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since 1997 | by maryann johanson

should a movie critic be America’s top pundit?

Forbes.com has rated the pundits, and guess who comes out on top?

While the results show that plenty of cable talking heads like Bill O’Reilly, Lou Dobbs and Geraldo Rivera score highly, the most powerful pundit in America is veteran film critic Roger Ebert, who appeals to 70% of the demographic and whose long career makes him well known to well over half the population. A longtime writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, he’s been offering up his cinematic views on television with partners Gene Siskel (from 1975-1999) and Richard Roeper (since 1999) for 32 years.

Um, what?

Look, I love movies and all, and I think there are important things to be said about them, and even important things to be gleaned from the most popular movies about where our society is at, but still: Is it me, or is there something very, very screwy at work, particularly in these politically and culturally contentious times, when America’s top pundit is not someone who is dealing primarily with the absolute disaster the U.S. is mired in?

Worse:

Ebert leads a list we compiled by scoring candidates on awareness and likability measurements among respondents within the demographic gold mine of advertisers–those between the ages of 25 and 54, with a college degree, making at least $50,000 annually.

So it’s the best educated and best off, financially, who esteem Ebert over all other pundits, the very people you might think would have some interest in, oh, I dunno, some NPR guy or something.

Could there be a reason Ebert punditificates the bestest, or whatever?

Ebert, despite being limited to print reviewing over the past year as he battles cancer, is viewed by the public as intelligent, experienced and articulate, the three most common traits associated with the top 10 list. And his widespread appeal makes sense. Unlike political pundits who bring a liberal or conservative voice to the table, his strong opinions are generally confined to individual movies. Hence, he’s not drawing cheers from half the population and jeers from the other half.

Oh, dude: if you’re not pissing people off with your movie reviews, are you really doing your job?

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  • MBI

    Ebert is on the list not because of his choice of topic, or general disdain for other topics of interest on the public’s part; it’s entirely because of that last part you mentioned. He doesn’t piss people off. He generally likes everything; if he hates it, generally everyone else hates it too. He’s timid about his power, and that, in my opinion, why he has become quite useless as a critic.

  • MBI

    The whole ranking system is stupid anyway, the measure of a pundit is definitely NOT his popularity, and this is the first time I’ve heard any suggestion that it was.

  • misterb

    Wow, that is one fucked-up article! Thanks for bringing it to my attention. Not only is Leonard Maltin ranked higher than Keith Olbermann, but Bill Walton makes the top 10. the flickfilosopher crowd may not be big hoops fans, but rating Bill Walton as the best sports pundit is like saying George Bush is a good president.

    I was amused that Bill Maher outscored Bill O’Reilly; without question Maher is much funnier, but he’s also an avowed atheist, pot-smoking libertine. Perhaps his animal rights stance endears him to the Forbes demographic.

  • Putting Ebert on that list seems self-defeating. They even pretty much admit that yes, he’s popular because he isn’t going on about his political views. But then why is he being ranked alongside political pundits in the first place? I’m sure Bill O’Reilly would be more popular if he only talked about crocheting. I’d watch.

  • Drave

    I don’t even think he’s a good critic. At least, not anymore. I used to love his reviews, but he is definitely off his game. For the past few years, his reviews have often included a point-by-point summary of the plot, including major plot twists. He also has a tendency to ramble about nothing in particular. The day I stopped reading him completely, however, was the day he stated that video games cannot be considered true art. This quote was pretty much the nail in the coffin for me.

    I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.

    This makes me wonder how many people were saying the same things about film during its early days.

  • “Oh, dude: if you’re not pissing people off with your movie reviews, are you really doing your job?”

    I don’t agree with that sentiment – I think the point was that he doesn’t have the sort of innate bias you find in political discourse. He takes each movie and judges it on its merits, there’s no preconception as to how he will review it. I guess all film criticism is like that (or at least, it should be), whereas in politics pundits will always have some kind of personal bias. This is quite different from saying he won’t piss people off with individual reviews, it just means that you might not be able to predict which of his reviews will piss you off!

    I agree with Prankster’s comment about comparing them – why put a film critic alongside political ones, it’s comparing apples to oranges!

    Also, I happen to agree with Ebert about video games not being art. There is art in games; it’s just that those artistic facets are ones that are borrowed from other artforms. Film on the other hand has a unique artistic element – namely editing (and also, I suppose, moving picture photography, which is quite different from still photography). There’s nothing artistic in the gaming aspect of video games, which is why I think video games are not art. Admittedly, Ebert’s reasoning for why he things games aren’t art seems a bit muddled – the fact that an artistically important game doesn’t exist isn’t a logical argument for why games aren’t art.

  • E

    Couldn’t the ability to immerse yourself in another world, not of your own making, be considered a unique artistic element in it’s own right?

  • MaryAnn

    I don’t know if video games can be art, but I’d call that immersive quality a result of “craft,” not “art.”

    there’s no preconception as to how he will review it. I guess all film criticism is like that (or at least, it should be), whereas in politics pundits will always have some kind of personal bias

    I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll have to keep saying it: Of COURSE there is personal bias in film criticism. How could there not be?

  • Let me rephrase. Everyone is biased to some degree; what I was trying to say is that political bias tends to be more pronounced and more predictable on a given issue, whereas a film critic’s biases towards or against a given film do not. Which is what the article was saying – ‘Unlike political pundits who bring a liberal or conservative voice to the table, his strong opinions are generally confined to individual movies.’

  • Drave

    “There’s nothing artistic in the gaming aspect of video games, which is why I think video games are not art.”

    Absolutely 100% untrue. By the same argument, there is nothing artistic about the act of looking at a painting, or reading a book, or listening to music. That may or may not be true, but it certainly doesn’t disqualify them as art. Unless you mean that there is nothing artistic in designing the mechanics of gameplay, which is arguably the most important aspect by which a game is judged. It doesn’t make your statement any more true, though. I defy anybody to play Shadow of the Colossus, Katamari Damacy, and Rez, and then tell me that the way a game is played has nothing to do with art. I read a really interesting argument yesterday that makes a good case for classical music, rather than film, being the kind of art most similar to video games.

  • I’m don’t really have anything to say about Eberts writing ability, but if he’s beating clowns like Geraldo and Bill O’Riley, that walk around and profess their opinions as news reporting, then good. I didn’t care to look at the rest of the list (lists are pointless anyway and are merely advertising for the media doing the list) but if their littered with people like the aforementioned two, then I’m happy he wins.

  • E

    I should say that I meant to include “interactive” in my description of immersion in a world. The interactive is part of the problem I think Ebert had with video games, making them not art. But I’d just argue it’s the same as interpreting a painting or making your own conlusions from a film.

    Shadow of the Colossus is a good one to point towards as well. It’s really not what I think the general populace expects from video games. Extremely minimalist, almost no dialogue, almost experimental.

    Not all video games are art, though neither are all films. But I think theres a huge obstacle of perception about what video games are, and who they appeal to, that kind of damns them from being considered a “higher” form.

  • Drave

    Exactly, E. The question of whether or not any video games currently exist as high art is completely a matter of opinion. Asserting that video games can’t be high art is just idiotic. To have someone as respected as Ebert make such a statement is a cruel blow to a medium of expression that has been struggling for respect ever since it was first created.

  • Drave

    Oops. Screwed up a tag there somewhere. *smacks forehead*

  • Grant

    A) Ebert pisses plenty of people off with his reviews. He’s written about such at length in the past. He occasionally publishes some of his hate mail as part of his Movie Answer Man column. the rogerebert.com website also allows comments, thought I have not perused that and don’t think he responds on the boards.

    B) Ebert has often discussed, in reviews and columns, bias among critics. He holds an identical view on the topic as MAJ – namely, that of course critics have a bias, that bias is precisely what the job of criticism is about, and that everyone goes into a film with some bias. He mentions how Siskel used to avoid as much publicity and buzz about movies as he could, bit that he (Ebert) has never aspired to such.

    C) As I recall, he wrote the video game as art thing in response to someone posing the question to him. One can hardly fault him for responding with his personal opinion, even if it conflicts with one’s own opinion. I also can’t help but note the irony of claiming that Ebert is irrelevant, and then claiming that his ill opinion cuts the legs out from under the industry and its attempts at artistic legitimacy. I for one have no opinion, as I’m not sure what art is.

    D)Full disclosure: I like Ebert. I think his writing is witty. Just as I think MAJ’s writing is witty. I find I generally agree with his opinions, but not always. Just as I generally agree with MAJ’s opinions, but not always.

  • Grant

    Oh, and…

    E) Just how broad of a definition of “pundit” does one have to use in order for critics of any medium to be included?

  • MaryAnn

    Ebert pisses plenty of people off with his reviews.

    I’m glad to hear that. :->

  • Yes, he got a great deal of hate mail for panning Diary of a Mad Black Woman, and was accused of racism. He was also told he was in thrall to environmentalists for praising An Inconvenient Truth. Ebert has views on important issues, and they come out in his reviews. Certainly saying that Michael Moore is right and that people should see his movies is political in nature. I think what they mean is that people don’t automatically tune out Ebert because he’s talking about movies, and so they end up hearing his opinions on other subjects as well. Whereas, depending on your politics, you may automatically ignore everything Bill Maher or Bill O’Reilly say.

    Actually, what surprised me more was that they said they excluded guys like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert because they’re “entertainers,” yet Bill Maher was number 2. Isn’t he a comedian? I suppose his show is more straightforward than The Daily Show, but it’s certainly not more relevant.

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