The Depredations of Roger Ebert

Armond White of the New York Press, detractors have noted, seems to think he is the only real film critic in America. They may well be right, but probably so is he, and the Press’ house contrarian deserves thanks from all self-respecting cinephiles for doing the one thing most (perhaps all) other American film critics either refuse to do or are incapable of doing. Whether one disagrees with White or not, and almost everybody does at one point or another, there is no question that, whatever he writes, he is always thinking about cinema. What it is. What is can do. What it means. This is not much in the tradition of American film criticism, which has mostly been the domain of frustrated literary or theater critics, and sometimes simply the cub reporter nobody knows what to do with. It is far more in line with the extraordinary legacy of French film criticism, especially the avatars of the nouvelle vague like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, who later became groundbreaking filmmakers in their own right.

The great insight of the French film critics was that all cinema says something about cinema, even the usually dismissed movies like Hitchcock’s thrillers and Hollywood B-movies. But they did not hold simply that a B-movie could be great while an A-movie could be bad, but that all movies have something to say about cinema, and sometimes the B-movie can say something far more important and profound than an A-movie. White, it seems to me, writes according to this dictum, while most of his colleagues, if they ever encountered it, would probably have no idea what it means.

Foremost among these is unquestionably Chicago Sun-Times columnist, longtime television star, and all around face, voice, and personification of American film criticism, Roger Ebert. The bulbous, disconcertingly cherubic Ebert is unquestionably the most famous and probably the most successful movie reviewer in American history. Recently stricken with cancer and horribly deformed by a botched operation, and embraced, as a result, by America’s high priestess of the banal, Oprah Winfrey, Ebert and his legacy are now on the verge of being all but canonized.

It has been left to Armond White, unsurprisingly, to tell the truth about that legacy. “I do think it is fair to say,” /Film quotes him as saying, “that Roger Ebert destroyed film criticism.”

Because of the wide and far reach of television, he became an example of what a film critic does for too many people. And what he did simply was not criticism. It was simply blather. And it was a kind of purposefully dishonest enthusiasm for product, not real criticism at all. ... I think he does not have the training. ... Ebert just simply happened to have the job. And he’s had the job for a long time. He does not have the foundation. He simply got the job. ... Often he wasn’t practicing criticism at all. Often he would point out gaffes or mistakes in continuity. That’s not criticism. That’s really a pea-brained kind of fan gibberish.

White is, as usual, both undiplomatic and entirely correct. Indeed, his final point is eminently born out by Ebert’s scathing review of the silly but quite enjoyable Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, a film which the critical establishment, for unknown reasons, decided was a threat to human civilization. “Hello!” Ebert informs us in his standard eighth-grade prose, “you can't outrun an explosion,” as if this mattered at all in an action movie. Considering that Ebert claims (with his depressing predictability) that Citizen Kane is his favorite movie, one could just as easily point out that no one is actually in the room to hear Kane’s last words that set the whole film in motion. If someone says “Rosebud” in an empty room, does it still make a sound? Revenge of the Fallen is, of course, nothing like the equal of Citizen Kane, but the point is worth making, if only for the sake of illustrating the pedantic irrelevancy of Ebert’s observation.