Roger Ebert is Wrong About the CelebCult

Our Cole Abaius might be slow on the uptake, but he took some time to mull over Roger Ebert’s recent article about the death of the film critic, and after a few days we find him in the interesting position: disagreeing with Roger Ebert. And disagreeing with most of his colleagues.
By  · Published on December 3rd, 2008

Last week, there were a lot of responses to Roger Ebert’s passionate condemnation of what he termed the CelebCult – a phrase that speaks for itself. The posts were almost immediate, either pointing out the article’s existence or taking the long road toward claiming Ebert was spot on. I might be slow on the uptake, but I wanted some time to mull it over, and after a few days I find myself in the interesting position of disagreeing with Roger Ebert. And disagreeing with most of my colleagues.

Before you read this, you should definitely read Ebert’s article regarding the death of the informed reader as a response to the death of the film critic.

A Lonely Funeral

It’s clear that when the Associated Press limits all reviews, interviews, and cultural film pieces to 500 words, that newspapers aren’t so much polishing the brass on their Titanic, but rushing it to the pawn shop to hock it for life vests and golden parachutes.

To reassure you, I’m just as irritated about society’s saturation with celebrity culture as Ebert is. It’s exploitative and vacuous. It keeps the bulk of people as consumers, unable to hold a conversation if the topic strays from what celebrity is dropping her panties to half mast in the bathroom of a night club that won’t be trendy in three months. It’s aiding in the creation of a somnambulist, masturbatory society – and if I just gave you the mental image of zombies pleasuring themselves, you’ve just done more creative work than most people who immerse themselves in celebrity gossip and only celebrity gossip.

However, I disagree that the film critic is dying. And I disagree that the readership is becoming dispassionate. And I disagree that it’s the CelebCult that’s wielding the ax. What I do agree with is that newspaper critics are on the outs just as every other newspaper employee should be updating his or her resume.

We live in a time of unparalleled access to cultural items. The internet is a major part of that equation – arguably the integral part. In 1995, I would have had to go to my local music store or join that annoying mail club that sends ten CDs for a penny to find the popular songs of the day. Now, I can go online and get all the popular songs of the day. And the unpopular ones. And the ones that haven’t been around long enough to be deemed as either. Everyone with a few hundred dollars can make a movie, anyone with a wireless card can find it, and anyone with a blog can write a review of it.

Amongst that swelling tide of media, we also have so much more dry information that people with printing presses aren’t able to keep up. If we, as a society, are going to have a shot at absorbing this much information, we’re going to have to either 1) think less critically about what we’re absorbing or 2) process information faster. The Associated Press (and other print outlets) are reducing their cultural writers to ad hoc paparazzi because they have no other choice. The marketplace has spoken, and they want more candid shots of Angelina Jolie breastfeeding. The AP, as a business, has to make the money it can before vanishing off the face off the ink-stained world, and their cultural writers are going to have to wear black to work from now on, but by the time newspapers actually die, I’m afraid there won’t be anyone who cares enough to go to the funeral.

We Find the Defendant

While newspapers sound the death cry, film critics are actually alive and well. That the position of film critic is shifting to the internet is no secret, and it comes along with the same pitfalls that open-sourcing offers: more critics means a sea of bad or casual critics among the same small number of truly insightful voices that’s always been around.

That being said, the CelebCult isn’t killing the film critic because the film critic isn’t dying. Sure, you have to wade through that virtual sea of crappy writers to find the diamonds in the rough, but the diamonds are there still, and as long as films continue to be engaging and challenging, there will always be a group of people that obsess over thinking critically about the meaning of what they’ve just seen.

I, as a snarky member of the entitlement-crazed Millennials, have to ask when the Golden Age of the Film Critic took place. When was this heyday where the greater public listened with baited breath for the local movie guru to bestow his knowledge upon them? How long did this last? Were offerings made? I might have missed it – and if so, I’m pissed because I want my frankincense (for reviewing Frankenstein) – but critics have always filled two simple but necessary positions, neither of which cultivate larger-scale celebrity:

1) A thinker to challenge the greater sensibilities of the public consumption of cultural items and to provide the proper context for how those pieces of our humanity might be viewed, and

2) To de facto create the importance of cultural items.

The second position may seem too basic to bring up, but I think it’s important because we’ve lost sight of how intrinsic the job is to being a critic. Critics legitimize art simply by talking about it. Reviews, good or bad, mean a piece of culture has made an impact on us. In fact, critics (and other conversation starters) are perhaps the only indicator of whether something is socially significant in the art world. After all, if a tree falls and no one is around to say that it’s landing could have been better, it might as well have not fallen at all.

Ebert himself has done an incredible job of rising to the top through hard work, contemplative writing, and – most helpfully – his television career, but most critics wither in obscurity. So, if there is a death of the film critic at all, it’s more likely the death of the local film critic. Now that audiences can read twenty opinions from varied sources means they no longer have to rely on whomever the cultures editor decided to hire for their local newspaper. Our options have expanded, and the critics who can’t make the jump successfully to the internet (or foolishly see no need to) won’t survive.

The Future was Three Years Ago

It may seem like the conclusion I’m leading to is that we’ll find The Internet’s fingerprints on the knife that stabbed newspapers in the back, but that’s just not true. It’s the marketplace – a marketplace that found a cheap, more interesting, more varied source of information – that is killing the print medium and the print film critic along with it.

I’m exhausted by the endless hit parade of commenters decrying the internet as part of the problem – the major player in the dumbing down of culture, an enabler of our addiction to the lives of Miley Cyrus and Jennifer Aniston. Obviously, Ebert doesn’t feel this way, since he has his own prolix blog, but far too many people have jumped on the jury who would rather short-sightedly see the internet as the killer of newspapers (or of the film critic). These are the snarly individuals who probably complain that no one sends letters anymore.

Plus, the true brilliance of the internet is that it has enough room for the masses hungry for celebrity culture news and for those interested in dissecting the meaning behind Synecdoche, NY. There won’t be any Dodge City-style shoot outs between the two groups because it’s win-win for everyone. The critics who continue to love McDonald’s because the public does have a place, and those who dare to challenge sentimentality will gather their own audience.

It’s far too easy to see a correlation between the growth of celebrity gawking (as if we haven’t been obsessed with attractive, famous people since the first spotlight hit someone on stage) and the slow death of newspapers (and the film critics who get their paychecks from them). However, it’s a bit much to read cause and effect into the situation.

The film critic isn’t dying, she’s moving. The CelebCult isn’t destroying anything, it’s just more prevalent. And my proof that the readership base isn’t growing more complacent? You just slogged through an opinion piece almost three-times the length allotted by the AP, and I’m guessing you’ve got some strong opinions of your own.

The internet is as much a challenge as it is a solution to the limitations of physical mediums. It’s going to be everyone’s responsibility to be steadfast in creating a community of earnest, culturally relevant, professional appreciators. This can seem daunting, and for the old guard, it might seem too difficult for the younger generation to handle. But we’re going to have to handle it. We’re going to have to continue the tradition of insightful analysis if film is going to continue to have true cultural relevance. In short, we’re going to have to keep fighting the good fight or the CelebCult actually will take over. If there’s one thing I agree with Mr. Ebert about, it’s that we absolutely cannot let that happen.

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