Thursday, April 4, 2013

Roger Ebert has died. But cinema is more alive than ever...

If the film critic has any kind of noble purpose, it is to shine a light on the good and the unexpectedly great in film.  No one gets into film criticism because they hate movies.  We got into this because we love the cinema and we love the singular experience of watching great movies.  If we have any kind of noble goal, it is to highlight what we love, even if its a minority opinion and even if it opens us up to ridicule from our peers.  If we have a social good, it is in highlighting the great movies that may have slipped under the radar.  It is in highlighting the little-seen independent film that desperately needs the publicity to stand out alongside its peers. It is also in highlighting the genuine artistry found in mainstream studio pictures, especially in a time when so many film scholars are all-too willing to write off every would-be 'big movie' and thus declare that cinema is dead.  Cinema is not dead.  Cinema is as alive as it's ever been.

Thanks to DVD, consumers can now watch films in their original aspect ratio and with subtitles to boot.  Thanks to Netflix the smallest art film and most obscure documentary has just as much of a chance of being discovered on your home page as the biggest blockbuster.  Thanks to Video On Demand, the smaller films that no longer find themselves being booked in the best theaters can now be viewed in the comfort of your own home in a high quality presentation for only the cost of a single movie ticket.  Thanks to revolutions in film making techniques and technology, nearly anyone *can* make a movie if they so choose, and we are meeting new and exciting film making talents each and every day.  Thanks to the Internet, film lovers from all over the world can converse with the click of a mouse on any number of social media platforms.  Thanks to the Internet, an entire generation of film critics have sprung up from the multiplexes, which makes it all the more likely that one of them will discover a gem that otherwise would have gone unnoticed.

It is not a perfect system.  Too many would-be seemingly mainstream films are consigned to the art house because too many blockbusters (good and bad) take up too many of those multiplex screens with their 2D, 3D, and/or IMAX formats.  The industry is still overwhelmingly dominated by white males and the critical masses still give their stories more critical respect than those made by and/or intended for female and/or minority audiences.  Film criticism is on the brink of falling into a bottomless pit of irony and snark, where how badly you trash a film or how ironically distant you can be is considered more of a virtue than being willing to unabashedly love a film so much that it hurts.  The ability to turn a phrase in criticism is not without value, but what value is our profession if we merely exist to point out how everything is terrible?  But we can recover from this and we can do so quite easily.

We can highlight not just the films we love over the films we hate, but we can highlight the film writing we admire, film criticism that highlights the good and the great, the underrated or undervalued, as opposed to YouTube videos that bank purely on snark.  We can walk into that theater expecting every would-be blockbuster be as good as every would-be Oscar-bait picture and we can give the 'big movies' the same under-the-hood analysis we would offer for a film we expected to be great.  We can spend our time writing about the movies we love over the movies we hate.  We can point out what is good about the movies that are mostly bad.  We can defend the films and the filmmakers who have been unfairly maligned in the media.  We can not just write our own work but share the work of those whose work deserves notice.  Obviously many of us already do this and many of us occasionally stumble along the way.  But when we stumble we (sorry...) keep moving forward and do better next time.

Roger Ebert has died, but the art form he loved is very much alive.  We honor him not so much by remembering his reviews of North but rather his and Gene Siskel's raves for Do The Right Thing during a time when pundits were sure that Spike Lee's drama would cause race riots.  We honor him by remembering his essays and his and Gene Siskel's relentless championing of Hoop Dreams.  We honor him by remembering what films and what filmmakers we never would have discovered at a young age had Ebert (and yes Siskel) not introduced us to them.  I had never heard of Martin Scorsese until I started reading Roger Ebert.  Sight-unseen, I presumed that Halloween was just another crappy slasher film until Ebert's four-star review compared it to Psycho.  To read his review of Speed is to read a film critic absolutely in love with the very idea of top-quality popcorn cinema.  We all have our favorites and we all have our disagreements.  It's no secret that I felt that Ebert had become spoiler-happy in the last several years, and that he much preferred his essays to his film reviews.  But his mark on film criticism is unmatched by anyone before or since.

To paraphrase a film I didn't like as much as he did, Roger Ebert was an inspiration to all of us who loved movies and all of those who loved writing about movies.  It will be a very long time before someone... inspires us the way he did. In his honor, I will link to a new movie review site that has greatly impressed me, one that deserves the plaudits that will surely come its way over time (Movie Mezzanine).  In his honor, I will plug the wonderful work and wonderful writers found at Why So Blu, because I have so much damn fun whenever I participate in their podcasts and commentaries.  In his honor, I will also link to the brand new, fresh-off-the-blog website of Brandon Peters, finally ready to strike it out on his own after nearly a year of impeccable work on this very site.  In his honor I will watch one of my fa... no.  In his honor, I'll let my wife pick one of her favorite movies.  So if I end up watching Grease 2, Batman & Robin, or White Chicks tonight, it's your fault Roger.  The balcony remains open, as it always shall.  Goodbye, Rog.  And thanks for everything.

Scott Mendelson      


Phillylo said...

A great commentary on the business, and a nice tribute to a man who loved movies. Thanks Scott.

NHBill603 said...

Screaming for a re-write.

James O'Leary said...

I always tried to watch S&EATM. On the DVD to one of my favorite movies, "Citizen Kane", Roger Ebert did one of my favorite commentary tracks. I've listened to it twice.

Chris Hallum said...

This is my tribute I posted immediately after learning the news...

""Roger Ebert died today. As a kid I watched with my brother Tony Hallum his show "Sneak Previews" with Gene Siskel on PBS, plus the other versions that came out in syndication over the years. When Gene died over a decade ago I thought the show was over, but he found a new partner (Richard Roeper) to talk about films with and it continued until cancer literally stole his ability to speak. But thanks to the internet he continued posting his film reviews. He won a pulitzer Prize for his writing. He even dated Oprah Winfrey! I sought out his books, compilations of old movie reviews, where he saw deeper meanings I didn't realize were in the films I saw. Working third shift at Fastenal, I looked forward to our 3:00 AM lunchtime on Friday morning when I'd eat and read his newly posted film reviews on the Chicago Sun-Times website. I read all his reviews, even the films I had no desire to see. He loved the good films and RIPPED the bad ones (Arguably the most fun reviews to read! He even published books dedicated to them, "I Hated Hated Hated This Movie" and "Your Movie Sucks"). He said no good movie is too long and no bad movie is too short. This past December while looking forward to reading many new reviews for the holidays he fractured his hip, which led to new cancer revelations. And now he's gone. I feel like I did when Johnny Carson retired. All my life until I was 21 if there was one thing I could count on it was Johnny at 10:30 every weekday night. Each Saturday had new film critiques from Roger, and later on I was able to access online reviews. No more. I already miss you, Roger Ebert. The balcony is closed.""


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