Friday, April 5, 2013

Roger Ebert: Last Great Movie Critic?

When Roger Ebert started coming to the Festival Of Festivals (renamed Toronto International Film Festival) he told me it was to meet and chat with fellow movie critics from around the world.
That was in the days when every rinky dink paper boasted a movie critic, a theater critic, a TV critic and probably half a dozen more.
And Ebert reigned supreme in the Era Of Great Critics. I happen to think he was more influential than even Pauline Kael of the New Yorker who usually shared her beat with Penelope Gilliatt.
He was also a most competitive person. When one profile mentioned he was writing for the Chicago Sun-Times while rival Gene Siskel wrote for the larger and more prestigious Chicago Tribune Ebert went berserk saying the writer should have added the New York Daily News which also carried his column--then he would be number one.
When I go to a TIFF event these days the conspicuous absence of film critics is the first thing I notice.
Many newspapers have ditched movie (and TV) critics altogether.
When newspapers started downsizing they figured (wrongly as it turned out) that critics were expendable,
Many smaller papers (including The Toronto Post) chose to run Ebert's reviews rather than commissioning reviews of their own.
Ebert could see this coming a decade or more ago. He wondered if he and fellow Chicago critic Gene Siskel had inadvertently been part of the problem with their fast paced TV show. Thumbs up or down --ithe gimmick caught on much to Ebert's chagrin.
But these days even the review shows have mostly been cancelled for snappy five minute reviewlets on such shows as E!. and Access Hollywood.
Once when Ebert and Siskel were tub thumping for their review show At the Movies  before visiting TV critics assembled in L.A. I was surprised to learn Ebert followed no TV series and usually only watched the news on TV.
Siskel was much more of a fan and rattled off a list of TV series he was enthusiastic about --I seem to remember Hill Streeet Blues was one of them.
Ebert was disinclined to admit that as TV got better the scope of most movies was shrinking and all those super spectacles filled special effects couldn't come close to matching the reach of a great TV series like Mad Men or The Walking Dead.
A few times The Star forced me to cover movie junkets while I was on the road.
I remember how obsequious movie publicists became when Ebert entered a conference room. When one of them brought him a muffin he ordered her to go fetch some butter before the screening could begin.
And at TIFF I noticed Ebert's amazement that City's TV interviewer Brian Linehan was getting all the best guests for his program. Later on Ebert and Linehan became fast friends and Ebert even spoke at Linehan's memorial.
The sad part is the power of print critics declined as their outlets shrank in circulation.
Growing up in Toronto I was eager to read the opinions of Nathan Cohen and Patrick Scott at The Star, Herbert Whittaker at The Globe and Ron Poulton on TV at the Tely.
There just aren't those types of outspoken critics these days.
Roger Ebert was one of the last of his breed and I think he came to realize it.
In his last full year as a critic he wrote 306 reviews as if summing it all up was important for him.
Ebert's death at 70 has unleased a flood of appreciation about what a great critic he was.
It was also a chance to acknowledge that his kind of  influential critic has just about vanished from the print world.

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