February 11, 2011
Midway through writing my next post (about the odd rhythm of the film industry -- 60 to 80 hour work weeks, followed by protracted periods of rejuvination), I had an amazing experience. As a longtime fan of Roger Ebert’s, I’d emailed him a link to “filmmaker’s diary.” He enjoyed it, which was beyond flattering, and tweeted it. So... welcome to over a thousand new readers! And thank you, Roger, from the bottom of my heart.
I became aware of Mr.Ebert, a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, in the 1980’s when he wrote favorable pieces about a somewhat new phenomenon: independently financed feature films. Full-blown admiration came in the ‘90’s while watching “At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.” The critics’ enthusiasm and their often heated discussions introduced my children, with whom I viewed the show, to the idea that motion pictures were worth talking about. Passionately.
The kids (and all viewers) looked forward to installments of “At the Movies” with the same excitement felt by lovers of cinematic art awaiting reviews during the “golden era” of film criticism in the 1970’s. At that time Andrew Sarris, Molly Haskell and Jonas Mekas wrote for “The Village Voice” on a weekly basis. Pauline Kael did so at “The New Yorker.” Paul Schrader penned brilliant critical pieces for the “L.A. Reader” and Roger Ebert did the same at “The Chicago Sun-Times.”
Such critics were advocates for unduly neglected directors and genres. Sarris encouraged readers to see the work of Hollywood auteurs like John Ford, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock in a new way. Mekas sang the praises of underground experimental filmmakers Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, Stan Brackhage and others. Schrader inspired Angelinos (and later, the rest of us) to take film noir seriously. Kael championed films by Brian De Palma, Bernardo Bertolucci and Arthur Penn. And Ebert defended Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” along with Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” against moralizing philistines, drawing attention to the filmmaking genius behind both works.
The critcs engaged in dialogue with their readers -- challenging them, prodding them. Readers responded by thinking deeply about movies they saw at the dozens of revival cinemas and art houses in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Some were moved so deeply by the profound and exciting discussions (and, of course, by the pictures themselves), they became filmmakers.
Which brings us back to the title of this post. Yes, reviewers who actually fought for films in which they believed inspired me and many likeminded buffs to want to make movies. Exposed as we were to the French New Wave, a movement in which a nation’s best critics became its best directors, we assumed the road between criticism and creativity would always be well-travelled. At some point, after the ‘70’s, reviewing became more a vehicle to inform consumers and less a platform to inspire artists. But Ebert remains, blessedly, a throwback to the “golden age.” The advent of filmmakers and scholars blogging about what they love, I hope, steers us in that direction as well.