Monday, January 5, 2009
In defense of mediocrity
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.