Something about the word critic makes people cringe. Maybe it’s the sound. It begins with what is described as the ‘hard’ version of c, and is quickly fixed with ‘r’, and my mother has always maintained that ‘r’ is a harsh sound. Then it encounters that terrible ‘t’, that sound of throwing a stone on a iron, before the hard ‘c’ completes the cacophony. Even ‘cacophony’ sounds better than ‘critic’.
After being tarnished by phonetics, the word is then slandered by semantics. The meaning of ‘critic’ is erroneously but inevitably associated with that most hateful of words- criticism. Sociology then takes this beleaguered word and hangs it out to dry; for throughout history, what’s been popular has been usually hated by the intellectuals. The critic’s job is a guide to culture, clearly an important task best left to the ‘intellectuals’. The poor critic chooses what elevates him spiritually, what moves him emotionally and what stimulates him intellectually, and thereby he spurns the unoriginal and the immediately gratifying, looking for something creative and profound. The problem is that a man who’s had to struggle throughout his life doesn’t want a mystical epiphany after doing back-breaking physical labour, he just wants to zone out. The accountant choking on numbers all day doesn’t want to analyze and deduce, he’s just looking for some amusement. Immediate gratification is exactly what he wants.
This gulf between the critics and the masses widened in the twentieth century with new technologies increasing the spread of culture. The critics lamented the decline of society’s intelligence, while the masses simply shrugged them off as pretentious snobs, whose opinions where only valued by other pretentious snobs.
At least they had other intellectuals by their side, you might think. Well, not quite. We all know how artists dismiss critics as failed artists. That’s the unfortunate paradox of a critic’s life- no man likes to be criticized, but the critics have to criticize, and thus are always parodied and vilified by artists. And when you’re talking about the fight between a poverty stricken artist, putting his sweat, blood and heart into his creations, and critics, the bespectacled, college-educated man sitting in a suit and casually consuming something the artist struggled to put together, well, you know who’s going to get all the love.
When Roger Ebert wrote his first review, this is the baggage that he picked up. He pioneered no theory like Andre Bazin or Wittgenstein. And yet, hundreds of people attended his funeral on this day two years ago, not to mention the numerous online and offline tributes paid to him. There’s even a statue that has been erected in Illinois.
How, Roger, how, how did you accomplish all this, despite having chosen that most hated of professions?
The answer is simple: Roger Ebert reviewed for what he felt its value would be to its prospective audience. The remarkable quality of this man was his ability to appreciate films as diverse as the avante garde Tree Of Life, to the extremely intricate Cloud Atlas, from the clichéd but entertaining Salt to the animated comedy Rango. Roger Ebert had almost as many shoes as there are men in the world, and he walked a mile in them before sitting down to watch the movie. In his own words:
“When you ask a friend if Hellboy is any good, you’re not asking if it’s any good compared to Mystic River, you’re asking if it’s any good compared to The Punisher. And my answer would be, on a scale of one to four, if Superman is four, then Hellboy is three and The Punisher is two. In the same way, if American Beauty gets four stars, then The United States of Leland clocks in at about two.“
This is not to say that his criticism was faultless. It wasn’t as cerebral as that of, say Manny Farber, and on the other hand several horror enthusiasts accused him of being elitist for the dismissal of movies such as the Friday the 13th Sequel’s Roger called them ‘dead teenager movies’, films which he felt consisted of nothing more than groups of teenagers being killed off with the exception of one survivor to populate a sequel. He also felt that video games weren’t art like films or literature because “the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. However, he did have the grace to, while maintaining his position, concede that he should not have expressed this skepticism without being more familiar with the actual experience of playing them.
Through this remarkable empathy, Roger Ebert brought film criticism to the masses, particularly through the series of popular review shows on television he hosted on television with his partner Gene Siskel, that spawned a host of other similar television shows world-wide. This might be his greatest contribution to his profession- bringing the critic to the living room, and later, to your computer screen.
So now, if you introduce yourself as a critic in a party and people don’t wrinkle their nose in response, you know who you have to thank.