Roger Ebert’s disagreements with LA Weekly whippersnapper Scott Foundas have officially grown to a "heated exchange." Foundas’ comments on this year’s Slate Movie Club prompted a lengthy defense from Ebert, which leads us to Foundas’ reply in the current Weekly issue (and varying responses from Ebert’s readers).
The film in question is Paul Haggis‘ "Crash," which Foundas called one of "the year’s worst movies," and which topped Ebert’s year-end best-of list. We have to hand it to Haggis â€” for two years in a row now he’s had a hand in films that have made plenty of critics’ top tens while simultaneously so infuriating others that they can’t settle on just disagreeing about it â€” they feel a burning desire to convert the world to hating the film as well.
It’s a compulsion we understand (because lord, what a smug piece of sanctimonious crap!), but, you know, it’s oddly admirable â€” Haggis has inspired more impassioned film debates than, like, Armond White. Ebert and Foundas venture into some touchy territory for any critic, with Ebert flying the flag of the common man:
It is useful to be aware of the ways in which real people see real films. Over the past eight months I’ve had dozens of conversations about "Crash" with people who were touched by it. They said it might encourage them to look at strangers with a little more curiosity before making a snap judgment.
These real moviegoers are not constantly vigilant against the possibility of being manipulated by a film. They want to be manipulated; that’s what they pay for, and that in a fundamental way is why movies exist. Usually the movies manipulate us in brainless ways, with bright lights and pretty pictures and loud sounds and special effects. But a great movie can work like philosophy, poetry, or a sermon.
Ah, "real people." We admire Roger Ebert very much â€” particularly the astonishing volume of reviews he turns out and the joy with which he still clearly approaches his job. But honestly, anyone who works as a critic (and has therefore disqualified themselves from the realms of actual existence, we presume) is by definition not an average moviegoer â€” a critic sees far more films and dedicates a far larger percentage of his or her waking life to cinema than most members of the public. Ignoring the above excerpt’s inherent condescension, is Ebert arguing that Foundas should approach films by attempt to channel some mythical unsophisticated viewer, as opposed to writing what he actually thinks? Foundas gets a little testy in his response:
But then, Roger, perhaps all of us detractors are simply, as you put it, "too cool for the room." According to you, we critics must bear in mind "the ways in which real people see real films," the same people who you say enjoy paying to be manipulated. (And who’s to argue, when the officials currently holding our nation’s highest elected offices offer living proof that many of us enjoy being manipulated for free?) You go on to say that you’ve talked to dozens of viewers who were touched by "Crash," and while I don’t deny that, I have had my own conversations about "Crash" with plenty of "real people" who feel less touched by the film than manhandled by it. Among e-mails I’ve received from Slate readers, one goes so far as to speculate that people are afraid to admit they don’t like "Crash" for fear of being considered racists themselves â€” and I think the film is engineered to make viewers feel that way â€” while another, somewhat more charitable correspondent quotes Oscar Wilde’s maxim that "all bad art is sincere."
Keep it going, boys, and maybe while you’re at it, Ebert, get Foundas a spot on your review show, because this is way interesting than the combined best moment of all five or so seasons of "Ebert & Roeper." You may think Foundas is too cool for the room, but honestly, with Roeper in it, who wouldn’t sneak out for a ciggy on the porch?