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Has Roger Ebert Destroyed Film Criticism? New York Critic Armond White Says Yes

Posted on July 27 2010 9:00 am

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When you love a given film and the guy next to you doesn’t, what do you think? Who cares, right? After all, taste is subjective. Newsreal Blog managing editor David Swindle and I often discuss and debate films we’ve seen. Now, I’ve studied film formally for years. Does this make my opinion more important? Perhaps for some academics, but does this make Swindle’s opinion useless? Most certainly not.

My view of film is often based in academia and film history while Swindle’s is based in the comparison to other contemporary films. Both views are justified and have their place. We represent two different possible approaches to film criticism. There can be scholarly/historical criticism as well as journalistic/populist criticism. The latter is a much more useful approach when it comes to mainstream film criticism. The fact is anyone who takes their film viewing experience seriously is capable of having a voice as a critic. However, for some people like New York film critic Armond White, it is not that simple.

For White, if a critic disagrees with him (especially if they don’t have a PhD in film studies) they are likely not very smart and should not continue writing criticism. White’s elitism has provoked him to attack fellow critic Roger Ebert, mostly because he doesn’t have a PhD in film studies. What White fails to recognize is that Ebert is writing film criticism for a newspaper, not submitting to a film journal. Ebert’s audience is not looking for the ideas presented in a doctoral thesis.

White attacks Ebert:

I do think it is 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 purposefully dishonest enthusiasm for product, not real criticism at all…I think he does NOT have the training. I think he simply had the position. I think he does NOT have the training. I’VE got the training. And frankly, I don’t care how that sounds.

White feels that due to his academic studies in film that he is a pedigreed film critic. This is wrong, he is a pedigreed film scholar, and there is a difference. While I spend a lot of time writing essays for graduate classes, I try to change my tone and focus when writing a film review. People reading film reviews aren’t looking for a journal entry and Ebert knows this.  Inside Movies responded to the statements from White and broke down the differences between types of critics:

The critics may quibble over those labels, but for this discussion, an elitist is a critic who believes his primary responsibility is to educate readers so they may better understand the film medium while a populist, using his knowledge and tastes, sets out to explain his responses to films. One assumes the voice of authority; the other assumes the voice of a confidant.

When we think of the pioneers of today’s film criticism who comes to mind? Certainly Pauline Kael (not a scholar) who was a major inspiration for both Ebert and White. Going further we can find a more scholarly approach to modern film criticism such as the work of Andrew Sarris and Robin Wood, but for most people reading film reviews they prefer the confidant over the elitist academic. Unfortunately, White has  neglected the useful purpose of critics like Ebert.

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