On-screen Obscenities: Tammy and Life Itself
What's worse: bad movies or bad movie criticism?



Essayist George W. Trow once reasoned that children have three parents: mother, father and television. But recent generations of film reviewers have a fourth: Ebert, whose significance is one with TV’s perceived omnipotence. His corporatized omnipresence reduced the impact of critics who worked traditionally, using language, knowledge, experience and literary complexity. And Ebert’s followers are like children who adore the bad parent who lacks discipline. Ebert fools them with “love of movies” candy. One on-screen mourner describes the Siskel & Ebert TV show debates (with the Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel) as “Towering figures clashing. Because they couldn’t agree, that raised the temperature of the movies they discussed.” That’s just publicist gibberish. It confuses Marshall McLuhan’s media theory with belief in hype as cultural determinant. The clips of Siskel and Ebert’s chew-toy growling over Benji: The Hunted shows the level of their erudition.


James reiterates the news of Ebert’s Pulitzer Prize (he was the first of several indistinguishable film reviewers to win) conflating it with critical worth even though nobody in the doc can mention a single esthetic or cultural idea that Ebert originated. James quotes Ebert’s review of Bonnie & Clyde (1967), implying that it announced a revolution in American movies and movie criticism (credit that rightly belongs to Pauline Kael’s long New Yorker essay that both changed the film’s fortune and reshaped the culture — an historical fact that Internet mavens are ignorant about.

Also repeated is Ebert’s “Movies are like a machine that generates empathy”–a motto favored by epigones equally prone to intellectual banalities. Ebert’s banalities subverted criticism’s esthetic and moral ambitions and its toughness. His producer’s advice “People are interested in what you have to say not how you say it” is outrageous, beat only by Ebert’s disingenuous humility: “A youth will understand that people can make up their own minds.” A presumption refuted by his Internet disciples who all yell the same juvenile opinions at each other. Ebert clones were criticism’s first rotten tomatoes, the end of true discourse.

Ebert’s popularity comes from how he ingrained resistance to hard-thought ideas. His quote “I think Raging Bull is one of the great American pictures of the year” sussed the 1980 cultural mood but his hype lingo corrupted the mood. How many “great American films” were there that year? It’s as hollow as his L’Argent clip praising Robert Bresson as “a man filled with unlimited passion.” Such TV gossip reveals how Ebert’s careerism outstripped his criticism (he maneuvered from public television to Disney sponsorship and personal copyrighting–all overlooked in this documentary). Ebert found a way to make reviewing work commercially, turning him into an icon for the era of Hollywood-journalism collusion. He won followers by appointing various Siskel replacements but bonhomie and patronage do not make a critic great.

It is necessary to separate Ebert’s real influence from his suffering. Chazz Ebert’s loving dedication is deeply admirable and evokes great sympathy for her. But further promoting Ebert’s widely imitated sophomoric style is not a proper paean, even though it is now popular to do. And that popularity, based in intellectual insecurity and defensive derivativeness, can get extremely resentful and hostile — which explains the Kael obscenity. Director James’ petty means of sentimentalizing and misrepresenting Ebert’s criticism — and its impact on film criticism’s current state — corrupts an old adage: When the lie becomes legend, film the lie.

— Film critic Armond White is author of What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About the Movies.