In the wake of this week’s Associated Press dictate limiting its entertainment writers (including movie reviewers) to 500 words, Roger Ebert weighs in on the current state of film criticism in general. He sees intelligent criticism increasingly pushed aside in favor of celebrity gossip and he fears not only for critics but for the health of our culture in general.

“The celebrity culture is infantilizing us. We are being trained not to think. It is not about the disappearance of film critics. We are the canaries. It is about the death of an intelligent and curious, readership, interested in significant things and able to think critically. It is about the failure of our educational system. It is not about dumbing-down. It is about snuffing out.”

I hate the profusion of celebrity reporting as much as Ebert, but I’m a little more optimistic about the future of culture…for now. By dumbing themselves down, newspapers are simply hastening their own inevitable obsolescence. They’re losing their hold as the keepers of knowledge, but knowledge isn’t going away. With the Internet, it’s easier to find than ever. The difference is that the act of filtering the information falls to the reader. Readers have to be smarter and choosier than ever before. Will we rise to the challenge or will we succumb to our lazier instincts?

8 Responses to “Ebert on the State of Film Criticism”

  1. I have to agree with you about the newspapers hastening their own inevitable obsolescence. There are plenty of bloggers, and not just film bloggers, who write in-depth, intelligent critiques and essays on films, politics, social and economic issues, books, you name it. And they ALL have strong readership. The more choosy readers will just move away from newspapers more and more and turn to the Internet or other publications whose articles give them more to think about and learn.

    There’s an interesting article that a friend forwarded to me recently. I’ll look for the link and post it here. It says a lot of the same things that Ebert is saying.

  2. Here’s the link:
    http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/20081110_america_the_illiterate/

  3. I particularly found interesting the paragraph about Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe leaving a restaurant in their car, and his follow up:

    This was in the 1950s. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have not been able to do that once in their adult lifetimes. Celebrities do not use limousines because of vanity. They use them as a protection against cannibalism.

    Most celebrities want to be seen to a certain degree, I suppose, but there is definitely an element of protecting themselves. I like that he mentions Brad and Angelina – people usually bash them. The tabloid headlines about them are tiring but I happen to like both of them.

  4. When Ebert — for whom I have nothing but the utmost respect — says “celebrity culture” is doing this or that, or the other thing, he is grossly oversimplifying a complex problem. Off the top of my head, just sitting down here at the computer, I can think of several other things that contribute to “our infantilization”: politicians’ love of sound bites, the credit-card industry’s telling us us can have what we want RIGHT NOW, Hollywood’s playing to the lowest common denominator, our elected officials reducing everything to pablum to pander to the vote … and people reducing complex problems to overly-simplistic sermonizing.

  5. I agree with you, Craig. You can’t use Dancing With The Stars as a sign of the apocalypse when there are shows like The Sopranos that are even more successful.

    Roger Ebert sounds like he has inevitably reached that age where everything you look at has gone to pot. George Carlin and Robert Altman had reached similar conclusions by the last decade of their lives, but I think it’s all a matter of perspective.

  6. Frankly, the loss of critics are the one aspect of the withering newspaper industry that I’m not getting all that worked up about simply because it’s the one spot where the Internet has shown itself perfectly capable of being a replacement. Critics traffic in opinion, and opinion is something the internet has in abundance. It’s newspapers’ shedding of actual reporters that I’m more concerned about since so far there hasn’t been much in the way of internet news gathering. So far the internet hasn’t done much to replace the reporters who the newspapers are losing, which means society is operating at a loss.

  7. You make excellent points Rick. I don’t know if you checked out the article at the link I posted, but it covers many of the issues you mention. Although the “celebrity culture” may contribute to certain attitudes it’s definitely not the whole picture.

    It’s not just the politicians’ love of soundbytes – it’s the fact that our culture is so computerized and fast-paced now that people don’t have time for anything more than that before they move on to the next thing. And for the less educated groups, summarized soundbytes are more easily grasped.

    I would imagine that even before television and radio politicians and any speakers addressing large groups had to be entertaining to a certain degree to keep people interested. The politicians who were successful before electronics were no doubt excellent public speakers and masters of rhetoric – all facets of being entertaining and interesting.

  8. Thanks for that link A.

    I’m choosing to remain optimistic but I do think the obsession with celebrity is a symptom of a larger problem where information has to be entertainment. You saw it even in the recent presidential election.

    But as I said, I’m looking at the glass being half full. The internet makes it easier for more people to express themselves and I think the cream will rise to the top.

    A big reason I started LiC was a disatisfaction with the content and tone of some of the bigger sites – the focus on celebrity gossip and box office figures for example. The internet is a place where someone with a niche audience can survive and thrive I think. You don’t have to pander to the mainstream.

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