Moving Pictures: To Review, or to Criticize
By Matthew Yenkala
Roger Ebert died the same day that the previous issue of THE WOD went to press, the issue containing the first installment of this column as well as my first baker's-half-dozen published movie reviews. This inevitably got me started thinking about this here new gig of mine, especially given that my intention for this second installment had been to explain my general approach to film reviewing, to define the self-imposed "rules" which will guide me in my reviewing journeys, and to give a basic overview of what readers can expect from me.
It needs to be clear that I don't mean to imply any cosmic significance to, or metaphysical connection between, the timing of those events; not even close. But I do believe in synchronicity, and Ebert's passing caused me to rethink both the substance and the framework of this month's column.
Ebert, whether you agreed with him or not, was truly one of the all-time great film critics--he was a passionate lover of film, from classics to populist blockbusters to art-house fare. He lived, breathed and wrote about films virtually his entire life, and he was lucky enough to be able to make a living doing it. He was literate, intelligent, and had a breadth and depth of knowledge about the subject of his life's passion that few others ever have, or ever will, possess. And he did it all without being an elitist snob or a complete prick.
He was also, by all accounts and evidence, simply a remarkable human being, overcoming challenge and adversity at every turn--from the 1999 passing of his professional partner/friend/rival Gene Siskel, to his own bouts with cancer several years ago, which left him unable to communicate verbally--and persevering with grace and dignity. And along with a few others of his profession, he set the bar high and he raised it ever higher for all who follow in his wake.
I never had the pleasure of meeting him, sadly. I first became aware of him, as did most of my generation, with the PBS show "Sneak Previews", on which he and fellow Chicago critic Siskel discussed and debated movies, and rendered their now-famous "thumbs up/thumbs down" verdict on each film. They often disagreed passionately--and in unusual ways: even when they both LIKED a film, they didn't always like it for the same reasons, and they didn't always see the same things in it. (Also, the "Sneak Previews" format itself was brilliant--often imitated since, but never duplicated or bettered, in large measure because of the fiery chemistry between those two men.)
From the mid-seventies through the late nineties, their presence became ubiquitous, not just through that show and its successors (such as "At The Movies") but also their entrance into the wider realm of pop culture, including appearances on "Saturday Night Live" and "Late Night With David Letterman". They were willing to make fun of themselves, which was incredibly refreshing (even if like many others, I strongly disliked Ebert's critique of David Lynch's BLUE VELVET, though that particular review is a perfect example of how he was able to express himself in such a way that even if you disagreed, you still understood where he was coming from, and why). In short, they put a likeable face on film criticism.
After Siskel died, Ebert soldiered on admirably and more than proved that his thoughts were well worth hearing, even without the counterpoint that his late colleague provided. In the end, at the time of his own passing, he was America's Movie Critic Emeritus, and his absence leaves an incalculable void in the field.
Doubtless there are a billion movie-geek-bloggers out there itching to be the heir to the Ebert throne; perhaps some who already feel they are entitled to it (I can think of a few off the top of my head, but out of politeness I won't name them or where their stuff can be read); and though not a single one of them, in my own opinion, is worthy of the honor, I'm sure there will be several self-appointed "Ebert Disciples" to emerge in the months and years to come.
But I am not one of them.
And that's because what Ebert's passing left me with is the realization that I am NOT a film critic. By the very nature of the term, "critic" has a negative connotation. To criticize is to tear down, deconstruct, and point out flaws and failings--as the first and sometimes even primary goal. (Of course, the GOOD and objective critics will also point out what's good and right about a film--though like all opinion, this is still subjective, and filtered by that critic's personal taste.) But in the end, it comes down to a basic principle: a critic will tell is there to tell you what's WRONG with a movie, before they tell you what's right.
Which is not to say there's no place for genuine criticism; of course there is. Criticism of any art form (or any other endeavor) is absolutely, perfectly valid, and there are those who have done it so well they have raised it to an art form in its own right, such that even when you disagree with them, you can still admire them for their insight and the clarity of their thoughts. Ebert was one such; so was Siskel; so was the late, great Pauline Kael (with whom I frequently disagreed). There are, and have been others, but too few--most would-be critics, it seems, simply want to tear down for the sake of tearing down.
This is something I have no interest in doing whatsoever. Because I'm not a critic. I'm a movie reviewer. Some would argue it's merely a difference of semantics, but I would beg to differ.
In my role as a movie reviewer, I will watch movies, with as open a mind and heart as I can in each and every case, and with one simple set of criteria in mind: Did I enjoy it? Was it worth seeing? Would I recommend others spend their time and money to see it?
I will strive to answer those three questions as openly and honestly as I can in every review; explain WHY I felt and reacted as I did, and what factors may have influenced my final opinion; and find the balance between the instinctual reaction and the intellectual filter.
In the course of this process, I will, inevitably, discuss where I feel a film succeeds or fails, and why. I may discuss the film in the context or its genre or in comparison with other films; I may cite precedents or influences (acknowledged or otherwise). I may even occasionally make a catty or cynical comment--hey, I'm human, and once in a while, such comments are warranted.
But (with only one exception which I'll gladly own up to--some other time) I have never gone into ANY movie with the expectation of disliking it and the intention of tearing it down--I *want* to like every movie I see. This automatically puts me at odds with not only many professional critics but also, it would seem, most "fanboy" bloggers and "tallbackers" who inhabit "Movie Geek" sites like aintitcoolnews.com, and who now outnumber the learned, literate critics literally by the millions.
But I'm not them. While I do have my own filmmaking aspirations, I'm not some frustrated, failed director with a film-school-sized chip on my shoulders. I'm not pandering to some circle of elite, highbrow hipsters. I'm not beholden to some impossible standard of either artistic integrity or indie street cred. I'm not trying to impress you with my knowledge of film, or dazzle you with my pithy and clever wordplay. And I have absolutely no pretensions of filling the empty theater seats vacated by Ebert, or Siskel, or Kael.
I'm just a guy who loves movies--loves them so much I even owned my own movie theater for a while. And here, on the side, while I work on my own goal in making them, I will watch movies and write about them--openly and honestly; to share my thoughts about, opinions on and reactions to them--whether I like them or not; and to do so from the heart.
And that's something I hope earns two thumbs up.