Film Criticism: Does it Matter Anymore?

Zev Burrows

Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael, Vincent Canby, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Gene Siskel, and Roger Ebert. What do these names have in common? For starters, they are (or were) all film critics who have at some point held a prominent voice in the industry over the past 45 years. Each one of them had their own unique style and way of critiquing films, whether it be falling at a filmmaker’s feet in heaps of praise or ripping somebody else’s creation apart.Another thing that most of them have in common is that all but Rosenbaum are dead, the most recent passing being Roger Ebert, who died on April 4, 2013. Five months after the famed film critic’s death at the age of 70, film journalist Bob Verini wrote an essay titled “Roger Ebert: The Last Critic Who Mattered?” In his essay, Verini asked if anyone could fill Ebert’s shoes, which is itself a daunting question: Ebert remains the only film critic to have won a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism.

In his profession as a film critic, Roger Ebert saw around 3,000 movies every decade and published around 250-300 reviews on his website or for the Chicago Sun-Times every year. On television, he and fellow film critic Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune became household names in America for the way they discussed movies and what they mean to the world we live in, and they ran their television show together for nearly 25 years.

After Siskel’s passing in 1999, Ebert continued on with fellow Sun-Times critic Richard Roeper. But the sparks didn’t fly between the two like Ebert had had with Siskel. Ebert continued television reviews until cancer robbed him of his voice in 2007, but he continued to write several print reviews and blogged regularly right up until his death in April 2013.

There was once a time where film criticism (and perhaps criticism in general) really meant something. But with the arrival of the Internet and social media over the last several years, people listen to film critics less and less and rely more on friends, Twitter, and Facebook. In Verini’s essay, one filmmaker expressed his thoughts on today’s view of criticism and the social medias:

“Twitter and Facebook have replaced (critics). ‘Do my friends like it?’ That’s probably a better indication of whether I’ll like it as well.”

So with friends deciding or not on whether a film is “good”, we don’t need critics anymore, right? Wrong. If we continue in the path of where social medias tell us what we should like based on popularity and box office returns, we may experience the biggest decline of quality in movies of all time (we’re experiencing it already). And this is not just limited to the cinema; we are also experiencing it in music as we speak.

When Roger Ebert passed away, I remember hearing tributes from celebrities all across America, including President Barack Obama, directors Steven Spielberg and Werner Herzog, actor/director Robert Redford, and talk show host/actress Oprah Winfrey; all of them championed the late film critic, with Winfrey and Spielberg both calling his death “the end of an era.” Director Martin Scorsese even dedicated his latest film The Wolf of Wall Street to Ebert’s memory. But they have all been around long enough to have read Ebert’s print reviews in the Chicago Sun-Times and to have watched countless hours of his television show with Gene Siskel. You ask many younger celebrities including Jennifer Lawrence or Daniel Radcliffe, and it may be more than likely that they will not have anything to say regarding Ebert’s work beyond a few reviews that they may have read and liked. Their age was not that of Spielberg’s or Redford’s where it was common to read newspapers and watch movie review programs, but rather of the digital age where social medias are the new critics.

My question is: why do social medias matter more than film critics? Have Mark Zuckerberg or the founders of Twitter seen as many movies as Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael? Of course they most likely haven’t. But there’s a big reason why masses all over the world listen to them rather than most critics: people often view critics as pompous, self-appointed jerks who pan the latest Zack Snyder movie or the latest Twilight just because. But then again, do those films or filmmakers ask probing questions to audiences in the ways that Citizen Kane, Persona, or the films of the Coen brothers do? Of course not. If Twitter or Facebook began championing the works of Akira Kurosawa all of a sudden, how many Twitter users would actually go and rent Rashomon or Seven Samurai?

There was once a time when the critic could make a truly lasting impact: Pauline Kael was often notorious for vehemently disagreeing with mass opinions (many of them critical as well!), and her scathing review of David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter reportedly caused the filmmaker to retire for 14 years until 1984’s A Passage to India. Roger Ebert on the other hand, used various ways to get filmmakers to make better movies: in his review of the widely panned Battlefield Earth (2000), he stated, “The director, Roger Christian, has learned from better films that directors sometimes tilt their cameras, but he has not learned why.” Using dry wit, he would often give his view on the latest films, and millions of people flocked to his opinions (more than any other film critic this century). And those opinions would often change the way that masses and filmmakers alike thought about movies.

With his death, Ebert left a huge gap open, and no other critic that I know of has taken the leap forward to fill that gap. There may be several critics out there who are capable of doing so (I can think of one in particular whose works I enjoy as much as Ebert’s), but it may already be too late. More than 100 critics have been laid off since 2009, and the toll may keep rising. But critics are a good reminder of what makes the movies good and bad. Having seen so many movies all across different decades, film critics like Gene Siskel, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Roger Ebert generally have a point when discussing why the latest Adam Sandler film is pure garbage.

As a film critic myself, I try not to let these dark thoughts of the so-called “death of the film critic” bother me. I continue to read the works of other critics and check Rotten Tomatoes daily on what is generally acclaimed, panned, and what has the highest box office receipts. But I also have to think to myself daily: is there anything that makes the critics’ views and opinions on movies generally better than audiences’? The answer is purely subjective: most critics see hundreds of films spanning all different genres and decades, and they take it upon themselves not let a film’s subject matter or release date automatically decide whether the film is good or bad.

There is a danger in letting social media decide what we should see: hundreds of filmmakers today are corrupted beyond redemption and seek solely for money so they can keep manipulating audiences to the nth degree. But then you may say, “But Zev, isn’t all filmmaking purely manipulative?” In a sense, yes it is. Filmmakers do try to make us see and empathize with their point of view. But many filmmakers like the Coen brothers, Terrence Malick, and Woody Allen do not make movies for the purposes of money; they make films because they have something further and better to do than just explode everything in sight. And that’s where the film critic comes in: in many cases, film critics have studied filmmaking, gone to film school, and have written scripts (Roger Ebert wrote the script for the 1970 cult movie Beyond the Valley of the Dolls). Most people do not care about movies, and therefore do not mind to sit for two and a half hours watching thoughtless films made purely for the purpose of selling toys and video games. In those cases as well as many others, we need critics. We need the educated minds in the fields we care about: otherwise, we are no better than the thoughtless films made purely for commercial gain.