Was I Too Hard on Roger Ebert?

by Peter Suderman

A reader says I was:

Here is a guy who, compared to most other movie critics, has been on the side of the audience most of his career - the original populist so to speak. Remember that Ebert was the first to embrace TV as a medium for criticism and took a lot of heat for it at the time. He and Siskel were called snake oil salesmen and accused of contributing to the cheapening of American film, exactly the kind of comments that you are criticizing him for now. And yet, through their show, Siskel and Ebert probably did more to to popularize independent and art films than just about anyone else.
Where people often misinterpret Ebert is that he has never mistaken populism for meaning that he has to skew his views to the audience's demands. For him, populism means reaching the largest audience possible, informing the opinions of the largest number of people possible. Whereas a certain portion of American film scholars believes that a movie like "The Hurt Locker" or "Ciizen Kane" (which Ebert helped restore to the American pantheon with his shot by shot analysis) should be excluded from the public and left to those who can "appreciate them," Ebert believes they should be seen by everyone. He also believes that audiences are much more sophisticated than we give them credit for and that he can, through criticism, help people see a side of movies they might otherwise miss. Which is the true populism?

Has he grown a bit reactionary lately? Perhaps. His recent writings have definitely shown a dangerous streak of nostalgia. But this should be taken in the context of his health (the man lost his ability to speak for god's sake) and his age. I don't think this is him trying to shore up his territory as you suggest. He has his Pulitzer and his standing with the public - two  things that will likely never be threatened. He clearly loves newspapers and doesn't enjoy watching them die, wants to share his memories of them while he still has the chance. Is that really something we should begrudge him?

Ebert's not my favorite critic, but he's as knowledgeable about movies as they come, and he's done great work on behalf of both smart cinema and smart criticism. I'm happy to grant him his nostalgia, and in some ways I even share it: Were I to design my own little Utopia, it would almost certainly include an oversupply of highly paid movie critics, and a movie-going public who took film very seriously. But I think the post I linked to went further than nostalgia, and edged into declinism and despair.

"If I mention the cliché 'the dumbing-down of America,' it's only because there's no way around it," he writes. "And this dumbing-down seems more pronounced among younger Americans." Among the reasons he gives for saying so? "Until a few decades ago, almost all high school graduates could read a daily newspaper. The issue today is not whether they read a daily paper, but whether they can." And this is from a post about his "fear that American movie-going is entering into a Dark Age."

I didn't care much for Transformers 2 either, and, like Ebert, I loved The Hurt Locker. But I don't think this sort of doomsaying is really warranted. Big, dumb movies are often popular, and smart, small films are often not. But that's been the case for decades, sagging newspaper sales or no. I hardly think it means a cinematic Dark Age is upon us.