Remembering Roger Ebert, (or the importance of a critic)

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.




That’s just not Cricket: notions of decency and cultural values


Over the past few weeks the BBC has put out a series about the cultural character of the British, presented by Private Eye’s Ian Hislop. One thing that really interested me was how the notion of British Character has a cultural history. Namely, those things that we take for granted such as a commitment to fair play, notions of politeness or sentimentality have a large part of expression and grounding through cultural and historical events. Whether this is say the philosophical work of Locke on the emotions, or the kinds of stories that were spread of Admiral Nelson before his death, our attitudes and moralising do tell us a lot about our time.

Jimmy Saville Moral panic in retrospect

Concurrently in the contemporary news, there is a moral panic about a dead man, namely how the broadcaster, DJ and philanthropist, Jimmy Saville has a variety of allegations, more and more seemingly revealed of his sexual misconduct with minors. The idea of a moral panic is a sociological notion, where a percieved threat is permeated through culture. Very often these percieved threats are more from hearsay or individual stories, rather than wholescale statistical analysis. In other words, there is often a disconnect between our percieved threat and the actual calculated risk.

Perhaps the recent stories on Saville are completely unlike a moral panic in the sense that we are referring to past events that already happened. But as more allegations arise, and the moralistic judgments we have on him come from across the board of the entertainment industry, broadcast media and even politics and healthcare, I think there is something very panic-like about this issue.


There is something exceptionally British about this story. The outcry of the indecency of what happened shows our public standards and intolerance to child abuse, but there is also another dimension: the suggestion that many people heard rumours and a culture of silence about sexual harassment shows a tension between two values: the value of deference, which is something that the British are typically considered to have towards certain authorities; against the cultural value of critique and its importance.

The British media have an international reputation for leaking scandals, (and it seems, covering them up). I consider this to be a value, the value of an individual working in a public department who reveals financially wasteful processes, or corruption. The commitment to fairness and adherence to the rules. Lately it seems to me that there is a tendency to slay sacred cows. This year saw a great deal of scrutiny over the News Corp executives following the evidence of phone hacking. It makes me wonder whether there are fewer things that are immune to criticism in the public sphere.

The other side of criticism: censorship

In wider news there have been a variety of stories about people getting in trouble for Facebook comments, online harassment and twitter abuse. So much so that the definition of ‘trolling’ has a public of being outright offensive, as opposed to being a nuisance. What about activities such as going on a Nickelback Youtube video and saying ‘THIS IS TRUE HEAVY METAL!’ or Black Metal song pages on Youtube arousing the ‘more kvelt than thou’ brigade about some semi-coherent discussion about music and ideology. These are perhaps offensive, if you are say, a Nickelback fan or a Trve black metal afficionado, but hardly criminal.

In the cases where there is a sense of moral indecency about online comments and harassment. such as the horrible case of Amanda Todd, or malicious comments about recent deaths on RIP pages, there seems to be a set of legal precedents towards prosecution in the UK. In the past couple of weeks there has been a lot of attention about the Reddit page ‘Creepshots’ where many defenders have acknowleged that while it may be ‘immoral’ and psychologically indecent to pursue the kind of public voyeurism that is involved; it was seemingly not illegal if they followed certain minimum criteria about photographing people without their consent or awareness.

Moving forward

Criticism seems to have these extremes and a particularly primed response may lead us to being overly sensitive. It is certainly right to blow the whistle on the child abuse that Saville did, and if there is a case at the BBC or any other news media that purposely overlooked his indiscretions then they are accountable. Deference in his case no longer applies to dilute wrongdoing. On the other hand, the case of being overly sensitive about people claiming to be offended as a way of silencing others does not help a conversation. It also is not conducive to discussion to have gratuitous and purposeful attempts at an emotional reaction of say, grief or disgust by trolls that ridicule those who have died, but is that criminal?

It looks like as we navigate through these issues, we will find a new sense of cultural identity, maybe a sense of Britishness or a more internationalised cultural sensibility mediated through online communities.


I think its definately a good thing that there are less institutions and people immune from criticism. But I don’t think the enlightenment values of old accounted for internet trolls.