Getting Rid of the Bens

One could easily argue that cooler, more intelligent heads finally prevailed. After little over a year of lagging ratings and regular reputation hits, Disney has finally pulled the plug on its failing “youth” update of the classic Siskel and Ebert review series At the Movies. Replaced were the quote-whoring team of Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz, with an announced pairing of Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips and the New York Times’ A. O. Scott taking their place. The change represents the House of Mouse’s backhanded admission that their attempt at “dumbing down” the show for a perceived anti-critic demographic was about as successful as Will Ferrell taking on a classic kid’s show from the ’70s. As flops go, it’s not a complete embarrassment, but it does speak to a bigger issue infiltrating the media today.

There is a mandatory mantra, spread among studios, film geeks, geek-oriented websites, and the members of messageboard nation that film critics don’t matter. They are a marginalized bunch, believed to be out of step with what mainstream audiences want, betrothed to their beloved arthouse fare while forsaking equally important genres like horror and/or family films. They are caricatured like Neo-con Republicans – white, aged, and about as hip as a mix tape from Dick Cheney – and blamed for every star-studded failure, regularly ridiculed for every cinematic rarity when personal opinion consensus just doesn’t match the box office returns (right, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen?).

Now, part of this meticulous stereotyping is true. Most critics are just plain lazy. Or better yet – ‘comfortable’. They’ve been living off a dynamic that demanded little of them over the course of their career. Take you typical major print publication name. They usually review two or three films a week, fill their still-in-development blog with basic puffy press releases, and leave the DVD and other associated media journalism to someone from a wire service or in another part of the newsroom. They play up their position as the last bastion of “legitimate” reportage, rating online critics and their equally influential websites as a few notches below ‘golf cart’ within the Fourth Estate gene pool. Taken in total, they’ve made a decent living out of waxing dogmatic over what arrives on your local Cineplex screens, and they aren’t happy to see said process democratized by technology.

And they do hate on things that they really shouldn’t. Sure, a good horror film is a near categorical impossibility, the independent and outsider branch of the artform indirectly diminishing its value with their constant stream of direct to digital releases. But that doesn’t mean that every genre effort is worth avoiding – and yet that’s exactly what most mainstream critics do. When they are dragged, kicking and screaming, to the latest monster mash-up, the response is usually biased, flippant, and just plain rude. True, taking the opposite approach of a site like Bloody-Disgusting, which never met a piece of motion picture macabre it didn’t think was drop dead brilliant, is equally uncalled for, but it’s safe to say that a sense of complacency has led the original film analyst to lose almost all of his or her luster.

So when Disney dumped Richard Roeper and his revolving door list of substitute sidekicks (all sitting in for a physically infirmed Roger Ebert), many felt they would write off the rest of the syndication deal as a corporate loss and be done with it. They had already battled the Pulitzer Prize winner over rights to the “Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down” tag, and didn’t see much improvement when the show played musical chairs. The only big brainstorm left – do for At the Movies what G4 did for technology when they canned most of the old men working for the now defunct TechTV network (which G4 bought) and replaced them with younger, hipper hosts. While nothing to look at, the House of Mouse truly believed that a pair of novices who worked for E! Entertainment and Turner Classic Movies would somehow lift their lagging fortunes.

All it really did was amp up the ridicule. From the start, Ben and Ben were Beavis and Butthead without the suburban social satire. They giggled at their own lame jokes and offered discussions which seemed solely designed to fuel a studio’s pre-pumped publicity machine. While Siskel and Ebert did begin the process of undermining film analysis by reducing their often erudite conversations into a “pro/con” conclusion, Ben and Ben were shameless. They often sounded like they were reading the poster art for an upcoming release. All that was missing was the air quotes and the booming voice-over narration.

Yet getting rid of the Bens and replacing them with so-called “respected” critics doesn’t solve the bigger problem. It doesn’t suddenly make film reviewing relevant again. Remember, we are living in a plastic age where everyone can be an auteur and, in turn, everyone can champion said post-post modern classicism. The death of John Hughes can rack up more blogsphere pings than the combined passing of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. The face of cinema is changing, access leading to a combination of commercialization and niche overkill. Tyler Perry can make dozens of films about certain facets of African American culture and because of the multimedia bent of his empire, he can more or less guarantee success. Three decades ago he would have had trouble filling a single urban theater. Today, he owns this underserved subset.

The best thing that Phillips and Scott can do – besides right a clearly overturned and submerging ship – is bring back the perceived ‘need’ for such cultured cinematic scrutiny. A good critic, if he or she is worth their weight in words, brings something new to each review, turning the film into a shared experience between reader and reporter. Their job is not to act solely as consumer advocate, though that is part and parcel of the position. No, they should broaden the horizons of an audience, introducing facets and complaining about shortcuts that studios often take to get butts in (or out) of the seats. They aren’t the final determiners of merit – but their insight and ideas should be a part of the overall judgment process.

Just remember – how were all those fawning fanboys created? There wasn’t some spike in the ’70s DNA leading the offspring toward a life indulged in pop culture obsession. Indeed, what happened was implicit in the rise in home theater, the advancement in information retrieval and dispersal, cinema’s shift from art to artifice, and of course, the contributions of two Chicago stalwarts named Siskel and Ebert. For generations, these men combined the best of what high profile film criticism was all about. They were smart. They were confrontational. They were occasionally blinded by their own sense of self. And they were fans, as much as finicky, about film. The Bens never brought that kind of passion to their position. Here’s hoping the new names can bring back a little of the old At the Movies/Sneak Previews glory – that is, if anyone still cares.