There's an old expression in the life of a writer that creeps up again and again, keeping rhythm like a metronome through every moment of pause or progress:
Write what you know...
And it's good advice, for the most part, but some things are just hard to write.
If you've read my reviews or taken a moment to glance at any of the past volumes of Cynamatic, then you might have seen hints of it in my writing – images half-captured or thoughts half-formed: fractions of the moments where my passion for film first began. I've tried, on many occasions, to write about the subject, but never seemed to do so with eloquence enough to pay proper homage.
But the subject of this week's column has very personal roots, mainly because to criticize something – or rather, to offer criticism – requires a certain love for the object of critique. And so while it is the aim of this column to examine the modern film-critic, I certainly can't ignore what it means to be a critic in the first place.
We're fortunate enough today to have another, far more experienced voice lending its thoughts to the subject, and so I would like to thank film critic Roger Ebert for taking the time to answer a few of the many questions that have come up in my discussions with MovieWeb readers. And it is, oddly enough, with our guest, that my love of film first began.
I have fond memories, as a child, of my going to the movies each Saturday with my grandfather. Eating candy and sipping soda, talking endlessly before and after about the review that Ebert had run that day and whether we agreed or disagreed with this analysis. Oftentimes, we would concede that Ebert was obviously out of his mind and that the film that he'd just eviscerated was, in fact, a work of genius (or vice versa, in the unfortunate instance). We did this for over a decade, until college took me away to New York, and not a day passes, or a film rolls by across the screen, that I don't think of those times together.
Movies are life lessons, if you look hard enough, and sitting in the dark with my grandfather beside me and a lit-up screen in front, I was fortunate enough to have two excellent teachers. Which is why, after all my studies and all my printed criticism, I've never been more comfortable as when I'm writing a piece for an online venue. Where I am able to say, with little regard for journalistic rules, whatever I feel...and in as many words as it takes to describe the feeling.
As members of the rising class of Internet Critics – unbound by the weight of word-court and other journalistic strictures – we here at MovieWeb represent a new form of criticism, every bit as different as it is similar to the reviews printed weekly in papers across the country, by professional critics far older and vastly more educated than many of us might claim to be.
Many might argue that we're simply not qualified, that we lack perspective and formal training, but what we might lack in PhD's we make up for in passion, and I am proud each time that I see a review that reads as if it had been written with heart. We're a counterweight to the classical critic – fans with a great forum – and are, of course, as subject to failure as they are. Where many of our reviews might often be pretentious and overlong, many of theirs might also be overly rooted in the perspectives of history and theory, losing that sense of passionate wonder or deep-seeded loathing.
So I've gathered a list of questions that seem to come up again and again with readers and fellow colleagues. I've asked Roger to lend his thoughts and, as it's my column, will be foolish enough to offer my own in response. But please keep in mind, as you read this, that Mr. Ebert makes his living watching movies all day, has his own television show, writes his own column and travels to places like Sundance and Cannes. As for me, I do this for free and continue to bust my ass at a 9-5 job that has nothing – and I mean NOTHING – to do with film. So, you know, beat that with a stick.
Sites such as MovieWeb, Aint-It-Cool, Dark Horizons, Coming Attractions, UGO and a host of others are constantly assembling writers who are oftentimes more vociferous fans than classically-trained, highly-educated critics. What are the positives and negatives of this environment? In this current internet generation, where any movie lover with web experience can launch their own film site, what does it mean to be a film critic?
EBERT: There are different voices for different purposes and audiences, and the web broadens the field. Many of the writers you mention do not fit into conventional pre-Web outlets and formats, but have valuable insights and enthusiasms. Yes, some of them are "fans," but remember that Cahiers du Cinema had a policy that you couldn't review a movie unless you loved it.
CYNAMATIC: I agree with Roger 100% that the great benefit of the internet is that it has allowed a new type of voice into the critic's arena, that it has expanded the definition of what one could consider a "review," and has provided a forum for enthusiasts to take their fair turn on the soapbox. The great negative, however, is the complete disregard for journalistic professionalism that oftentimes finds its way into the work of my colleagues. I regularly write in such a way (through length and vocabulary) that any newspaper editor would likely take a machete to both my article and myself if I worked for any major paper. But I always try to stay within the lines of articulate, composed discussion, and while I acknowledge that this is a form of style, I am often put off by the rambling, self-serving, and generally grand-standing nature of several internet critics, who seem to have no respect whatsoever for the form itself. If criticism is poetry, then it should be Shakespeare, not e.e. cummings, not the total accumulation of one's experience while watching a movie while high on absinthe or pot or written in a way to call attention to the writer rather than the film.
Do you think that there is any legitimate place, beyond the internet, for this emerging class of critics? Would you ever feature members of this "generation" on your show or in your newspaper?
EBERT: I had Harry Knowles on the show a couple of times, and liked his enthusiasm. I think the net IS a legitimate place, and with its lack of space constraints, probably the best one for such writers.
CYNAMATIC: I had actually written to Roger while I was a student in college, during the period after Siskel's passing and before Roeper's emergence, urging him to include critics of this generation. His reply was courteous, but, alas, Ebert and Monfette simply weren't meant to be. I was, however, happy to hear when, as Roger mentioned above, Harry Knowles was invited to guest on the program. At that point, it really was a major, "mainstream" acknowledgment of the work that this small community of film-sites had been doing at the time.
For all the education of the classically-trained film critic, at what point does one's response to a film become strictly about taste and preference? Should we believe that the trained opinion of a critic is any more worthwhile than the gut-reaction of a close friend?
EBERT: The friend can tell you if you will like the movie. The critic can give you his best advice about whether you should. A good critic writes in such a way that you can determine whether you will like the movie whether or not he does. I guess it depends on whether you want to remain the kind of moviegoer you are now, or expand a little to the greater possibilities available.
CYNAMATIC: Roger's answer here is note-perfect and it recalls the discussions that my grandfather and I used to have. It was important to us to view a film on its merits and to understand that whether or not we enjoyed the particular qualities of a movie, it was still a film that others might enjoy for themselves. And I've tried, as much as possible, to translate that philosophy to my work here at MovieWeb.
Would you consider criticism an art form? Should a film review bend to the simple strictures of modern journalism, or is there room for intelligent articulation, analysis and length?
EBERT: Of course there should be such room. I'm lucky my paper gives me so much space. An art form? Maybe more arts and crafts...
CYNAMATIC: I'll go the extra step and say that I do think that criticism is an art form – or, rather, can be one when practiced correctly. Generally, I think that the same is true for film, as well. I won't disagree when film is referred to as an art, but my first thought usually gravitates toward the truly abysmal films that I've had the misfortune to see in my lifetime, and it becomes clear that while something might fall within the realm of art, it's not necessarily qualify. But I have read reviews, and tried, in my own way, to emulate them, that have been written with such heart and grace that they do remind me that the praise of art can often be an art form in and of itself.
In today's cinematic society, what is the place of the film critic in the Hollywood publicity machine?
EBERT: He is a source of blurbs.
CYNAMATIC: This is a point of contention for me, because, frankly, how much would I love to be quoted on a film poster, but at the same time the singling out of the single voice that simply makes the loudest noise excludes a lot of quieter, more talented, more pointed writers whose work is far superior. That's just a reality of the business, I suppose, but every time that I see Harry Knowles quoted in an ad campaign, I cringe a little. Because I realize that there are a sizeable number of critics out there who are simply better at what they do. And I'm not saying this out of some misguided MovieWeb loyalty. To be honest, I've always thought that Moriarty over at AICN is a much better critic than Harry – and certainly one of the best on the net – and seeing him quoted on television wouldn't effect me nearly as much. My point, though, is that Roger and his fellow mainstream, print and television critics have, for the most part, earned their status through hard work and education. We haven't. And so when exposure presents itself, it should be about the content, about the writing, not about the connections, the PR or the appearance of the critic.
How do you, personally, approach the work that you do? When you sit down to write a review, what is your main goal?
EBERT: My goal is to express what I think, and especially what I feel, in a way that is appropriate to the material. A review can range from solemn praise to a horselaugh. I also have the theory that a review should be worth reading even if you have no plans to see the movie and even no interest in the movie.
CYNAMATIC: I couldn't answer this any better. And so I won't even try.
Overall, the point here is the internet has undoubtedly lead to the development of a new form of critic and, for better of worse, that critic is slowly gaining an powerful voice over how moviegoers consider their options. As one of that generation, this couldn't make me happier, and despite any preferences I may have toward one particular critic or another, that so many people care enough to share their voice with the larger cinematic community is a touching thing. It's reason to realize that the passion that unites us is worthwhile and, if nothing else, worthy of conversation.
Thanks again for taking the time to read through another edition of Cynamatic. And special thanks to our guest contributor, Roger Ebert, who was generous enough with his time to chime in with his thoughts on the subject. Those of you who haven't already should check out his webpage at the Chicago Sun Times. It's a great resource for information on all of the upcoming films and an excellent place to learn a little about film history from time to time. Those of you who already visit the page should continue to do so.
Until next time...