Roger Ebert | Interview
On blogs and critics, Roger Ebert takes the long view.
To us, having Roger Ebert weigh in on online criticism was a no-brainer: Singular as an oxymoronic “celebrity critic,” Ebert is arguably one of our most influential arts reviewers. Innumerable American moviegoing lives have been shaped by Ebert’s thumb—starting in 1978, when PBS first nationally aired his show with the late Gene Siskel. Salivary gland cancer has left the Pulitzer winner without speech, at least for now—thus his need to conduct this interview via e-mail—but not without a voice, as he continues to add to (by his own estimate) his 10,000 movie reviews.
Time Out Chicago: There’s this anxiety over blog critics: They’re not edited, they’re considered not as informed and accountable as published critics. Do you share that concern at all?
Roger Ebert: Let the reader beware. Bloggers have a wider range, from the too stupid to ever see in print, to the too expert and specialized to ever see in print.
Time Out Chicago: Did you and Siskel face a similar anxiety when you went on TV?
Roger Ebert: Yes, but we were established as print critics. I had an exchange with Richard Corliss of Time, who wrote in Film Comment that our TV reviews were too short. But we talked fast: I was able to show that we devoted more words to a movie than Time did.
Time Out Chicago: That brings up a related question: Do a publication’s space constraints, as opposed to online writers’ lack of them, demand greater care with writing?
Roger Ebert: Possibly so. There is a point at which a review stops being a review and becomes an article, a paper or a book.
Time Out Chicago: What about the absence of editors with blogs? How much have your own editors shaped you as a critic?
Roger Ebert: My editors have not shaped me. But they have saved me from countless errors. Now that e-mail and the Web exist, readers everywhere correct you. See my weekly “Answer Man” column.
Time Out Chicago: Part of the appeal of blog criticism is the idea that everyone can be a critic. What do you think?
Roger Ebert: Everyone can be a critic, but not everyone can be a good one, or a good writer (just as important). Training and experience you can accumulate on the job. Education is a lifelong process.
Time Out Chicago: What makes a good critic?
Roger Ebert: Someone who can write in a way you find interesting, useful, informed, readable and often entertaining.
Time Out Chicago: As published criticism gets shorter, it’s reduced to a yes or no. But didn’t that start with Siskel & Ebert’s thumbs up-down ratings? Did that help diminish arts criticism?
Roger Ebert: Siskel & Ebert, judging by countless people who have told me this over the years, inspired a great many of our younger viewers to want to become directors, critics, screenwriters. Several Sundance directors have told me, “I got hooked on movies because of your show.” Kids learned at early ages that it was expected they have an opinion on a movie, and not just take it in passively. We were able to materially affect the destinies of a great many smaller films. For in-depth criticism, any sensible person would have looked further.
Time Out Chicago: You’re a rarity: a critic who’s well liked and respected. Why do arts critics have such a bad rep?
Roger Ebert: They have a bad rep among people who don’t read them, just like “the media” in general does. It’s defensiveness among the less secure. Those who actually read find critics they like and respect.
Time Out Chicago: Do you think bloggers tap into that distrust as “anticritic critics”?
Roger Ebert: Pauline Kael was doing that 50 years ago. She named names, picked fights, feuded, blasted others, notably Sarris [Andrew Sarris of The Village Voice].
Time Out Chicago: How do you see film criticism changing with blogs?
Roger Ebert: There’s more of it. It’s of variable quality, some excellent, some worthless. The advantages are unlimited space and the ability to get views into print without editorial intervention. (Sometimes those can also be drawbacks.) The major benefit is as a launching pad for worthy new voices.
Time Out Chicago: Who do you think is the best film critic out there—in print or online?
Roger Ebert: Stanley Kauffmann and David Bordwell. If they disagree with me, I question myself. Bordwell has the most knowledgeable blog on the Web.
Time Out Chicago: With your own website, you get a lot of feedback—a big part of blogging. Does that inform how you write?
Roger Ebert: Not how I write. I write, at this point, instinctively. The feedback is more personal and informative. I get maybe 200 to 500 e-mails a day.
Time Out Chicago: Will you be back on the air?
Roger Ebert: I’m having surgery January 24. Then we shall see.
Time Out Chicago: You’ve been a film critic for 40 years. What keeps you watching—and caring?
Roger Ebert: Movies. The good ones. And the spectacularly bad ones. It’s the blah movies that drive you nuts.