Roaring About Lyons
by Kim Voynar, Film Essent
Over the weekend, the Los Angeles Times finally sat up and took notice of the blight to film criticism that is Ben Lyons in a scathing piece enumerating the many film critics and bloggers who have disparaged the 27-year-old, celeb-mugging quote whore since he took over At the Movies with his onscreen counterpart, Ben Mankiewicz. (I hear LAT's been sitting on this piece for a month ... guess they decided to wait and run it as a special Christmas present). Back in my college days, I used to debate, and we often had to advocate for the side of an argument we disagreed with, as an exercise in learning to debate an issue regardless of what our actual beliefs were. I thought about writing a post defending Lyons, just to practice my skills at taking up an argument in which I don't believe; unfortunately, Lyons doesn't give one a whole lot to work with.
I've followed pretty closely a lot of the talk around and about the internet about Lyons since he and Mankiewicz took over the once-mighty seats in the balcony previously occupied first by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, and then Ebert and Richard Roeper (who I also never cared for, but compared to Lyons, Roeper looks like Pauline Kael). Erik Childress over at efilmcritic.com has been running a popular recurrent feature called "Ben Lyons' Quote of the Week," in which he eviscerates Lyons' "criticism" by dissecting whatever banal things he's had to say in each show. Childress' piece has become a weekly must-read for his scathing critique of the TV film critic ... if you've not read it, check it out. It'll make you laugh out loud almost as much as if you were watching Lyons on TV yourself, only with the added benefit that you're not giving At the Movies your time and your television every week.
Lyons didn't choose to be interviewed for the LAT's piece, but his boss, Disney-ABC Television's Brian Frons, defends him in the piece thusly: "This is a guy who, if you sit and talk with him, he really does have an enormous love and knowledge base of movies," Frons said. "Did he spend 20 years as critic for a major newspaper? No. He's very much of the TV generation who don't spend time reading newspapers. I think we have a guy who is giving the information that audiences want to hear about film to make decisions about what to see."
Uh huh. Which sounds a lot like corporate-speak for either "Yeah, he sucks, but we signed a contract with him so we're going to make the best of it," or "Yeah, we really do think people who watch this show are that dumb." Take your pick. Of course, it's also possible that Frons really does think Lyons is the bee's knees, which would say something ... unflattering ... about his own taste in film criticism.
Which brings us to the greater question surrounding the existence of Ben Lyons as a critic: Does his existence in that position mean that film criticism as a whole is being "dumbed down," or that people in general have no taste and lower standards for movies in general and film criticism in particular than they had back in the good old days? There was a certain segment that, back in the day, bemoaned Siskel and Ebert bringing the world "two thumbs up," but the difference between Siskel and Ebert's two thumbs and what Lyons does is that Siskel and Ebert had intelligent things to say about the movies they were talking about, even when they had to talk in a truncated format for television.
Lyons, on the other hand, either babbles incoherently, talks in sentence fragments that make no sense, or says things that are so ridiculous they practically defy belief, as in one of my personal favorites -- also called out in the LAT piece -- when Lyon's called I Am Legend "one of the greatest films ever made," or more recently, when he said of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, "As much as I was watching their romance on screen I was thinking about my own life and where I’m at in my life’s journey on my timeline, a very sort of introspective experience.” His life's journey? What, since those tumultuous years of middle school?
I don't think film criticism overall has been dumbed-down; if anything, the internet has made the perspectives of more smart film journalists available to a wider audience than ever before, even if there is more chaff to sift through to get to the wheat. And I don't think people in general are any stupider now than they were 30 years ago; growing up in the age of the internet may have changed the way in which people get their information, but that doesn't mean they aren't still seeking it -- they're just getting it delivered in different formats, faster than they used to. But there's something about Lyons on that show that just chafes relentlessly.
In a time when so many smart critics are out of work, Ben Lyons is the best they could do for that show? Really? The thing is, you can't even properly lay the blame for Lyons' glaring ineptitude on his youth. He's 27, not 12 (though you'd be hard-pressed to know that based on what comes out of his mouth), and there are a lot of very smart film journalists and critics I know in that general age range who are endlessly smarter than Lyons when it comes to talking about movies. If Disney wanted someone smart and young, there are any number of smarter young film writers who would have fit the bill. Put Childress on the show opposite a smart, younger female writer, someone like, say, Karina Longworth from Spout, and you might actually have a show that would be worth watching.