PK Interview: Frances Hardinge interviewed by Tom Pollock
Reading Between the Lines by Janine Ashbless and Adrian Tchaikovsky

On Criticism: Pornokitsch, Memes and the Shadow of Roger Ebert

Roger EbertRoger Ebert, the eminent American film critic, died on Thursday night. He was seventy. As ill as he had been for the last decade, the news of his death was still shocking. I followed him on Twitter. I read his reviews. I read his last announcement, made the day before he died, that he was going to be slowing down in his reviewing going forward. It was still a shock. As of now: a world without Roger Ebert.

Movie criticism was, for maybe 20 years, the first form of criticism people encountered. Reading the Friday papers, with their reviews of the week's new releases, very often informed the weekend's activities. And even if one didn't get to the cinemas before the film left, or the movie one was interested in wasn't showing anywhere accessible, it would be on the shelves of the local video store in less than a year. Watching a film, and agreeing or disagreeing with the review of it one had read: well, that's critical engagement in its purest form.

The first form of criticism they encountered, I should qualify, that mattered. We were certainly all encouraged to engage critically with school texts, for example, but that was work. Engaging with movies, and with movie reviews - that was fun.

For a generation or two, movie reviews really mattered. With the rise of the home video market, 80 years of cinema history suddenly became accessible. For untold numbers of kids - latchkey kids without a lot of stuff to do after school or on weekends - video stores were mecca. And, since one couldn't sustain oneself purely on new releases, going into a video store armed with a list gleaned from a '10 Best' column, or a book of reviews, was vital.

So movie critics like Roger Ebert, with his regular, syndicated reviews, his comprehensive books, and (perhaps, for the moment, most importantly) his well-known tv show, really, really mattered. Ebert in particular was at the forefront of the conversation about movies in America, and everyone had an opinion about his opinions.

I was in college in Chicago the year Ebert's long-time reviewing partner, Gene Siskel, died. I remember very clearly; there was a lot of discussion about their different tastes and which of the two was 'better' - whatever that meant. The consensus around the table, I recall, was that Siskel was the superior reviewer of the two. He was certainly the more cerebral and less raw of them. I, 18 and insecure, felt ashamed to admit that I preferred Ebert's reviews, Ebert's tastes. That I always had.

Fourteen years on, I have no problem admitting that I still, absolutely prefer Ebert's reviews, Ebert's tastes. Even when I didn't agree with them. I preferred Ebert, and his reviews, for a two reasons. He was accessible; his reviews were conversational, and neither pandering nor exclusive. And, honestly more importantly, he liked the same stuff I liked. I found a lot of the 'great' cinema everyone told me I should like, as a smart sensitive girl, irritating or boring or otherwise unapproachable. I liked stupid comedies, action films, summer blockbusters, barbarian films, animated films. And Roger Ebert, of them all, didn't tell me that there was something wrong with me for liking the things I liked. Or that I had terrible taste. He told me that there was no shame in being drawn to the films I was drawn to. And this is the important part: he told me that the films I liked were just as worthy of being taken seriously as any other film. 

In his book Life Itself: A Memoir, Ebert wrote:

What I expect to happen is that my body will fail, my mind will cease to function and that will be that. My genes will not live on, because I have had no children. I am comforted by Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes. Those are mental units: thoughts, ideas, gestures, notions, songs, beliefs, rhymes, ideals, teachings, sayings, phrases, clichés that move from mind to mind as genes move from body to body. After a lifetime of writing, teaching, broadcasting and telling too many jokes, I will leave behind more memes than many. They will all also eventually die, but so it goes.

To whatever extent I am a critic, I am a critic because of my early relationship with Ebert and his reviews. The lessons I learned from him - to be approachable in writing, and to take everything seriously - have crystalized over the years. If there is anything that Pornokitsch and The Kitschies share, it is the crystalization of those two ideas: Pornokitsch and The Kitschies are meant to create and participate in conversations. And Pornokitsch and The Kitschies take - at least, try to take - everything seriously. Pornokitsch and The Kitschies may be nothing more than the shadows of a meme, but they are and remain a legacy of Roger Ebert's.

The fact that I also learned not to be ashamed of my tastes - that I could be smart and sensitive and love deeply internal foreign period films as well as disposable summer blockbuster action films; that my tastes are not inconsistent, nor do they reveal some fundamental flaw in my character, nor do they say that I'm too stupid to appreciate 'good' movies... that, too, is directly related to my early relationship with Ebert the critic.

We genre fans are often told that the books we love (and films, and tv shows, and games, and, and, and...) aren't important - that they aren't worthy of us. If I have devoted myself to any single idea; if Pornokitsch and The Kitschies are an expression of anything at all, it is this, a meme, gleaned 20 years ago from Roger Ebert. It is the idea that the things we love are important. That they are worthy of being taken seriously.

That they are worthy of us.