Roger Ebert is probably the most well-known film critic who ever lived. When I told people I wanted to be a film critic, they almost always said, "oh, like Roger Ebert?" Well, yes, I suppose so, I would think. Although he's not the only critic, and he's not even my favorite critic. Although I do read his reviews regularly. And they're always sharp and enjoyable, even when I disagree with them. And yes, there were times when I felt validated by one of his opinions because I wasn't confident enough to have faith in my own. Ebert is probably so well-known because, in addition to writing for The Chicago Sun-Times, he was on television (paired with the late Gene Siskel), which made him and his co-host available to a much wider audience, much more so than if he had been writing at a magazine like The New Yorker or a newspaper like The Los Angeles Times. Ebert was sort of "the people's critic." That's not to say that he was a voice for the uneducated masses, or that he had no taste, but that he wasn't a snob. He was a fairly democratic reviewer. He appreciated trash and he appreciated good movies and he was adamantly offended by bad movies (as am I), whether they were bad trash or bad art.
With the passing of the nation's most well-known film critic, it seemed appropriate to write something about this much-maligned discipline. The quote I opened with seems to be a pretty good example of how lots of people feel about critics. The critics who are conjured up in the imagination by such a quote are pointy-headed snobs looking down on the culture at large, staring at the innocent, well-intentioned artist with looks of stern, hostile judgment, ready to push him down at any moment and then laugh with pompous glee at their own strength of mind and aloofness of observation.
But that's not truly how it is. Of course there are show-boating film critics who spend hours trying to think up one ruthlessly clever line to shred some director or actor or writer with. There are bad critics. But there are good critics too. Like there are bad doctors and good doctors and bad ditch-diggers and good ditch-diggers. You can't lump everyone in with the one obnoxious example. (Or two, or three.) And what's more, we really need to be thankful for the good critics. These are people who love movies. But not just movies: they love good television and theater and books and music and sculpture and dance and every kind of art imaginable...they're art junkies and pop culture junkies and they thrive on the stimulation provided by these media. But moreover, they're people who can make sense of it all. They give us perspective. They deflate the pompous self-importance of a movie like The Help, and show us the difference between bad trash (like The Fast and the Furious) and good trash (like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo).
We're not morons. I get it. (Okay, we're not all morons.) We can decide for ourselves what we like and what we don't like. But for me, reading film criticism has always been liking having a friend who happens to know a lot about something I'm interested in (movies) and being able to talk about this subject (movies) whenever I want. And even when this friend and I disagree, I come away having gained something valuable from engaging with her or him. Because a good critic somehow weaves a personal story into each review. Even when we're not reading any details about the critic's life, we are getting a rich history of that particular critic's taste. And our taste is something that has taken years to form and grow and morph and--although here we should remain resistent--calcify. And how many of us can say our taste developed on its own? (After all, we're not like small business owners, who did everything on their own with no help from anyone whatsoever.)
I will say, it kind of feels like I discovered my first film critics on my own. I was at the public library, and I came across Leonard Maltin's massive video guide, providing capsule reviews of any movie you could think of. This was about 1996, which means I was about ten or eleven years old at the time. I read Maltin's book as though my life depended on it, devouring the reviews like they were drops of water preparing me for a coming film criticism oasis. I became a loyal customer of Maltin's, buying his updated review guide every year for several years. I remember going through the 1600-page volume and meticulously typing out the title of each movie I had seen (along with the year of its release). It's the reason I still remember the year every movie was released. Seriously. Ask me. (Yes, shout-out to all nerds.) Anyway, I think the list had over 1100 titles on it when I was finished, which seemed like not very much, considering Leonard Maltin's book had 16,000. SIXTEEN FREAKING THOUSAND! But I was a kid, and he'd been doing this for like thirty years. How could I compete?
And then I discovered Pauline. Her reviews weren't like Maltin's. They were much longer, and sometimes she talked about things that had nothing to do with the movie at hand. And she often referenced other movies in her reviews, which of course sent me searching for other reviews and other books on those movies. I discovered her book I Lost it at the Movies while I was in high school (once again at the public library). It was her first book of criticism, published in 1965. (All of her books had wonderfully suggestive titles like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and When the Lights Go Down and Taking It All In.) Pauline Kael was something of a legend in the film criticism world. (Yes, there are legends in this world too.) Kael disliked the formal, pretentious tone of most movie reviewers. She determined to write in a more casual, distinctly American style: the way we actually talked about movies as we were walking out of the theater.
Reading Pauline Kael will make you smarter, I'm quite sure. But it might also turn you into a nervous wreck. Like the time I read her review of Ordinary People, a movie that I had connected to very deeply and felt was a shattering, brilliant portrayal of the breakdown of an upper-middle-class Chicago family. The movie stars Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore as the husband and wife, and Timothy Hutton as their troubled teenage son, and it was directed by Robert Redford. I had been so strongly affected by Ordinary People (I remember feeling sort of numb after it was over), and so moved by it the next few times I watched it, that I was utterly shocked to read Pauline Kael's review. She pulled it apart. It wasn't powerful at all, she said. And Mary Tyler Moore, so famous for playing a perky, lovable TV sitcom character, "seemed to be doing penance for giving us a good time." I wanted to protest, but Pauline was gone by then. (She died in 2001 at the age of 82). I had to reason it out for myself: "You can like Ordinary People even if she doesn't. Maybe she's right. Maybe you should dislike that movie too. Of course you should. What an obvious, "important" movie that's actually quite unimportant. You were taken in, and she's trying to keep you from being taken in! What were you thinking liking that in the first place? But, I did like it," I thought. "I really liked it. It seemed very believable, and like a very sad critique of the American dream." And then I thought: "Is there something I got from this that she couldn't have gotten? Perhaps because of our drastic age differences? And our very different upbringings? And, more importantly: Why the hell am I so hung up on this? Seriously, what's the deal?"
Yes, the dangerous side of film criticism is the paralyzing feeling that nobody agrees with you. That you are an idiot and have liked a shitty movie, or that you've overpraised a good movie by calling it brilliant, or that you didn't have the sophistication and brains to appreciate a movie you found insufferable that other, better people liked very much. Yes, this is the inner-battle every critic faces. And perhaps every person who has ever had an opinion about anything and cared what someone else thought about that opinion. It's the way of things: we look up to certain people, because we respect their taste and think they're smart and cool and funny and exciting. So naturally we're afraid for that moment when our tastes separate, as though it were normal for all tastes to converge and remain joined together at all times.
Reading critics has given me a lot: Not just a vast knowledge about movies, but a renewed appreciation for culture and popular culture and the possibilities of art and the merits of trash and the insultingness of bad movies. We're all bound up in this cultural machine. We have to find someone to share our thoughts with, and more importantly, we have to find someone who can open up new windows and explore new passageways and serve as a sort of cultural and narrative tour guide, showing us things we didn't know existed, making us laugh, occasionally leading us astray, sure, but always leaving us richer for the journey.
So, raise a glass for Roger Ebert, and any film critic you've ever enjoyed reading. If you look hard enough, there's a film critic out there for you. Someone will inevitably have similar tastes to yours, at least 50 percent of the time. And when in doubt, just read Pete Hammond, who is probably writing a four-star review of Tyler Perry's Temptation as we speak.