Will There Be Another Roger Ebert? No. Thoughts on Today’s Cinephiles and Critics

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My Problem with So Many of Today's Cinephiles and Critics
A scene from Blade Runner
Photo: Warner Bros.

Yes, this article may appear random, but over at Variety, Bob Verini posted an article back in early September I only came to read this weekend headlined “Roger Ebert: The Last Critic Who Mattered?” In his opening ‘graph Verini seems to describe what it means to have “mattered” in one sentence, writing, “No other critic ever possessed the international platform of his TV gigs, his visibility or his celebrity.”

In this sense it seems “mattered” is matched with “popularity” and this isn’t to discount Ebert’s effect, I’ve long believed Ebert actually “mattered” because not only was he great at articulating his opinion he’d been around for such a long time and seen so many films during their first run. For him to compare a movie from the late ’60s to one released in 2011 made more sense than it did/does for anyone else. It’s one thing to have experienced a film first hand and quite another to see it and respond to it years after its release, with years of opinion, adulation and even pushback creating a mystique around nearly each and every film. This is an issue myself and anyone else that writes about film faces today.

I can only imagine reading Roger Ebert‘s take on Blue is the Warmest Color had he been alive to experience it. What effect might his opinion have on this year’s Oscar race considering he would be one of the (if not only) professional critics still alive that was working back when Midnight Cowboy became the only X-rated film to ever win Best Picture (read his review here). His importance, in this sense, is one of several reasons he’ll forever be missed.

This considered, inside Verini’s article there was a quote from Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum that stuck out for me when he said, “[T]he cinephiles I meet in their 20s and 30s… know far more about film than I possibly could have at their age.” The word “know” really means something to me here. I know Midnight Cowboy is the only X-rated film to ever win Best Picture, but I can’t speak with much passion as to how much that actually means because I didn’t experience it first hand. I can only tell you how others that lived through it interpret it today.

I feel I’m seeing this every day. Online writers, film fanatics, critics and cinephiles come across as knowing so much about the medium and love to tell us how much the know. However, I can’t help but read so much of what these people know and yet feel I never end up actually reading what they think. I always feel like I’m getting a history lesson from someone regurgitating the opinions of others rather than their opinion. It’s like it’s a competition to be the most knowledgable one in the room rather than to engage a readership.

Almost six years ago I saw Blade Runner for the first time and wrote a piece on my experience, admitting to not particularly enjoying it. Years of build-up and hype had turned the film into something mythic. There was no chance it could be what I expected. I watched and left the theater extremely let down.

Since writing that piece I’ve grown to love the film, but I found my appreciation on my own terms, not through accepting it as a classic and trying to like it, but simply by watching it again and with a different frame of mind rather than through the lens of history and it being the classic so many deem it to be.

Photo: MGM Home Entertainment

In those terms, almost a year later I wrote an opinion piece on Mike NicholsThe Graduate, a film I didn’t particularly enjoy for very specific reasons and was blasted in the comments, one of which I find particularly fascinating:

My absolute favorite movie of all time. I can’t believe someone who reviews movies for a living could show such little appreciation for a classic. I think you need to watch it again and take your head out of the entertainment standards for the 21st century. Think of what this movie would be if it were made today for the first time. It would be entirely different, and (in my opinion) probably in a bad way. Definitely a great movie, without question. Rethink your opinion, please, because it doesn’t sound like you’ve put enough thought into it and your only trying to start an angry debate.

Pushing aside the silly, misinformed “entertainment standards for the 21st century” bit, I find this comment interesting because of the suggestion I should show “appreciation for a classic” and “rethink my opinion” because how dare I not share the opinion of others and to do so is to only try and start an “angry debate”.

Many claim I simply wasn’t looking at the film properly and maybe I was hasty or perhaps even harsh in my opinion, but it was how I felt at the time. Should I stay mum until (or only if) my opinion is the same as the masses?

Some commenters were convinced I wasn’t interpreting it through the eyes of those that lived in the ’60s. Considering I was born in ’77 this makes sense. As one of the more reasonable commenters on the piece wrote, “To know that the movie once spoke strongly to a generation is to understand how deep the generation gap ran during that extraordinary time in the late 1960s.” Interestingly enough, the film once spoke to Ebert, who gave it a five star review in 1967. However, he revisited it 30 years later only to give it a three star review, and it would appear his thoughts on Dustin Hoffman‘s Benjamin were more in line with mine upon my first viewing. Is his opinion wrong now?

Is it not possible to change your opinion or should everything only be considered through the lens of those that came before us? Should movies not be interpreted as we see them or should we read the opinions of others, consider a film a classic first and our opinion second? It’s one thing to respect and understand an opinion and a completely different thing to have an opinion of your own, how else will a readership learn to trust you?

Over the last several years I’ve continually watched what are considered classic films, but I have not written much about them. In fact, it’s what spawned my Sunday morning articles, “What I Watched, What You Watched“. My goal was to learn from that experience with Blade Runner and many other so-called “classics” and only write about them in depth when I had an opinion I felt was “interesting”, or the film spoke to me in a personal way or perhaps my thoughts were against the popular opinion. Because what good is it to just regurgitate what has been said over the years without bringing anything new to the table? Oh, so you think Citizen Kane is great do yah? Well, get in line, plenty have already used up the hyperbole quota on that one.

It seems the only way today’s cinephiles believe you’ll be taken seriously is to repeat what has been said before, or pretend we actually lived through the early film era and experienced these things first hand. Saying, “Here’s this thing that’s considered great, look how great it is,” tells me nothing.

Will there ever be another Roger Ebert? No, there won’t be. Film is experienced based on your worldview, limited or not. It’s “Choose Your Own Adventure” and your opinion will be shaped by the path you choose to travel. You can’t go back in time and relive the classics as they were once interpreted. History has already been written. But that doesn’t mean your opinion has to match historical text. It’s why it’s considered an opinion, there is no fact in this game.

The great thing about today’s film criticism is everyone has a unique perspective and we’re tapped in and connected to that through an online medium, allowing us to share those perspectives.

I don’t need someone to tell me why Blade Runner or The Graduate were considered great or are now considered classics, history has already established their place. I would be interested in reading why someone might consider otherwise as long as they have reason, but I’m also just as interested in reading about movies I’ve never heard of that may have been overlooked. A sense of history in film is great (let us all praise houses like Criterion, Kino and Masters of Cinema for keeping film history alive), but I’ll never understand why so many of today’s so-called cinephiles seem to define themselves by their wealth of film knowledge and define their opinions on said knowledge as opposed to authentic feelings and emotion. I’m sure many will say, “But I do feel that way!” Well, then I’m not talking about you, or maybe that’s not reflected in your writing and no, I’m not going to name names or point any fingers.

Yes, understanding film history is great and a valuable tool for any critic or film fan to have, but beyond that I’m much more interested in reading new opinions and interpretations on a more personal level than just more people telling me how classic films are classics… because they’re classics.