Monday, August 21, 2006

Ebert's fill-ins

I just finished watching filmmaker, novelist and comic book writer John Ridley fill in for Roger Ebert opposite Richard Roeper this week, and I thought he did a perfectly decent job, as did Kevin Smith last week (I missed the first fill-in episode with Jay Leno two weeks ago). According to the statement he put out a few days ago, Ebert has a long recovery ahead of him, and if he's able to get back on TV at all it won't be for a while. Of course I wish the best for Ebert - he's only 64, and if Stanley Kauffmann can still be churning out reviews at age 90, there's no reason that Ebert shouldn't be around that long or longer. Regardless of what you think of his opinions, or his recent alleged softness, Ebert has done more to bring respect and attention to film criticism than anyone since Pauline Kael, and maybe since James Agee.

So obviously the best thing would be to have Ebert on the balcony across from Roeper, but since that isn't going to be possible for a while, I think they're really doing a disservice to the show's audience and to the profession that Ebert has so long championed by bringing in people like Leno, Smith and Ridley as guest critics. Now, at least Ridley once hosted a movie review show on AMC, and certainly all of them seem to have fairly deep knowledge of film. (And, I know, Roeper himself wasn't exactly an accomplished film critic before joining the show.) But, according to Phil Rosenthal, only one upcoming guest host is a film critic (Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune), and others on tap include actors Aisha Tyler and Fred Willard. Certainly they'll be entertaining, but to me the message the show is sending out is: We don't need professional film critics to review movies. Someone like Ebert who's spent his entire life studying, analyzing and critiquing films? He can be replaced with an actor or a talk-show host.

I know that being an insightful and effective critic in print is far different from being engaging and entertaining on TV, and one thing that neither Ebert nor Roeper get enough credit for is their charisma and charm on the air, which is an entirely different skill-set than being able to speak or write intelligently about movies. But surely there are critics other than Michael Phillips who would be worthy guests for Roeper for just one week? I don't expect to see Armond White or N.P. Thompson, but what about Manohla Dargis? Scott Foundas? Dana Stevens? David Edelstein? Hell, I'd even accept Peter Travers; at least he's genuinely a critic. According to Wikipedia, Ebert had plenty of real, serious critics on as guests after Gene Siskel died.

This may very well be a crossroads for Ebert and Roeper's show and for film criticism in general. It may be a little hard to believe that the entire industry could hinge on one man, but if Ebert doesn't come back, it's entirely possible the show may end and the only full TV show dedicated to film criticism will be off the air. No one these days comes close to being as famous as Ebert for being a film critic, not even Roeper. Rather than letting high-profile film criticism fade out with Ebert, it'd be nice to see the one show with the power to do so doing something to support its continued existence, or at the very least showing some respect to the profession.

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