Friday, April 24, 2009

Ebertfest Report #3: Film Criticism 101

This morning I attended a panel discussion on “Film Criticism & the Internet”. The discussion was a lighthearted endeavor that only erupted into harsh differences of opinion at one point when moderator David Bordwell had to calm things down between a couple of the panelists. It also gave us “the first Unabomber reference of the festival” according to Richard Roeper.

The 10 person panel consisted of a broad cross reference of professional film critics, including Nell Minow, aka The Movie Mom (, Dean Richards (WGN Radio & Television), Steve Prokopy, aka ‘Capone’ (Ain’t It Cool News), Eric Childress (, Hank Sartin (Time Out Chicago), Kim Voynar (Movie City News), Lisa Rosman (US Weekly), Roeper (Chicago Sun Times), Pete Sobczynski (, and Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune).

Early on the in the discussion Roeper demystified the notion of “the internet” as this entity that demanded and controlled a different set of rules for writing. He compared it to a similar misnomer of “the Media” as some conscious agenda oriented unit, some mass force out to get anybody who might oppose it. When in reality the critic, whether he is working for a publishing corporation or just writing for himself on the Internet, is only after “the elephant in the room”—money.

Monetary circumstances aside the Internet is something that all writers need to incorporate into their writing practices. “We’re all online pretty soon,” said Bordwell, a former professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with several books on film in publication. “In fact, we just went under,” his punchline drew great guffaws of laughter from the entire panel. We laugh that we might not cry.

“The Internet has made possible a lot of views that were not possible before,” added Minow, speaking of her own success as The Movie Mom. In her not-quite-alternate persona, Minow has found a unique niche in the film criticism world of that of a critic who focuses on family themes and subject content issues that have landed her in forums and formats she may never have found herself in before the days of the Internet, when certain content ideals were required of the print critic.

While most of the critics agreed that the Internet loosed them of many of the restrictions they felt imposed upon their writing by word count and content editing, they all also agreed the were some definitive dangers in the way the Internet allows more writers more freedoms. Without editors, the Internet doesn’t create a structure in which a writer’s work in necessarily nurtured the way it should be. “It’s like when you’re having a conversation with somebody and they’re talking forever,” Richards added in criticism of how some online writers don’t know when to say when.

Bordwell brought up excess of plot summary as a common problem for the amateur critic working without an editor. This is certainly a problem I fight with myself about constantly. Speaking as someone who had a wonderful editor for a while, went through a period without one and is once again getting an editor’s treatment (however not on Ebertfest entries because of time restraints), I can say life for a writer is much better with good editing. I can just sit easier with what I’m putting out there and am able to relax as a writer once more.

Voynar added to Bordwell’s comment, “If you’re just synopsizing a film… well, a monkey at a typewriter could do that.” I’d like to meet that monkey. However, there is something to be said for a little plot summary. A review of this year’s silent film entry to the festival comes to mind. Roger Ebert chose to include a review from the original release of 1928’s “The Last Command” in this year’s program. And while it is nice to read the critical style of the 20’, there is no semblance of what the movie is even about in the article beyond the fact that the main character was a Russian General and has been reduced to being an extra in a Hollywood movie.

Ebert once wrote that even a plot summary could function as criticism. And there is truth to that statement. While some reviews can use some summary for clarity, the full-length plot summary as review leaves much to be desired. The important thing is to approach it from a specific perspective. “The unfortunate thing about the time demands [placed on critics] is that you can’t form a perspective,” injected Philips, “You can form an opinion quickly.”

Rosman added that another danger of the lone critic is that he runs the risk of getting self-referential. She said one of Ebert’s greatest strengths was that he is a generalist. He can relate the movie to the world at large, rather than with just that of his own personal experience. Bordwell was quick to point out that what can be said about a good film critic, can also be said about a good film director. They each have a larger story to tell, and that story reaches father back than the introduction of Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith onto the movie scene.

Sartin proclaimed, “The Internet is voracious.” While this can benefit a critic with an outpouring of responses to his opinion, it also creates a sort of need for more immediate ways of accessing as much information as possible about the movies. This leads to the celebrity tabloidizing of productions, which might appeal to some readers, but generally acts as a distraction from the hardened analysis of movies for which critics are sanctioned.

Movie piracy is another symptom of the hunger the Internet has created for movie access. I broached the subject of piracy during the audience question and answer session. I asked the panel for their thoughts on the recent firing of Robert Friedman by over the review he posted of the new “Wolverine” movie which he illegally downloaded in order to see it early. It was not a difficult subject for the panel to form their collective opinion on. They each quickly echoed the thoughts of Childress, “He got what he deserved.” (Read my parallel thoughts on the subject in my recent editorial here.)

These collective opinions appear online on sites like and These collectives create a phenomenon that lead to the only volatility of the day’s discussion. In making a point about how writing should be the focus of any critic’s regimen, Childress alleged that many critics whose opinions were posted regularly as part of these collectives were tools of the studios. He said these critics who don’t really write anything, they just post a rating and a couple of blurbs are there to “get wined and dined by the studios.” “They don’t really contribute anything to the world of film criticism,” he said.

Richards was quick to retort, “Don’t write off those names you see in the print ads… Nobody’s wining and dining us; nobody’s putting pressure on us.” It was obvious the two were speaking from some specific experiences, Childress seeing careless criticism, Richards defending something he may have been accused of. But I believe the two were friends again by the end of the session.

In the end, this panel of ten experts couldn’t really find much to disagree on and had the same words of advice for any aspiring film critic who wanted his voice to be heard. Be yourself. You are your voice, and only by being true to yourself will you ever distinguish yourself as any sort of writer. Not wholly original wisdom, but wisdom nonetheless.

As a side note, I felt compelled to apologize to Richard Roeper personally after forcing him to pose for a picture with me (above) at last year’s festival. I would later learn what a no no Ebert felt this was from one of his blog posts. Roeper was gracious in his denial that an apology was necessary, and said he thought Roger could be uptight about such things. Curiously, I later saw Roeper on the street and could have sworn he made an effort to avoid me. I can’t blame him though. He hadn’t had his lunch yet, and it certainly may have seemed as if that crazy guy in the NY Giants hat was stalking him. How do you think I knew he hadn’t had lunch yet?

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