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Reviewing The Reviewers: On Ebert Presents At The Movies

  This past January, long-time film critic Roger Ebert, of the Chicago Sun-Times, made his return to television based film reviewing, with a revival of his old battling critics format on PBS, titled Ebert Presents At The Movies. The last three words of the title was one of the sundry names of the review program that Ebert hosted for over three decades, first with deceased film critic Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune, and, after Siskel’s death, with fellow Sun-Times culture columnist Richard Roeper. It was a format which debuted in 1975, and continued after Siskel’s death, in the late 1990s, and ended in 2008, after Ebert’s protracted battle with thyroid cancer left him unable to speak. In the interim, Ebert launched his own blog, which has been one of the more popular online websites for film and political discussions. Then, late in 2010, Ebert announced that he would be reviving his old format, replete with new battling critics, and with his wife as producer, this year.

Most of the online buzz about the show has been negative, in its conception, launching, and format. Having now watched the first five weeks of the show, I can say I actually agree (rarity that it is) with most of the online critics and rabble: the show is a mess, and worse, it’s just stale. What was new and revolutionary in 1975 is not so today. And, despite claims to the contrary, the show’s website breaks no new ground either, being a mere de facto online clearinghouse/advertisement for the show, despite early promise of more engagement with film buffs and online critics and aficionados. The problems with the show extended back to before its first airdate, when it was announced that the new critics would be the AP’s Christy Lemire and radio film critic Elvis Mitchell, not exactly critical luminaries to begin with. Then, a few months after the duo was announced, and just weeks before its first airing, Ebert abruptly fired Mitchell, and replaced him with a 24 year old critical neophyte, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, of Mubi.com. Online speculation ran rampant over what the source of the firing was over, and Ebert did not help matters by committing a PR gaffe by getting defensive when questioned over the move. Some claimed that Mitchell wanted to be top billed critic, others that Mitchell wanted more creative control over the show, others that Mitchell and Lemire had no chemistry or did not get along. But, the most likely explanation is the one most have claimed, that, as sponsor of the show, Mubi.com simply strong-armed Ebert into having one of their own on the show. If so, it was a HUGE mistake, for 1) Vishnevetsky has little depth of insight into cinema (even less than the notoriously bad Mitchell), 2) he has a very weak onscreen persona, and 3) he actually has no real chemistry with Lemire; although she has her own issues.

Let me tackle the show, piece by piece, and chart the pros and cons over the course of its initial outings. First, the critics, and let me start with Vishnevetsky. Much of the heated online criticism he has gotten (which is deserved for his wan critical and telegenic skills) has descended into ad hominem pillory, thus obscuring his real flaws. He genuinely seems like a nice fellow, but he is hopelessly over his head and out of his depth critically. He has a mushiness of personality that is akin to the later Ebert, but not the Ebert of the first 15-20 years of his show. His comments on films are facile, vague, larded with PC, rather than being pointed, ameliorative, or even condemnatory, when needed. Ebert, especially early in his career, had a number of famed castigations of films and filmmakers. Vishnevetsky is just bland. On the first show, he was atrocious. While Lemire panned all the films on that show, Vishnevetsky ‘liked’ all of them. And I use the quotes around like because a critic of any worth needs to be able to separate their emotional connection to an artwork, and its actual artistic value. Plus, he has a disturbing habit of oversimplifying complex films and situations while overanalyzing particulars of a film that are the proverbial cigar’s cigar. Confronted with Lemire, about a decade and a half his senior, Vishnevetsky was schooled, as Lemire’s points and arguments were defended with detail (whether correct or not), well worded (she is better at dialectic, albeit not great; just in relation to Vishnevetsky) while Vishnevetsky could offer nothing more than a smile, a shrug of his shoulders, and a refrain of how much he liked this or that. The second week saw the duo agree on some films, but Vishnevetsky was ignominious in his recommendation of the latest George Romero zombie film as a Western; a thought which almost made Lemire laugh. Week 3 saw more agreements, and Vishnevetsky grow a beard. Week 4 saw the duo list the five films that inspired them to become critics, and Vishnevetsky’s choices seemed pretentious, and ludicrous, since one would have to reasonably conjecture that early childhood films were the greatest influence, not the stuff offered in film school, which dominated his list: two little known (and not too good) silent films by D.W. Griffith (True Heart Susie) and Erich Von Stroheim (Foolish Wives), Jacques Tati’s 1967 Playtime, the 9 plus hour Holocaust documentary Shoah (which saw Vishnevetsky gush on about morality in art; even though any critic of worth knows that art is amoral- just as a hammer is: it can be used for good or ill, building an orphanage or bludgeoning someone to death), and a late, and equally long, Jean-Luc Godard film, Histoire(s) Du Cinéma. Week 5 saw more of the same from Vishnevetsky. That stated, given his grandiose ‘influences’ it’s obvious that little of this cinephilia has worked its way into Vishnevetsky’s ideas and critical analysis, which is inane. He sees things in banalities that are not there, and he misses cogent points in favor of pre-fab ideas of a film or filmmaker. In essence, he’s a filmic fanboy, not a critic. But, with each passing week he has gotten less irksome

This is because, after her early Week 1 domination of Vishnevetsky, Christy Lemire has gotten more generic and infantile with her critical skills. While I would still say she’s a slightly better critic than him (currently, and mainly because of her age and life experience), the truth is that the best I can say of her is that as a film critic she’s a physically attractive woman. Condescending as that may appear, it’s true. If Mitchell had not been canned in favor of Vishnevetsky she would seem quite grating, and that’s saying something since Mitchell is not known as being razor-sharp in his critical skill set. Since Week 1, Lemire’s critical claims have nosedove, and her Week 4 choice of films that influenced her is less pretentious, but more spotty, than Vishnevetsky’s. However, given her age, they are a bit more believable, and don’t give off the whiff of preening that his do. Lemire chose The Breakfast Club (a mediocre film, but one that she would have loved as a teen girl), Nights Of Cabiria (likely seen in film school or the like), the execrably pretentious Magnolia, and the equally bad Coen Brothers film No Country For Old Men (a bad enough choice, artistically, but really odd given it came out over a decade AFTER Lemire was a working critic), and The Wizard Of Oz (sensibly, a children’s film). Her worst moment had to come in Week 5, though, and was so ridiculous as to almost make me rethink ranking her above Vishnevetsky. This was her defense of the recent Justin Bieber film, which Vishnevetsky correctly called a bad 90 minute infomercial. Lemire loved it, and made all sorts of bizarre excuses for the film’s flaws (manifest from even the minute or so of clips shown), thus earning her the deserved sobriquet of airhead.

Fortunately, despite the failings of the two billed lead critics, the show has an upside, and the biggest one is Roger Ebert’s weekly contribution- usually a review of a little seen or publicized film, wherein an Ebert essay is read aloud by someone (like filmmaker Werner Herzog or newsman Bill Kurtis). While I have correctly written of Ebert’s critical flaws in the past, this sort of format shows Ebert at his best for, agree or not with his critical evaluation, the man writes compelling prose and usually makes sound arguments (dialectically, if not always artistically), and the fact that he is not stepping into the fray on the latest Hollywood crapola helps give the show a modicum of depth, of the kind it lacks vis-à-vis the earlier shows with Gene Siskel.

That lack of depth is sorely in evidence in the next feature of the program under scrutiny, and that’s the visual essays that are presented. In Week 1, the essay was on the 1949 film The Third Man. Just click on the link to the film I provide, and you will get a brief rundown on the many controversies surrounding this film’s provenance, authorship, screenplay, and other factors. These have been around for over 6 decades, since the film’s 1949 release, but not an iota of this makes it in to the video essay by Kim Morgan, an unfortunately stereotypical vapid blond, whose online ‘essays’ on film are a bit of a joke. Why? Well, to use this video essay as an example, there is nothing Morgan states that has not been stated before, and better, by other critics. She adds nothing new, nor uniquely hers, to her commentary. About the only memorable thing she states is that she thinks star (and partly director?) Orson Welles is ‘gorgeous.’ Yes, that’s the level of analysis Morgan imparts. Week 2’s effort was from the more pretentious, if less vapid, Kartina Richardson (proudly multicultural, and seemingly clueless), who tries to make connections in films that are not there, and imbues depth into things that are not. She tackled the Natalie Portman character in the Darren Aronofsky film Black Swan, but makes the film seem as if it is profound and important as Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. Her childish pseudo-profundities were only barely tolerable because she did not call anyone ‘gorgeous.’ Week 3 yielded the only good video essay thus far, and it was not by an aspiring film critic, but by longtime national network newsman Jeff Greenfield, who pondered on why political films that end with a speech by a President always seem to resolve conflicts, whereas, in real life, this is ludicrous. He gave good examples, and then speculated that the reason is ‘the revenge of the writer.’ I.e.- that screenwriters use the filmic moment to show ‘the power of the word’ that they don’t have in the film process, where their own words are often changed by a director, or even a vapid star who simply does not ‘like’ them. While not a profound insight, it was well crafted, to the point, and made sense; qualities the two young ladies could learn from. Week 4 was the Influential Films week, and had no video essay, although Ebert used excerpts from his excellent DVD commentary for Citizen Kane to expound upon its charms and influence on him. Week 5 saw the dreadful Kartina Richardson return to give a painful exegesis of a Tilda Swinton film, I Am Love. From the show’s website, here is a written excerpt of her video essay (with my bolded commentary):

In I AM LOVE, Tilda Swinton plays Emma Recchi, the wife and mother in a wealthy Italian family that finds love with a younger man, one with the earthiness she needs to counteract her stale, aristocratic life. But what I like most about the film is its size.
[Note: the dread L-word, like.]
I AM LOVE isn’t a film that minimizes itself. From the magnitude of its title, to its aristocratic poster, it stakes its claim as an important film.
[Now, seriously, I Am Love is a title with ‘magnitude’? How, exactly? And how would that imply import? In fact, the very title sounds like a generic Oprah Book Club pick, especially to women in Richardson’s demographic.]
Director Luca Guadagino speaks to the language of classic cinema. There is sweeping camera movement, meticulous shot composition, silences that magnify the god-awful presence of time, and the careful use of color and costume.
[Note the critical clichés abounding: language of cinema, sweeping camera movement, meticulous shot composition, god-awful presence of time. It’s as if Richardson is thumbing through the very worst reviews of Rex Reed, Pauline Kael, and Bosley Crowther, and sucking ‘the meat from their bones.’ In short, this is bad writing, and given that the accompanying images convey none of the trite claims makes it even worse.]
It is through costume that Guadagino most clearly asserts the film’s largeness, it’s aspiration to timelessness. All characters wear elegant, but simple clothes. Ones that prevent them from being identified with any particular time period.
[Well, from what little is shown in the essay there’s simply no way this could be a period piece, as they are all dressed in outfits of the last 15-20 years. This cannot be from the 12th or 16th centuries, nor from 1900 or 1955. It makes one wonder whether Richardson actually watches the films she tackles or uses film merely as a resource to pontificate on her own pet peeves.]
Belonging to one year is small. Belonging to ALL years is large.
[This is the height (or nadir) of her depth. Need I go on?]
The film’s costumes also display Guadagino’s careful use of color, which frequently underlines connections between characters. Emma has a special relationship with her daughter Betta and in several scenes the two wear colors previously worn by the other. Here Betta wears tan while her mother wears burgundy, and, in the previous scene here, Emma wears tan while in the next room Betta wears burgundy. Now Emma’s son has a close relationship with Edo, the housekeeper, and look: See how the orange juice she pours matches his shirt? Even the leaves on the plant are the precise shade of green to compliment the walls and furniture.
[This is a mind-blowingly silly segment because, while color-coding is nothing new in film, once Richardson talks of the orange juice, she veers into demonstrable insanity. First, the OJ’s color is not even remotely the same color as the shirt in question, unless bright orange and light cream are considered a match. Then, even worse, we clearly see that the plant leaves are nothing like the colors of the walls and furniture, which makes one question not only Richardson’s claims and eyesight, but why Ebert, or a producer, even let such an idiotic video essay run, for the girl embarrasses herself. I actually felt badly for Richardson to display her pretense and stupidity so nakedly.]
This kind of extremely planned composition could be too heavy handed. It could ruin the movie, but it doesn’t, and this is due to the most brilliant decision of all, the casting of Tilda Swinton.
[Note how the paragraph below does absolutely nothing to back up the posit made in the paragraph above.]
Swinton brings to the film a sharpness that prevents it from straying into dangerous maudlin waters. Like adding vinegar to a sauce that’s too creamy. Tilda Swinton is an acid that sharpens the richness. Here she is androgynous and cool, here womanly and soft and here like a wet baby bird. Hers isn’t a conventional appeal, but that’s exactly why it’s necessary in a film of such classical grandeur and drama. The Film remains expansive, while she makes it real. It’s not easy to bring something big into the world. People will question your nerve. Present a small idea and you only risk being called a small fool. Present a big idea and you risk being called a big fool. Thankfully for us, however, Swinton and Guadagino didn’t give a damn.
[One could cynically comment that Richardson’s ‘Big Ideas’ in this pompous essay therefore reveal her as a Big Fool, but, as that’s been established by this point, I’ll sidestep redundancy.]

Oh God, back to the rest of this essay. That was painful. My head throbbed trying to treat Richardson’s manifest idiocy as if it was the product of a coherent and mature mind (even her onscreen delivery of the lines was forced and preening, over-enunciating each banality as if it were taken from the minds of the gods).

So, to sum up, there’s very little to recommend Ebert’s new show because it is not good, not innovative, and basically represents what is wrong with current film and arts criticism, in toto. I’m not suggesting that even a healthy Ebert would be the remedy for he would not be, because, given the vast amount of online information about films, old and new, show me a single thing that the show or website bring to the table that is new or better than any other website. And this is largely because, despite early publicity that the show and website would open opportunities for online critics, little of that promise has been fulfilled. A look at the show's contributors shows a preponderance of Kartina Richardson types and over the hill dinosaurs with nothing new to say on film. Yes, Jeff Greenfield provided the only solid video essay thus far, but it was not particularly deep, and he has a limited understanding of the arts (I write this having watched and read the man for nearly three decades- on politics he’s an ace; on the arts, refer back to my comment on Lemire as a film critic, change the sex, and reduce the eye candy factor). Nell Minnow? Alison Bailes? Dan Ginn? Not exactly luminaries.

Now, I’ll state this up front, I am in no way angling for any connection to the show although I did email Ebert some months back re: the site’s purpose and if he was seeking essay contributions. He never replied, which is fine- it’s his show. But a couple of years ago Ebert claimed, of me and my website, that I was a ‘considerable critic,’ among a handful of other positive claims. A decade or more earlier, Ebert claimed James Berardinelli the best of the online critics of the day; even helping Berardinelli sell some books by blurbing for him. So, why are not online critics like me or the always thoughtful (even if I disagree with him) Berardinelli not associated with the endeavor, even in a minor way? Thus, what Ebert says is fatally undercut by what he does, as any positive comments in his thread on me, or his comments pro-Berardinelli, seem to be just bon mots tossed out to suit Ebert’s sense of generosity, not a genuine and intellectual appreciation of quality. And I realize even mentioning this runs the risk of bringing down the wrath of a thousand online trolls claiming I am ‘jealous,’ carefully misusing that word for envious, in inapt recapitulation of the bogus claim. So? It’s also plainly true. Deal with it.

If Ebert really wanted to show diversity he could have contacted Ray Carney, perhaps the most negatively vocal published critic of Hollywood in the last generation. Even Ebert’s old nemesis, the daffy Armond White, would be at least more entertaining than the bland, and equally ditzy, young female critics the show has showcased. Plus, it would truly show Ebert was willing to engage across a broad forum- I’ve many pieces negatively slanted against me and my website, Cosmoetica housed within it. But, aside from not fulfilling earlier claims of a broad outreach (clearly in favor of demographics- Lemire, Morgan, and Richardson for males of assorted ages and Vishnevetsky for the teen girl audience), there’s the larger issue of how such a banal lineup actually undercuts Ebert’s own credibility in critical circles. Here is the opening to a recent review I posted of the western classic Shane:

Mythic realism. That’s the perfect term to describe director George Stevens’ 1953 classic color Western Shane, one of the most unlikely great films I’ve ever seen. That’s because much of the 117 minute long film plays out as if it’s cheesy, with its lone, virtuous gunman who stands apart and above all others (a precursor to Clint Eastwood’s characters in Sergio Leone’s revolutionary Dollars Trilogy of spaghetti westerns), as a western version of the fathers of perfect nuclear families of the Eisenhower era sitcoms. Yet, below is a roiling realism that only serves to heighten the mythos, by contrast. This is the tension that is so unusual, yet remarkably powerful. I may have, when a boy, seen this film, in black and white, on television, for some scenes resonated as if I’d seen them long ago. Then again, such a seeming familiarity is part of the province of myth, and why this film achieves its greatness. It’s a greatness that is wholly distinct from the more modern sort of Western that Leone pioneered in the following decade. Leone’s films’ greatness (especially his westerns) was based upon a knowledge of film, as a medium and art, whereas Shane reaches far back into the eons, to portray its lead character as something akin to a god, in a way as primal as the Gilgamesh epic. In this sense, what many of the film’s detractors view as corniness, is archetypal characters and behaviors. But Stevens leavens this with well written characters and situations, and, to his credit, with believable villains who have real motivations, ones which actually gain a good deal of sympathy in the viewer.

Seriously, compare this single paragraph to Richardson’s prose (above). I am pointed, non-florid, display a specific depth of knowledge and apply it credibly to the film. Richardson burbles, and with flaccid pretensions. There is simply no intellectual nor qualitative equality between my writing and Richardson’s. Mine is vastly superior.

Yet, Ebert has also written positively of Richardson’s and Morgan’s prose and analysis (as well as that of the dazzlingly vapid Grace Wang). So how do we (or rather ‘how does he’) bridge the gulf between my cogent and insightful analysis and Richardson’s burble? Simple. It can only be that Ebert ‘likes’ both types of writing and analysis, independent of obvious qualitative factors. That lack of focus on quality, coupled with the aforementioned flaws, do not bode well for the show, and, if Ebert, himself, were to die, I find it hard to see the appeal of this show to anyone who did not grow up watching Ebert on television: it’s not innovative, good, nor even daring. This is 2011, not 1975. What made the chemistry between Siskel and Ebert entertaining and informative was not their often well-noted disagreements on films (although both qualities could be found in those moments), but the times when the duo agreed in their opinions on a film (pro or con) but did so for differing reasons. As noted, Vishnevetsky is bland and in way over his head, intellectually, whereas Lemire seems to (after the early promise that her onscreen criticism would be better than her written criticism- possibly due to being freed from poor editors) be trending down into an almost stereotypical airheaded persona too often associated with women. The video essays seem to be doomed, unless more Greenfield essays are due. The Ebert sections are the best because he focuses on a single film that is new, or underappreciated, and the two lead critics (the Not Ready For Prime Time Critics) have no depth, no chemistry with each other, and no broad appeal to the viewership. Again, the whole format is stale and non-interactive, despite claims to the contrary. Even the clips shown are those readily available online, and chosen from selected studio releases, not from parts of the films the critics chose, as in the Siskel And Ebert heyday. They are de facto commercials, not selections chosen to make a critical point. One would think Ebert would demand more, or rip on the practice that makes his ‘critics’ hack salesmen (as Ray Carney has opined), not critics.

What keeps flashing in my mind is the old baseball legend, Willie Mays, and his final season, 1973, with the New York Mets. It was painful to watch, and Willie should have hung up his cleats a few years earlier, but like many athletes (think of the more recent quarterback legend, Brett Favre) he was addicted to the fame. This is the only real reason I can posit for Ebert’s desire to foist this pointless and inane show upon the public, as it is such a tremendous letdown from his earlier career (even his later show with Roeper). Apparently, having a popular website (that boasts of many online awards won and over 106 million readers per year) is not enough. Like many celebrities it seems Ebert is determined not to progress, but to merely recapitulate the thing that made him rich and famous; and the film public is poorer for it. Yet, in my few brief correspondences with Ebert, and in reading some of his blog comments (both in general and specific to the one he did on me) this is clear: Ebert does not see himself as a celebrity, but a regular guy.

One commenter on the thread on me had mentioned a piece by David Sirota that stated: ‘So here's the deal: The next time you get annoyed by a content-creators' "self-promotion," unless it's really clear that the creator is really just trying to be a narcissistic spectacle with zero substance, give that content creator a break.’ The piece was talking about unknown, no name writers who are slapped down as uppity for trying to promote their works AND careers, not folks like Ebert, who have a ready-made web platform, forty-plus years of international fame, and millions of dollars to burn. While it’s nice to see Ebert so humble of his own person(a), it’s also troubling to see his disconnect from reality. The article was clearly about people NOT like Ebert, but he missed both the article’s and commenter’s points.

This begs the question of how much of this television show is just a vanity project, since it really serves no need. And if Ebert were starting out from scratch, like James Berardinelli and me, would he really have won all those awards? Would he really have over twice the online audience, in 2-3 years, that it’s taken me a decade to slowly accrete, sans advertising, a major media outlet, and celebrity? Likely not, for the legions of ghost blogs and websites keep growing and growing, and would likely be an unknown Ebert’s fate. And again this is not envy, just trying to reason out how much acclaim and praise one person needs, and what such neediness drives a person to.

In conclusion, the show seems to be a bizarre, outdated amalgam of all the things wrong with contemporary art and film (and its criticism): vapidity, crass commercialism, blatant demographic pandering, PC preening (despite Ebert’s once calling PC nothing but fascism), and on and on. One almost gets the sense that this show is Ebert’s final vengeance on his long dead critical partner, Gene Siskel (who was always lauded as the more rational and intellectual critic of the duo, much to Ebert’s consternation), and why Siskel’s intellect and temperament were needed to balance out Ebert’s worst emotional excesses and political tendencies to run amok. One can Google a number of websites that document Ebert’s increasingly odd pattern of decrying films of the last decade as not measuring up to those of the 1970s, even as he has handed out many more 4 star reviews to the later schlock. In this manner it seems fair to say that his detractors are correct when they claim Ebert has gone critically soft; and this latest television effort will only propound those claims. Yes, call it Ebert’s Revenge. He famously lost a coin flip that gave Siskel the lead name in their shows and this show is proof of what a Siskel-less show would have been like, for Ebert finally got to beat Siskel, because death kept his rival out of the game. There is no quasi-Siskel in this equation (hell, even Mitchell would have been better than the two current critics- Fanboy and Airhead). No critic on the new show fills those shoes, although, perhaps, in a decade or so, Vishnevetsky may become a passable (if not good) critic. He has slight glimmers of potential, if only because of his youth, whereas Lemire is too mired in her own biases.

The advertisements of the show, on PBS, declaim ‘from the man that started it all’ (conveniently and Stalinianly omitting Siskel’s contribution- proof of Ebert’s Revenge?, which would have necessitated the line, ‘from one of the men who started it all’), yet the perfect complement to that should be the antichoros of ‘and went back to the well again, and again, and again….’ Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been a fan of Ebert’s, even while having longtime and immanent issues with his critical template, but this show is painful to watch; it’s like when I had to nurse my dying mother in the last weeks before her death, and contrast those images with her as the vibrant, independent, and intelligent woman that raised me. After five weeks, I can state that I will not be regularly watching Ebert Presents At The Movies (which, least of its sins, was moved into the slot that used to house Ask This Old House- damn you, Ebert!), but only when I occasionally stumble upon it. I suspect I won’t be alone in that regard, and by the next time I have the time the show may have mercifully been canceled. As with Willie Mays, sometimes it’s best for the powers that be to force someone into retirement so they don’t embarrass themselves and/or soil their legacy. Let’s hope PBS shows such kindness.
Author: Dan Schneider

 

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Last Updated: 18 March, 2006