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.
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.