By Anthony Miglieri
In addition to attending a special screening of the 2014 Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself (reviewed here) and conducting a Q&A afterwards, the late Ebert’s wife, Chaz Ebert, also moderated a discussion on film criticism at the Heartland Film Festival 2017. On the panel, Mrs. Ebert; who herself is the CEO of RogerEbert.com, Ebert Digital LLC, and Ebert Productions, among several other positions; was joined by 3 other critics: Klaus Eder, General Secretary of the International Federation of Film Critics and member of international juries in several festivals; Christopher Lloyd, founder of The Film Yap and resident film critic at WISH-TV in Indianapolis; and Richard Propes, founder and publisher of TheIndependentCritic.com and member of the Film Journalists Association.
Ebert introduced the event by commenting on the earlier Life Itself screening: she hadn’t seen it in two years and didn’t know how emotional it would be for her. She then asserted that, although seeing the film again made her miss her late husband, he was in fact there was her and the rest in attendance at the festival. The event tent whirred with rarified silence at this invocation of the great champion of film Roger Ebert.
The first question posed by Chaz Ebert to the panel: what is the difference between film reviewing and film criticism? Eder, a German himself, asserted that the term “reviewing” is more prevalant in the U.S. and the U.K., whereas there is only “criticism” in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. A critic, he said, works in a more structured manner: he or she sees a film on Monday or Tuesday and posts his or her review on Thursday. Eder went on to differentiate the two terms by saying that reviews are more commercial, and criticism is more personal; a critic can put more of him or herself into the work.
The next talking point was that of the democratization, or the easy accessibility, of website reviewing. Lloyd began by discussing how much easier web reviewing is than print reviewing, highlighting the fact that there are no print deadlines on the web. Propes added that web film reviewing allows for extra focus on more obscure films such as shorts and documentaries. In addition, Lloyd mentioned as a positive that on the web, “anyone can be a critic,” but immediately conceded that this widespread accessibility also “muddies the waters.” Eder also claimed that web reviewing has caused “damage to [their] profession,” largely because of how quickly a review must be released for it to be deemed relevant.
Finally, the panelists discussed what they believe makes a good review. Eder simply claimed that if he reads a review three years after he’s written and says, “Oh, it is a good review,” then he satisfied. Ebert asserted that she feels the most important aspect of a review is a sense of feeling, or “passion,” from the writer. Lloyd admitted that he’s gotten more experimental in his writing, but also claimed that nasty reviews are not as fun to write as to read. Chaz Ebert cited Roger’s infamous, scathing review of Rob Reiner’s North as an example of genuine voice in a review as opposed to “cruelty for cruelty’s sake.” Propes concluded the segment by saying that he aims mainly to reflect his own experience in his reviews, and that a critic has a responsibility to the filmmaker to deliver a considered analysis.
The critics panel concluded with a short Q&A. In response to a question about diversity in film, Ebert claimed that if you miss diversity, “society is missing,” and cited Paris, Texas, a personal favorite of hers, as a great example of an outside perspective on America. Speaking about the relationships between critics, Ebert said that there used to be an unspoken rule forbidding them from discussing films with each other before they wrote their respective reviews, while Lloyd added that he has relationships with several colleagues. Shortly before the panel ended, Mrs. Ebert left the audience with one more nugget of wisdom from her late, great husband. When asked how he approached film reviewing, he said: “I am writing to tell you what I felt.” This quote from the revered man sent the whole night off on a succinct, beautiful note.