The golden age of movie critics – Roger Ebert’s Journal

Roger Ebert recently posted this thoughtful essay, which is ostensibly about film criticism, but is also about how an intellectual activity benefits culture at large when the talented amateurs get access to power that was once the privilege of elite professionals.

Another thing not everybody knows is that some of the best critical writing on the web can found in seemingly specialist sites, devoted to science fiction, film noir, animation, horror, silent films, anime and so on. And video games, whether or not they’re Art :). I haven’t even mentioned drama, classical music, architecture, dance, photography, painting and on and on. Great critics have been and are being developed. They mostly aren’t making money, but now they have limitless outlets, and not long ago there were a handful.

Recently a friend of mine sent an e-mail to several movie critics. He was Jeff Shannon of Seattle, a good critic who has been in a wheelchair since an accident in youth.

“Guys,” he said, “I’ve been asked to provide career advice to a young disabled college student who wants to pursue a career as a film critic. I’m not one to sugar-coat reality, so my immediate advice for him would be to enjoy film criticism/appreciation through blogging and possibly attempting to write books about films, etc. In all sincerity I can’t advise the kid to pursue this career under present circumstances. From my perspective as someone who had various highs and lows in the job since 1984, I’d feel like I was doing the kid a disservice if I told him he could make a decent living at it. I just don’t see that happening for anyone apart from the upper-echelon critics who’ve been established for years or decades (and recent cutbacks at Variety prove that even the “A-list” critics are under siege).


The best response to this question came from my hero David Bordwell, who is the most knowledgeable film critic in America…. “Last year I moderated an Ebertfest panel consisting of a dozen or so critics. A student from the audience said he wanted to be a critic too. Instead of advising him to get into a more financially rewarding form of endeavor, like selling consumer electronics off the back of a truck, the panelists encouraged him. This form of altruism, in which you help people to become your competitor, is alarmingly common in the arts… What I wanted to say was: Forget about becoming a film critic. Become an intellectual, a person to whom ideas matter. Read in history, science, politics, and the arts generally. Develop your own ideas, and see what sparks they strike in relation to films.”

Yes! This is the best possible advice. I tell young students: Take film courses, certainly. But cover the liberal arts. Take English literature, drama, art, music, and the areas Bordwell lists. Learn something about science and math. A physical anthropology course was my introduction to the theory of evolution, which is an opening to all of modern science. Don’t train for a career–train for a life. The career will take care of itself, and give you more satisfaction than a surrender to corporate or professional bureaucracy. If you make careers in that world, you will be more successful because your education was not narrow.

What the internet is creating is a class of literate, gifted amateur writers, in an old tradition. –Roger Ebert