Roger Ebert, the famous film critic who died on April 4, is rightly being remembered as an impassioned defender of cinematic art and a fierce opponent of Hollywood’s lowest-common-denominator ethic. He was a champion of the sleeper and the un-blockbuster. If his aesthetic standards were not as rigorous as those of highbrow reviewers like John Simon or Stanley Kauffmann, they nonetheless informed a generation of moviegoers who learned from him that big budgets and big stars do not inevitably produce great films. But Roger Ebert left another, more troubling, legacy – one he surely didn’t intend but which has nevertheless changed, for the worse, the medium he loved.
When it debuted on PBS in 1978, “Sneak Previews,” the program Ebert co-hosted with Gene Siskel, was a unique show that afforded TV viewers the unusual opportunity to learn about new, old, and little-known films. Today the review paradigm it pioneered – thumbs up, thumbs down; five star, one star; I say, you say; he says, she says – is ubiquitous on television and the Internet. Today movies, TV series, music, books, dance, and just about every other art form are subject to instant judgements passed by countless professional and amateur critics, ranging from highly paid celebrities, as Roger Ebert certainly was, to talking heads on the local news and down to anonymous bloggers and online trolls. Today there are cable networks devoted to old movies, websites devoted to new graphic novels, YouTube channels about television and Facebook pages about radio. Today the opinions of Ebert’s descendants and imitators are themselves praised, panned, and deconstructed by ever-expanding circles of commentary. Today the relationship between even the most populist creators and the least discriminating audiences is mediated by leagues of insiders, second-guessers, and full-time spectators. Today the entertainment and cultural industries are, in a significant sense, their own chief subjects.
When “Sneak Previews” began, each Siskel-Ebert discussion was accompanied by a brief clip or two of the film in question, offering viewers exactly what the series’ title promised: a sneak preview of a picture, which might make them curious enough to want to see the whole thing in theaters. Nowadays every new movie, even the modest art house efforts Ebert celebrated, is marketed with a multimedia promotional package in which major portions of the work are made available for anybody to glance at in a wide variety of forums – sometimes to be thoughtfully assessed, elsewhere to be shamelessly hyped. Indeed, in 2013 it is impossible to tell quite where the advertising ends and the advertised artifact begins. If and when you actually settle in to watch Django Unchained or Lincoln at the mall (or, more likely, in your living room), you’ve probably seen a good stretch of the films already, or at least the same scenes from them many times. There are really no sneak previews anymore, just as there are really no art houses.
Roger Ebert is not directly to blame for this, of course; he was hardly the first influential film critic or the first person to capitalize on our fascination with all aspects of show business. But Ebert accelerated the social prominence of what previous generations had generally considered ephemera: harmless distractions, like movies, plays, songs, or novels, which didn’t really warrant serious consideration one way or another, least of all by academics, politicians, or journalists. The amount of attention we give to commercial amusement, and the degree to which the public conversation is occupied by what are essentially leisure products, is an unwelcome side-effect of Ebert’s career. Significantly, “Sneak Previews” and its later incarnation “At the Movies” coincided with the widespread popularity of home video machines, whereby the latest releases and classics like Ebert’s favourite, Citizen Kane, could be studied repeatedly; soon cinema buffs weren’t just a cultish minority of the movie-watching population but millions of people with VCRs. It’s ironic, then, that Roger Ebert, who spent much of his life distinguishing good films from bad ones, may have unwittingly fostered a contemporary climate where convenience matters more than quality and technology matters more than taste – where we take it for granted that a limitless amount of entertainment is always accessible to us, always open to immediate appraisals from anyone who cares to post a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, and where such verdicts, in the end, no longer even matter all that much.