Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Modern Film Criticism --- Part One

My friend SQT did a blog posting "Do Reviews Matter," which fired me up and got me thinking about the substance and context of the modern review and the role of the modern critic. As a former film critic myself, this is a subject which tends to make me over-react. So...the beginning of the following is from my comment to her post...it then takes off on its own and will be the first of several postings on this topic.

The world of the modern critic began to change with Siskel and Ebert (I think I need to write a blog about this), whose show ran from 1975-1980 on PBS as Sneak Previews and then from 1980-1990 on ABC as At The Movies. Prior to their show, most reviewing was in print form and fairly removed from the motion picture audience.
Siskel and Ebert made reviewing a contact sport, and attracted a fairly impressive following.

People were able to identify with these two. They were so freakin' ordinary it hurt. It was like listening to your uncles argue on the sofa after a bad Thanksgiving dinner. Soon, people were emulating them, reviewing film with the eye of the common man....and infusing their response to film with an occasional term from critic-speak. Let's face it, prior to Siskel and Ebert, you never heard anyone casually reference cinematography or editing when discussing stepping out of a theater.

Perhaps another element that gave life to the critiques of Siskel and Ebert is that they removed the perception of "snootiness" from the practice of critiquing film. Prior to these two and several personalities who became their contemporaries, film critics had an elitist paradigm for what constituted significant cinema. Most filmgoers across America weren't going to stay awake for Ingmar Bergman, or for Francois Truffaut. Nor was the average American appreciative, no matter how well intended, of a film review which made them feel inadequate.

Siskel and Ebert gave us reviews which judged each film at two levels--first at its technical level, touching on those elements of film-making that we expect critics to pay attention to ( editing, score, cinematography, direction, etc), and then at a contextual level.

If these two watched a horror film, they would first note how it succeeded at craft, and then how it fared when compared to other films of its ilk. Fans of genre suddenly felt respected. Where previous critics often made genre enthusiasts feel puerile and embaressed for their likes and dislikes, Siskel and Ebert gave them respect. They weren't patronizing. Consider this excerpt from a review for John Carpenter's 1979 Halloween, which would have been easy to dismiss as a low budget film for teens.

“Halloween” is a visceral experience -- we aren't seeing the movie, we're having it happen to us. It's frightening. Maybe you don't like movies that are really scary: Then don't see this one."

In this written review, Ebert is contextualizing his statements. "Maybe you don't like movies that are really scary...." In other reviews, he would also contextualize the film with comments like, "this is strictly a film for fans of romantic comedy, and as such it stands up well alongside Notting Hill and Runaway Bride."

Although Siskel passed away from a brain tumor in 1999, Ebert is still writing. He is struggling with thyroid cancer and has had difficulty with numerous reconstructive surgeries over the last several years However his his wit and intelligence continue to burn brightly. He is still a major critic. Even his damned tweets are entertaining, and he tweets a lot! Warning though for those who may follow him on twitter, Ebert is a left winger who often makes stinging political comments.


Charles Gramlich said...

That's true, I never thought of that. They were the first to actually show some respect for the craft of the genres rather than demeaning them routinely.

arlee bird said...

I don't mind "snootiness" when it relates to artistiic values and the quality of the film being reviewed. I do have a problem with the reviewer interject personal political commentary or evaluating values of the film based on personal agendas to bash the values of another, i.e. religion.

I continue to read, but have grown to intensely dislike the reviewers of my local Los Angeles Times. I often feel like they are trying to interject their opinions about things other than the movie they are reviewing. I can usually read the review and know which reviewer wrote it.

Reviews help guide me to an extent, but often I am in disagreement with the reviewers.

Tossing It Out

Stewart Sternberg said...

Charles, I think the appeal of Siskel and Ebert is they could have been someone in the family at the dinner table.

Arlee, I love that you will challenge critics. As for imposing values or beliefs on people, I have an issue with that sometimes, but as long as the reviewer is up front about their perspective and agenda, it helps me put it into context.

I remember feeling betrayed when Michael Medved became a right wing commentator on a radio show. I sometimes had trouble with him as a critic, but with his defining himself as a political commentator, it let me see what filter he used to view film.

Sphinx Ink said...

Excellent and thoughtful post. I took Siskel & Ebert for granted for so long--never really thinking about how they changed film reviewing--and have sorely missed them since Siskel's death. None of the Siskel replacements ever really meshed/clashed with Ebert like Siskel did.

Since Ebert's departure that show, and other reviewing programs, are barely worth watching. I'm so glad Ebert's still able to write.

Your analysis of how their show worked, and why it worked, is insightful. Thanks.

SQT said...

I always liked Siskel and Ebert. I still remember watching them review "Robocop" and I can't tell you how delighted I was that Siskel loved that movie. He just gushed and it was fun to see him embrace the same pop culture I loved.

I do agree with Arlee though about the politics. I know Ebert is a liberal so I know the lens he is viewing everything through-- and that's fine. But I do think it has affected his judgment over time because there seems to be need to push an agenda through the reviews rather than approaching the movie as entertainment. If the movie-maker is attempting to inject politics into the mix-- then it's fair game. But I have read a few reviews where it came across that he just didn't want to like a movie because it didn't jibe with his politics. I wish he'd sit those ones out.

Anonymous said...

I'm for critiquing democracy. That is, Rotten Tomatoes. Although, I don't always agree with the majority vote.

Rick said...

I've never actually seen or read a movie review, but it sounds like a tough job.