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I Love You, Roger Ebert…

There’s a lot of trash talk out there about Roger Ebert. Is he going soft in his old age? Is he wrong to ‘go easy’ on really terrible films? I don’t know and I don’t care, because the man is some sort of legend. Sure, I may disagree with his opinion from time (I don’t buy his argument against 3D, for example, and there are quite a few movies on which he and I diverge), but I always find his comments insightful, well considered and respectful. That’s something a lot of film critics these days who seem to use their reviews to make pith putdowns and blithe one-liners could learn from – and I am looking at you, David Edelstein. Still, he ain’t a man to pull his punches, and that’s another reason I love him so dearly. His latest attack was on those who dared deem Transformers 2 a good movie – or even defend it as “as good as it could have been”. The article can be read here and is well worth a look for anyone interested in the man or his artform, or even movies in general.

Some man for one man...

Some man for one man...

If this were ancient Rome and film critics had their own deity, Ebert would be it. It’s kinda redundant for me to comment on it, as I agree with just about all of it, but hey – why not?

It’s not a critic’s job to reflect box office taste. The job is to describe my reaction to a film, to account for it, and evoke it for others. The job of the reader is not to find his opinion applauded or seconded, but to evaluate another opinion against his own.

I’d agree. That’s one of the most concise definitions of film criticism – a school that constantly finds itself under attack and in some form of identity crisis. Their job is to comment and – occasionally and increasingly rarely – to recommend, not to reflect. Sites like imdb.com are designed to reflect the general opinions of the film-going public. Channel 4 holds almost annual polls on film. Individual critics shouldn’t have to define themselves by popular taste – even if they should, they can’t. Popular taste is such a fickle thing. As one hundred people to name the best movie of all time and you’ll get about twelve different answers – five you could make a case for, four that weren’t anything special and three you won’t watch more than once.

“Why in this society are the intelligent vilified? Why is education so undervalued and those who preach it considered arrogant or pretentious?” Why, indeed? If sports fans were like certain movie fans, they would hate sports writers, commentators and sports talk hosts for always discussing fine points, quoting statistics and bringing up games and players of the past. If all you want to do is drink beer in the sunshine and watch a ball game, why should some elitist play-by-play announcer bore you with his knowledge? Yet sports fans are proud of their baseball knowledge, and respect commentators who know their stuff.

Yep, I never understood why movies are such a divisive artform. Maybe it’s because they cut a wider slice of the social pie. I’m not talking about serious film nerds like myself, but people who will go to the cinema if something they want to see is one. People who’ve seen modern ‘big’ movies at least, like The Shawshank Redemption or Titanic or Lord of the Rings or The Dark Knight. It doesn’t matter whether they watched it at home or in the cinema. Non-sports fans will never flick on a game, but non-movie buffs will watch films. And with that massive popularity comes a sort of crass popularism. I’ve seen maybe three thousand movies in my life time, Ebert has seen maybe ten thousand. Logically, his top ten films ever made will include a lot of films I haven’t seen and exclude a good number of my top ten (and that’s not even taking taste into account). If the average person has seen only maybe five hundred movies, those differences get even larger. Taste diverges – simply because of differing experience.

Sports fans like their sports commentators, because they tend to be watching the same game. They’ll follow the same season. Sure, they might make the odd historical reference or statistical fact, but for the most part, they are one. Movie critics have much broader experience than most movie-goers, and often talk about films that their audience can’t relate to. I don’t know why the reaction is so defensive. I’m curious when I read these references – there’s more to know. I like storing up my useless trivia like a trivia squirrel hoarding trivia nuts. But that’s just me. I’m odd. Evidently.

Those who think “Transformers” is a great or even a good film are, may I tactfully suggest, not sufficiently evolved. Film by film, I hope they climb a personal ladder into the realm of better films, until their standards improve. Those people contain multitudes. They deserve films that refresh the parts others do not reach. They don’t need to spend a lifetime with the water only up to their toes.

Good old Ebert. I think he’s well-aware there’s nothing tactful about that phrase, but he’s right. I don’t like closed minds. It’s a pet peeve. I had the (mis)fortune to work in an ‘ancient’ college society where the old rules were venerated and treated as sacred pronouncements never to be opposed or debated or discussed. The air was as stuffed as the shirts. There was no taste for anything too new or too fresh. The real tragedy was that it was a debating society where opinions never changed. I don’t like people like that.

It cuts both ways. No critic who claims to have seen it all is worth my time. There is always more to see and experience – more to know. And that’s the really wonderful – almost magical – thing about film: you’ll never see it all. And some of it is bad and some of it is better. There a tendency – an anti-intelluctualism, as Ebert argues earlier – to protest and ridicule the notion that films (and in particular action films) can be more than a sequence of explosions. That they can be better. And then it can be even better. Anyone who doesn’t see that doesn’t understand cinema. The pool always gets deeper, you just have to be willing to swim.

Do I ever have one of those days when, the hell with it, all I want to do is eat popcorn and watch explosions? I haven’t had one of those days for a long time. There are too many other films to see. I’ve had experiences at the movies so rich, so deep–and yes, so funny and exciting–that I don’t want to water the soup.

On the other hand, there are movies “so rich, so deep” or “so funny and exciting” that do also feature fantastic explosions and spectacle. And no, Transformers 2 is not one of them. What happened to those blockbusters with heart? I’m sure the Ebert who loved Iron Man and The Dark Knight would agree with me on this.

I’m a little worried that critics seem to feel the need to defend themselves on this – but they couldn’t have asked for a better champion than Roger Ebert.

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One Response

  1. [...] man really hates Transformers 2 – in case you didn’t read his response to those critics of critics. Or maybe it was the announcement of a Viewfinder and an Asteroids movie within the same week that [...]

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