Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Roger Ebert. (AP)
Roger Ebert. (AP)

john doyle

After Roger Ebert, what use is a critic, anyway? Add to ...

Today, let’s start a conversation.

Over the past few days, I’ve had some thoughts while watching TV. Some, I even wrote down. First, when catching up with last Sunday’s Mad Men, I had this passing observation – “What the hell? Is this series turning into an unfathomably unironic version of Peyton Place?”

More Related to this Story

Tuesday, while watching CTV National News with Lisa LaFlamme, I had angry thoughts. The top story, which went on and in multiple directions, was the arrest of two alleged terror suspects in Canada. LaFlamme, dressed in black, leaned emphatically toward the camera and spoke in the really, really serious tone that news anchors save for times of grave national crisis.

Then she and the reporters spouted the most extraordinary nonsense. The point, I think, was to make viewers afraid to leave their homes and take any kind of transit going anywhere. Some musing about Canada being “terrorism’s next deadly stop” erupted. At that point, I remembered being told that Our Glorious Leader has a 100-person strong communications staff. I could imagine them high-fiving each other.

At the same time, I’ve been thinking about the recent passing of Roger Ebert, most famous and populist of film critics. His passing directs us to a relevant question – what use is a critic, anyway?

It could be said that Ebert, rightly admired for his professional vigour and personal strength of character even through terrible illness, encapsulated in his career the best and worst of criticism. The best in that his acumen about movies and the clarity of his writing always made him worth reading. He did, after all, win a Pulitzer Prize for reviewing movies. The worst in that he helped dumb it all down – thanks to him and the brevity of reviews he delivered on TV, it became acceptable to limit criticism to the inanity of a “thumbs up/thumbs down” reaction.

Professional criticism, like book stores, Canada Post and print newspapers and magazines, is generally thought to be in crisis, thanks to the Internet, and even in outright decline. Bloggers, cybercritics, consumer websites and enthusiasts on Twitter are thought to have replaced the professional critic employed by a media outlet. People like Ebert, or me. The digital age is killing us off, apparently.

Frankly, as far as I can tell, this is a view propagated a lot by people who blog and tweet about movies, music or television for little or no money and are, in many instances, resentful or envious of the attention paid to the professionals. They want to be liked. They want to be respected.

This is a depressing insight. The primary job of a critic is to be critical. If you want to be liked and respected, go into show business. That’s where you’ll get the warm glow of applause.

Neither yours truly nor my colleagues writing about theatre or film do what they do in order to be liked and get access to famous flibbertigibbets. Oh, we all do it to get some attention, for sure. There’s little point in toiling as a critic for a commercial operation, newspaper or magazine, and writing material that nobody cares about.

Professional critics are increasingly necessary because a good deal of what appears online under the guise of criticism is highly dubious. Amateurs, God bless them, can be far more easily persuaded to give good notices to something. They can go on all-paid junkets to see a movie or do a set visit and interview the fabulous stars and creators of the work. I can’t do that. I’ll review what I see as you will see it on TV, or your computer or tablet, whatever way you want to watch it.

For all the opinions and posturing available online, far more useful to the culture and to the art or medium being covered is the professional whose first loyalty is to the publication that employs them, and its readers. That means the professional critic speaks for the audience. Nobody else does. And in a time when tens of millions of dollars are being spent on marketing, somebody actually has to represent the audience. That, I think, is what Roger Ebert did.

In that context, it’s not that the digital age has made professional critics redundant at all. In fact, the speed of communication and interaction helps the professional critic do a better job. We are long past the days when a handful of print critics of the arts had a disproportionate influence and, a week or so after a review was published, letters of reaction arrived by mail. These days, what professional critics must do is engage in an ongoing conversation with the reader, the audience for which they speak.

It’s a matter of collaboration. You want me to recommend? Help me recommend. And many of you do that. What I write in these columns amounts to one long piece of running commentary on the medium with which I can cultivate a dialogue with readers. I ask them to tell me what they watch on TV and what they think of a program I recommended. Thus we are actually engaged in the cheerfully collaborative business of filtering out rubbish and finding the best.

Am I right or am I wrong? Let the conversation begin. And we’ll return to the topic. But I begin by insisting I’m right about Mad Men and right about the outrageous fear-mongering of CTV National News the other night.

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories