They say everyone’s a critic. Roger Ebert was a great one. As a child fascinated with movie magic, I recall seeing him and Richard Roeper on At the Movies with their trademark thumbs up and thumbs down. Truthfully, I found them a tad boring; two old guys sat in chairs and said things. At least the movie clips were cool, though, since movies were cool. Then, in early high school, I came down with a nasty case of cinephilia. Movies were not just movies now: they were films. I cultivated a healthy dose of snobbery, admittedly. But I was enamored. Who isn’t silly when first in love? Film criticism offered me a path to understanding films—a roadmap to feeling each emotional bump and intellectual subtlety.
Perhaps my friends hadn’t seen that French arthouse film—say, Roman de Gare—but A.O. Scott had seen it, thought upon it and synthesized his reactions into an entertaining, insightful nugget. There was and is an art to film criticism. It is an invisible art, much like a well-calculated Hollywood film. In such a film, the visual and aural, the narrative and the acting, flow together into a seamless stream. You are transported. You are taken away. You don’t always know how, but so it goes. Films fill the gap between hearing a joke and laughing at it. Good movie criticism merely tries to reveal these unobserved crevices. This doesn’t mean it must be sober and dry. It is simple fun its own right. Movie criticism is part of the sheer joy of watching movies.
We all act the part of the movie critic and offer our best shot. If going to the movies is like going to a place of worship, movie criticism is like the essential commentaries. You can’t just go to such a sacred place without the appropriate signposts and explanations. Someone must explain the holy water or prayer mats—the rituals and the artifacts. That someone may be the minister, or your friend, or your father.
Now, movies aren’t entirely like church: we go to the movies not only for spiritual fulfillment, but for corporeal desires: repulsion and lust, to name two. And I certainly don’t head to the television for movie trailers anymore, with YouTube but a screen away. I doubt you do as well. An era has passed. I recall flipping through old DVDs and VHS tapes the other day, and noticing Ebert’s “Two Thumbs Up!” emblazoned proudly on many a worn-out sleeve. These sleeves have been weathered and frayed by time. The individual critic is less noticeable now amid the aggregate scores of RottenTomatoes and Metacritic. The words fade into ratings averaged together. When the critic Armond White failed to toe the critical line for The Social Network (2010) and disturbed an otherwise “perfect” RottenTomatoes rating—he knocked it down from 100 percent to 97 percent—people lambasted him. Despite his individual opinion, what mattered more was that he marred the rating. The rating took precedence over the words, no matter whether White was merely a contrarian or the only honest critic.
I do not lament RottenTomatoes for averaging ratings together; I admit to using them as quick barometers for my interest. I do not lament the increasing availability of reviews from alternative media outlets, or just plain individuals. I think it is wonderful that everyone can be a critic. But it is so easy to stop at the score. To distill reviews down to a score naturally omits something. This is nothing new. Sound bites and ratings are commonplace. But with Ebert’s passing, I simply ask for a moment to pause: I would like us to re-appreciate what reviews can do—the review as art piece.
The review is the fundamental way we express our love and hate for the movies. The trademark thumbs up and thumbs down is disarmingly effective. If we don’t consult the AVClub, we still may consult ourselves, or our friends. We are all critics. The movie critic still matters and criticism still matters. Ebert mattered, and matters. Tributes abound with each notable death, and his is no exception. Already, top ten lists are breaking down his corpus into fun, digestible quotes as they rightly should.
So this one’s to the moviegoers, the movie critics and the movie lovers. Ebert brought a sensitivity and refreshing lack of pretension to his reviews. His final blog post ends with a wonderful turn of phrase: “I’ll see you at the movies.” We’ll all be there, filling the pews and gazing at the silver screen and our laptops alike.
—Adam Buchsbaum ‘14 is a Film major.