Anticipating Harry Knowles
I've mocked Roger Ebert more than my share on this blog. He's got serious deficiencies as a critic (as recently as Avatar it was clear he didn't understand basic plot points) and is worse as a political analyst. But I still like him. He became the richest, most successful film critic around, but he did it out of love. Even after years of pain and problems, he stills blogs up a storm on cinema.
The piece in Esquire on his life these days, now that part of his jaw is gone and he can't speak, is making a splash. I hear he's appearing today on Oprah, which should be interesting. They knew each other years ago (I heard they dated) and he suggested she syndicate her show.
I was thinking about Roger when I saw, over the weekend, critic Gerald Peary's For The Love Of Movies: The Story Of American Film Criticism. The film took eight years to make, and Ebert appears in it, looking and sounding like the Roger we know and love. Ebert was perhaps the last critic who could make a difference. Film critics have mattered less and less since video took over and then the internet made opinions cheap.
In a way, this is a good thing. I've often thought of doing nothing but criticising professional reviewers on this blog, because it used to bother me that the mere fact their words were in print gave them more weight. I'd often hear (foolish) opinions expressed at parties that I'd read the day before in The New York Times. It's not as if most critics understood films that much better than the fans, they just managed to get paid to write about them.
When Peary started making his film in 2001, he didn't realize the profession may have been in its death throes. Since then, around 60 major critics have lost their jobs--all part of the death of print journalism, I suppose.
The film (which has been playing festivals, and is available online) celebrates a job that didn't exist 110 years ago, and has been through many stages of growth (and shrinkage) since. For those who know a bit about American film criticism, it's mostly a collection of greatest hits, but to most people, who couldn't tell Manny Farber from Bosley Crowther, it may be a revelation. Especially fun, and the central story of the movie, is the battle between Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, which reverberates to this day. The documentary features quite a few top critics (many of whom I've met, some of whom I know personally) talking about their precarious positions.
I saw the film at the 300-seat Billy Wilder Theatre in Westwood. The last film I saw there, a salute to Bruce Conner with a personal appearance by Dennis Hopper, had turn-away business. This feature, which had a panel discussion with seven (!) major film critics (and there were more in the audience) was about half-filled. Even in LA, people won't cross the street to hear a film critic.
Peary spoke first, and talked about the trouble he had making this valentine. (He said he'd locked the film--otherwise I'd have told him that One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest came out in 1975, not 1974.) He came across pretty well, and even with today's troubles, he has a lot of love for bloggers, who keep the flame burning. Some of the other critics weren't so positive, especially Richard Schickel, who was most memorable denouncing almost everything modern, and quite a few old things as well (such as Pauline Kael). He also didn't like the title, since he thought "love" was a bit much. Ella Taylor (who with short hair looks a lot like Pauline Kael, seemed to me) was more positive than Schickel (you'd have to be), but still complained about the state of higher education--back in the 70s, when campuses showed the latest foreign films, there'd be lines around the block, now the kids won't see anything with subtitles.
I tend to think there are as many good films, as many good fans, and as much good writing about film as ever--it's just all harder to find, with the fragmentation of culture. Some of the critics on the panel noted that the most exciting films no longer come from America or even Western Europe--try places like Romania or Iran or Korea. I can understand their nostalgia for the 60s and 70s (these were old critics). That was a time when film, which had always been a popular art, was starting to be taken seriously. It was a time when the critics changed the critical vocabulary. And it was a time when foreign films and then Hollywood films became more challenging. There was actually a hunger for good film criticism, with papers and periodicals looking for new voices. It couldn't last, and I don't think the feelings for that era are just nostalgia.
So if the subject interests you at all, there are worse films to check out. Roger likes it, by the way. But he would.