David Ehrlich’s opinion is a little more nuanced than his above tweet implies. Having read Roger Ebert’s review of the new Jafar Panahi documentary “non-film”, This Is Not a Film, Ehrlich finds it difficult to square that while Ebert offers extremely high praise for the film, highlights no flaws, but still only gives it a 3.5/4. It’s the incongruous gap that bothers Ehrlich. If Ebert agrees the film is amazing, and agrees that it’s socially important, why wouldn’t he give the film 4 stars to grab the attention of more readers and hopefully send more people to seek it out?
It’s an interesting question, and one which leads me to consider the retort: Does Ebert, as an important critical voice with a mass audience, have a responsibility to bolster a film even he might consider “important” in a context outside of cinema?
Roger Ebert has explained the difference between his own 3.5/4 and 4/4 ratings before. “I wish that I didn’t give star ratings at all and every review had to speak for itself. But 3½ is a very good rating, meaning all a movie lacked was an ineffable tingle at the base of my spine.” So it sounds like though he thought very highly of This Is Not a Film, it didn’t quite give him that “ineffable tingle” that, say, A Separation did earlier this year. That seems fair to me. These reviews articulate his own response to a film, and the rating is a part of that. He simply didn’t think This Is Not a Film was quite a 4-star film in his experience.
But that doesn’t get to the “importance” factor. Deciding what film has importance in a grander social or political context is tough. Many documentaries are potentially important but fail to find an audience and thus have no impact either way. Some films are viewed as so potentially important that they are deserving of added support in order to gain a wider audience. It’s must also be recognized that importance doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with quality. Bully, for example, is a documentary about bullying at school. The critical consensus seems to be that the documentary as a piece of filmmaking is decent, but hardly noteworthy. Instead, it’s the subject itself that has garnered the film an aura of importance. Even people who were annoyed by the hypocritical dealings of Harvey Weinstein with the MPAA of the film’s rating were glad that at least it got the film in the national conversation, meaning more people would see it and be exposed to this important subject.
In that context, maybe Ebert does have a responsibility. If he has no serious reason to dock This Is Not a Film by half a star, maybe he should have given it 4 stars in order to attract that audience. The question in such instances becomes one of duty to the film in the context of its medium vs. duty to the film in a larger context. Though Ebert may feel that his own writing is purely a personal reflection, that it is published and read in a newspaper means that it’s being consumed as a source of information. If the information that Ebert wants to convey is, “This Is Not a Film is an important film that everyone should see,” then it’s possible he does have a responsibility to rate the film accordingly rather than focus on his own lack of “ineffable tingle”.
Then again, maybe the critic has no responsibility at all. Maybe it’s truly up to the reader alone to decide through Ebert’s review, and others, whether a film is deserving of his time and attention for reasons artistic, import or whatever. That said, it’s all a personal decision. Ebert decided to prioritize his personal experience over the potential importance of the film. Other critics might decide otherwise. There are no rules, and I really think it’s up to the critic’s taste. But what do you think? Do critics have a responsibility to promote so-called “important” films?