Roger Ebert, Roger Ebert Talks About Movies and More (Knowledge Unlimited, 1998)
Reviewed by Flo Leibowitz
I discovered this tape, now several years old, while leafing through the Insight Media class materials catalog. I thought initially it might be something I could use in class. Many of my present philosophy of art students are intrigued by the concept of taste, even the students who think it is a purely social creature, and by philosophical theories about aesthetic evaluation. Perhaps it’s because these notions explain so much about why our field exists to begin with and why it has its own characteristics, distinct from other parts of value theory. Moreover, good discussions have arisen from an assignment that asks students to clip out newspaper reviews of movies, and to discuss which of competing theorists of criticism/evaluation they think their findings support. Since Ebert is one of America’s best known reviewers of film, I wondered if he commented on the task of a film reviewer. I found that he did, although the conversation rapidly turns to other topics such as his favorite movies and directors and the movie rating system.
The tape is an installment of a television show for young people called “Talk Box”. It appears to be a talk show on serious subjects for middle school and early high school students, and the studio audience is made up of kids who interact with the guest. On this occasion, the audience was made up of students who had written reviews for their school newspaper, or the youth-speaks-out page of the local paper. The guest holds forth for only a few minutes at the start of the show; the rest of it is given over to questions from the student audience, and to responses by the students and by the guest to discussion items introduced by the host, Katy Sai.
The host asked Ebert how he became a reviewer. His answer was that he always was a reviewer. “Critics can be made, but they are also born,” he added. He loved movies, he always had strong opinions, and he liked to write. He was a reporter for his high school and college papers, and wrote movie reviews for them. When asked how a person gets the reader to take his or her opinions about a movie seriously, he didn’t answer directly. But he said this: “The job of a movie critic is to see. To be an ideal member of the audience.” That was a great start. I wish he had elaborated.
The host then asked him how the thumbs-up/thumbs down motif came into the show. Ebert explained that it was his idea, and that it was because “your friends want to know should I go see it? That’s all they want to know.” I was a little disappointed with that, mainly because of the “all.” I was hoping he would say a film review contains a verdict, but this is close. At any rate, he emphasized the importance of grounds to movie criticism, and was clearly very pleased when students went into detail about the basis for their likes and dislikes. “Now that’s how it’s done,” he’d say. Unfortunately, only a few students gave the details and discussions ran out of steam quickly. The host generally changed the subject on such occasions, presumably trying to keep things fresh, but that televisory-imperative made it hard to pursue issues in much depth. I was also disappointed with Ebert’s answer to the question “what makes a good director,” which was that good directors make better films than bad directors do. While auteurists sometimes say things like this , I think Ebert was actually elaborating on a previous question (“How do you tell who is a good actor?”) by replying that good actors are known by the company they keep – they like to make movies with good directors. This isn’t empty, but it is question begging in its own way.
Despite these shortcomings, there were several delightful sides to Ebert’s comments. He took movies seriously (of course) and he seemed to thoroughly enjoy talking to young film critics. He emphasized the importance of having an opinion about the movies you see and about making judgments. “You don’t have to say you liked it, you don’t have to be polite,” he said. He seemed concerned that students see a variety of movies, present and past; like Hume, Ebert thinks that a good critic is open to a range of experiences. And he practiced what he preached: when a student praised a film that Ebert didn’t think much of, he simply offered another film with a similar premise or theme and explained why he thought the student might enjoy it more. These explanations took the form of capsule bits of “appreciative criticism,” in the sense of implicitly evaluative descriptions. On second thought, perhaps I ought to use the term “appreciative criticism” with caution when speaking of Ebert. Roger Seamon says that a review does not consist of arguments in support of a verdict, yet Ebert’s signature thumbs up/down, which accompanies similar comments on his regular review shows, seems to explicitly indicate a verdict (Roger Seamon, “Criticism”, in Berys Gaut and Dominic Lopes, eds., The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, 2001, pp. 317-323).
I don’t recommend this videotape for the university classroom, although it would probably work as a discussion starter for philosophers teaching in the pre-college environment. I think this is the environment for which it was intended. And the tape probably doesn’t go deep enough to be of interest to philosophers in any extended way. However, after viewing it, I found that further questions about journalistic movie criticism arose that bear reflection by philosophers. Is journalistic movie reviewing really no different from other kinds of art criticism? What purpose do movie reviews serve today, and is this the purpose that prior generations of movie critics thought it served? Has postmodern thought changed the standards and practices of movie evaluation? Is it true that we don’t have to agree with a movie reviewer’s verdicts in order to judge him or her a good critic or to judge the review to be of value? If it is true, then how is this consistent with what Ebert says his audiences are looking for? And if Ebert is right about that, why do people sometimes read a review of a movie that they have no access to or no intention of going to see?
2003 © Flo Leibowitz