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After Roger Ebert: the world of film criticism

Professor Charlie Keil on the evolving role of the critic

Roger Ebert's star in Hollywood's Walk of Fame (photo by Steve Rhodes courtesy of Flickr)

When Roger Ebert died April 4, the film criticism community lost one of its most popular voices. Ebert was so well-known that his death was covered prominently on the front pages of newspapers as well as on television and social media channels.

But of the thousands of film critics around the world, why Ebert? And, more broadly, what’s the point of film criticism in the first place?

Professor Charlie Keil, director of the University of Toronto’s Cinema Studies Institute, provides some perspective on the role of the film critic – and how social media may be changing that role.  

Roger Ebert had a very high profile for his film criticism. What’s your take on his popularity?

Roger Ebert, if not unique among film critics, is distinctive, in part because of the prolific nature of his output. No one reviewed films at a more steady and rapid rate than he did. Within the confines of the kind of criticism that he was engaging in, it was of a fairly high quality. And I say that because he was working in a journalistic context, as opposed to the more expansive formats reviewers enjoy in magazines such as The New Yorker. The newspaper review is most likely to find the broadest audience as well, so Ebert was certainly the best-known print-based film critic of his generation. If you were to ask people to name a film critic, he’d be the one most likely to be named. But that is also because of the platform he enjoyed for many years on television. That syndicated program helped to launch him to another level of fame as a critic.

Beyond that, a lot of Ebert’s popularity had to do with the fact that he exhibited a true love of the medium. He was a devotee of cinema and acted as its advocate. His cinephilia manifested itself in ways other than just criticism. He regularly attended TIFF, for example, and he embraced film as a viewer. He also had his own film festival, Ebertfest, that gave people a second look at certain films that he championed.

What is the role of the film critic?

When you’re reading criticism in, say, a daily newspaper, you probably treat the review as a kind of consumer guide. In this way, film critics are viewed not so differently from restaurant critics: you want to know that you’re spending your money wisely and look to an expert for guidance. For that reason it’s essential that the critic has established a reliable set of aesthetic criteria so that you will find that you can understand the conclusion they’ve arrived at, even if you don’t always agree with them.

Some films just come with good buzz, such as the awards-worthy films that cluster near the end of the year. Oftentimes, those films have already been at film festivals and had advance screenings, and there’s usually some kind of critical consensus that builds either toward or away from them. All the year-end critics’ awards function as a kind of coronation, a way for critics to say, “We’re telling you what we think is worthy of special recognition.”

But with other films, you have no sense of how they’ll fare. And then once the critics weigh in, your interest might wane if those reviews are middling. That phenomenon is interesting, because if you’re given the opportunity to see something at an advance screening and you have no sense of its critical reception, there is a kind of enthusiasm fuelled by anticipation, because you don’t know what to expect; it hasn’t been framed for you by critics. So critics can definitely influence our moviegoing choices.

To some degree, then, critics are the advance guard for us. They tell us what they think and we can decide if we want to agree with that opinion or not.

Some critics develop a reputation. Pauline Kael, critic for The New Yorker from 1968 to 1991, was often seen as negative while her successor, Anthony Lane, seems to be viewed as more positive.

Kael was extremely influential on film criticism. Another of her successors, David Denby, is often identified as one of many “Kaelites.” To some degree, she was the Roger Ebert of her day. If anyone knew a critic, it was Kael whom they knew. And she didn’t have the kind of broad platform that Ebert did. She wasn’t on television, for example. She refused to whittle down her writing to the digestible journalistic format that Ebert was working within.

People are quite divided on Kael, but she developed a voice and she was passionate about her opinions. She often said she would only watch a film once, as she wanted to trust her immediate reactions. She was, in a way, a pop writer. And by that I don’t mean that she engaged in low cultural writing; instead, I mean that there was an energy and stylistic idiosyncracy to her writing, which when it first appeared seemed quite novel in the context of general film criticism.

Do you think film critics have an influence over whether a film will make money at the box office or not?

I think they wish they did. The more reasoned answer is that they probably don’t have as much influence as they used to. But I don’t think they ever really had any influence over films that are critic-proof. By that I mean films people are inclined to go to no matter what critics say—all those franchise films, or certain star vehicles. But there are other films where critics do make a difference and where they can help to propel a film to a greater level of acceptance.

Can you give us some examples?

Let’s look at three very different films from this past year.

First, Les Miserables. It had a mixed critical response, but enough of it was positive that the promotional campaign could enlist those critics to convince the public that it was not a botched adaptation. Critics were invoked to promote it as a film with “serious” claims to your attention. It turned out to be sizeable hit in part because the studio could trumpet it as critically acclaimed. There is usually only one big-budgeted Broadway musical adaptation released each year, so some key critical support is essential.

Moving down the budgetary chain, let’s take Silver Linings Playbook.

A film like this is very dependent on critics, because there is always a strong chance that it could suffer from possible generic confusion amongst viewers. You can imagine someone saying, “There’s a rom-com every week, how do I know that this one is distinctive?” And you would know to go to this one because the critics have said it is not your average romantic comedy. This is a different situation than one had with Les Miz, which already stands out by virtue of its unique generic status. With Silver Linings Playbook, there had to be a critical consensus. And it’s important that a film like Silver Linings Playbook would have previously played at film festivals to give it some bona fides beyond what’s being said at the moment.

Then you go down another level to a fairly ‘small’ film such as Amour. This is the kind of film where you need a strong critical push for it to get the kind of recognition it would need from audiences to become more than just a blip. Unfortunately, only a few art-house films a year are going to get a considerable amount of attention. So this is where critics can really serve a function. I don’t mean that critics should become shills for films, but if they really feel strongly that a film is worthwhile and there is an opportunity for a film to move beyond a very small audience, then critics will mobilize to see that it happens.

Social media tools such as blogs and Twitter enable anyone to put an opinion ‘out there.’ Will this influence film criticism?

It already has. Over the past decade we’ve seen many panels on the “death of film criticism,” motivated by noticeable disruptions in the traditional world of film criticism. There had been a lot of people who had been fixtures as critics at the same places for years, who were considered to be reliable and strong critical voices, and who lost their positions or whose publications folded. There was worry that because the landscape of traditional print journalism – newspapers and magazines – was being shaken to the foundations by technological changes, that arts criticism would be too.

Fueling that was the advent of technology that created seemingly unlimited access to a plethora of criticism–all you had to do was set up a blog and offer your opinion. Some people were worried that standards would erode, and one wouldn’t know which critics to turn to. Reputable publications build reader trust through offering quality, or so the argument goes. But the internet is the Wild West of publication.

I think this is an inevitable and to some degree unfortunate byproduct of the so-called ‘democratization of the web.’  Because just about anybody can package his or her opinion as a blog you have to invoke caveat emptor –“let the buyer beware.”  I think there are reasonable critical sites out there and there are some that aren’t so good.  But that’s was also the case in print journalism.

One benefit of the Internet is instant access to a wide range of sites:  traditional critics such as Glenn Kenny (formerly of Premiere, at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com/) or Dave Kehr (http://www.davekehr.com/) but also academic writers, the most influential of which is probably David Bordwell, (who, with his collaborator, the equally esteemed scholar Kristin Thompson, combines film criticism with analysis and history on http://www.davidbordwell.net/), and U of T alum Michelle Orange, whose essays-cum-criticism are archived on her site www.michelleorange.com.

So it’s certainly not the end of informed film criticism, but perhaps there has been a certain flattening of the terrain.  It’s harder for those critical voices that maybe do deserve a privileged platform to be heard. One can see the benefits, because it enables people who never had an opportunity to publish criticism to have more access to a broader readership, but it’s still the case that there are probably too many critical voices out there and it’s hard for us to navigate the noise.

And we should probably concede that the changed critical landscape means that we will never see the likes of a Pauline Kael or a Roger Ebert again.