Sunday, July 02, 2006
The Influence of Ebert
Chicago Sun Times film critic Roger Ebert -- who holds the distinction of being the first film critic to ever win the Pulitzer Prize (he won it in 1975) -- is perhaps the best know film journalist (with the possible exception of Leonard Maltin) in the world. Starting in 1978, Ebert, along with his partner Gene Siskel (who died in 1999), through national TV exposure -- first on PBS's Sneak Previews, then the syndicated At the Movies, and finally Siskel & Ebert & the Movies) was responsible for a significant rise in the film critic's influence on the general moviegoing audience. Before Ebert, no film critic had the national exposure to reach so many moviegoers. Ironically though, his TV brand of quick and simplistic "Thumbs up, Thumbs down" reviewing -- which made it easy for viewers to immediately know where he stood on a film -- also dumbed down the process which once won him that Pulitzer. Feeding on this were studio marketing directors who realized they could include the easy-to-understand "Thumbs up" review in print advertising for their movies. So, while embodying the intelligent and knowledgeable criticism that characterized the 1970s, Ebert also singlehandedly brought it down to the USA Today brand of "blurb reviews" that marked the 1980s and beyond. However, what I have always admired about Ebert's approach to criticism (which was markedly different from that of Siskel) is the fact that he is willing to review a film relative to its objective. For example, he would never rate a film like Hellboy in comparison to Mystic River, but rather to say Spider-man or Superman. With the rise of the Internet, and a plethora of Ebert wannabes, Ebert's influence has waned of late. He also continues an ongoing battle with cancer, which has once again put him in the hospital. But no doubt, when the history of cinematic critique in the 20th Century is written, Ebert will hold a place as one of the major influencers, thinkers and lovers of film.