In praise of controversy

When Roger Ebert died a couple weeks ago, movie fans around the world mourned. Most eulogies ranged from respectful overviews of his life and work to moving testimonials extolling his prose and insight. I may have been remiss in not commenting immediately on his passing, since his absence does indeed leave a large void in the profession of film criticism, but what I’ll miss most about Ebert has somewhat to do with his accomplishments, and somewhat to do with the particular role he played in pop culture. These two things are related, but not the same. Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while know that when I’ve mentioned Ebert, it has not always been in a flattering way. Don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say: I did appreciate his work, and he was a skilled critic. What we’ve lost, however, isn’t a good film critic but rather the only film critic in America (possibly the world) who mattered to the moviegoing public.

Lots of people read reviews. They visit Rotten Tomatoes or perhaps they follow their local paper’s resident critic; maybe there’s a blogger they particularly like, or maybe they just have that one Facebook friend who reliably gives the lowdown on everything s/he’s seen recently. There are still dozens — hundreds — of critics of Ebert’s caliber out there, and there are several that I frankly enjoy more than him. The thing about Ebert is that he came along at exactly the right moment in our culture to carve out a specific kind of persona. For a variety of reasons, not all of them having to do with his actual prose or personality, Ebert became the archetype of the Critic we all imagine when we think of those sitting in a darkened theater with pen and paper a week or two days before the release of a movie, ready to praise or savage it for their public. For the most part, Ebert was perceived as a benevolent sage, as opposed to an Addison de Witt, and this was an image he earned. However, his unique status as America’s preeminent film critic enabled him to attract a great deal of attention whenever he espoused views that weren’t always enlightened or ingratiating with the majority of his readership. Being the only film critic in the world who mattered to Joe Public meant that he was also virtually the only film critic in the world who could generate controversy simply by stating his opinion. (Sorry, Armond. Only haters and intrigued contrarians like me care what you think.)

Thinking back over the last twenty years or so, it’s difficult to think of many mainstream critics who have done anything that drew attention to the substance of their opinions by created anything resembling a controversy. Even if Ebert wasn’t the one to create the controversy, he usually benefitted from it. I recall when David Lynch’s Lost Highway came out, advertisements ran in the newspapers bragging that Siskel and Ebert had given it two thumbs down, which prompted a conversation about the relevance of critics and the way they resonated with various audiences. A popular YouTube video shows the pair debating with John Simon the merits of Return of the Jedi; the fact that this video is making the rounds thirty years after it was broadcast indicates that there’s a certain amount of stock in the fact that critics came to verbal blows over what is now a touchstone film in popular entertainment. Not just any critics; Siskel and Ebert.

There were similar mini-controversies from just the last decade. Remember the kerfuffle over Ebert’s four-star review of Knowing, which prompted not one but two further blog posts defending his opinion? Then there was the incident in which he reviewed a movie without having watched the entire thing, being forced to walk back his scathing review later. How about his not-entirely-unfair tweet about “Jackass” Ryan Dunn’s death? And, of course, there was his dismissal of video games as art. The point isn’t that Ebert was right or wrong in any of this stuff. The point is that when anybody but Ebert says or does stuff like this, the only people who care are probably hardcore cinephiles who thrive on manufacturing topics for debate. But when Ebert says it, it reaches a larger circumference of the public sphere. At least, it did. Now that Ebert is gone, there is nobody who occupies that particular place in American culture.

Much as I often lament the level of vitriol that passes for discourse these days, there is something to be said for having someone who stirs the pot productively — a provocateur who can bring attention to issues and generate actual debate, as opposed to name-calling and fiery denunciations of a truly Puritanical order. Public debate needs controversy to a certain extent. Not a culture war, per se, but issues framed in such a way as to amply demonstrate to the average citizen that s/he has a stake in whichever direction the issue is taken. Ebert did that for the movies. He knew that movies mattered, and he devoted his life to illustrating that as clearly as he was able. In that endeavor, I think his legacy was of success. But the degree to which that legacy remains immediate and relevant to the further evolution of motion pictures within our culture is anything but set in stone. With Ebert around, we always had a focal point around which to orient the larger discussion. With him gone, that responsibility falls to all of us with a vested interest in the subject, but none of us has the cachet he did. It is now incumbent upon the cineastes and cinephiles of the world to uphold Ebert’s legacy. As discourse wanes, so does the memory of his life’s work; let his death be commemorated by the continuing conversation. ☕

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About tardishobbit

Reads. Writes. Watches movies. Occasionally stirs from chair. Holds an advanced degree in heuristic indolence. View all posts by tardishobbit

4 responses to “In praise of controversy

  • Kevin M. Pearson

    Couldn’t agree more. For me, Ebert lacked a real ideology in taking stands over movies and debating major points in a film’s aesthetics. He was a popcorn movie critic who wanted to still be able to say he respected challenging films without really giving challenging opinions on them. I think a lot of everyday critics fear getting snubbed from studio pressers so will compromise and write positive reviews. Ebert was afraid of going beyond the ledger of newspaper popularity so compromised bigger ideas even if he had the artistic room to do so.

    When Ebert became more of a mainstay at his website, I hoped it would help his criticism. Some of his blog posts were a little better in lending him room to get more detailed, but it was always still dry opinion that was not honed in greater ideas. Considering Ebert didn’t begin writing reviews until the late 1960s, he came at a point in time when he could say the great generation of critics with Sarris, Kael, Macdonald, and Kauffmann were influential to him, but he was still writing for a different time period since he didn’t find establishment until the 70s and when he found a Pulitzer in 1975 and later television.

    What I appreciated most was his public persona and willingness to more approach things with an air of kindness and ability to laugh at oneself. Didn’t always prevail but he had a better knack of consistently letting it shine through than other critics.

    • mjschneider

      My impression is that, for Ebert, being an enthusiast was a key part of his ideology. He certainly wasn’t as overtly committed to a certain school or stance of criticism as the writers you mention, but as you said, he was mostly writing for newspaper audiences. That said, I think he strove to write a bit above the newspaper grade on a consistent basis, even though it’s not easy to pinpoint a particular set of “bigger ideas” in the larger political sense with Ebert (unless you count his outright political tweets and blog posts, which were usually the worst things he wrote), a big part is appeal probably was as you say: that air of populism. But that was his big idea: that movies mattered to everyone, even if not everyone knows why. It seems that you’re saying he failed to bridge that gap, but at least he let people know that there was a gap to be bridged.

      I appreciate the comment, Kevin!

  • Dan Heaton

    You bring up a lot of great points about Ebert. Because he occupied a central place in our mainstream culture’s idea of a “film critic”, it actually drew more attention when he was involved in controversies. It’s easy for film enthusiasts to believe that conflicts in this insular world do extend to the regular movie going public, but that’s rarely the case. Ebert was the exception and found a way to translate writing about movies into both a commercial and intellectual pursuit. It’s definitely moving towards the latter segment now and becoming more of a niche activity once again.

    I agree that Ebert wasn’t unique in his writing abilities, but he bridged the gap so well and found a way to connect with movies personally. I feel like he was too lenient on movies in his later years, but I loved the fact that he was still writing so much after his major health issues. He’ll definitely be missed.

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