Roger Ebert and the Conventional Wisdom

by Benjamin Domenech on 8:03 am May 27, 2010

Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert

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I suspect it’s rare that Twitter presences change the attitude you have toward a celebrity or politician, but Roger Ebert (@ebertchicago) is an obvious exception to that rule. Plenty of folks on the right really have come to dislike the guy, and the feeling appears mutual.

My own problem with Ebert has never been political, though — it’s been his bizarre dislike for nearly every movie I love.

The first time I can remember watching his reviews and feeling like we had seen two completely different films rant against Gladiator, which he gave an animated and emphatic Thumbs Down. His dislike for the early work of the Coen brothers was another sour note. He gave Raising Arizona and The Usual Suspects 1.5 stars, eviscerated Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and panned Reservoir Dogs, The Professional, Cop Land, and The Untouchables, which I still can’t believe he gave a Thumbs Down. His reviews for these films, like the Gladiator review, come across less like criticism than like dictates from on high — “you cannot like this movie, you will not like this movie, and if you do, you’re an idiot.”

On the other hand, Ebert gave out three stars to movies like Speed 2 and the Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, and Anaconda three and a half (to put this in perspective, he gave Godfather II three stars).

Sure, Ebert gave four stars to An Inconvenient Truth, Green Zone, Rendition, In the Valley of Elah, W — he’s speaking from his politics there, not a true analysis of the merits of a film (these were all better than Godfather II?), but lots of reviewers do that. But this isn’t about politics — the moment I just stopped reading his material was when I read Ebert’s four star review of Lakeview Terrace, a film which rated 47% at RottenTomatoes and was a deserved box office bomb, with a script that wouldn’t pass muster as an episode of CSI: Bethesda.

Opinions on film are all a matter of perspective and taste, of course, but when someone is so consistently out of sync with movies you love, I think it’s better to just ignore their opinion and find someone else to trust. Someone who gives more stars to The Brown Bunny, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls, The Golden Compass and Knowing (both four stars) than he does to The Usual Suspects, O Brother Where Art Thou, Dirty Harry, Miller’s Crossing and Godfather II doesn’t seem like a good choice. But Ebert remains the most widely known movie critic within the wider populace, because he’s an institution, he’s got a fan club, he’s certainly a sympathetic figure now, and he must know best, since he’s on TV and you’re not.

For my part, I yearn for the day when the next era of critics, guys like FilmSchoolRejects who are far less full of themselves — and far less likely to give Cop and a Half a three star review — supplant him. Ebert’s reviews seem drab and desperate, so insistent that you must agree with him and bitter if you don’t, without any of the breezy humor of some of the younger online reviewers.

At some point, if you’re so determined to be the arbiter of conventional wisdom, you risk becoming just plain conventional.

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