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Roger Ebert: The Last Critic Who Mattered?

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 Hollywood.com 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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