On the 4th April 2013, Roger Ebert died. Ebert was known to me through the pairings of ‘Siskel & Ebert’, and later ‘Ebert & Roeper’. Ebert through these pairings and as I understand, in his later blog work engaged in the noble art of criticism for the medium of film.
Critics are great. We sometimes love them, sometimes we hate their judgments. It’s a bit lazy to say as many people do, that Critics are ‘those that can’t do, so criticise’. There’s an interview in the late 80s with Dave Mustaine from Megadeth panning the critics of his time, saying how they must feel very small to judge music that they are unable to perform. Often I can understand this audacity. I am sympathetic to the audacity of criticising people’s work in a way that takes such little effort when the work we critique involved so much.
Critics have an important role. When they are wrong, they can be really wrong, and their judgments are immortalised in print. But then again, they can also be the basis of informed dispute. An example of a controversial critical appraisal in music is the infamous description of Rachmaninov in an earlier description of the Grove’s musical dictionary that the Russian composer’s work is monotonous and that the success he has enjoyed is unlikely to last. When I first heard about this anecdote, I laughed and thought this kind of criticism is the most unfair thing I’ve ever heard (at the time I was a massive Rachmaninov fan). In my later maturity my interest in Rachmaninov has simmered, just this week I was listening to a recording of the Second Piano concerto (performed by Helene Grimaud) and I thought to myself: I feel sick of this overly emotional tripe!
There is a time for Rachmaninov’s luxurious Chromaticism and the slow waking hours of the day are not it. I was also convinced that Rachmaninov’s Romantic leanings well into the 20thC are actually quite conservative, musically speaking. At a time when there were bold composers like Berg and Stravinski’s Rite of Spring, many of Rachmaninov’s works seem like an echo of a stylistic and historic yesteryear that is no longer relevant.
Sometimes critics do a very important thing and take a step back. In the medium of film, there are many aspects of the physical watching of film that make it fully immersive: in the cinema it is dark and everyone sits on church like pews, their booklets replaced by popcorn and overpriced soft drinks. The screen is the centre of attention and there is something deeply submissive and obedient about staring at a darkened screen and given a world that you are forced to accept, with characters in an ontology and a tacit acceptance of the moral order that it depicts. Films can give us our values, sometimes in ways we would not realise they do. Critics take a step back and call out if these values are unconvincing or if they are things we should reject. On the other hand, the ability to delve into morally and ontologically different worlds is something that is a dimension of making a film engaging, by enacting the faculty of imagination. Again, this is an object of criticism.
One thing that I found interesting is how some commentators have pointed out the gender dimensions within Ebert’s film reviews. Whether we like a film or not can be immaterial to the critical distance in which we engage with the material. I often quite like film reviewers. Currently I follow a lot of Mark Kermode and Richard Roeper’s reviews. One thing that Kermode does is address bigger cultural and industry themes to express his cynicism about films. Film critics often have a rationale for their judgment of a film, and it is this which is sometimes more interesting than the film itself to me. Sometimes it is a rationale that is informed and insightful, and even if I disagree with the conclusion, it is something that I feel rationally obliged to take seriously. I think this is the case for anyone who I might find prima facie disagreeable but may be otherwise insightful.
Perhaps it is disagreement that I find the most interesting thing about a critic. When Siskel and Ebert looked at films, they were quite open about the points of disagreement they had between each other. They may have overall agreement about each other’s conclusions about whether a film was good or bad, enjoyable or dull; but the way in which they reasoned about it, highlighting different aspects of the film, is interesting.
To close, I thought we’d go through some of the reviews of films we love on Noumenal Realm, and see how Ebert considered them.
Demolition Man (interestingly, a film they liked that most people panned)
Rocky IV (Roeper’s disagreement with Siskel is notable)