Criticism beyond velvet ropes

With the passing last week of Pulitzer Prize winning film critic Roger Ebert, it would be tempting to simply recount the honors, accolades and firsts associated with his career. Certainly there would be enough of those to more than fill an editorial column.

We could also talk about the importance of his now ubiquitously borrowed (albeit trademarked) honorific, “two thumbs up.” That phrase has come to stand for excellence in almost any walk of life or product.

We would be similarly remiss if we failed to mention the other name with whom his career of criticism was long-associated: the late Chicago Tribune movie critic Gene Siskel.

Siskel and Ebert’s television show, At the Movies, delighted, incited and perplexed movie-goers from 1975 until Siskel’s death in 1999. Throughout their time together, the pair jousted, cajoled, fussed and amazingly enough — often agreed. Whatever their ultimate pronouncement, the audience had reason to consider it.

Often Ebert could be terribly acerbic. In a 2004 review of the 2004 superhero ultra-bomb “Catwoman,” Ebert’s lead-in said it all: “There are three good things in it: Halle Berry’s face, Halle Berry’s body and Halle Berry’s costume. Those are first-rate. Everything else in this movie is unbelievably bad.”

Based on the box office, audiences appeared to agree.

One of the most important aspects of Ebert’s long career derived not from the direct critique of individual films. Rather it came from his ability to make us think about films as an artifact of our culture. He was able to deftly position films as something more than glowing momentary distractions in a darkened room.

A case in point can be seen in Ebert’s 2003 retelling of an interview with a reporter mining for nuggets just after the Columbine school shootings.

The reporter asked the critic, “‘Wouldn’t you say that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?”

“No, I wouldn’t say that,” he shot back.

As the reporter probed further, Ebert became increasingly disdainful of her thesis. Having gotten enough, he formed a strident response, “Events like this, if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”

Social scientists have since offered evidence to support Ebert’s response. The effects of fictional violence viewing on subsequent behavior appear to be strongly conditioned upon many other factors. That said, the evening news, replete with zooming graphics, an incessant crawl and innumerable yammering experts, adds a kind of inescapable gravity for certain troubled kids.

While a strong causal link is doubtful, Ebert’s central point is worth consideration. If we are to watch gratuitous violence, is it not better that it should be circumscribed as fiction. Doesn’t any other presentation tend to normalize it —- especially when the line between journalism and entertainment gets blurred by hyper-real production value?

Many of us will miss Ebert’s contrarian criticism. Many more of us should miss his sage admonishments.