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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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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.