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Thumbing Our Noses At Roger Ebert Haters

Thumbing Our Noses At Roger Ebert Haters (photo)

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Yesterday on the online culture magazine The Rumpus — a site I’ve contributed to in the past — a writer by the name of Larry Fahey wrote a piece entitled “All Thumbs: Roger Ebert and the Decline of Film Criticism”. The article begins with the sentence “I hate Roger Ebert,” and goes on to outline how Ebert has destroyed not only film criticism, but also filmmaking, and life as we know it. Fahey begins by delineating two different kinds of critics, those who approach movies as art and those who approach them as products. Into the former category, Fahey places writers like Anthony Lane and Stanley Kauffmann. Into the latter, he places Rex Reed, Leonard Maltin, Gene Shalit, and worst of all Ebert, who is, in Fahey’s estimation:

“…the kind [of critic] that sees movies as products, like cell phones or refrigerators or spatulas. These critics consider it their responsibility not to inspire debate or thought, not to use their cinematic expertise to give the reader insight. Rather, they want to judge a film’s fitness for purchase, recommend that a moviegoer either should or should not spend his or her money on the product. These critics are easy to spot. Every newspaper has at least one. They use a lot of puns when they dislike a film. They usually employ a grading system — a letter grade if they want to seem really nuanced, a ten-star scale if they want to make only a passing nod to intelligence, four stars if they’re especially simple-minded.”

Fahey particularly dislikes the “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” rating system on Ebert’s longtime movie review show with colleague Gene Siskel. Fahey claims he’s interested in criticism that judges films “subjectively, with meanings and values unique to each individual viewer.” “If you’re really interested in film analysis,” says Fahey, “the ‘Siskel and Ebert’ approach, adopted by most mainstream critics, is about as interesting as a Consumer Reports dot chart.”

Reading Fahey’s piece, I get the sense that the author doesn’t really know much about the guy he supposedly hates. Certainly “Two Thumbs Up!” became the ultimate movie poster pull-quote during the show’s heyday. But Fahey ignores the fact that Siskel and Ebert put that name recognition to good use championing the small films they loved. Before it had even premiered at Sundance, the pair devoted an entire segment of their show to the film “Hoop Dreams.” This was a three hour documentary with no stars, the complete antithesis of the cookie cutter blockbusters Fahey wants to link the show to, and Siskel and Ebert were talking about it at a time when absolutely no one in their audience could watch it. This movie was not a spatula.

Beneath what marketers ascribed to them, “the thumbs” represented two men’s subjective opinions, opinions that diverged just as often as they aligned. If Fahey really wanted to critique the show’s slow evolution into a consumer guide, he should have knocked the ratings system that replaced the thumbs in recent years: “See It,” “Skip It,” or “Rent It.” Except that came about after Ebert was forced off the show by his repeated battles with cancer so it would be tough to blame him for it.

Fahey also devotes a good portion of his article to bashing Ebert and other critics like him for dismissing B-movies because they are “just B-movies.” Fahey writes:

“The term B-movie relates more to a film’s budget and cast than anything else, and by criticizing a film because it’s a B-movie there’s a nonsensical implication that big budgets and all-star casts somehow guarantee quality.”

On this point, Fahey is correct. But in order to decry the critical practice of using the term “B-movie” to describe a film’s quality rather than its budget, he cites “Ebert and Roeper”‘s review of “Hollow Man,” a decision that is problematic for two reasons. First, Roeper, not Ebert, described “Hollow Man” as a B-movie. Plus, Roeper didn’t “condescendingly call” “Hollow Man” a B-movie, as Fahey puts it, he observed that the film had “a corny plot right out of a 1950s B-movie” which it absolutely does. Worse, the counter-examples that Fahey lists as great B-movies to argue against the label’s stigma include “Johnny Guitar,” “Psycho,” and “Touch of Evil”, all titles featured in Ebert’s ongoing series of critical essays and books called “The Great Movies,” a project that seems like a serious waste of time for a critic who supposedly hates B-movies and is only interested in considering slick, big budget movies as consumer products. Fahey is correct that many critics reject B-movies outright without considering their many pleasures. But the people who are far more guilty of this than Ebert are the very critics Fahey claims to love: the academics and “film as art” crowd who take the medium so seriously that they have trouble finding the value in so-called “garbage.” When was the last time Stanley Kauffmann wrote about a low budget zombie film?

The world of film criticism has a lot of problems these days. Many of the best older writers are out of work, and many of the best young writers are expected to work for free. Online movie writing tends toward cultish obsession and name-calling rather than reasoned argument, and the pieces that tend to garner the most traffic are the ones like Fahey’s that throw the biggest bombs, rather than ones that are the most intelligent or well-written. Fahey’s entitled to his opinion, just as I am to mine about his. I just wish his seemed a bit more informed.

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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.