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Criticwatch - The Only One Worth Watching

by Erik Childress

When Criticwatch was started back in 2001, it came from what I thought then was a profound understanding of what film criticism was. I had been reading it for as many years as the Daily Herald was delivered to my doorstep as a kid. Even more profound was that I had been watching it develop on television thanks to two men from the city of Chicago. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert's sparring every Saturday night at 6:30 led me to what they had written in the Tribune and Sun-Times. Gene's reviews were often short encapsulations. But Roger's were like the director's cut of what he was saying in just a few short minutes. Never did one look at an Ebert review and believe that he phoned it in. And to think how many full-length reviews he would do in a year, it is easy to consider us all slackers in his shadow; something to remember the next time we catch a cold and don't feel like walking over to the keyboard. It was because of Roger Ebert and the prolific writers today who were influenced to become critics due to those very reasons mentioned above that we could sense something was rotten out there. Before you turn away though, this is not just the same old Criticwatch retrospective.

Indeed, I have come not to once again summarily bury those usual suspects, but to make a plea for their understanding in why the path of the instant blurb is not the path best taken for someone calling themselves a film critic. The average film critic, responsible for putting their thoughts about film into words, has their own routine. They get invited to an advance screening, they watch, they think, they write. Somewhere in-between they may be asked by those representatives handling the movie what they thought and if they could share. Some of these requests are ignored. Others are put into very simple terms; either "I liked it," "I didn't," or maybe a sneak peek at a rating; one that may actually change as they read what they have written. Rare is the written-word film critic presenting a pre-written blurb for publication.

Over the years of counting ad quotes at Criticwatch there are two names over that decade-plus that popped up more than any other - Roger Ebert and Peter Travers. Both are longstanding critics at their publications, but each with different deadlines and column space. It is only natural to quote the most recognizable critic in the world, even when the studio could find something remotely positive from him in a negative review. After New Line infamously took something out of context from Roger's 2.5-star review of Little Nicky (which he did call "the best (Adam) Sandler movie to date"), Roger asked them to have it removed because it did not accurately reflect his fully-formed thoughts about the film. Compare that one instance now with what Travers has become, a blurb-first behemoth where every review is a game of find-the-studio-money-quote. "Pixar has outdone itself" was a phrase nowhere to be found in his review of Brave.

"I can't tailor my opinion to make it respectable or fashionable," said Ebert in a 2002 Charlie Rose interview. If ever there were words for a film critic to crochet and frame. About Almost Famous, Roger said "I was almost hugging myself while watching it." And he certainly deserved to, because the wisdom of Lester Bangs (through the pen of Cameron Crowe) in that film should be the starting point for anyone who wishes to join the ranks of professional criticism. Brutal and unmerciful. Though Roger certainly made his share of friends with the rock stars of film - people like Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog among others - but you never felt it was about cozying up with famous people and that his relationships with them would influence his opinion on their works.

Can we say the same thing about the next generation of critics? Twitter has brought us closer than ever to filmmakers and their accessibility at certain festivals. The continuation of junkets and the need to feel accepted in a profession where "anyone can be one" and there are very few giants can lead to a more corruptible environment. Criticwatch has had fun poking at such hyperbolized opinions at odds with the general consensus. Hell, if Armond White can say that "Roger Ebert killed film criticism" and Roger could call him "a troll," why not? This column has always reserved its harshest critiques for those opinions that come at the absence of an actual written review. What good is adding the word "ever" if there were not several paragraphs surrounding it to backup that opinion?

Perspective is the first thing that is lost in the game of junkets and pre-written blurbs. Every new performance is better than the rest of the career. The last James Bond film can't compare to the new one even though it was somehow better than the previous one. When I see Criticwatch targets like Shawn Edwards and Mark S. Allen express their appreciation on Twitter for Roger Ebert it feels a lot like Ray Liotta's crew from The Place Beyond the Pines give a speech praising Frank Serpico. Edwards once boasted that he was as big a name as Roger Ebert simply because his name was seen as often in the newspaper ads and commercials. Take two steps back, Shawn. Now another two. Keep going. Hopefully Allen, Edwards and the lot of the junket regulars will remember who they are mourning so the rest of us don't have to consider what we are mourning.

Like all news cycles, the outpouring of emotion for Ebert's passing will last at least as long until his memorial service which deserves to be Reagan-esque in terms of Chicago memoriams. His legacy will live on as one that needs to register with the future generations of film critics. How many of us were William Miller, sending their reviews in some way to Roger's Lester Bangs; either directly or put out there in the hopes that he might notice we were somehow honoring the legacy of film criticism that so inspired us in the first place? How many William Miller's are still out there that should be directed to archived Siskel & Ebert shows on YouTube and the multitude of reviews and essays that Roger has written over the years? It is with some regret that I never quite developed the kind of personal relationship with Roger that I have had the pleasure of doing with so many great critics in Chicago. Ironically, it wasn't until Roger lost the ability to speak that we found ourselves in many exchanges through e-mail where he went out of his way to complement the criticism of criticism that I was conducted in at the time when the show he spent four decades a part of was no longer his. "Thank you for writing what I could never say," Roger wrote to me. If ever I needed a frame.

After over 1000 reviews written for eFilmCritic, personal and professional priorities have turned me over primarily to the radio and television ends of film criticism. This column is still a staple as well as any coverage I do for film festivals and those published for the past four years as part of Magill's Cinema Annual. On WGN Radio I have the honor of engaging in the same kind of back and forth that Siskel & Ebert established those many years ago. At Columbia College, Chicago's premiere film school (where I attended), twice a year I get to be part of a live film debate for students on a roundtable panel including Andrea Gronvall who produced Siskel & Ebert for many, many years and was responsible for bringing me to the attention of the producers of WCIU-TV's First Business who were looking to revive their "Movies & Money" segment. I have done OK for myself professionally over the years. Any number of colleagues who started around the same time that I did can equally share such a resume and then some. You can bet that all of them would reference Roger Ebert as a direct influence on why that was possible.

Siskel & Ebert made "Two Thumbs Up" fashionable. Their opinions could be whittled down to less than five minutes of discussion. But what we saw was debate, passion and, above all, joy. An expression that amplified by accelerated hyperbole or the need to stamp their love or hate as greater than any of their competition so they could be the loudest and most noticed in the room. It is easy to see how generations and junket fillers can fall into that trap with just seconds to fill on radio and television. After Chicago and the world of film criticism has lost its King, hopefully every friend and enemy of Criticwatch can feel like I do. And I feel like writing.

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originally posted: 04/06/13 02:18:39
last updated: 04/06/13 02:23:54
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