The State of the Race: The Ghost of Roger Ebert, The Future of Film

Roger Ebert silently presides over these proceedings here at Cannes. He’s long gone from this physical world but his legacy steadfastly endures — especially this year, partly due to the documentary of his biography “Life Itself,” playing to rapturous reviews here at Cannes, and partly from the presence of Ebert’s wife Chaz, a vital force for film criticism here at Cannes, and online as she continues to run the website, RogerEbert.com. But he hovers for another reason. There were few enough major critics who could balance their love of cinema with their job as film critics when Ebert was still here to show us how. There are far fewer of them now. Ebert’s reviews puts films in context for people because through most of Ebert’s life people actually bought tickets to serious films. You’ll never run out of meeting people, film fans, who credit Ebert with both their love of movies and with their own ability to discern the best of them.

Ebert was such a people’s film critic, so much so that he likely birthed a whole generation of movielovers and many of that generation are writing film reviews today. As a film critic your job can be to open doors or it can be to close them. Ebert was never one to close them, as film advocacy was a big part of what he did. Ebert took living seriously. That gave him a big picture to work from. He knew that his reviews weren’t about him.

This year before Cannes, Owen Gleiberman lost his job at Entertainment Weekly following in the wake of Lisa Schwarzbaum’s departure. Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir isn’t here and neither is The New Yorker’s Richard Brody. The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, the Los Angeles TImes’ Kenneth Turan and the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips are all wandering around. But there is a new breed of critical voice that has begun to dominate how films are received stateside. Those voices can help determine whether or not a studio picks up a movie for distribution, whether their hundreds of thousands of followers will buy tickets to that movie, and perhaps even dictate whether that filmmaker will have a bright future or not. They operate more as focus groups that test the water rather than insightful film critics who broaden the debate of cinema and help put great films in the context of history. These critics, I believe, want it to be more about them than it is about the movie. And to me that makes them potentially positioned to do more harm than good, particularly when their taste is suspect but their opinion based on that taste sounds convincingly grandiose.

Each of them comes with their own group of followers who really are genuinely interested in their take because that take might tell them how they’re supposed to feel. Here, and in the Oscar race, you often have people a little shy to pull the trigger with their opinion because what if they don’t agree with the status quo? Then they’re going to look stupid. Or else they like disagreeing with the status quo because then they are recognized and set apart from the rest.

Last year’s Venice Film Festival introduced Gravity to the awards race with a rave from Hitfix’s Guy Lodge, who gave the film a rare A. Gravity, it must then be noted, is the high bar for that critic. Anything that gets a lower grade than that isn’t as good as Gravity. These things are noticed by readers, as they note who liked what and who didn’t — as though these things actually matter, as though the image of that person is defined by their taste and eventually the quality of the films themselves get caught up in that circle jerk.

All of us bloggers on Twitter have the very same types of fan bases, people who want to know — and VALUE — what we think about movies. We have a responsibility to them to make sure we give an honest answer, but also, and more importantly, to make sure we check our egos at the door. I am known as someone who likes everything. That is less valuable to the collective than the most discriminating critics, especially those who delight in giving a film a thrashing and then sarcastically tweeting about it, reveling in its failure among like-minded cohorts. What so many writers seem to lack as a film critics, even when their writing is exceptionally good, is what Roger Ebert had in spades: a big picture love for cinema and a desire to make the culture of film a better place. In other words, Ebert often wrote reviews of films that didn’t necessarily tell the cold, hard truth because he was putting his power to good use; his own peculiarities mattered less than the ultimate success of an extremely well intentioned film that was hard to get made. He would never try to sell you a bad movie but there was simply always more to it than his own opinion.

The same could be said of the best critics writing about film today — Richard Brody, J. Hoberman, Erik Kohn, Glenn Kenny, Sam Adams, James Rocchi, Ann Hornaday, Joe Morgenstern, A.O. Scott, Peter Bradshaw, Mick LaSalle — the list goes on and on. The old school film critics think hard before they pull that trigger and they come equipped with enough big picture knowledge of both cinema and the world that in their hands the futures of films can be trusted. Brody says that film criticism is better now than it ever has been. But is anyone even listening to the upper eschelon anymore? Aren’t they just following the more personality-driven tweeters whose taste in film molds their identity? From where I sit, watching so many great films come to Cannes and receive a MEH reaction from the critics, at least on Twitter, I have begun to wonder what the point of it all is.

I am not safe from any of this type of criticism. For one thing, nothing I say really matters — otherwise many of the films coming out of Cannes would be getting better treatment overall. For another thing, I’m an Oscar blogger, so who cares what I think about movies unless I’m somehow measuring their Oscar success. In my field, the world of NO is ten times worse than it is the world of film critics.

Hearing the hard Nos among many writers where the Oscars are concerned is frustrating. Haven’t they learned anything? The point this early in the game isn’t to be “right.” Good lord, who cares. It’s to have an impact. Why would you want to spend the next six months worrying if you were right or not? Is that really a good use of your time? Don’t forget how Gravity was born last year. It got the rare A from Guy Lodge who raved about it from the Venice Film Fest. It was then safely ushered through Oscar season, particularly over there at Team Hitfix, and then from everywhere. That collective enthusiasm for that film was deafening. It had no other option but to become an Oscar contender.

Conversely, Inside Llewyn Davis had the same amount of enthusiasm thrown at it early in the year, the same amount of critical love, the same ushering through of Oscar season but the voters turned their back on it — probably because they couldn’t attach themselves to a film about failure when the focus of their careers is all about success — how much better to root for a film like Gravity where Sandra Bullock triumphs over enormous odds.

But think about it. Would you rather have spent the year championing Inside Llewyn Davis or spent it folding your arms over your chest and saying “nope.” At the end of the day you will have been right. It turned out that Team Hitfix was not right in their prediction, which lasted a very long time, an entire year almost, that Gravity would ultimately win Best Picture. But did that make their enthusiasm for it any less so? I don’t think so.

I’m not a big on closing doors so early, especially when American film is all but dying on the vine and giving way to tentpole effects film. I’m not a big fan of closing doors when there is just a strong effort to be inventive in cinema, even if it isn’t perfect. It isn’t the critics job to seek perfection in art. That job belongs to the artist. At a time when more and more people are watching television, less and less films are being made, how can you advocate for more doors being closed in the face of that?

Let’s keep in mind that there are bad films and there are films that aren’t bad but maybe aren’t exactly what the critic wanted or hoped they would be. Bad films are probably worth warning people away from (although to be honest, nowadays people just look at how many stars the users on Netflix or IMBd gave the thing, they probably aren’t even reading reviews). But films that aren’t bad but are imperfect ARE getting hurt in the process.

Michel Hazanavicius made a movie called The Search. It did not fare well with critics. I would never say a guy like Peter Bradshaw or Manohla Dargis should write a good review of that movie because a lot of people would like to see it — but at the end of the day I think a lot of people would like to see it. So how can we get it to them? In a world of No, how can we get this film to the people anyway? If they discover it years from now on Netflix they are going to be wowed beyond words at what an involving, entertaining, moving film it is. Aren’t films made for these people too?

And finally, the real problem with the film critics, the bloggers and even the Oscar bloggers is that their tastes seems to continually reflect the patriarchy. Here at Cannes this year we’re seeing an unusual trend in all of the main competition films. The best of them all feature women, or many of them do. This has somehow caused the yapping collective here to be dismissive of the slate overall. They can’t help but be more drawn in to male-centered dramas. Or if it must be women, let them be naked and having sex as they come of age, like last year’s Palme winner (a very good film, it must be said).

Being here and seeing fine movies half destroyed, overlooked, dismissed — knowing that many of them would have a hard time getting to audiences stateside anyway, but will have an even harder time with a chorus of Nos shutting doors in their faces, it breaks my tired old heart and makes me see what a giant gaping hole Ebert left behind. There is no one to take his place because the world has changed around him. Yes, there are probably more writers about film than there ever have been. These are good writers — The Dissolve and RogerEbert.com feature many brilliant film essayists — and there are lots of people reading them.

But there are more followers of the instant take, the Twitter snark, the shorter, less brilliant reviews that go up at other movie sites. There is some trickle down to be seen, from the good film critics on down but it starts here. And it isn’t starting here.

Cannes this year is almost over. Whatever wins the Palme d’Or probably won’t make much difference to the upcoming awards cycle in America. It probably won’t make people see the movie, though will earn that filmmaker much prestige. Somewhere along the way the powerful forces on Twitter will rally their bases and take sides. They will want one film to win and if it doesn’t win the world is caving in. I’m one of those people. I am hoping the film that wins will be one that, in lieu of it being a film directed by a woman, let it be a film ABOUT a woman.

But since the critics most recent splooge is for Leviathan — by many reports a masterpiece, a Russian film with men at the center — the chances that movie prevailing are pretty strong. Even this year, even with so many films about women doing things in society that matter — saving jobs, saving children, arguing cases before the world human rights court — these films come from cultures that value women. Sadly, our film community seems to not be as able to relate to those stories. And so it goes.

As we prepare to leave Cannes behind we look forward toward Telluride. The choices for best of the year will soon start to shake out. There will be a few from here at Cannes — Foxcatcher and Mr. Turner for sure. But I’m not sure what fate awaits The Homesman and Maps to the Stars. Mommy is a breathtaking, mesmerizing film that could bring in audiences anew as they check out a filmmaker who is reinventing the form and doing it without any CGI at all.

Cannes is about opening doors, or it should be. Even as I fly home I will think about how to hold open those doors as I watch the upcoming Oscar season plays out.

10 Comments on this Post

  1. ubourgeois

    Given that you’ve actually been there at Cannes, I don’t want to imply that you haven’t been in the middle of it all or that you aren’t paying attention, I really don’t, but I have to say I’m very confused about this impression you have that people don’t like this year’s Cannes slate. Peter Bradshaw’s only given out three reviews under three stars through the whole thing, compared to his four five-star reviews already (the yet-unscreened Sils Maria notwithstanding). Even some of the most bristly critics seem to be enjoying themselves. The Screendaily grid, at the time of writing two-thirds filled, only has two films with an average under 2 stars. From where I’m standing, it looks like every competition film (sans perhaps Captives and Saint Laurent) has some degree of enthusiastic support. If anything, it looks like Mommy is the Twitter favorite to win the Palme right now (few filmmakers are as trendy as Dolan).

  2. julian the emperor

    I think Sasha’s assessment is fairly accurate. Bradshaw is the anomaly here. His five-star reception of Mr. Turner, Foxcatcher and Two Days, One Night in particular don’t really reflect the opinion of the majority of reviews I’ve encountered out of Cannes.

  3. craze

    Or maybe those critics aren’t being hateful and they actually think they’re bad movies? Plenty of films starring women receive good reviews.

    If anyone’s allowing gender bias to cloud their judgement, it might be you, Sasha.

  4. craze

    I also think, while you’re right about American film becoming more and more dominated by blockbusters, that you’re selling some of those blockbusters short.

    Where’s the enthusiasm for genuinely good summer blockbusters like Godzilla and the new X-men? Those count for something.

  5. Bob Burns

    group-think within an online film-fan community? nuthin for it.

  6. Jeremy

    @craze: I didn’t really pay attention to that part. The sky-is-falling/death of american cinema/boo blockbuster thing has been a consistent rallying point for every so-called cinephile of the past 30+ years, you gotta wonder how long this “Death of American cinema” can last? Were the 80s the deadly cough, and the 90s the deathbed period? Have we reached the last words phase?

  7. Kosha girl

    “they are going to be wowed beyond words at what an involving, entertaining, moving film it is.” good thing that even US/western critics panned this historically inacurate abomination. I was afraid they will be all over this film aka chechen angels. But ordinary ppl from US will probably eat it up *shudders*

  8. Jason B.

    It’s rather sad that Sasha cannot see beyond her own interests. I’m not sure why Sasha has to lessen the importance and talent of a Russian filmmaker and the acclaim his film has received because it’s not “about women” or from a culture that “values women” – a point which I would disagree. If it’s not about women or minorities, for some reason Sasha seems to consider it less important instead of understanding that there are many, many issues of urgency around the world. Especially to criticize the Cannes film community for not “relating to those stories” (aka her preferences) seems such a closed-minded, first-world mentality.

    I’m completely understanding that we all have our priorities/interests when it comes to social or political issues. There needs to be room for everyone and of course women and minorities are still struggling to make that voice heard. But how can you completely write-off the significance of Leviathan? Perhaps Sasha is unaware of Russia, its politics and its films, and even the current Ukraine situation, so she doesn’t see the significance of it premiering at this moment… Sasha doesn’t raise the profile of talented female, minority or LGBT filmmakers as much as she chooses to attack those who don’t match her perspective. I’m not sure why she chooses this path, but I can only assume she knows how to generate internet traffic to AD. When I first started checking AD years ago, this was not as prominent, and neither was the need to have Ryan dissect people’s arguments by selectively scrutinizing one slip-up while not addressing the larger points. But I also think he would be such a great spokesman for someone for that reason.

    But on that point, by posting this, I’m sure Sasha or Ryan will attack me, or just ignore the post. But hopefully more people can encourage Sasha to take her important perspective that highlights social issues unlike other film critics, but to consider, for example, that the “film community” might have seen something in Leviathan that was equally important or timely even though it doesn’t address other issues or come from a culture that has the same societal values as her.

  9. Jason B.

    What did I do to get strung up on this issue? Sometime today maybe Paddy Mulholland can drop by to verify that I told him yesterday how much I’m looking forward to seeing Leviathan and how I seek out movies like Leviathan whenever and wherever I’m lucky enough to find them.

    I support all kinds of great movies because I like to watch all kinds of great movies.

    Please take note: This is me, not attacking you and not ignoring you. Instead I’m pretty sure that this is you attacking me. This is what I wake up to have greet me first thing Monday morning? Thanks.

  10. Jason B.

    Ryan – I wasn’t citing your article or your opinions and don’t see how I attacked you when I credited your skills? And I’ve mentioned that numerous times. It’s Sasha’s writing that half of me praises for being one of the few and only film critics to raise the stature of minority and female filmmakers… who then goes and commits the same offenses she criticizes that make me want to pull my hair out in disappointment.

    Perhaps no one else caught the xenophobic attitude at the end of her article. “a Russian film with men at the center… Even this year, even with so many films about women doing things in society that matter… these films come from cultures that value women. Sadly, our film community seems to not be as able to relate to those stories. And so it goes.”

    Sure, Russia has a bad reputation due to its political leadership, but what Sasha’s doing here is attributing its political system to its culture. Its one thing to criticize the “film community” – one of which Sasha is a part of – as being slow to modernize and diversify, but what’s the excuse for taking a swipe at one culture to argue that films about women aren’t getting the recognition they deserve? Would you make this same comment swapping out Russia for Iran in this same passage? I don’t think anyone would make that same general statement about the film community if it praised an Iranian film centered around men when there’s film about women from “cultures that value women.”

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