Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Ebert Strikes Back

In spite of its box office prowess, it's not surprising that Roger Ebert was less than kind to the new toy commercial/blockbuster, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen:

'Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen' is a horrible experience of unbearable length, briefly punctuated by three or four amusing moments. One of these involves a dog-like robot humping the leg of the heroine. Such are the meager joys. If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination.
It is a tour de force of critical savagery. I can't say it's fully deserved, as I've not seen and have no desire to see the movie. But based on the 45 minutes I spent with the first movie, during which I could hear some brain cells committing seppuku, I have no reason to quibble with Ebert's conclusions.

Alas, many others have found a great deal to quibble about, in the comments to this post over at Ebert's blog. In response, Ebert's post this week defends himself against charges of elitism and being out of touch and proudly proclaiming that he's a braniac. It's a good read, and Ebert is rational enough to realize that different people take different things away from movies and that if you happened to like Revenge of the Fallen it's of no moment to him. But I think he then takes one leap too far:
So let's focus on those who seriously believe 'Transformers' is one of the year's best films. Are these people wrong? Yes. They are wrong. I am fond of the story I tell about Gene Siskel. When a so-called film critic defended a questionable review by saying, 'after all, it's opinion,' Gene told him: "There is a point when a personal opinion shades off into an error of fact. When you say 'The Valachi Papers' is a better film than 'The Godfather,' you are wrong.' Quite true. We should respect differing opinions up to certain point, and then it's time for the wise to blow the whistle. Sir, not only do I differ with what you say, but I would certainly not fight to the death for your right to say it. Not me. You have to pick your fights.
Emphasis in original. I think Ebert misses the mark in two ways, each of which makes him come off as quite the elitist.

First, the bolded phrase there at the end is obviously a riff on Voltaire's famous quote that:
I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
Maybe I'm being simple minded, and Ebert is merely being hyperbolic, but the idea that someone shouldn't have the right to say The Godfather isn't a better film than The Valachi Papers is distressing. Even idiots and those with questionable taste have the right to speak. They can't force anyone to listen, of course, but neither can anyone else shut them up.

Second, I just don't think there are objective measurements when it comes to the worth of a piece of art. The "greatness" of a piece of art can get measured in two ways. The first is the simple reaction that it produces in a particular audience, down to the individual. It is entirely subjective and often tied into the particular place and time in which the individual consumes that piece of art. The second is measured in terms of technical achievement or influence, something which is reasonably able to be objectively measured.

For example, we've spent weeks hearing how great an artist Michael Jackson was. I'm sorry, but I cannot agree. For this audience of one, his music was fluff and flash, without anything of interest to me. His stuff will never be "great," in my opinion, as it pales in comparison to the great stuff Marillion or Mike Keneally or echolyn have produced. Nevertheless, I recognize that the man had talent and his work influenced a lot of people. In that sense, he was a great artist.

To use another example, consider Citizen Kane. It was one of the first additions to my DVD library, due largely to its reputation as the greatest film ever made. Nonetheless, I've heard lots of people talk about how boring it is and how it did nothing for them. To them, it's certainly not great (indeed, not even good!). However, in one of the DVD commentaries, Ebert himself goes on a great length talking about the numerous technical achievement of Orson Welles in making the film, many are routine parts of the movie business today. In that sense, it's hard to argue that Kane isn't great, in its influence at least.

Having said all that, I want to generally harrumph Ebert on his rejection of ignorance as bliss. I wholeheartedly agree with his assertion that:
What I believe is that all clear-minded people should remain two things throughout their lifetimes: Curious and teachable.
There are few things worse in this world than a closed mind. That not only includes obvious prejudices and ignoring the evidence of the world around you, but also your ideas about art and culture. Which means, I'm afraid, that maybe I'll have to sit down and watch Revenge of the Fallen at some point after all.



Paul Higginbotham said...

Great post. Very thought-provoking, as was Ebert's column. Some observations/opinions:

1) I think Ebert was using hyperbole, as you suspected. I don't think he was seriously saying you don't have the right to say Valachi is better than Godfather -- he was just stressing that if you did so you'd be wrong.

2) Ebert gave the first Transformers film 3 stars, so the "elitist" dog won't hunt. He has shown an ability to enjoy a good mindless summer blockbuster now and then. So T2 must be really bad.

3) A lot of people don't understand the difference between subjective response and honest critical judgment. Yes, anyone can say they enjoyed American Pie more than Casablanca, because that's purely a matter of personal taste. But anyone who knows anything about film could never argue that AP is the better film. You may like it more, but that doesn't mean it's better.

JDB said...

1. I'm sure you're right.

2. Good point. He's actually one of the critics who is most likely to not get all huffy at a sci-fi or action pick just because of the genre.

3. I guess it depends on (to channel an ex-President) what the definition of "better" is. The goal of any type of art, ultimately, is to affect its consumer in some way. Whether it works or not is so inherently personal that I don't think you can attach a label like that without qualifications.

For some folks, American Pie is a better film than Casablanca, because all they want/expect from the movies is a good laugh and entertainment. A kid fucking a pie can dothat job quite nicely. Casablacna is after a different response and, so, if you're not into that kind of response it won't mean much to you.

In another vein, on the writer's forum I hang out on one of the cyclical threads is, "why is Author X so popular? I just read [Author X's latest book] and it's so poorly written . . ." You can guess that "Author X" is usually someone who writes the novelistic equivalent of big blockbuster movies (Dan Brown, Stephanie Myers, etc.).

The bottom line is that the technical flaws that most writers observe as readers don't mean a hill of beans because those authors are telling swift, exciting stories into which readers can lose themselves. A technically brilliant book that tells a dull story won't get the same response (at least in the populace at large).

I dunno, maybe I'm clutching at straws, since most of the music and stuff I like so much the vast majority of the population can't stand. :P

Paul Higginbotham said...

"For some folks, American Pie is a better film than Casablanca, because all they want/expect from the movies is a good laugh and entertainment."

See, that's where I disagree. I think you can like A better than B for personal reasons yet still be able to accept that B is objectively better.

If my daughter draws a picture for me to hang in my cubicle it will mean infinitely more to me than a Picasso, but I can still agree that Picasso was the better artist (for now, anyway).

Or to put it in movie terms, I'd much rather watch Xanadu than Lawrence of Arabia on any given day, but I still realize that the former is a cinematic piece of crap compared to the latter.

JDB said...

I know I'm swimming against the current on this one, but I'm still missing where the "objective" part comes in. What is the objective measurement of artistic quality?

Can't be popularity, right? If so, Revenge of the Fallen is going to be one of the best films of the year (heck, maybe of all time!).

Is there some level of technical merit? That can't really be it, 'cause aside from a movie where you can see the boom mike in every shot or the "zipper from the Black Lagoon" (to quoth Zappa). But almost every movie that makes it to the screen is minimally competent, in those terms.

Seems to me that what gets labeled "great" or "better" comes down very often to a consensus of gut feelings. That seems dangerously close to Potter Stewart's old saw about pornography or *shudder* a leap of faith.

Funny you should bring up Lawrence of Arabia, tho', as I Netflixed it a little while back. Beautifully shot, with a stirring soundtrack, but way too long with not enough detail of what's going on with, you know, the Arabs. So I'd hesitate to call it "great," but I can recognize the influence on later movies.

Paul Higginbotham said...

"I know I'm swimming against the current on this one, but I'm still missing where the "objective" part comes in. What is the objective measurement of artistic quality?"

That's a good question and it would take a wiser person than I to adequately answer. Perhaps technical merit -- lighting, shot composition, etc. Acting quality? Script quality? But those are tough to define too, so we're back to square one.

I guess quality boils down to the classic definition of pornography: I can't define it, but I know it when I see it. Heh.