Having grown up with Roger Ebert on television, waking up every Sunday morning to catch his show At the Movies, I never imagined how skillful a writer Ebert actually was. Back then, oh my gosh before the internet, you couldn’t read any writer or newspapers from other cities and so any film criticism aside from your local paper was strictly television. And Ebert (along with Siskel and then Roeper) was the best.
Since his health problems began a few years ago and then after he was unceremoniously dumped from At the Movies (only to be replaced by two mid-twenties nitwits) his writing has been sharp, perhaps one of the few must reads.
Recently, he offered some pointed advice for the next generation of film critics, but it seems aimed particularly at one dumbass. The one young critic who really seems to need the guidance would benefit greatly from reading Ebert’s piece. Some highlights:
Provide a sense of the experience. No matter what your opinion, every review should give some idea of what the reader would experience in actually seeing the film. In other words, if it is a Pauly Shore comedy, there are people who like them, and they should be able to discover in your review if the new one is down to their usual standard.
Keep track of your praise. If you call a movie “one of the greatest movies ever made,” you are honor-bound to include it in your annual Top Ten list. Likewise, for example, if you describe a film as “the most unique movie-going experience of a generation,” and “one of the best films of 2007, and of the last 25 years,” it’s your duty to put it in the Top Ten of 2007. This is doubly true if you have published two separate lists naming 14 of the year’s top 10 films.
Respect the reader’s time. For example, in reviewing “City of Ember,” a film about a city of the future buried deep beneath the surface of the earth,” you must not say it “looks like it was shot on a sound stage.” As Louis Armstrong said about jazz, some folks they know, and the others, you can’t tell ’em.
Be wary of freebies. The critic should ideally never accept round-trip first-class air transportation, a luxury hotel room, a limo to a screening and a buffet of chilled shrimp and cute little hamburgers in preparation for viewing a movie. If you go, your employer should pay for the trip. I understand some critics work for places that won’t even pick up the cost of a ticket, let alone a taxi fare, and are so underpaid they have never tasted a chilled shrimp. Others work for themselves, an employer who is always going out of business. Yet they are ordered to produce a piece about Michael Cera’s new film. I cut them some slack. Let them take the junket. They need the food. Also, I admire Michael Cera. But if they work for a place that is filthy rich, they should turn down freebies.
Be prepared to give a negative review. If you give one to the work of a friend, and they’re not your friend any more, they weren’t ever your friend. As Robert Altman once told me, “If you never gave me a bad review, what would a good review mean?” He was a great man. He thought over what he had said, and added: “But all your bad reviews of my films have been wrong.”
It’s great stuff all around and worth reading whether you are a burgeoning film critic or a burgeoning journalist or just interesting in a lifetime’s perspective on doing anything with integrity and honor.