Critics get a bad press this days; that is, when they still have jobs. As newspapers cut staff and pages, critics are usually the first to go. Who needs them, editors ask, when there are a million bloggers out there, doing the same job for free? To which the only answer is: we all do. Just as there’s a role for citizen journalists, but not to substitute the real thing, there’s a role for blogging, Tweets and conversations, but they shouldn’t cancel out the reasoned, professional voice. A critic like Philip French or Anthony Lane today, or Pauline Kael and Dilys Powell in the past, brings perspective, knowledge and infinite connections to their writing, spotting the echoes and rhymes between films of different eras, different countries, different genres. They can place a film in the context of movies, not just of a box office weekend. Too often they are reduced to “highlights”, or to define the week’s “must-see”; but a great critic isn’t there to feed our diaries, but our minds: they help us understand not just that a film is good, but why.
And if any one critic stands out in the movie world today it’s Roger Ebert. Elegant, witty and opinionated, his reviews are like a cool and reasoned breeze against the heat and fury of the blogosphere. Like any good critic, you don’t have to agree with him but his opinion is always worth hearing, even if it’s just to argue with. The last decade, however, has has not been kind to Ebert. He has suffered from a series of cancers that have robbed him of his voice, and of his ability to eat or drink — torment for a devoted eater, who wrote of food as lovingly as film. But his enthusiasm for the movies hasn’t dimmed, and he writes — and now Tweets — with as much enthusiasm as ever. This month American Esquire published this intimate, very moving profile of him. It’s really worth a read.