Monday, January 5, 2009

In defense of mediocrity

Cenk Uygur, a former co-host of Ben Mankiewicz's on Air America, wrote a response to the LA Times article attacking Ben Lyons. His response appeared on the Huffington Post. I have asked them if I could write a response to Uygur from a progressive perspective--if they decline, I will post it on this site later in the week.

In Defense of Ben Lyons
by Cenk Uygur

I must make a huge disclaimer here before we get started. I co-hosted The Young Turks with Ben Mankiewicz for five years, he still co-hosts the show with me from time to time and we have been very good friends for many years. Ben Mankiewicz now co-hosts At the Movies with Ben Lyons. Now that I've said all that, this isn't about Ben Mankiewicz, it's about Ben Lyons. Here is my simple message to all the haters - get off Ben Lyons' ass.

Seemingly every other movie critic in the country has made it their life mission to take down Ben Lyons. We are told that he's too young, doesn't know enough about movies and sucks up to celebrities too much. First, I got news for you - the whole entertainment industry is built around sucking up to celebrities. You think Ben Lyons is uniquely responsible for this? Are you mental? Have you watched any entertainment "news" in your life?

Second, I don't give a damn how old he is. I just care if he does a good job of reviewing movies on TV. Third, yes he reviews movies - on TV. That means he has to be good on TV - and he is. He's personable, engaging and comfortable. In an ideal world, the best print film critics would make the best movie reviewers on TV. We don't live in that world (just as many of the best political writers and sports writers are disasters on television).

Fourth, frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn that he doesn't have Roger Ebert's encyclopedic knowledge of film history. Who does? (Other than Roger Ebert). I just want to know whether I should see Benjamin Button this weekend. The two Bens will give me the information I need and entertain me while they do it. In fact, I think Ben and Ben have made this show watchable for me now in a way that it never was before.

Why? Because I couldn't relate to the previous hosts. They have been reviewing movies for centuries (don't get me wrong, this is nothing against them on a personal level - I actually like them and have tremendous respect for Ebert). But for them, the cinematography and shadowy lighting is enormously important. God bless them for it, but I mostly don't care. And I suspect I'm in the vast majority.

How this movie compares with Frank Capra's body of work is a lot less relevant to me than whether my wife is going to be able to sit through it. I trust Mankiewicz because he is about my age, he has my sensibility and roughly my taste in movies. As they say in the business, he is in my demo.

What I have been surprised to find out is how often I agree with Ben Lyons. I'm going to reveal some inside information here, but Mankiewicz doesn't always love costume dramas - and that kept him from liking movies like Braveheart and Star Trek as much as I did. Well, I love those movies. I can't get enough of Gladiator. And Lyons is not above it. Even more, I love the enthusiasm he shows for the movies he likes. And he's not afraid to say he likes movies that regular people like (by the way, regular people is not a euphemism for dumb people; I've got two Ivy League degrees and I still loved Old School). Other critics might be disdainful of that, but the viewers are not.

Look, let's keep it real. Are some of these other critics jealous of Ben Lyons because he has landed such a prestigious and well paying job (and one that makes you famous) whereas they are still working in print? Absolutely. I'm sure most of them love print, but here is a guarantee - none of them would have turned down the TV job.

Here is the critical thing that the critics are missing - these guys weren't hired to be the best film critics in the country, they were hired to be the best movie reviewers on television. And they are. They've got me watching the show every week. You know why? Because for 99% of America, watching movies isn't an exercise in showing off your intellectual elitism or waxing nostalgic about comparative cinema history. It's a movie. And Ben Mankiewicz and Ben Lyons provide smart, amusing and relevant opinions about movies that poor schleps like me might consider seeing. That's why we watch the show.


Joseph said...

AAAAAHHHHHH I want to punch this guy in the face! Ebert, Siskel, and Roeper never acted elitist on their show. Lyons DOESN'T need an encyclopedic knowledge of movies like Ebert, but he does need SOME. Sure, he had big shoes to fill. But this ass makes the assumption that the everyday movie going public is stupid. They know a good movie as well as film critics, they might not be able to define it in terms of cinematography or editing (like Lyons can, oh wait, nevermind) but they know gems and pieces of shit when they see them. Ebert's reviews talk about all the technicalities of cinema, but he spends a great deal of time dealing with the emotions given to him by the film, something everyone can connect with. Lyons just makes stupid hyperbolic statements disguised as film criticism. Fuck the author of this article. Fuck him in his ass.

Anonymous said...

Here would be my response to the author of the article-

Ebert's no film snob and you would know that if you really paid attention to his show. He gave thumbs up to countless horror flicks, low-brow romantic comedies and action movies over the years.

The difference was that he knew they were entertainments, he gave good reasons for liking them when he did and that he gave good reasons for disliking them when he did. He could also intelligently express himself, unlike Lyons. Lyons contradicts himself from sentence to sentence and can't keep track of his own reviews. At times, he is begging to be quoted out of context. His reviews are sometimes downright puzzling in their inanity.

Anonymous said...

He gets it all wrong. Just because you are easy to relate to, doesn't mean you are qualified to review movies. You have to have a certain amount of intelligence.

There's an English critic called Mark Kermode who has a PhD, regularly writes for The Guardian, and can constantly be seen/heard on British TV and radio. His knowledge of film probably rivals Ebert's and yet he also manages to be supremely entertaining and charismatic in his appearances. He is also willing to celebrate garbage as he proudly admitted to crying at High School Musical 3!

He is proof that a film critic on TV can be the best of both worlds: Intelligent and entertaining. Hell, I thought Siskel and Ebert were pretty enjoyable. Lyons is just a failure.

Anonymous said...

BTW please do check out Mark Kermode on YouTube. His reviews are outstanding from his praise of No Country for Old Men:

To his pan of Pirates 3:

AlterEgoMulva said...

Okay, I've been reading and catching up on all this Ben Lyons hoopla all week. I'm glad that someone besides a Disney/ABC executive is brave enough to take such an unpopular stance and defend Ben Lyons. After all, nobody is hated by absolutely every single living human being on this planet. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, including Uygur and, yes, even Lyons. So, in that aspect, my respects to Mr. Uygur for having guts.

Now, having said that, Uygur fails to comprehend what seems to me is the main complaint concerning Ben Lyons' hosting duties on "At the Movies". I really can't blame him for not looking past some of the misguided remarks made against Lyons. After all, some of his stricter critics focus more on his personna and not solely at what his role as a respectable film critic should be. Yet, Uygur, with an Ivy League education, a law degree, and all, doesn't seem to grasp that the concept behind Siskel and Ebert's -- and other serious and qualified film critics -- was not to just inform the public, but to educate them. PBS, obviously known for their programming philosophy, had a huge hit with "Sneak Peeks", Siskel and Ebert's television debut. When Buena Vista Television decided to bring these two to a broader audience with "At the Movies", the executives did so knowing that what attracted viewers to these two critics was their vast knowledge of cinema as well as how to enjoy a "Joe Six-pack" movie (A little bit of trivia: "Beavis and Butthead Do America received TWO THUMBS UP!).

By replacing Ebert and Roeper with someone like Ben Lyons, TV executives apparently lost sight of the original concept behind this show. Now, I'm not saying Ben Lyons has no place on television or on any corner of this pop culture hemisphere. Is it as co-host of "At the Movies"? My opinion is that he is underqualified. Greatly underqualified.

I don't expect for a film critic to have a college degree, although I would appreciate it, for my own academic snobby personality. But I've learned that a college degree does not guarantee intelligence. Mr. Uygur might agree that he has some former Ivy League colleagues that make him ask himself how on earth they were admitted to college in the first place. But I am a film lover. I want an experience. I want to get something out of my two hours of being at a movie theater. I want a film critic to guide me and educate me on why I should spend $10 on this movie and why I should skip that movie. And since subjectivity is not sufficient for me to be convinced, a review should be backed by objective points of reference. This is where a good film critic stands out. There are a set of rules that are used as a guideline to indicate if a film is well made or not, if the acting was outstanding but lacked direction, or if it's a visually effective film but with no substance in the screenplay. A good film critic, even a fervent film lover, digs into film history in order to understand current tendencies in film.

Yes, I am one who does want to know how Frank Capra's body of work is relevant compared to current films. But that's me. I don't expect everyone to think like me. However, I used to look forward to watch "At the Movies" because of Siskel, Ebert and Roeper. And I started at age ten. To watch someone like Ben Lyons review a film without any objective guidelines to keep his review from becoming an "I like this movie just because" opinon takes away from the profession. Because, as a reminder to Mr. Uygy, being a film critic is a profession, just like being a lawyer. I expect a certain level of respect for the craft as I do for the bar. If I were a defendant in a legal case, would I seek counsel from a respectable, clever, well-educated attorney, or from some guy who is relatable and looks good on Court TV?

Billy said...

I'm an 18-year-old kid, absolutely the wrong audience for any pair of elitist middle-aged men to foist upon me their film-babble. But that's not what Siskel & Ebert & Roeper were all about. In fact, the show exuded a distinctly populist air, an energetic discussion just like I might have with my friends after seeing a movie. I feel like I could jump in and talk to Siskel and Ebert. I don't know what show this Uygur is talking about, so stuffy and elitist, but it's certainly not Siskel & Ebert.

It might be Ben Lyons, though. Who can help feeling put off by all his celebrity-babble? It's great that you know them all, Ben Lyons, but I never will and you've just alienated me, a potential viewer.

Anonymous said...

Check out the comments Cenk Uygur has gotten on this:

The only people on Earth who seem to actually like Lyons are Cenk and BOA Kwan :P

Scott said...

Totally agree with AlterEgoMulva and Billy. I started watching S&E when I was about 14 and it never even crossed my mind that I should or shouldn't be able to relate to these guys. I watched because they were like me--they loved good movies and they hated bad movies. They could relate to quality lowbrow movies and still explain what is so great about a "highbrow" movie. It was never about putting down "ordinary" film goers for being "stupid" or pandering to them either.

It was about highlighting quality and explaining why we should expect more from Hollywood than just the same old crap. Uygur's attitude seems to be "Hey, we all just want the same old crap, so why not have a reviewer who will like it too?" What we really need is reviewers who will encourage people to have a higher standard for the movies they watch, rather than appeal to an arbitrary "low level of the unwashed masses"--many of whom, regardless of age, can appreciate a good movie and often do.