mass murder and terrorism in garbage like The Battle of Algiers and Che), this really doesn’t say much for film critics as a whole.

  3. Norman says:

    Besides his intelligence what set Ebert apart is that he made it obvious that he loved movies. The big mistake that all critics make, and that included Ebert, is that they think their audience is a film class. So, we get references to other movies the directors have made, where this movie fits in the pantheon of movies, why this remake isn’t as good as the orginal, etc. Heck, they haven’t a movie that was made since the 1970’s of the Best 100 Movies Ever. Instead we should get why this movie is worth going to and for what reasons. Did it raise the emotions?

    As for me, I marvel at what can be put on the screen, as to how orginal and creative so much of it is. How 95% of the time I’m mesmerized for two hours by a big fake. Look at the lenghth of the credits at the end and you’ll get an idea as to how hard it is to make a movie.

    I don’t think there is another art form around that can produce so much wonder production after production. Rap music? Modern art (Jeff Coons?)? Classical music, so old it hurts? Opera still does it but its all about 100 years old which attests to the composers’s genius. Movies standout like a beacon to what humans are capable of. The critics should write in this vein and they’d be able to keep their jobs.

  4. I think critics in the mainstream form of media like TV and Newspapers are becoming less important. However critics on the internet are becoming more and more popular. Take example the Nostalgia Critic. His website does help sell many films.

  5. Ruth Deutsch says:

    I think this discussion has somewhat gotten off the question. What made Roger Ebert great is that he was a historian of film and his analysis was sophisticated and intelligent. That you didn’t always agree with him means he was human, and thank goodness we all see things differently. He was great because he had more than one POV to utilize in assessing a film. He was a joy to read and listen to and to hear sparring with a fellow intelligent critic, so that I could determine the pros and cons of each film for myself. His movie review TV shows were top notch and I wish someone would realize that there are perhaps millions of people who would LOVE to see a similar show on TV. Some of us really do like to think.

  6. John says:

    I honestly think we as a culture are moving away from the usefulness of critics for any art form, because the popular cultural message is that no one can tell you that you have “bad” taste. If there are no such things as good and bad taste, then the film critic becomes just one more opinion floating in the ether.

    People used to be able to admit to themselves, “this guy knows vastly more about movies than I do; if he liked this movie and I didn’t, he is probably right and I am probably wrong”. That mindset is hard to find any more. Everyone has too much ego, everyone has become too combative. Very few people genuinely want to increase their knowledge and appreciation of film as an art form. Far more just want to post angry messages about why Pacific Rim is the height of moviemaking.

    Part of that is why (as can be seen from the comments on this very article) any story involving a critic will invariably draw comments of the form “That critic gave X review to movie Y! He is clearly a moron.”

  7. POV says:

    Liking to tallk about stories and your opinion is almost as primal as the urge to tell stories. We’ll allways need critics. Those who agree with my opinion are dear to me, but those who disagree are almost as dear. The stimulation of ideas is like sex, sometimes good, sometimes better but even at its worse, sex has a modicum of fun.

  8. No critic matters. A completely useless and stupid profession.

  9. Ebert isn’t the last one to matter, but he will always be the best.

  10. SmarterThanYou says:

    But… Roger Ebert didn’t matter. His opinions on movies are no more relevant than a schmuck posting a youtube video. If we paid attention to his reviews, we would think Cop and a Half was a good movie.

  11. Sloppy Joe says:

    YouTube film critics are the best. They love movies (unlike many critics), respect movies and the filmmaking process, and are relatable. My critics are PrettyMuchIt, Jeremy Jahns, the Schmoes, John Flickster, and Chris Stuckmann. They know movies better than most critics in my opinion. But I also like Peter Travers (mainly because he also hated The Lorax, like me).

    • Johnny Dexter says:

      Chris Stuckmann is probably the only critic that we can agree on. The rest of them are mostly idiots who have a every limit understanding of film; I equate them to nerds on internet forums that learned to use a camera.

  12. John Dooms says:

    I liked ebert a lot, but I liked siskel better – he was my guy. Once he was gone then ebert became a good substitute, but I also like Peter Travers. His taste is similar to mine and his advice works better than rotten tomatoes, which is basically a method for rating films that are least offensive/boring to the masses of critics, rather one that rates classics for different subgroups. Do I like the Twilight movies? No, but many preteen girls do, so they need a critic that works for them.Travers works for me.

  13. Sawnderz says:

    If there’s one critic I’m happy to get behind, it’s Doug Walker.

  14. SumGuy says:

    Why does this article have unattributed quotes? Why would the filmmaker quoted not give his/her name? Very fishy if you ask me. There is nothing quoted here that would explain why this person wouldn’t let their name be used.

  15. milo says:

    I definitely go to RT to look at the overall numbers more than I rely on individual reviews to decide whether to see a movie. For me a major factor is that I don’t know of any single critics that I agree with consistently enough to rely on. In the past there have been a couple local critics who have been reliable for me, but I don’t think they are reviewing any more. But usually an aggregate gives a good enough idea.

    So for me it comes down to the critic. If you can give me enough faith in your judgement, I would become a consistent reader of your reviews.

  16. Germain says:

    I would not go that far but he certainly is missed as a critic. I sometimes disagreed with his critics but for the most part, I relied on his opinion a lot before spending my hard earned money on a movie.

    Critics are funny, some will use language that a common man will not understand just to make a simple point in an effort to sound……more intelligent maybe or to command respect, I don’t know but they don’t relate to the masses.

    Some will not see a movie for what it is, they over analyse or over think and totally miss the point.

    Some are just compensated for a good review,,,, yeah bribes work everywhere.

    It’s hard to be a critic I’m sure, you see so many movies that you become very hard to impress but you have to remain opened and I think Ebert had that. Critics are like everyone else, some have bad tastes, some have different tastes, some are just plain bad, be your own critic and only read critics on the surface, don’t take them too seriously.

  17. Cyber Mage says:

    There was only one film Ebert was ever wrong about:

    Spider-Man (2002)

    He originally gave it 2 1/2 stars when it should have been rated as a perfect four star movie without question.

    History has proved him wrong and years later we have Spider-Man (2002) to thank for the current superhero film resurgence and renaissance.

  18. Jakub Gronowski says:

    No. I believe that there are still a few great film reviewers left. Obviously the critic circle is contaminated by bloggers and youtube critics. But guys like Mark Kermode still exist. People with real knowledge about cinema and give in depth analysis that is backed up by their pure knowledge. Unlike bloggers and youtube critics who say “It was amazing. Best movie of all time behind Avengers and Matrix”

  19. Emile says:

    I fully agree with the post below me. Ebert has became a franchise. And sometimes a pompous, self-importsnt one who saw himself bigger than the movies he criticised. Yes, he had an entertaining style and a personal voice, which criticism should have, but he could be incredibly biased.
    Two things I’ll never forgive him for: his statement that videogames cannot be art, proven wrong countless times already by games like Heavy Rain etc. What are games but interactive movies these da\ys? He was probably thinking about Pac-Man and Space Invaders. People should never utter statements about things they knew nothing about.
    And his review of a brilliant film called Wolf Creek which he gave 0% because he had moral qualms about it, which were groundless anyway, You critique a film on its technical and acting/directorial merits. Yes, he was mostly a good reviewer, but there are much better, Richard Shickel of Time and Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly come to mind.

  20. lbjack says:

    To me Roger Ebert was a phony. More than once I read Ebert reviews of movies I had watched that made it clear he had not seen them. Doubtless early-on he was legit, but in becoming a celeb, Roger became a franchise, hiring “people” to do the work he signed. Sometimes those people faked their work, and since Roger never saw the movie reviewed under his name, he was never the wiser.

    If by “matter” is meant movie criticism as a discipline, then perhaps the name shouldn’t be Roger Ebert but Pauline Kael. Nobody has mattered since Kael. Even Roger so much as said he was a Kael wannabe.

  21. Ruth Deutsch says:

    Yes, I miss Roger Ebert, but I still appreciate Richard Roeper, Roger’s final “sparring partner” on TV. I haven’t seen his name much in the spotlight lately, but I do occasionally go to his website to read his reviews.

  22. Nelson Torres says:

    Now films are pure commerce. Who cares what anybody thinks anymore. Ebert had a full understanding of Film Theory and incredibly insightful and intelligent. The art in film is dead. It was replaced by pretentiousness and MBA’s.

  23. Frank W says:

    Real good criticism like Siskel and Ebert’s is very lacking today. The one thing you could count on is if one of the two liked it (especially Ebert), then it was a good show. My local critic who is on EW’s weekly list seems to hate everything. At least Ebert seemed to express why he hated it and had the knowledge to back it up. There were times, though, when I was laughing at the first Police Academy movie that I wished a critic would love a just plain stupid but fun movie for the masses.

    I occasionally write about classic films for a Web News Purveyor (their system is such a pain that’s why “occasionally”). Trying to write constructive criticism of the modern presentation of old movie classics and trying to relay why it’s important to see them in theaters is actually quite hard, especially for the time it takes to be thoughtful about the whys. Hat’s off to the Cinemark chain for running a monthly program of film classics, even though it’s probably the same master that created the Blu-Ray like with TCM/Fathom’s Casablanca presentation last year. But seeing The French Connection in all of it’s big screen grittiness (and graininess) was a real treat.

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