Recently, I hurled myself briefly into a fruitless Internet argument prompted by a publicity boast: 'Roger Ebert is the most influential film critic who ever lived'. What? More influential than André Bazin, Laura Mulvey, Manny Farber? And what does 'influential' mean, anyway?
I mean no disrespect toward Ebert. Beyond the fact that he was clearly a great guy, I happen to be no big fan of his work. And that is simply because, when and where I grew up (Australia), Ebert had no public presence. As a teenager, I knew more about the critical judgements of Victor Perkins (R.I.P.), Penelope Houston or Andrew Sarris, because that material was easily accessible in paperback in ordinary bookstores, schools and public libraries. Peter Harcourt from Canada was on national radio, presenting his series Six European Directors. And even Bazin's What is Cinema? was not far from my eager grasp, with many copies of those two volumes in the second-hand shops!
The key to the paradoxes and aporias of influence, of course, is — or at least, was, in a pre-digital era — broadcast television. Any film critic who manages to get their face on TV, and keep it there for any reasonable length of years, is automatically going to be much better known than any critic confined to print, no matter how well-read. If someone asserts that Ebert reached more people in North America through TV than any other critic has ever reached, I finally cannot take issue with that statistic.
But the emphasis on America obscures something significant. There are many places in the world where critics have hosted, introduced and discussed movies on TV. They automatically became much better known, and far more popular than their fellow, non-TV colleagues. Yet, when we evoke the 'most influential critics', we don't think of them, because they have already been folded into the exclusive domain of a particular nation's TV memories. And, just as they remain largely unknown to people within America, Ebert himself is just a vague name to many outside America, where his TV program never landed.
No one has tried to document the global history of this phenomenon; each of us could provide a precious piece. In Australia, for example, a guy named Bill Collins, now in his 80s, has hosted free-to-air and later cable TV slots since the 1960s. He's popularly known as 'Mr. Movies', high on Hollywood's Golden Age; but he also reads out passages from serious film books on air, and provocatively gave a prominent place to Miklós Jancsó's sex-and-politics party Private Vices, Public Virtues (1976) in his coffee-table Book of Movies.
On the Spanish channel TVE at present, there's a series most nights of the week, 'Historia de nuestro cine', where host Elena Sánchez speaks to film historian Luis Parés before the screening of a national classic. In Italy, the critic Enrico Ghezzi spent so many years on the program Fuori Orario that, when he couldn't make it into the studio, his voice recorded over the telephone was unfussily dubbed over previous footage of his sometimes younger self!
But let's not get carried away. On TV — I speak from bitter experience — most people come off a lot less smart than they actually are. The formats of so many programs, and the massive cultural anxieties of their producers, mean that everything is inevitably pitched downward to the 'lowest common denominator' of the 'average viewer'. That path is madness. Celebrity — in the form of enormous ratings, a million online 'hits', or a high 'recognition factor' for an individual critic — does not equate to meaningful influence. And even less to the nurturing and dissemination of a true film culture.
When people uphold Ebert as an influential critic, they mean that he recommended films and promoted filmmakers to many people who might otherwise have never 'tasted' them. OK, that's good and worthy. But it's not even half the story of what a film culture should be about — which is not just films but, equally, ideas.