All Thumbs: Roger Ebert and the Decline of Film Criticism

By

I hate Roger Ebert. This may not be the most tactful time to say so, what with his genuinely brave fight against cancer, his inspiring display of spirit and endurance, and the endless adulation all this has encouraged in the press (most notably this moving piece by Chris Jones in the March 2010 issue of Esquire, reverently entitled “The Essential Man”). But I’m highly skeptical of revisionism, and the fact is that Ebert has always been more durable than insightful as a critic, and more prolific than eloquent as a writer. More to the point, Ebert represents most of what’s wrong with American film criticism, and I won’t pretend otherwise, no matter how much of his face they have to remove or how many adorable cookbooks he writes.

At one end of the spectrum, there are critics who approach movies as art — works to be studied, analyzed, debated and (most importantly) enjoyed, but ultimately to be judged the only way they can be: subjectively, with meanings and values unique to each individual viewer. These kinds of critics are easy to identify because they’re so few: Anthony Lane in the New Yorker, Stanley Kauffman in the New Republic, apparently the entire staff of Sight and Sound, and a debatable handful of others.

Ebert is, at heart, the other kind of critic, the kind that sees movies as products, like cell phones or refrigerators or spatulas. These critics consider it their responsibility not to inspire debate or thought, not to use their cinematic expertise to give the reader insight. Rather, they want to judge a film’s fitness for purchase, recommend that a moviegoer either should or should not spend his or her money on the product. These critics are easy to spot. Every newspaper has at least one. They use a lot of puns when they dislike a film. They usually employ a grading system — a letter grade if they want to seem really nuanced, a ten-star scale if they want to make only a passing nod to intelligence, four stars if they’re especially simple-minded. They’re the Rex Reeds, the Leonard Maltins, the (why, God, why?) Gene Shalits. But this end of the critical spectrum is owned by the man who more or less created it: Roger Ebert.

It may not be fair to blame Ebert completely for the dumbing down of American film criticism, but there’s really no better choice. Ebert gained national fame, of course, as one half of the iconic “Siskel and Ebert” tandem. His show with Gene Siskel (and a rotating lineup of critics following Siskel’s 1999 death from complications from surgery to treat a brain tumor) was first called Opening Soon at a Theater Near You, then Sneak Previews, then At the Movies, and over the years by various other names. It also station- and network-hopped, beginning on Chicago PBS affiliate WTTW and later becoming nationally syndicated, but always keeping its guiding light burning: the simplified, binary system of judgment that told the viewer, in plain terms, whether a given film was good or bad. Each film they reviewed was briefly discussed, its merits and faults tallied up along the lines of verisimilitude, emotional impact, and production values, and a final judgment was rendered: thumbs up or thumbs down. If you’re really interested in film analysis, the Siskel and Ebert approach, adopted by most mainstream critics, is about as interesting as a Consumer Reports dot chart.

The first incarnation of the show premiered in 1975, and it shares its birth year with another watershed event in American film history: the release of Jaws. Fairly or not, Jaws is often cited as the film that launched the age of the modern Hollywood blockbuster. Most of this has to do with the way in which the film was released and promoted, but its significance was greater than that: it marked the beginning of the end of New Hollywood, that golden, bizarre, wondrous period in Hollywood history when the artists actually ran the place and American film produced some its richest and most challenging works. Because no matter how much Jaws owes to its promotional innovations, it would never have succeeded to such a degree if it had been, say, Raging Bull or The Conversation. (From BoxOfficeMojo.com: lifetime gross of Raging Bull: about $23M; lifetime gross of Jaws: around $470M.) In other words, Jaws was a smash hit largely because eschewed the core principles of New Hollywood: challenging subject matter, a personal approach, a willingness to embrace the unhappy ending, the unlikable protagonist, the ambiguous meaning. New Hollywood films were still made after Jaws, of course; Raging Bull itself came along a full five years later, in 1980. But Raging Bull pretty much marked the end of the maverick period. By 1982, Heaven’s Gate had destroyed both Michael Cimino and United Artists, Francis Ford Coppola had destroyed himself with One From the Heart, Dennis Hopper was nearing the bottom of his seemingly bottomless personal and professional plunge, and E. T. the Extra Terrestrial topped the box office with $359.2M on its initial run. As it happens, 1982 was the same year that Siskel and Ebert walked away from their increasingly popular and now-syndicated show over a contract dispute with WTTW, leaving the backwater of the Chicago station and relaunching the show with mainstream media titan Tribune Entertainment. When it came to movies, commercialism and mass consumption were the business, and business was good.

***

I couldn’t help but think of Ebert and his ilk recently when watching Paul Verhoeven’s generally despised 2000 sci-fi thriller Hollow Man. In the likely case you’ve forgotten about, or never even noticed the film, it’s another take on H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man. In this version, Dr. Sebastion Caine (Kevin Bacon) is the brilliant scientist, leading a military-funded team in their research to discover the means to make people invisible. He succeeds on a gorilla, and it isn’t long, of course, before he makes himself the first human test subject, goes mad with power, and tries to kill everyone who wants to stop him, including Linda McKay (Elisabeth Shue), his assistant and former girlfriend, Matthew Kensington (Josh Brolin), another team member and McKay’s current lover, and damn near every other character.

Let’s be clear: Hollow Man is not a good film. Ebert and Richard Roeper, reviewing it on At the Movies, gave it the dreaded two thumbs down. They both complained that it wasted its intriguing premise and excellent visual effects by reverting to slasher film predictability, and Ebert mocked it for being, I kid you not, unrealistic. Roeper, meanwhile, condescendingly called it a “B-movie.”

“It’s just a B-movie.” This is a put-down commonly used by pop movie critics, and it reveals most of what you need to know about them. After all, the same could be said not only of every movie Verhoeven has ever made, but of some of the greatest films in Hollywood history. Gun Crazy was a B-movie. Scarlet Street was a B-movie. Johnny Guitar, Psycho, Touch of Evil — all B-movies. The other thing those movies all have in common is that they’re brilliant, complex and thrillingly unique. The term B-movie relates more to a film’s budget and cast than anything else, and by criticizing a film because it’s a B-movie there’s a nonsensical implication that big budgets and all-star casts somehow guarantee quality. We can all think of several hundred contradictions to this idea without breaking a sweat. B-movies are often interesting and even great because the stakes are so low. Free from the scrutiny and micromagement that often comes with large budgets, the makers of B-movies sometimes create great things, because their movies can afford to be daring.

Back to Hollow Man: I have to agree with all Ebert’s and Roeper’s criticisms of the movie, and of course I’m not suggesting that critics ought not to have opinions; reviews would be pretty dull without a point of view. But what we lose with critics like Ebert is the opportunity to appreciate bad art, or found art, or more importantly, art that actually tries something, but simply fails. To put it another way, by beginning with the basic assumption that there’s a universal standard of quality in films, we lose the opportunity to discover surprising, rewarding, unique and even life-changing films — films that may not pass the thumb test, but hold small pleasures and significant moments of clarity, meaning and insight. We lose, for example, the dark undercurrents in Hollow Man, the question of whether people behave well because they’re moral creatures or simply because they don’t want to face the consequences of indulging their ids (“it’s amazing what you can do when you don’t have to look at yourself in the mirror,” Caine says at one point). We lose its beguiling examination of the male gaze, its idea that what cannot be seen has no meaning. None of these ideas are brought to any conclusion, which is why I would call the film a failure. But there’s value and pleasure to be found in what the film tries to do.

There will always be critics like Ebert, of course, because there will always be moviegoers for whom movies really are like cell phones or refrigerators or spatulas. These moviegoers just want to know, should they choose to see a certain movie, if they’ll be entertained. My mother-in-law is such a person. Assigned to watch Taxi Driver for a movie group she belongs to, she seemed flabbergasted that the movie even exists. What purpose could there be in making such a thing? she seemed wonder. Fair enough. If you don’t like to be uncomfortable at the movies, there are some movies you simply shouldn’t see.

It could be, too, that I overestimate what I think of as the Golden Age of American film criticism, the early-1960s-to-late-1970s — it’s no coincidence that this coincides roughly with the New Hollywood era — when people like Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris led what I (probably romantically) imagine as a sort of national conversation about film. Their work was as challenging as the films themselves, rich and informed and intellectually alive. Ebert has outlasted them all, and seems like one of those figures who gains respect not because he’s the most talented or accomplished, but by virtue of having stuck around the longest, like LL Cool J or Lou Piniella. There’s a lot to be said for longevity. And lest you think Ebert might use his position to elevate the collective critical approach, you should know that he recently announced his intentions to relaunch his movie reviewing show early next year on WTTW, now to be called Roger Ebert Presents At the Movies and hosted by Christy Lemire and the increasingly Ebertian Elvis Mitchell. What will the show be like? Ebert, who’s co-producing it with his wife, will of course retain the Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down format (which his blog says is copyright; of course it’s copyrighted), which all but ensures that it won’t be able to tell you much about the movies it reviews, besides whether they’re good or bad. Which, all in all, seems like about the least important thing to know.


Larry Fahey is a writer living in Boston with his wife and two kids. Johnny Depp gives him hives. If you’re so inclined, follow him on Twitter. More from this author →