If I Disagree with You in a Forest, Is It Still Wrong?

How can a movie review be written in the third person, as if it were an account of facts? If it isn’t subjective, there’s something false about it.

— Roger Ebert, Life Itself


I had powered through my blue cheese burger, always being something of a fast eater by virtue of my single-minded focus on the eating process over and above any conversational maxims, particularly when my food is slathered in blue cheese, and was halfway through a side of fries that seemed to be trying to make up in seasoning what it lacked in overall size—a blatantly profit-motivated technique that would have been roundly criticized by all five of us if the joint hadn’t been so trendy (a basically pointless and image obsessed social concession that irked me even as it reassured me that I’d finally reached adulthood). The server had performed the ritual of asking “how is everything?” and, as per usual, my mouth was full, and on this night it seemed of great importance that I let this server know that I was on to her pesky routine, and so, mouth full, I looked her square in the eye, brow furrowed, eyes dead, and slowly nodded until she backed away. Comments were made regarding how that always happens, with the food in the mouth and everything. No comments were made regarding the obvious point that, if a time is selected at random for a question to be asked of a diner, it is quite likely, given that the diner is here to eat, that he or she will have food in her mouth, and so you can’t really blame the server. Instead the conversation had turned to the Oscars, and I didn’t feel I’d be able to turn it away without invoking the Streisand Effect, so I kept mostly silent as my friends mutually agreed that yes, there had been some good movies last year, and yes, there will probably be some good ones this year, too. The conversation was unprofitable, then, shall we say, as it offered little in the way of new information or individual expression, but it was enlivened by a sense of good cheer (at least one other person had gotten the blue cheese burger, and there was chipotle enough to last the night), and the intelligent and gracious conversation of good friends.

Someone, it may well have been me, said the words American Sniper. Cue much discussion of the possibility of a special effects supervisor who had never seen an actual, live baby, or else a supervisor who was in fact himself a baby, followed by discussions of Eastwood’s personal life and historical political leanings which through later research I learned were incorrect, and dramatically so, and five people all trying not to ask what we really thought of the moral implications of warrior glorification, since none of us had an answer. Cue the comment which, unbeknownst to me or anyone else, would lead me to ruin the evening for everyone involved: “Yeah, I haven’t seen it, but my friend did and she said it was the worst movie ever made.” Continue reading

The Freedom to Kill Horses, and What That Does

“The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world.”

G Man (Half Life 2)


The ongoing re-realization that Roger Ebert is dead and will remain so from now until I join him has been difficult for me.1 This is not because he managed to see every movie I ever have and more, and to write reviews for nearly all of them which, though never fully getting away from the malignant expectation of a star rating or a firm yes-or-no recommendation, managed to contain a level of consistent thoughtfulness which stood out from the majority of review-criticism.2 Nor is it that he managed to eschew much of the common ire and vitriol that plagues criticism in many circles today: I never got the impression that Ebert saw movies as some sort of obligation, or that his main focus was in trying to find movies that weren’t worth anyone’s time and then writing angry screeds about them. Nor is it even that he is a major reason that so many of the critics and filmmakers I love are who, what, and where they are. He did do all these things, of course, and they do make his death frustrating, but the relevant issue here is that this means there will never be a time when the person I and everyone I know immediately think of when we hear the word “critic” will be able to properly have The Video Game Discussion. And this is difficult not just because it has far too much finality in it for me to handle, but because one of the world’s foremost critics being actively engaged in the game community could have been enormously helpful indeed. Of course he didn’t singlehandedly spark the world’s interest in film criticism,3 but he was a big part in it, and this ability to both engage the public mind about something and also to reliably articulate a thoughtful position on that very thing is one thing among many that game culture needs right now. This is not to say that I would like to have seen him live long enough to change his mind, though.4 Rather, I would have liked to have seen him put his considerable analytical and writing skills together with an actual working understanding of the gaming medium, so as to come up with a rigorous critique of the medium. This is partly because Ebert had a pretty massive cultural reach which isn’t shared by even the most prominent contributors to his eponymous website,5 but mostly because his failure to do this makes me feel the need to do it myself, which I’m sorry to say is a bit of a step-down in both reach and ability. Continue reading

  1. I suppose he’ll remain dead after I am as well, but I doubt I’ll mind as much then.

  2. I am, with the term “review-criticism,” enforcing what is largely an artificial separation between it and what one could call longform criticism. But regardless of the distinction’s artificiality, I find it useful to keep in mind that some reviews are written more or less as buying guides—the operative question always being “should I pay money to see this?”—while others are written without such concerns—the operative questions being myriad, complex, and usually far too wordy.

  3. Pauline Kael helped, obviously.a

    a Though, notably, only semi-film nerds will know who that is or understand that it’s tongue-in-cheek.

  4. For those who are somehow simultaneously interested enough in game criticism to read this, but not interested enough to know Ebert’s history with it: he was firmly in the “games can’t be art” camp.

  5. NORMAL PEOPLE, CALLING ALL NORMAL PEOPLE: do names like Matt Zoller Seitz, Anthony Lane, Kristin Thompson, David Bordwell, Peter Travers, Armond White, David Edelstein, Mike D’Angelo, Dana Stevens, A.O. Scott, André Bazin, and the aforementioned Pauline Kael mean even one twenty-fourth of a thing to you? Exactly: most of these people could find a cure for cancer in one of their pieces and we wouldn’t even notice, and this despite many of them being excellent writers and thinkers. This is more our problem than theirs, of course, but it’s illustrative of why having a big mouthpiece like Ebert on your side is helpful, for marketing if nothing else.