By Lars Trodson
There were four movie reviewers I paid attention to in the 1970s and 80s: Michael Janusonis, because he wrote for my local paper, the Providence Journal; Pauline Kael of The New Yorker and Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. I think the other famous movie reviewers of the time were Gene Shalit and Judith Crist, but they were on a much, much lesser scale than those other four — at least to me. Now there are a million movie reviewers and nobody knows who they are. This may have more to do with the state of movies than the quality of the writing — movies are no longer at the center of the American cultural zeitgeist.
Roger Ebert had been around long enough to see the ebb and flow of cinema’s significance, and he, in the end, may have had more influence on how movies are reviewed than any other 20th century critic. That is very much a double-edged sword. What Ebert (and Siskel) realized is that there is no nuance to film criticism. It's either, quite literally, thumbs up or thumbs down.
It didn't start out that way. Ebert was a self-taught scholar of film, and he wrote abut film with an encyclopedic knowledge of what had come before. He knew his history, and he knew about the people who made the movies. He knew nuance.
Because he started so young, he was about the last critic, who was still reviewing in the 21st century, to have actually seen the movies made by the lions of the new cinema when they were first released – Coppola, Scorcese, Woody Allen, Brian DePalma, Speilberg, Monte Hellman and others, as well as European filmmakers such as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bernardo Bertollucci, Truffaut, and Goddard.
He was also reviewing when some of the old masters were still making films: John Huston, Billy Wilder, and Kurosawa were still busy during the first 15 or 20 years of Ebert's career. Hell, even Orson Welles was trying to get movies made in the 1970s and 80s.
Now, of course, it’s all franchises and tentpoles and we hear about them through fresh-faced kids on the internet who gush breathlessly about them, but more in a marketing way than a critical way. This is what is passing for criticism now: marketing ploys.
“The Hunger Games” may be hugely popular, but does anybody remember what was written about it? Can anyone cite a review of “Skyfall” that was referenced or had an impact on how anyone felt about the movie? Not even the movie critics from The New York Times swayed anybody’s mind on that front.
Critics have lost their bite and, in a way, their purpose.
Ebert was hired right at the same time Crowther got the boot – and he probably got his job at the Chicago Sun-Times because of his age: Ebert was, at 24, and supposedly more attuned to what was going on with the young filmmakers than the generation of reviewers that had grown up on John Wayne and John Ford. (Crowther reviewed movies for The Times from 1940 to 1967.)
If you read his reviews, I think it's unfair to say that Crowther had a tin ear. But missing the boat on "Bonnie and Clyde" was apparently enough.
And don't think today's older crop of movie reviewers are not keenly aware of his example.
Today, when I read the reviews of older white men praising Lena Dunham’s “Girls,” a show I do not get and am probably not supposed to get, I can feel the presence of Crowther in the room. There’s a desperation to stay relevant: I’m not an old white guy! I like “Girls!” When I read the reviews of Peter Travers in Rolling Stone and see how coarse his language has become, I hear Crowther, too. Travers is saying: I can use the language of the young people! Don’t fire me yet!
The result of all this is that you may get a positive review of a movie that the critic actually did not like. Because to say that you didn't like one of the “Twilight” movies is to scream out that you may be past your prime.
So that is why, with Ebert gone, Bosley Crowther reigns supreme. No one wants to be shuffled aside because they do not like Katniss Everdeen and her quiver of arrows.
But with his passing, you may have truly seen the last of any movie critic that mattered, who helped define the movies and how we all felt about them. But old Bosley Crowther will live on, hovering over every movie reviewer writing today who wants to stay in the game.
Lars Trodson is the author of two novels, "Eagles Fly Alone" (http://amzn.to/1uRsL0E) and "Tide Turning." (http://amzn.to/1v38X9O)