question of the week: What does the death of Roger Ebert mean for mainstream film criticism?

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the best known film critic in the United States– nay, on the planet. His death last week was, in the public sphere, a blow not only to his fans but to the very institution of mainstream arts criticism… if such a thing can be said to exist anymore now that Ebert is gone.
Buzzfeed’s Adam B. Vary notes that Ebert “presided over the the slow, sad decline of the very thing that elevated him to that status in the first place,” not just his own battling-critics TV show At the Movies in the specific but the overall decline of print media, which was laying off arts critics (among others) as a penny-pinching measure. More depressingly:

It didn’t help matters that the 2000s marked Hollywood’s steady transformation into a factory of enormously budgeted franchise pictures geared to such a broad audience that they popularized the lovely term “critic proof.” The result: It’s just not all that fun (or illuminating) to watch a titan of film criticism debate a well-meaning movie reviewer over just how bad the second Charlie’s Angels movie is.

The headline at The International Business Times is far more blunt:

Roger Ebert And The Day Film Criticism Died: Movie Critic’s Death Symbolizes The End Of A Profession

Yikes. The IBT’s Christopher Zara elaborates:

[P]erhaps the saddest thing about Ebert’s death is that there is no one left to take his place. No prominent film critic working today — not A.O. Scott, Anthony Lane, Peter Travers, or anyone else — is likely to take up the mantle of “the world’s preeminent film critic” now that Ebert is gone. It’s not just because they could never fill his shoes; it’s because there are no such shoes left to fill.

Ebert was the last of a now-extinct breed: a professional movie reviewer whose opinion actually mattered… in the spirit of public intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre, who believed his chief duty was to observe the world and speak out in accordance with his own conscience. If that type of conviction still exists, it’s been drowned out by Rotten Tomatoes, online trolls and the comments section on Comingsoon.net.

It’s easy to point out that there are many passionate critics who are still working and are likely to continue working for years to come. But it’s hard to counter the notion that all that matters anymore is the aggregate of all their opinions.

Zara again:

[I]t’s safe to say that there will never be a time again when a single movie critic will exert as much influence as [Ebert] did in his day. Ebert and his contemporaries — Pauline Kael, Gene Siskel — wielded their pens at a time when print media set the national conversation and movies sat at the top of the cultural totem pole. Today, most newspapers are struggling for survival while the average moviegoer visits the cinema fewer than six times a year.

To be sure, film criticism, like film itself, will always matter to some of us. We appreciate thoughtful analysis and an informed opinion, and we’ll love the movies until our dying day, even if the CGI-laden drivel being churned out by Hollywood refuses to love us back. The problem is, our numbers are dwindling. Anoint as we might a worthy Ebert successor, what chance does he or she have at breaking into the cultural mainstream in the way that Ebert did? How does one define a zeitgeist when none exists?

That last line has been haunting me since I first read it a few days ago: How does one define a zeitgeist when none exists? It rings with a general cultural despair that has sharpened into focus with Ebert’s passing.

What does the death of Roger Ebert mean for mainstream film criticism?

Do you see any hope in the new paradigm of crowdsourced criticism and tweeted “reviews”? Will something that more resembles intelligent, personal discourse take its place? What will the state of film criticism look like in 10 years?

(If you have a suggestion for a Question, feel free to email me.)

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