U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Roger Ebert and Film as [not] Art

Ebert_Kael2-thumb-300x208-40723As I read Andrew’s recent post about Roger Ebert’s review of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, and looked over the many eulogies to Ebert as a critic, I remembered an interesting convergence in Ebert’s career.  In 1975, he became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism–not Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris or Parker Tyler or Judith Crist, but Roger Ebert.  Of course, many of you know that Ebert was not born a film critic on television but had been a film critic for the Chicago Sun Times.  Though, the year after he won his Pulitzer he and Gene Siskel began appearing on t.v.

In 1997, he wrote an editorial for the New York Times, now as an established celebrity primarily because of his television show, arguing that movies deserved a Pulitzer too.  Entitled, “Film, The Snubbed Art,” Ebert built his case in a somewhat odd way.  He contended: “American’s scarcely read a book a year, don’t have the opportunity to see the theater, and do not often attend serious music. People do go to the movies,” he wrote, “they reach almost everywhere.  No other art form mobilizes national discussion in such a big way.”

What I found so interesting about Ebert’s general approach to movies–from his reviews in print to those on television–was his matter-of-fact tone.  The review that Andrew profiles was typical of Ebert.  He simply poked at the myths of race in America: the liberal myth that racial harmony was close at hand or the conservative myth that racial harmony would be achieved once one race fully engaged the “American Promise.”  Looking at Ebert’s reviews from the 1974, the year for which he earned his Pulitzer, I came across his view of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (among my favorite movies and a decidedly un-Godfather-like contribution from Coppola).  Ebert argued that film had a moral level because, as he writes,

Coppola, who wrote and directed…was working two years after the Watergate break-in, amid the ruins of the Vietnam effort, telling the story of a man who places too much reliance on high technology and has nightmares about his personal responsibility. Harry Caul [Gene Hackman’s character] is a microcosm of America at that time: not a bad man, trying to do his job, haunted by a guilty conscience, feeling tarnished by his work.

Both reviews sound about right.  They are decent responses to the time.  But was were either films worthy of a Pulitzer?  Were they art? Did and does it matter?

To me, the significance of Ebert’s career was the role he played in making those questions nearly irrelevant.  We can debate whether movies have a canon (I think Ben and I would have fun doing this!).  It doesn’t, at least not in a way that would have made Ebert’s appeal for a Pulitzer compelling.  In his editorial he never once suggested a criteria for judging film’s worth as art.  Perhaps if Ebert had argued that rather than being a snubbed art, film was snubbed journalism, it would have made more sense–but most filmmakers (or is it producers?) would probably avoid that label.

Ebert played a vital role, it seems to me, in the way he brought a revolution in film criticism to a mass audience–but not the revolution of the New Wave.  He helped make Pauline Kael’s dictum–“it’s only a movie”–into a way of approaching film as Pop-Art.  Kael grew famous and notorious for dismantling efforts by critics such as Andrew Sarris to elevate movies into a pantheon of the other arts.  Ebert was not part of that fight, but an proponent of intuitive film criticism.  Sure he might drop a few references to past films or other roles of certain actors, directors, writers, etc., but he was un-theoretical in a way that kept movies available to moviegoers who were not, frankly, familiar with the theorists and traditions being taught in ever-more exclusive film schools and programs.

Not surprisingly, Ebert liked Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln because Spielberg made Lincoln available to audiences.  As he wrote in his review, “I’ve rarely been more aware than during Steven Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ that Abraham Lincoln was a plain-spoken, practical, down-to-earth man from the farmlands of Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois.” And while historians scorned the historical inaccuracies and lack of theoretical understanding of how history “moves,” Ebert’s dictum of “movies start national discussions” carried the day.  Still, there is no Pulitzer for the movies, but then again, as Ebert noted at the end of his 1997 op-ed: “An art form will forever be in a separate category if you can attend it while eating Twizzlers.”

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ray: Thanks for this contribution to the conversation about Ebert’s legacy. Questions: Do you think that Ebert’s eschewing of theory excludes him from the public intellectual category? Or, is there an unconscious strain of pragmatism in Ebert’s thought—i.e. a pragmatic philosophy of production and reception, that films matter when they reflect truths from the times in which they’re produced? – TL

    • Thanks for the questions, Tim. Ebert was part of a group of critics who, like Kael, wore their non-theoretical approach to film as a badge. But that didn’t mean this group rejected attention or the label “intellectual.” They were critics who thought movies were important only when the audience was “alive” to them. If a movie had to be explained or, god forbid, catalogued, then the fun–and the significance–was stolen from the act of watching or receiving or perceiving. I don’t think Kael and Ebert and others thought that there needed to be a body of theory devoted to the reception of movies. Where would one put the Twizzlers in that theory?!

  2. Thanks for the fascinating post, Ray! I think I’m going to incorporate my more substantive comments about it into my post on Monday.

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