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Stuff I was paid to write

RAM album coverJul. 10: Quebec finally permits the sale of artificially coloured margarine.

Jul. 17: Shouldn't we have known something was wrong with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac?

Jul. 18: Why Paul McCartney in Quebec wasn't just a good idea, but a great one.

Jul. 22: Reflecting on the final conclusion of the Siskel & Ebert TV heritage.

Jul. 25: The hidden connection between Janet Jackson's right boob and George Carlin's seven dirty words.

Jul. 29: The focus is on Richard Branson's slick new superplane, but the road to space tourism may lie elsewhere.

Jul. 30: A joint editorial-board effort, with a medium-heavy contribution from me, on whether girls and boys are truly interchangeable when it comes to performance on standardized math tests.

Jul. 31: A note on Greenland and global warming.


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Comments (12)

Crid [cridcridatgmail]:

Your Ebert piece is golden.

When he got sick and was away, I noticed that I missed him more than any actor or director who ever took a holiday (or died).


I continue to be impressed with your writing and your research.


Colby, greetings from L.A. Gotta disagree with you on Ebert. I've always found him to be kinda middlebrow and gullible. Cinephile friends who watched the original show (no TV in my childhood) unanimously say that Siskel was the stronger and more astute critic. The damning bit of proof for me was when the ever-gushing James Lipton proclaimed that Ebert was always right. A quick scan of Ebert's section at metacritic (which shows him 8.8 points higher than the average critic, also damning) was enough to refresh my memory of reviews best left unread and films best left unseen: 100 for Across the Universe, 100 for A Beautiful Mind, 100 for The Fall, etc. He has sometimes struck me as being two critics at once, and in a way that isn't organic enough for me to perceive any kind of distinct sensibility, except for the fact that he seems inordinately fond of Garfield. Perhaps there's more there than I can see. But I'd rather read Ed Gonzalez, Michael Atkinson, Matthew Wilder, etc. As for Roeper, if I were the angel of death, a blurb from him on a DVD case would be like an unbloodied doorway in Mosaic Egypt.

Crid [cridcridatgmail]:

Joshua, I'm from LA too, and you're wrong! Wrong! Wrong!

Most people don't read film reviewers in order to identify spotless intellectual heroes (at least, they didn't in the time of newspaper guys). "Middlebrow and gullible" was pretty much what his audience was looking for... Remember, he's from *Chicago*. Most filmgoers in markets like that aren't looking for high-toned, nuanced appreciations. They wanna know if their working man's wages can be reliably invested in a film that will stroke their emotions in rewarding ways. Movies are a gamble for everyone, and Ebert guided some of the best wagering outside of this place, even if you disagreed with his taste. Knowing what he thought of something improved your investment.


Ebert didn't write a review from 1990 onward that I didn't agree with. Like Crid, I felt his absence moor keenly than that of any other celebrity - here is a reviewer that I can rely on.

I may be "middlebrow and gullible" myself, but I've always felt that Ebert was more nuanced than that. Joshua may be right in that he doesn't apply the same criteria to, say, an action movie as an art film - that's because he understands the difference.


Crid, I'll respond to your assumptions first. One, I mentioned my location not because L.A. gives me extra cred or something, but because I've known Colby in the past. (Yes, I’m assuming that that was your assumption. Someone call Charlie Kaufman. As an aside, and as a Midwest dweller myself for more than a few years, your statement that people in places like Chicago want to spend their “working man’s wages” on a good bet of a film rather than read critical aesthetic remarks is more than a little patronizing. Last time I checked, Upton Sinclair was dead, and the only place in the city that reeked of blood was Oprah’s studio after the announcement that she was giving away free stuff.) Two, I don't read reviews to find spotless intellectual heroes, as you put it. When I read reviews, I'm also not necessarily looking for high-toned, nuanced appreciation. What I am always looking for, however, is a functioning bullshit detector. On that point, Ebert is consistently suckered by studio fare (not art-house films, nitus: mainstream films) that even other middlebrow critics have the wherewithal to recommend readers avoid. Metacritic shows Ebert grading higher than the average critic 73% of the time. I’m hard pressed to think of anyone besides Little Jack Horner who so consistently finds plums on the end of his thumb.


I totally forgot to mention that Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who recently retired, was one of the most highly regarded "serious" film critics in the U.S. So Chicagoans aren't just blue-collar schlubs looking for a thumbs up or down.

Crid [cridcridatgmail]:

> because I've known Colby
> in the past.

Never had the pleasure, but I'm still from LA, and you're still wrong.

> rather than read
> critical aesthetic

As they say down at the railyards, I gotcher "critical aesthetics" right here, in my pants. You're the one who needs to explain why this famously unphotogenic pair was at the pinnacle of the field. In appraising this great American art form, the city of Broad Shoulders trumped the aesthetes. I think it's because they gave straightforward information about movie tickets that cost money and screenings that took time, even for enjoyable "bullshit". Once readers knew what they were about, agreeing with them was incidental. Isn't that what you want out of a critic? Are they really supposed to buy tickets for you?

Nothing's more revolting than an 'intellectual' who thinks intellectuals are where the action is. And Chicago certainly has a few of those, out by the lake... The last one to offend me at full dust-jack price was this guy. Ironic, no? But who, in the world, would care how a reliable reviewer rates against an "average critic"?

> Ebert is consistently suckered
> by studio fare

Boyfriend likes movies; I'm "totally" cool with that, because movies --ones from Hollywood!-- are about the only thing you'll find in a stateside multiplex nowadays. And when you're just trying to burn a couple hours at the mall every fifth weekend, you work with what you got.

Circa '91, pretty late in the day actually, Spy Magazine did some math on the back of an envelope and determined that The Bald One was the most powerful film critic of all and the Fat One was third (if memory serves). Ebert himself would have scoffed and praised Kael or some other booklearnin' type, but the rest of us need not be humble on his behalf. Here's a fun page to read: http://tinyurl.com/69nvlw

> was one of the most
> highly regarded "serious"
> film critics

See what I mean? Serious! Scare quotes! Higly regarded! It's all about social climbing.

(PS- I lived in a lakeside town near Chicago 0 -> 6, and elsewhere in Indiana to 25, and thanks for asking)

Lord Bob:

Is this the lamest or the most awesome potential flame war in Internet history? I CAN'T DECIDE.

Crid [cridcridatgmail]:

Lamest, but I'm still into it.


Sorry I missed you last night, Crid. I was at my weekly finishing class with Rex Harrison. Actually, after your little rant about social climbing, I couldn’t stop laughing long enough to write a response. I mean, really, social climbing? That’s probably the first time in a generation that phrase has been used outside of a meeting of the Edith Wharton Fan Club. The accusation is particularly funny in light of the fact that one, I was defending the general citizenry of Chicago as capable of handling more than a simple thumbs up or thumbs down — contra your initial post — and two, that most film critics have both the career longevity AND intellectual cachet of a Spinal Tap drummer. Anyway, I seek out my own films and buy my own tickets, thank you very much, and if thinking that film is an art form rather than a commercial product for “broad-shouldered” stevedores and butchers to gawk at every couple of months while they pick their blisters makes me part of some elitist clique, then sign me up. In truth, nearly all critics bore me, be they intellectual, middlebrow or studio whore, because I submit my artistic tastes to no one. I’ll take film artists I’ve discovered on my own like Satyajit Ray, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Jia Zhangke or Tsai Ming-Liang any day over Nicolas Cage and his Faustian hair, or for that matter, critical flavors of the month like Kelly Reichardt or Miranda July. The main point I was making in regards to Ebert, which of course is the one you failed to address in your desultory post, is that he is consistently easier to impress than other critics, and therefore the idea that he should be held up as some sort of critical gold standard is ridiculous. Whether he’s powerful or telegenic or famous or fat or Latvian or the incarnation of Prester John really doesn’t interest me (okay, maybe the last one does). Statistical proof of my contention is available and was provided by me in my last post. In conclusion, re: your fixation on intellectuals, I never said that they’re where the action is. I said that bullshit detection is where the action is, which is probably why I’ve had so much fun responding to your bullshit-laden post. Couple tertiary points before I go to dine with Her Royal Highness. Kael was pretty much an autodidact, so lumping her in with “booklearnin’” critics is inaccurate. Also, italics and underlines are used to stress something; quotation marks are for quoting directly or indicating irony. So I’m not sure what you’re on about with your “scare quotes” statement, but that, coupled with your strange obsession with elitism, makes me think that, with all due sensitiveness to your condition, it’s probably time for you to buy a new helmet. Au revoir. (Rex taught me that last night; it’s French.)

Crid [cridcridatgmail]:

Did you ever see a baby? Did you take his candy? This will be like that.

> I mean, really, social climbing?

That's what comes to mind when people start talking about Wharton in weird contexts.

> I was defending the general
> citizenry of Chicago as capable
> of handling more

While they may never express the gratitude they surely feel to you, they'd probably do as well without your defense. My point is that intellectual excellence (or even refinement) is not what they're looking for in a film critic. More to the point, it's not what America was looking for in a film critic for the last three decades.

> most film critics have both
> the career longevity AND
> intellectual cachet

This is the candy part: Who gives a fuck about “cachet”? Isn't that the quintessence of social climbing?

> I submit my artistic tastes
> to no one.

You're masculine... You're daring, a loner, a special kind of thinker who enjoys salty popcorn. We can tell by the names you drop....

> Satyajit Ray, Apichatpong
> Weerasethakul, Jia Zhangke or
> Tsai Ming-Liang

Butch treats, all. We admire you wickedly for mentioning them.

> he is consistently easier to
> impress than other critics

Josh: Who cares? For many people for many years, maybe for more people than with any other critic, knowing what Ebert had to say guided their purchases. That doesn't mean that most of them aligned with his taste.

> I said that bullshit detection
> is where the action is

I don't think most film ticket buyers wake up in the morning and think 'Today, I will detect Hollywood's bullshit!' But lots of them will try to figure out if a particular movie is worth going to, and Ebert was useful in making that call... Or entertaining enough that people would watch and read him anyway.

> Kael was pretty much an autodidact,
> so lumping her in with “booklearnin’”
> critics is inaccurate.

She did her own reading, I'd wager.

> I’m not sure what you’re
> on about with your “scare
> quotes” statement,

This part:

> "serious" film critics

We're talking about the movies here. It's just not that big a deal. This is exactly the stuffiness that Ebert (and Kael) made no time for.


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