Friday, January 9, 2009

Who will criticize the critics? A progressive response to Cenk Uygur

As a film-lover and as a progressive, I was disappointed by the defense of Ben Lyons given by Air America host Cenk Uygur on the liberal Huffington Post Web site. Many film-lovers would disagree with Uygur, but as a progressive I think that Uygur's approach is backward and uncritical of the corporate media.

Uygur begins with a disclaimer to let us know that he is the former co-host of Lyons' current co-host on At the Movies, Ben Mankwieicz. What Uygur does not seem to consider at all is that it is exactly this sort of disclaimer that is so often missing from Ben Lyons' reviews. Lyons is not a reliable independent source of critical opinion exactly because he too often name-drops his friends in his reviews. Little would viewers know that he is complimenting an actor he has a friendship with because he never gives such a disclaimer himself. Additionally, his movie reviews far too often throw out comments that are clearly meant to be picked up as blurbs for the advertising campaigns of the films that he is supposed to be criticizing.

The result of this is that it is very difficult to take his reviews seriously. Uygur mentions none of this, simply stating that

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?

But this does not deal with the issue at all--Uygur simply makes Lyons out to be "just as bad" as the entire industry. That is hardly a convincing defense, especially considering that previous hosts of At the Movies such as Siskel and Ebert--or Roeper and Phillips, for that matter--did not indulge in this sort of behavior. Nobody believes that Lyons is "uniquely responsible" for this sorry state of affairs. Lyons is, however, one of the most visible film critics in the country now sitting in the highest seat of criticism and is one of the critics most blatantly responsible for this sort of behavior--and that is what has resulted in the backlash against Lyons.

But what is most missing from Uygur's response is any background of the overall context of film criticism today and the corporate environment it occupies. The mass media is controlled by a small number of large corporations, which means that there is crossover between the owners of the film studios and television networks on the one hand and the publications who hire the critics on the other. ABC/Disney--the producers of At the Movies--is a perfect example of this. In theory, critics give an unbiased opinion of the films they view. In reality, however, they are not only employed by the corporations that produce the work they are criticizing but are also beholden to the friendliness of Hollywood stars, directors, and producers, whose cooperation they need in order to land high-profile interviews. Even worse, it is not uncommon for some critics to give a free pass to far too many movies and include silly blurbs like "It's a thrill-a-minute blockbuster!" in their reviews, guaranteeing their blurb--and their name--will land on the materials for the movie's ad campaign. The critic legitimizes Hollywood so that Hollywood will legitimize them.

Even more significantly, the struggle for survival by print periodicals and the rise of Web sites dedicated to film reviews has meant that a number of film critics have lost their jobs recently. To make matters worse, the Associated Press recently announced that they expect their critics to keep their reviews to 500 words or less. All of this means that today's critics are forced to constantly look over their shoulder and have a number of pressures on them to adapt to Hollywood's standards--presumably under the guise of appealing to the masses--rather than critique it harshly or provide a more sophisticated analysis.

This is not just a question of whether movie reviews should be directed at the uneducated masses versus academic film snobs. This is a question of whether the critic can be considered an independent voice at all or simply a cog in the film industry whose position is dictated by those who control the wealth and is, therefore, unwilling to bite the hand that feeds it. When he declared I Am Legend to be one of the greatest movies of all time and 300 to be one of the greatest films of the last twenty five years--but could not even be bothered to find a space on his top ten list of 2007 for the latter--Lyons exposed precisely what is wrong with many of today's film critics. While some are principled and have no qualms about slamming Hollywood for expecting us to like much of the senseless garbage that is produced, too many are willing to suck up to the industry and its stars in order to get their name on a poster or guarantee an interview.

It is also important to reject the attitude that critics should just tell ordinary folks what they will like and not be so concerned with film history. Considering that Siskel and Ebert had no problem giving two thumbs up to "lowbrow" comedies and action movies when they were well made, Uygur's attitude seems to expect a "dumbing down" of criticism. But far too many progressives look upon the "unwashed masses" with disdain, as though the entire country is composed of beer-swilling red state imbeciles who are glued to the television and will eat whatever is fed to them--politically, culturally, and literally. Uygur does not explicitly express this sort of dismissive attitude but plays directly into it with the belief that ordinary people are not interested in "cinematography and shadowy lighting".

On the contrary, it does not take an Ivy League education to appreciate these things. Anybody who watches a lot of movies--and many people who do not--can appreciate a scene well photographed. Siskel and Ebert, by the way, were always far more receptive of interesting characters and surprising plots--they simply expected films to give us something different and unexpected and encouraged people to have a higher standard than they might otherwise have. The point of the critic, as Ebert once said, is not only to reflect public opinion but also to shape--to encourage people not to settle for less and expect a higher standard from the entertainment machine that puts out films through a production line process and hopes the masses will stroll in the theater with their $10 regardless of quality or originality.

Rather than make excuses for critics like Ben Lyons, progressives should demand more. We should criticize the critics who are only interested in furthering their careers and are willing to make fools of themselves--and their audience--by recommending films that do not deserve the recommendation. We should encourage ordinary people to expect more out of their critics, not less.


Anonymous said...

What the shit does your being a liberal have to do with the rest of your analysis here? Or do you just see the entire world through the narrow prism of your political viewpoint? Dumbass.

Scott said...

Cenk Uygur is a liberal commentator, not a film critic. So I tried to take him on from a left-wing perspective, emphasizing the role of corporations in Hollywood and their control of film criticism. I actually thought that would be fairly uncontroversial--I see you have no specific complaints about what I said--especially compared to some of the other things I have written on this blog.

But I am just a simple dumbass, so what do I know.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Terrific response, Scott! Way to go!

Anonymous said...

You had a post about some right-winger complaining that Hollywood didn't appreciate "Twilight" enough because of its pro-abstinence message.

You know what stuns me? That the religious right condemned "Harry Potter" because the kids were witches and wizards but that they'd endorse vampires. Enspecially since the "Twilight" series have much more explicit sexual themes than "Harry Potter", where the sex involved comes mostly in off-color jokes and inneundos.

Scott said...

Absolutely. The Harry Potter kids are sweet and innocent compared to the horn-dogs in Twilight. In his first scene, Edward is hiding his fangs from Bella--ie hiding his erection. And the ending essentially advocates having sex but having the guy pull out before finishing. Maybe it's a all a metaphor for abstinence, but it's not exactly a consistent message for horny teenagers.

Anonymous said...

I think it's a reflection of the author of the series wanting to have her cake and eat it, too. Abstinence is what she might advocate and it's useful because it adds sexual tension to the story (will they do it? Or won't they?) but you have to have the kids fuck at the end to have any sort of payoff.

There's no sexy if they don't fuck. And she knows teenage girls read the books because of the romance and lust.

Anonymous said...

I like Cenk, though I much prefer Ebert's political commentary than Ben M.'s film commentary if you know what I'm sayin', but I think he just defending his former partner's partner in that case. No way he cannot give that response without having a relationship with Ben that trivializes his impartialness.