I've enjoyed the recent "Whither The Movie Critic?" chatter (here and here), so reading the recent news that Roger Ebert is in serious condition after emergency surgery seems almost off-puttingly personal.
Roger Ebert means something to me, as he does to most North Americans. In my case, it was in fact his writing that turned me on. In 1982 was a kid who perused the shelves at the local library. I hadn't seen his show with Gene Siskel, but I could recognize the man thanks to a SCTV send-up I had committed to memory. And there he was, on the cover of A Kiss Is Still A Kiss. I figured if he was on TV (PBS, at the time) that was probably worth something, so I took the book home. A week later I went back to the library and took out his Movie Handbook. I read every word of that, too. Roger Ebert was my first movie critic.
Right from the start, Ebert developed the habit of including other critics in the conversation. Thanks to him, I discovered Pauline Kael. After that, it's a game of Six Degrees of Roger Ebert. Thanks to Kael, David Edelstein is in the business of good movie writing. Edelstein frequently reminds me of what Jay Scott did so well. When Jay Scott passed away, Geoff Pevere became the only Canadian movie critic worth reading. And though Pevere has participated in some grand books, none of them, alas, are devoted to the movies. For my money David Thompson's Biographical Dictionary of Film sets the standard as ideal summer reading -- for this, or any summer. And of course, there's always the Ebert canon: The Great Movies, Great Movies II and Ebert's Book of Film.
Precious few film reviewers bother the reader with anything more confidential than, "I didn't like this movie because it was too stupid for me." Movie goers might not be the cleverest people in the world, but if you're writing for publication I hope you believe your readers are. And readers know when a writer is on the hunt of something grand -- a larger sense of why identity and the ability to deal with life is dependent on what one sees on the silver screen. When a writer has that perspective, what they say has the right to be taken seriously. Otherwise, it's just one schmuck's opinion against another's -- and you can go to the blogosphere for that.