A couple of weeks ago /Film hosted film critic/provocateur Armond White on their weekly podcast, where he once again stirred a bit of controversy. This time, though, the subject was the state of film criticism, and he took aim at one of the popular darlings of the profession, Roger Ebert. Here’s the takeaway:

I do think it’s fair to say that Roger Ebert destroyed film criticism. Because of the wide and far reach of television, he became an example of what a film critic does for too many people. And what he did simply was not criticism. It was simply blather. And it was a kind of purposely dishonest enthusiasm for product, not real criticism at all…

You have to give White this much: He doesn’t sugarcoat his opinion. And, in a way, his capsule Jeremiad serves as a testament to Ebert’s accessibility. After all, you have to be doing something right to become so influential that you’re single-handedly capable of destroying film criticism.

For what it’s worth, his assessment of Ebert’s career doesn’t seem to me particularly apt. Audiences responded to Ebert in part because he was the visible face of the urbane yet unabashed fan of The Movies. Ebert may not have the “pedigree” that White has, but I wouldn’t call what he does “purposely dishonest.” If anything, it suffers from an excess of sincerity. If Ebert doesn’t genuinely love the act of movie-going, then he’s perpetrated one of the great hoaxes in the last 50 years or so of popular culture. Probably the most direct criticism that you can make of his approach to the business is that, ultimately, he’s only looking for a movie that will allow him to be a movie-goer. If he is pretty much the only household name in the business, it’s because many of us are likewise movie-goers.

In all likelihood, White is, too, so I don’t quite buy the attempt some have made to cast this as an archetypal struggle between the elite and the everyman. White has somewhat encouraged that tension, but you generally don’t end up in the position White is in if you don’t, at some point, love going to movies for the sheer love of movie-going. Nor does Ebert manage to entirely avoid gesturing towards criticism, as I’d say he does, perhaps obliquely, in his review of The Human Centipede. Perhaps he lacks White’s bona fides, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t picked up a few tricks over the years.

White’s digression on how Ebert wound up being the most visible instance of a film critic obscures the more interesting question of what film criticism is, or ought to be. Again, talking about Ebert, he said:

Often he wasn’t practicing criticism at all. Often he would point out gaffes or mistakes in continuity. That’s not criticism. That’s really a pea-brained kind of fan gibberish.

It’s fair to say, then, that White isn’t particularly interested in the purely technical side of film making. Nor does he care much for reviewing, which is the mode in which Ebert has worked for most of his career. It seems to me that when White talks about criticism, he’s means something like semiotics. On that view, movies are made up of the interplay of signs, and cumulatively those signs say something meaningful about the world. Thus, movies have to be decoded in order to be useful, and it’s the job of the critic to help the average slob decode them. That’s borne out in part by something he said later on in the podcast:

Because really, the reason why I do what I do is because I think there are things that need to be said about movies, about culture, about the world, that nobody’s saying.

That expanding scale – the move from movie to culture to world – is the significant bit. I don’t entirely disagree with the suggestion. In a way, what he’s talking about is catharsis, the discharge of the content of a work of art into the world. Aristotle meant the emotional discharge, but I don’t see why something like that premise couldn’t be applied to the intellectual or political content of a story, which is usually White’s subject.

But on a fundamental level, I’d say the scale shrinks before it expands. Before we can really address the meaning that a film discharges into the culture or the world, we have to engage the point of connection with the viewer. Ebert’s special province has almost always been the thin emotional space where the viewer meets the movie on its own terms.

You can think of it, if you like, as stunted development; White certainly seems to think that Ebert has bogged down in a primitive phase of critical development. But I’d say that it’s important to have at least one specialist in that regard. Ebert gives the public at large an accessible entry point into the world of criticism, and he does so at a level that could be – I would go so far as to say, ought to be – foundational to criticism as a whole.

Armond White can have his elitism, if he wants it. Personally, I think a touch of solidarity would be to his own benefit. After all, Ebert is doing him a favor by providing the most broadly available introduction to criticism. If so few people have taken the step from what Ebert does and what White thinks criticism ought to do, it may be because critics like White have done so little to bridge that gap.


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