Random Thoughts about Film Critics, Or Why I Watch Siskel and Ebert

Commentary by James Berardinelli
July 8, 1997

How inviolate are the opinions of a critic? Or, to put it another way, once we've made up our minds about something, do we ever change them? The answers, unsurprisingly, are "not very" and "yes." Just because I write a review condemning a movie as trite doesn't mean that, at some later date, I can't re-watch it and come away with a different opinion. Or that I can claim a film is a near-masterpiece at first glance, then later downgrade that evaluation. Hopefully, this doesn't happen to often, but unless a critic is perfect or unwilling to admit his/her imperfection, it will occur. (Note: no critic will ever admit to being in the latter category. We like to use the word "misunderstood.")

For practical purposes, I will cite two examples. The reviews still exist in their original form -- I haven't been overcome by a need to re-write them even though I no longer feel as strongly positive or negative about the movies in question. The first is In the Name of the Father, which, based on the rating I gave it at the time it was released, would place it squarely on my "best 20 films of all time" list. It's not there; nor, in fact, is it close. Today, while I acknowledge the undeniable strength of the movie (and especially the lead performances), I would no longer rate it as highly. It's a very good film, but not a great one, and the rating would tumble about a point, from 9.5 to 8.0 or 8.5. On the other hand, there's a movie like Circle of Friends. The first time around, I really didn't like it -- I found the plot to be cloying and soap opera-ish. I must have been in a bad mood the night I saw it, because, upon subsequent viewing, I found to be more charming that I had originally supposed (although I continue to think it's "soap opera-ish") -- enough to turn a ** rating into a **1/2.

Most of the time, however, my opinions pretty much stay the same as the months and years go by. I still think Schindler's List is one of the singularly most powerful motion pictures I have watched, and I don't have a problem ranking The Mangler with some of the worst movies ever made. About 99% of the reviews I have written mirror my current opinion of a particular movie, even if they were written five years ago. There is that other 1%, however, which reflects a change (and, hopefully, a maturation) of my tastes. The reviews are still valid as a crystallization of my opinion and observations at the time I committed them to paper. It's just that, there are cases that if I re-reviewed the same movie today, the slant might be different.

For the most part, changes in my opinion result from years' worth of thought and consideration in combination with multiple viewings of the movie in question. Some films grow better over time; some grow worse. One thing that never alters my view is what others think of a movie. No matter how eloquently an opinion is expressed, it doesn't faze me. When it comes to my own reviews, I might not feel comfortable about a specific numerical rating, but I'm confident about whether I liked, didn't like, or was ambiguous towards a motion picture. Not even the best-written review or the most detailed critical essay is likely to change that. I'm just too damn stubborn (another failing of critics, although most prefer the word "discerning.")

So, in that case, why read other critics?

Most people pick up their Friday paper and skim through reviews to find out what a movie is about and whether it's worth seeing. This is one very legitimate use of a review; however, it's not one that I apply. (Primarily because I've already seen the movie, so I know what it's about and have already come to my own conclusions about whether it was worth sitting through.) Instead, I peruse reviews for three reasons:

1) Anything well-written is worth reading. A well-written review is a pleasure to explore, irrespective of whether I agree or disagree with it. I have read inspired pieces that are 180 degrees apart from my opinion. It's difficult not to be impressed by good writing, no matter what point-of-view it expresses.

2) I might learn something. This is especially true if I disagree with the reviewer. In that case, I'm interested to see what he/she saw in the film that earned it a particular rating. Clear, well-written reviews will impart that information; muddled ones will not. I feel uncomfortable simply disagreeing with someone; I want to know why the disagreement exists.

3) I'm curious to know what the reviewer thought. If I respect someone, I'm interested to know whether they like a movie or not, and, if I agree with them, whether we noticed the same things. This isn't from some feeble desire to validate my opinion (in general, the egos of film critics -- my own included -- are large enough that we don't care if anyone else shares our opinion), but a matter of simple curiosity. On the other hand, if I don't respect a reviewer, I'm not interested in what he/she thinks. (The "quote whores" come to mind here -- who cares what Jeff Craig or Susan Granger has to say about a movie?)

How do I choose whether or not to put a critic on my "to read" list? It's a simple enough procedure. I peruse a number of their reviews (past and present) and see if they usually meet all three of my criteria. On a review-by-review basis, there will be some that fall short (Common critic excuse: the movie didn't lend itself to a well-written piece), but most will be entertaining, insightful, and satisfying.

Then there's Siskel and Ebert, which I watch as often as I can. Some people are surprised to learn this, since the program doesn't offer much depth (given the time constraints that the pair are under, it's a wonder they're able to convey as much as they do). But I demand something different from a TV program than I do from written reviews. In between the commercials, I want to be entertained and involved.

For the most part, Ebert's TV reviews function as synopses of his written work. He hits all the high points. Siskel doesn't write full-length reviews, so it's occasionally more difficult getting to the root of his thinking. The best thing about the TV program, however, is that both men consistently and effectively convey their enthusiasm for their profession. Their well-publicized arguments are just one expression of this. They also play well off one another. While both are competent and knowledgeable on their own, there's a reason why they are so often featured together (a nickname for them in some circles is "Siskbert").

There's little doubt that Siskel & Ebert are America's most influential critics. This prominence has made them targets of all sorts of attacks. And, while anyone in the public spotlight can expect a certain amount of ill-will directed towards them from various quarters, what I find disturbing is the reasoning used by certain supposed movie-lovers as ammunition. Their sour grapes, typically born of jealousy and arrogance, begin to look sickly and rotten the more carefully you examine them.

One case in point: S&E recently gave favorable reviews to Speed 2. This is a film that just about every critic in the country disliked (myself included). My reaction was to try to understand what they saw in the film that caused them to like it. Both men made compelling cases for their point-of-view, and it wasn't hard to "get" what they were trying to say. I don't agree with them, but I respect their opinion because it was seemingly well-reasoned and honest. Others, however, have taken a much darker view of circumstances.

Voices have been raised, especially on the often contentious Usenet newsgroup, rec.arts.movies.current- films, about S&E selling out. The reasoning goes something like this: they liked a big blockbuster that most critics savaged; therefore, their vote can be bought (this goes along with the equally erroneous contention that Ebert's negative review for The Lost World was delayed so that it wouldn't hurt opening weekend grosses). To accept this belief, however, is the height of arrogance. Anyone who takes such a stance presupposes that their own opinion is superior to all others, and anyone who doesn't agree with them is wrong. Movie criticism is about open, honest examination of films. It's not about ripping apart other people's opinions just because you think differently.

Having discussed why I read other critics and watch Siskel & Ebert, perhaps the next logical topic is to consider why I write reviews in the first place. I don't have to -- I make enough money from my "real" job that I have no need for gratis press admission. It would be a lot less work. And I certainly don't depend on my reviewing as a main source of income. Actually, the reason is quite simple: it intensifies the movie-going experience. Watching a movie knowing you're going to write about it is different from watching a movie that you have the option of forgetting about five minutes after you leave the theater. And, if you love movies, there can be few better opportunities than to amplify the impact of a motion picture -- even a bad one. There's something perversely enjoyable about watching even the most infuriatingly awful film.

Am I a "soft" grader who rates on a curve? Possibly, but the truth is that I genuinely like more movies than I dislike, and I'm not going to give a film that I enjoy much below a 6.5. If I'm entertained by a Lost World or Twister, I'm not going to underrate it just because that's the "intellectual" or "acceptable" thing to do. In my review for Volcano, I mentioned that it may be the best disaster movie ever made (keeping in mind that almost all films in that category are terrible), and I stand by that statement. I liked Mary Reilly. I enjoyed Joe Vs. the Volcano. And I still get a kick out of watching the campy 1976 remake of King Kong. Of course, the reverse is also occasionally true. For example, while I enjoyed Fargo, it didn't come anywhere close to cracking my 1996 Top 10. And I found the critically-lauded Days of Heaven to be pretty dull.

The bottom line is that I'm a critic because I enjoy almost everything about movies: seeing them in theaters, watching them on video, writing about them, talking about them, and so on... They're more than entertainment, but less than a lifestyle choice. They can be a source of passion and pain. Movies affect each of us differently, according to our experiences, memories, and hopes. Writing reviews allows me to offer readers a glimpse into my "movie reality", and exploring the work of other critics gives me an opportunity to delve into theirs. Reviews, therefore, aren't just global critiques, but deeply personal statements that can say as much about the writer as they do about the subject.

Next: "Disney's Plunge"

© 1997 James Berardinelli

Back Up