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Roger Ebert: Underground Film Reviewing Advice

Roger Ebert in Yard Work Is Hard Work

“It is the job of the film critic to figure out the director’s point-of-view and then gauge how well the finished film matches that vision.”

Ok, that’s a severe paraphrasing, but at the time I heard the actual statement, it didn’t occur to me to record it for posterity. In fact, I didn’t even understand what Roger Ebert was saying when he uttered it during a segment on At the Movies in an admonishing tone to Richard Roeper.

Roeper didn’t “get” it either, throwing back at Ebert that it can’t be the job of film reviewers to be mind readers. However, I have since come to realize that’s exactly what it is that a good reviewer is exactly supposed to do.

Film, particularly underground film that isn’t constrained by corporate, commercial or monied interests, is a visual, and sometimes aural, representation of a specific filmmaker’s vision. Through a film, if we cannot understand what it is that a filmmaker is trying to say, then essentially that filmmaker has not been true to himself or herself and their film has essentially “failed.”

It’s especially helpful to keep this idea in mind when reviewing and watching an underground film that isn’t catering to a specific, pre-defined notion of what a film is supposed to be. For example,  it’s quite useless to criticize Stan Brakhage‘s Mothlight for its lack of plot and catchy songs on the soundtrack, and you’ll end up sounding like a fool if you do. But, is Mothlight a beautiful and/or intriguing visual experiment? That’s the standard on which to judge that particular film. And while we can’t “read” Brakhage’s mind while watching the film, it is still possible to judge his intent and if the film is worth viewing based on that intent. (It is.)

One of the reasons I personally wanted to write reviews of only underground films was that I was tired of reading mainstream-oriented reviewers forcing a disclaimer onto their own reviews of underground films that point out technical and budgetary limitations. Who cares! I wanted to create a space where a film can just be a film; and if it represents an interesting point-of-view in an interesting fashion, then it’s doing its job.

(Film still above is Roger Ebert “starring” in the animated underground film Yard Work Is Hard Work by Jodie Mack.)


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