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Roger Ebert vs. the Future of Film Criticism

Roger Ebert recently graced Critic’s Notebook with his eminence and quoted our writer, Sarah Manvel, in his review of the documentary “45365.” Under most circumstances, this kind of exposure would be a major shot in the arm for any humble little website such as ours, where underemployed film critics are quietly plugging away for no money in hopes of slowly and steadily building an audience or landing the elusive paying gig.

Unfortunately, Mr. Ebert did not have nice things to say. He did not attribute the quote from Ms. Manvel’s review nor provide a link, but that did not spare her the public humiliation. It’s not exactly difficult to locate the original review with Google, and Mr. Ebert’s minions had little trouble finding us.

“It's a hurtful way to be treated by the person who inspired me to become a film critic in the first place,” Ms. Manvel wrote in an e-mail.

It wasn’t always thus.

In September 2008, she left comments for an entry on Roger Ebert’s Journal titled “This is the Dawning of the Age of Credulity,” to which Mr. Ebert actually replied, almost fawningly.

“I googled your criticism and was impressed,” he wrote to Ms. Manvel. “In the Answer Man for Sept. 26, I have a message from Prof. Nate Kohn, who despairs of the moviegoing patterns of many young people. I respond that although his observations may be true enough, I do know of a lot of young moviegoers who give me great cheer. I might have been thinking of you.”

I met Ms. Manvel through the British Film Institute’s postgraduate film journalism course in early 2006. We began collaborating the following September as contributors to Cinemattraction.com. The 20 aspiring film critics and editors from New York and London who helped launch that site have mostly dropped out and given up on film criticism altogether throughout the four years that have ensued, but not Ms. Manvel. Even when things weren’t going well last fall at her day job, she filed more than 10 reviews from the Times BFI London Film Festival — including her now infamous review of “45365.”

The documentary about Sidney, Ohio had received very little notice until early this year, when it began playing limited engagements throughout the United States. Ms. Manvel had given this virtually unknown film a look back in 2009, when no one was championing it. She formulated her own opinion without the influence of any other critic. Ms. Manvel did not like the film, although it would turn out later that most other critics did. As editor of the piece, I stand behind it 100 percent. But even if the review were what Mr. Ebert made it out to be, a young critic such as Ms. Manvel could use his constructive criticism rather than the potshots he aimed at her.

But Mr. Ebert has never been invested in the future of film criticism.

Don’t get me wrong. I have the utmost respect for his encyclopedic knowledge of film, and the way he has successfully blazed the trail for film criticism in nearly every new medium that has come along, from television to Twitter. And how can anyone dislike the guy after reading that heartbreaking profile in Esquire?

Aspiring film critics used to look up to Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris until Mr. Ebert and Gene Siskel brought film criticism to the masses with “Sneak Previews” and “At the Movies.” One could argue, though, that Siskel and Mr. Ebert really dumbed down film criticism with their sound-bite reviews and reductive thumbing system. They fostered this whole culture of film critics as microcelebrities whoring for quotes in ad slicks.

They’ve inspired a generation of vapid fanboys spewing their first-person streams of consciousness in a myriad of movie blogs. Despite the fact that many of the said up-and-comers earned their degrees in cinema studies from NYU and the like, who has the time and resources to do serious research and theorizing when the Village Voice is only allotting 250 words per each capsule review and paying $89 a pop? Truth be told, these young critics are all too busy buttering up their peers and editors at various film festivals or via Twitter in thinly veiled attempts to angle for their next gigs.

Siskel and Mr. Ebert also made conflict of interest common practice in this field when they took their syndicated show to Buena Vista, part of Disney, for distribution. And when Siskel died, Mr. Ebert replaced him with his agreeable and unproven Chicago Sun-Times colleague Richard Roeper instead of the more obvious choice, Chicago Tribune’s Michael Wilmington.

Mr. Ebert is responsible for the decline of film criticism in this country, even if only partially. The wide syndication of his movie reviews has effectively made the film critic position obsolete at most newspapers across America, driving most established critics into freelancing and most aspiring critics into other fields. As if cannibalizing the entire film criticism market is not enough, the ever-enterprising Mr. Ebert is publishing various books and even charging fans a $5-a-year membership fee to join the Ebert Club. Evidently, Mr. Ebert is in this for himself. He behaved like a school-yard bully in the way he dismissed Ms. Manvel’s hard work, and his toadies were all too happy to pile on.

I am hopeful that Ms. Manvel, with her enlighteningly feminine critical viewpoint, will one day have the last laugh when looking back at this unpleasant episode.

M. Tsai is the editor-at-large for Critic's Notebook.

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Comments

I really wish I could say I've seen "45365," so that I could have a position one way or the other on the film. But at this moment, I can't comment either way on whether I agree with Roger or Sarah on the movie.

What I will say, though, regardless of how I feel about the movie in the future, Roger's review of "45365" is a lot more insightful than what Sarah wrote about it. He goes into so much more detail about what's depicted within the movie, how it's depicted, and provides so much more context and so many more reasons for why he felt the way he did about it, that I got a more substantial impression from Roger on whether I would like the movie or not. Roger's is just a better written and more informative criticism on the movie, and it gave me the impression that "45365" would be a film I would likely enjoy seeing.

It's fine to dislike a movie, and there are some movies that people won't "get" upon their first viewing, or possibly ever. After reading Roger's review for the second time (I did read it several months ago) and comparing it to Sarah's, it seemed to me like Sarah was really, really trying hard to grasp for any explanation for what she just saw. Her writing and her comments on it made her seem like she was either flummoxed, or possibly overwhelmed, by the movie. Sarah really opened herself up to all sorts of retaliatory snide-ness by suggesting that this documentary needed a "real" story to tell, that its events happened "without rhyme or reason." I'll also add that no enjoyable movie is ever totally, completely about its story. There are the characters, the visuals, the quality of the dialogue, the music, the ideas behind the narrative, the incongruent situations that some movies place their characters in, so much more that goes into the making of a movie that can have a positive impression on the viewer than simply the progression (or lack thereof) of the movie's story.

Perhaps Roger's vehement response came from Sarah's assertion that "45365" did not have a "real story" to tell, whereas it's possible this particular movie didn't need to have an explicit story to make a strong impression, given it involved life in a small town. I'd suggest that "Mulholland Dr." progresses more as an exercise in narrative style than with a straight story set-up, with predictability and continuity, and it's a fantastic film. (Pun intended, perhaps)

I will agree with M. and say that Roger should have attributed Manvel's name with the quote. I think he did not attribute out of consideration for her, actually, because he did not want to place her name along with such an explicit statement as "extraordinarily stupid." I'll call attention to the fact that Roger referred to the REVIEW ITSELF as extraordinarily stupid, and not the reviewer. I will also agree that Ebert and the late Siskel changed the landscape of film criticism, maybe for good.

What I take the most umbrage with in this piece is the laying before the feet of Ebert (and Siskel, and Roeper, and the non-hire in Michael Wilmington, although he was added later, and Margaret Thatcher, and Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter, and George Foreman, and Zach Galifianakis, and Adam Sandler, and Ruby Dee, and Sam Raimi, and Stanley Kubrick, et al...) the entire collapse of the landscape of film criticism within newspapers. And let's not kid ourselves over quibbles, because that's where most film criticism flourished and gained traction in popular culture, although book publishing obviously helped. No, according to this piece, newspaper circulation being down wouldn't have had anything to do with the downward spiral of the presence of film criticism in several newspapers. The advent of the Internet, apparently, has had NOTHING to do with the decrease in newspaper subscriptions and readership. Sure, Siskel and Ebert made film criticism more accessible to people by presenting their views on perhaps five different movies within a half-hour time slot. It was a commercial venture (eventually) and they made money at it. They were a success and they had influence, and they had an impact on how people were able to intake their film criticism.

If you want to gripe about something other than another person's success, M. Tsai, gripe about the timing and the confluence of forces that have laid barren the landscape upon which (paid) film criticism once was able to thrive. The conglomerates buying up newspaper and media chains, and gutting their news departments practically of everything but the kitchen sink, so long as it's able to produce a legible and relatively-typo-free product on a weekly, tri-weekly, five-day-a-week or on a daily basis, are a big thing to blame for this dearth of (paid) opportunity.

Blame the fact that every company with any money is choosing to not rely on newspaper advertisements like they once did, and that newspapers are forced to cut back on their space allotment (in several cases) to keep up with that change.

I just think it's churlish, snide and childish to accuse any single person, or a pair of people if you prefer, of demolishing the positive aspects of current (paid) film criticism. It was Ebert's fault that the parent company of "Variety" decided Todd McCarthy's salary was expendable. It's Ebert's fault that Lawrence Toppman of the "Charlotte Observer" doesn't have his space allotment for film criticism like he once did, relegated mainly to commenting on other arts exhibits and theatre productions that come to the Carolinas. Silly.

But a parting shot is called for. Even if Ebert made his own snide comment about Manvel's review, I guarantee it created an invaluable awareness of her name, what she did, and what her contributions are to this site. And that certainly is something I would get over some "crushed" feelings about, and be glad for

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