Why I Miss Roger Ebert
(Youtube) Video Killed the (Film Criticism) Star
I remember exactly where I was when I heard Roger Ebert had passed away.
I was in my college dorm room, checking the Internet when the news popped up. I let out an audible gasp, and probably an “oh, no!” I remember I had a big lump in my throat for the rest of the day. Ebert was the gatekeeper when it came to my interest in cinema. His reviews were easily accessible on the Internet, and I had done my fair share of Google searches to find out exactly what he said about all of my favorite movies and late-night Youtube binging of old episodes of Siskel and Ebert.
I think if I could explain why I felt such grief at Ebert’s death, it would because I felt like there was an emptiness, a hole that didn’t used to be there before. What would fill that hole in his absence? Who would, or even could, replace Ebert? Was film criticism destined to decline in the absence of such an influential figure?
Now, some two and a half years after his death, it looks increasingly like film criticism as we know it, and as Ebert knew it, will change forever. Suddenly, with the rise of social media, the old expression “everyone’s a critic” is more truth than fiction at this point. Youtube critics, or non-professional film reviewers, have risen to prominance, and with that comes some problems that are worth discussing. With the pace of changes in our cultural climate so rapidly exceeding, we need time to reflect on just how much popular film criticism has changed since Ebert's death, and what it means for film criticism as a whole.
Part 1: In Which Two Youtube Critics Start a Campaign of Hate Against an Oscar-Winning Movie
Among the more popular Youtube Critics are RedLetterMedia. RedLetterMedia emerged in 2009 with a 70-minute review of Star Wars: Episode I- The Phantom Menace that became exceedingly popular. This was because the review was done by a character named Mr. Plinkett, a bizarre sociopathic, perhaps homicidal old man who said as many funny lines as he did give insight into why the movie failed. The review spread, earning accolades and attention from film aficionados and Star Wars fans, leading to follow-up reviews of the second and third Star Wars prequels.
The man behind these reviews, Mike Stoklasa, launched a series where he and his close friend Jay Bauman would review contemporary film releases not as the Mr. Plinkett character, but as themselves. Their news series, Half in the Bag, debuted in early 2011 and have been releasing episodes in regular intervals ever since then.
In summer of 2014, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood came out. With a 98% Rotten Tomatoes score and many critics from all across the country proclaiming it to be a landmark, groundbreaking film, it earned a respectable $44 million worldwide, and received Golden Globe and BAFTA awards for Best Picture, as well as six Academy Award nominations, including one win for Patricia Arquette in the Best Supporting Actress category.
Shortly after the film debuted, Half in the Bag reviewed Boyhood, with both Bauman and Stoklasa coming out overwhelming against the film. They said things like, and I am quoting directly from their review, that Boyhood “sucked,” “sucked so bad,” “sucked,” “fucking sucked so hard,” that it was “manipulative,” and that “by the end of it, you just want to die.” They said it was “a betrayal” or “like watching paint dry,” that it suffered from “really bad, corny acting and flat scenes,” that Richard Linklater’s drama was “laughable” and that the script was “very, very, very bad” and “stale.” They critiqued it for not having enough melodrama, seemingly missing the entire point of the film. They remained woefully ignorant of Linklater’s other work, with Stoklasa admitting he had only seen Slacker out of all of the films in Linklater’s 20-year spanning filmography. They lambasted it for a scene where a young character says the phrase “true dat,” seemingly irrelevant to the overall quality of the film.
Rather than admitting they might have gone overboard in their dislike, they followed up with a video where they made fun of what they viewed as the overwhelmingly positive reception of the film.
Closer to Oscar season, they ridiculed the film again in a similar sarcastic manner, making fun this time of the film’s promotion for it having been filmed over the course of 12 years.
They similarly encouraged their fans to lambast the film on social media, which is apparent when you see the comments section of their Facebook page when an article relevant to Boyhood was posted.
Similarly, on Oscar night, their vitriol was not cooled when Boyhood was in a surprise upset loss to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film Birdman.
Apparently not the best film of the 21st century so far...— Red Letter Media (@redlettermedia) February 23, 2015
It used to be that the purpose of having two critics discuss movies is that they could disagree with one another, or call each other out when appropriate. Consider Siskel and Ebert, like when Gene Siskel called Ebert out for seemingly liking the children’s film Benji the Hunted more than Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket:
Or when Siskel adamantly disliked another Oscar-winning classic, 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, and Ebert defended it and asked Siskel to consider things he hadn’t before:
Debate between two movie critics can be informative, for them and for us, the viewer. In contrast, Stoklasa and Bauman only reinforce each other’s worldview. Moreover, all the attention they gave towards what I’m calling a “hate campaign” against a film that is so well respected by industry insiders, critics, and seemingly the general public (with the exception of RedLetterMedia’s fans, apparently) over actually-bad films that deserve scrutiny is truly baffling.
Compare RedLetterMedia’s rhetoric (including use of simplistic vulgarities like “it sucked” in articulating why they disliked Boyhood to the rhetoric of Ebert when he talked about a movie he didn’t like, in this case 1994’s infamous children’s film North starring Elijah Wood and Bruce Willis:
“I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it. I hold it as an item of faith that Rob Reiner is a gifted filmmaker; among his credits are This Is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, The Princess Bride, Stand By Me, When Harry Met Sally, and Misery. I list those titles as an incantation against this one. North is a bad film - one of the worst movies ever made. But it is not by a bad filmmaker, and must represent some sort of lapse from which Reiner will recover - possibly sooner than I will.”
Note the difference of Ebert saying how disappointed he was in Reiner for making North considering his impressive filmography, in contrast to RedLetterMedia’s relative ignorance about Richard Linklater’s filmography in their review of Boyhood.
Or consider how Ebert talked about a film he loved. This is a review of the 1997 film Contact, both one of my favorite movies and Ebert reviews (this comes from his revisiting of the film for his series The Great Movies):
"Contact is a film that takes place at the intersection of science, politics and faith. Those are three subjects that don't always fit easily together. In the film, an alien intelligence transmits an image of three pages of encrypted symbols. It is clear where the corners of each page are. It is also clear that the three corners are intended to come together in some way to make single image. Scientists are baffled in their attempts to bring the pages together. The solution, when we see it, provides an Eureka Moment. It is so simple, and yet so difficult to conceive of. It may be intended as a sort of intelligence test…. The strength of Contact is in the way it engages in issues that are relevant today, and still only rarely discussed in the movies."
Compare Ebert’s exquisite insight on Contact to popular Youtube film-reviewer Jeremy Jahn’s perspective on a film he was very fond of, 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road:
“It’s a pretty simple premise for the movie: it’s an escort mission from a video game… Now, this movie’s crazy. I’m not going to lie to you. It’s out of its mind. It’s George Miller’s Mad Max doing George Miller [sic] Mad Max things on a bigger budget. At a point, you look at it and you’re like 'This is movie is like a cartoon version of its crazy post-apocalyptic self.'”Jahns, on top of other prominent critics like RedLetterMedia, YourMovieSucks, Chris Stuckmann, etc. utilize simplistic language and quick edits to get their point across. They mostly exclusively review genre movies, and show little to no interest in the independent or dramatic film genres. Most of the time, their reviews boil down to the most basic levels of “this was good, this was bad, this could’ve been better” rather than tackling the film as a whole the way Ebert used to. Sure, Ebert was not above using repetition and emotion in his reviews (his “I hated hated hated hated this movie” is evidence that he most certainly did) but when he did, it almost always had a point. Moreover, it was fun to read and listen to. Youtube critics almost always use a mix of hyperbole and language intentionally dumbed down for your everyday layman in order to get their points across. Because of that, in this humble writer’s opinion, the entire genre of film criticism suffers.
When I think about Roger Ebert, I think about how insightful he could be. I think about how many books of essays I have in my bookshelf, the reviews I can just pull out and read, the recommendations Roger wanted, no, insisted that you know he considered the best of all time.
I began this by referring to late-night binges on Youtube of Siskel and Ebert. The easiness of accessibility to those older reviews and episodes he did is probably a big reason why I consider myself to be such a big fan of Ebert’s.
But, with Ebert gone, who would the young me choose to listen to if he was coming of age today? Remember, all these Youtube film critics are just as, if not more, accessible to young viewers as those Ebert reviews were to me. Young viewers, who are just coming into their own cinematic tastes. They, like I was towards Ebert, might be susceptible to older, more experiences voices, and align their tastes with these tastemakers. Does that mean that there are young film fans out there today who will never see a Richard Linklater film because RedLetterMedia told them to? Or that there is a young fan who will avoid anything out of the hyper-masculine genres of superhero films, action films, and horror films simply because Jeremy Jahns doesn’t look as excited when he reviews a drama than when he reviews the latest Marvel movie?
These are questions we need to ask ourselves.