Roger Ebert, tweeting against the pricks.
If you read film criticism, then chances are that lately you’ve been reading a lot about the death of film criticism. In the past few years, many prominent film critics, from A.O. Scott to Armond White (who, if at least in his own opinion, is the only film critic worth reading) to Roger Ebert, have filed post-mortems lamenting the authorities’ critical opinion being strangled by the ink-free paws of celebrity gawkers, bloggers, and other denizens of the cinephilic hoi polloi.
In 2008, Ebert wrote (on his blog, no less) that the problem wasn’t just established film critics sweating about their next paycheque. Rather, he viewed film critics as being like canaries in a coal mine, their expiry signalling the graver problems in our celebrity-obsessed culture. “It is not about the disappearance of film critics,” he wrote. “It is about the death of an intelligent and curious, readership, interested in significant things and able to think critically.” And in the two years since Ebert uttered (well, blogged) these words, things have only gotten worse. Which is why it’s a bit curious that earlier today, Roger Ebert hosted a Twitter Showdown as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.
From left to right: Dan Levy, David Poland, Scott Tobias, Eric Kohn, Grace Wang, Rainn Wilson, and Roger Ebert.
A panel made up of four film writers—Toronto film blogger Grace Wang, the A.V. Club’s Scott Tobias, indieWire’s Eric Kohn, and David Poland from Movie City News—as well as actor Rainn Wilson (whose presence resulted in a whole lot of “OFFICE UK FTW” tweets), squared off over Twitter on Saturday, responding to questions and observations of cinema and the film industry posed by Roger Ebert. After Ebert submitted a question or comment for debate, the panelists had one minute (a lifetime in the Twitter-verse) to offer the wittiest, most insightful, and most concise response. After reading through the responses, the audience was polled for the best one.
The event proved one thing: it’s exceptionally difficult to have serious conversations about the contemporary climate of film and film criticism in 140 characters. While it started earnestly enough, with Ebert posing discussion topics such as “3D is an abomination on the face of the cinema” and “Film-for-film, the French cinema is today the best in the world.” Most panelists took this latter statement as an importunity to mock the French, with not a single one offering South Korea an alternative to France’s long-withering reign as ruling monarch of foreign-language films. Following this, the event sloped into a full-blown sarcastic snark-off. Ebert even played along, tossing out talking points like “Most Americans are too stupid to understand The American.” and even something about Justin Bieber (Tobias’ worthy rejoinder: “Uh oh! @ebertchicago just said something about Justin Bieber. TRENDING TOPIC! FAN FICTION! KANYE REMIX!”).
Roger Ebert moderating Saturday’s Twitter Showdown.
In the end, Wilson took top honours, attributable mostly to his celebrity and astonishingly quick wit being able to win over an audience who didn’t seem to care all that much about films or film criticism. Wang’s more thoughtful, less eagerly clever responses were met with little enthusiasm. And people in the crowd were overheard asking who Michael Bay is. Like, really? The guy’s GDP is probably that of most European nations.
In keeping with this tone, host Dan Levy managed to embarrass himself by not knowing who Catherine Breillat is. (Apparently, his exacting MTV hair-and-makeup schedule precluded him from attending the TIFF Cinematheque’s recent retrospective.) But then, if there’s any justice in this world, Catherine Breillat is blissfully unaware of who Dan Levy is.
Showdown winner and certified smart-aleck Rainn Wilson.
But even though it didn’t resolve any of the nagging questions about the future of film criticism or how the film-going public engages with contemporary cinema, it was a bit of fun seeing these critics (and comic) vie for the affections of both the audience and Ebert. The interrogation of how Twitter will continue to impact the function of serious criticism was still left wide open. And given the nature of the event, it seems that even Ebert has come around a bit.
It’s like that old saying goes, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. And then tweet about it.
Photos by Christopher Drost/Torontoist.
Want more TIFF 2010? Torontoist’s complete coverage of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival is all right here.