Been called a snob lately? Roger Ebert has.

I feel for him. I’ve been called a “snob” many times for giving “ho-hum” or “don’t bother” reviews to popular movies. And I’ve been described as a “snob” for daring to suggest that there is a lot of mediocre and even pathetic material sitting in the “Christian Fiction” section of the bookstore. (Heck, it happened recently here, in the comments on Mike Duran’s post.)

But I’ve always (perhaps not always successfully) tried to speak of these things with humility, admitting that I have grown a great deal in my appreciation of the finer things, and that I still have a long way to go. I am even sentimental about some of those mediocre works because they were steps along a journey for me. They meant something to me then and prepared me for better things.

Some people, though, flinch at the very suggestion that there might be something “better” than what they like. And many prefer books and movies that make them comfortable, shunning things that challenge them, and criticizing those who like more complex work as “elitists.”

So I am thrilled to see Roger Ebert take an eloquent stand in defense of his review of Transformers 2. Don’t miss it. Ebert thinks it’s a lousy movie, and he does a fine job explaining why those who disagree with him are wrong.

Excellence matters.

We must call mediocrity what it is.

We must “speak the truth in love,” yes; which means speaking with grace and respect for those who disagree. But we must be able to call shallow waters shallow, and make people aware of deeper waters, or how will anyone ever learn to swim?

I want to experience the best that art has to offer. I enjoy a fast-food snack once in a while, but I would never recommend it as “fine cuisine.” Nor would I eat a steady diet of it. If we can’t talk about what’s unhealthy about fast food because we might offend someone who eats it, we will all… in our prevailing kindness… watch ourselves become obese and collapse from heart attacks at an early age.

Let’s not speak with contempt of those who eat only cinematic Big Macs. Most of us started there too, didn’t we? But please, let’s all admit that we have much to learn, and that there are richer, more meaningful foods… even feasts… to enjoy. Great art is an acquired taste. And it’s worth acquiring.

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  • E. Jones

    “Heck, I think The Emperor’s New Groove is one of Disney’s finest.” – closerlook
    That’s because it is and was very underrated.

    As for Transformers 2 it is junk no doubt about it. If you wanted to see a movie that features lots of robots fighting, Megan Fox’s over done lips and dumb sex jokes then you won’t be disappointed. I’ve had lots of people ask me what I thought of it and my reply is usually “If I was 13 it wild be the greatest movie ever!”

    BTW – If you haven’t read the review “Michael Bay Finally Made an Art Movie” it is a must read:

  • Rick R.

    Then again, it IS so subjective. This discussion reminds me of the reviews for a movie that came out quite a long time ago called “8mm”. I still recall reading the compilation of reviews done at metacritic.com. Overall, the movie was completely trashed, receiving one of the worst scores in metacritic history (19 on a scale of 100).

    The reason I remember the reviews for this movie even today is because while the movie was trashed by just about everyone – including no less than SIX “zero” scores! – Roger Ebert stood almost alone in giving it a thumbs-up. I remember commenting to a friend, “Do you think he even saw the same movie?”

    So yes, I could point to this as evidence that art IS completely subjective. Roger Ebert, however his brain is wired, found “worthy” aspects in a movie that a great majority of reviewers found reprehensible, repulsive and disgusting, enough so that he gave it his approval. So while he can find fault and criticize as “horrible” one kind of garbage (Transformers 2, of which I quote Ebert, “A horrible experience of unbearable length”), he found worthiness in another kind of garbage (8mm, of which I quote Kenneth Turan of the LA Times, “There are some films whose existence makes the world a worse place to live, and this is one of them”).

    This is why I have a problem with Ebert’s statement: “Those who think “Transformers” is a great or even a good film are, may I tactfully suggest, not sufficiently evolved. Film by film, I hope they climb a personal ladder into the realm of better films, until their standards improve.” I could point to his thumbs-up review of “8mm” and tell him the same thing, “Roger, 80-90% of the critics out there disagree with you, how can you think this is a great or even a good film, and may I tactfully suggest you are not sufficiently evolved. I sure hope you climb a personal ladder into the realm of better films so that your standards improve.”

    Now overall, I’m a Roger Ebert fan, but I thought I’d use him to illustrate that he, too, provides evidence that art v. garbage is subjective, because he himself found worthiness in a film that almost no one else did.

    If anyone is curious, here’s the link:

  • ok, it is not being a “snob” to argue that there are some objective standards by which we are to judge art – Art, by definition, is not completely subjective – it implies creativity, skill, and the illustration of truths. If there is absolutely no creativity, skill or truth involved (if it’s something a very bored first grader could make) then it’s not art.

    This is not to deny that the popcorn/bigmac equivalents of movies are art. But there are standards by which we judge even these – Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, The Hitman, Max Payne, & etc. are all horribly braindead junk. Other action movie fare, like most recently Get Smart, Iron Man, or The Forbidden Kingdom are actually good, welldone, movie bigmacs with clever scripts.

  • I’m a bit baffled by your 1:21pm post, Jeffrey. Since I am the only poster who took issue with your point, was I creating the “unhealthy dialogue” you were referring to, or were you referring to another poster or posters you chose not to post?

    Oh, the 1:21 post was not directed at you. In fact, I was composing THAT response before I even saw your post.

    My post at 1:49, however, was a response to your comment. Not a protest or anything, just a different perspective. I appreciate your comments here.

  • Psychopomp

    I’m a bit baffled by your 1:21pm post, Jeffrey. Since I am the only poster who took issue with your point, was I creating the “unhealthy dialogue” you were referring to, or were you referring to another poster or posters you chose not to post? I must be missing something here, because your post doesn’t seem to fit the spirit of this thread, including my earlier post.

    Anyway, you make a good point about critics being likely to jump on a good directors failures. That’s certainly true in cases. And I think you’re right about the oddball choices of critics as well, the “Midnight Run” example being a perfect one.

    I appreciate and don’t disagree with anything you wrote about your film lists — I love your list of some of your lesser respected favs.

    I think I failed to make my real point, because I wasn’t suggesting that critics only choose arty material to praise. I think the real point I was trying to make is that excellence, as you are using it in your initial post, is a very complex term. And I do find that the separation of high art and low art in cinema (and elsewhere) is very problematic because often critics cannot see the excellence and higher value of something they think only qualifies as low art — the Shakespeare example I gave demonstrates this. Another example, speaking of Micheael Bay, is how the majority of critics have failed to give somebody like Michael Bay ANY credit for esentially reinventing film aesthetics. He has done that, and it’s a fascinating shift he has created, not one that needs more and more clever insults, but true critical analysis. By simply tagging him low art, critics are missing and failing to intelligently discuss the level of impact he has had on moving away from formal visual aesthetics and into stream of consciousness aesthetics, which like it or not, is a major artistic movement — and Bay is one of the creative forces behind the shift. Again, like it or not, there is value and power in what he has done, because while I would agree that his storytelling is often weak, I think that without him, we wouldn’t have great stream-of-consciousness action films like STAR TREK to appreciate.

    My conviction is that most critics (Roger Ebert being an exception, and you too, but maybe not as much) have a standard of excellence that is at least partially influenced by other critical opinions, and by fashionable notions of what constitutes excellence, and what constitutes crap, as opposed to mining out a standard of excellence that is free of the opinions of other critics, of fashionable ideas, and of elitism. Critics WANT to stand above the masses, and see more than they do, and that desire sometimes prevents them from seeing excellence where the masses see it clearly. I certainly don’t want to fight about this, but you haven’t yet responded to this essential point, and I’m very curious to hear your reaction to it.

  • Cabbac

    Is this not the eternal conundrum of the critic? Art is not formula. An imbecile can stumble into the profound and strike the heart of someone in art. Others may look and scoff, but that person will raise a flag and salute it and wonder why everyone else thinks him a buffoon. The internet exacerbates this, everyone so, so sure that they are right with never having to confront someone humanely in a discussion.
    Saying all this there are some films that I just cannot abide by and question people’s right to exist for liking them. No matter how hard we try, solipsism seems our species default setting.

  • Pyschopomp mentioned:

    … the fact that excellence is defined by the community of film critics, in part, by what is in vogue amongst critics themselves and their elitists readers.

    I agree that this happens sometimes, but I think it’s fairly rare.

    When I write about a movie, I am not thinking about what’s “in vogue.” I’m thinking about whether the film works for me. And I couldn’t name any critics I read regularly who are particularly vulnerable to fashionable trends in movies. The best critics focus on the material, and don’t get blinded by loyalty to any particular talent.

    Most critics I know are the first to cry out in alarm when a beloved director turns out something dissatisfactory. In fact, a few of them seem overly eager to pounce when an acclaimed director fails.

    And most critics I know have some oddball choices among their favorites. We just discussed that in a post here a while back. Me? Midnight Run is in among my favorites; and it features my favorite Robert DeNiro performance. Few would agree with me. But it was a popular, commercial, Hollywood movie. And I really believe it’s a fantastic comedy. The New World divides critics; I don’t embrace it to be “artsy” — I embrace it because it moves me and inspires me and thrills me. Down By Law, Watership Down, The Muppet Movie… Heck, I think The Emperor’s New Groove is one of Disney’s finest. Critics tend to hate U2’s Rattle & Hum as a concert film; I think it’s glorious. I wouldn’t bother recommending things just to score points with other critics. Life’s too short. I don’t want to waste your time with movies you don’t need. :)

    I’m sure there *are* critics that like to put obscure titles on their lists just to appear knowledgeable. But I don’t know who they are. I put titles on my list that others haven’t heard of only if I’ve seen it and loved it so much that I can’t wait to share it with people. And the critics I respect, and whose recommendations I eagerly seek out, have earned that place in my esteem by consistently introducing me to stuff that I find beautiful, truthful, and nourishing.

    Alex Proyas, by the way, made Dark City… which is a brilliant sci-fi-noir film. Ebert loves it, and I whole-heartedly agree with him. I haven’t seen Knowing yet. But from most of the critics I trust, I’ve been given the impression that it doesn’t equal the greatness of Dark City. Hopefully, I’ll have time to see it myself someday. And Michael Mann has made some less-than-great films too. I’m not crazy about either Miami Vice or Collateral. If Alex Proyas had directed Public Enemies, I don’t think I would have enjoyed it any less than I did.

    *I love Ebert, but I often disagree with him on particular films. He gave 3-stars to Fellowship of the Ring, and 4 to Knowing. He rejected Raising Arizona outright because “people don’t really talk like that.”

  • It is so difficult to cultivate and sustain a healthy online dialogue, especially when it comes to opinions about art and entertainment.

    I’ve seen so many good beginnings devolve into mean-spirited, derogatory debates between chest-beating egomaniacs. And more than a few times, I’ve been drawn into that behavior, and it always leaves me feeling dirty and ashamed.

    A few things I’ve learned in online forums:

    The best forums — discussion boards or blog comment-threads — usually have vigilant and conscientious moderators, and/or some rigid limitations. Open, round-table forums have their advantages, but when the disagreements begin, nobody wants to let anyone else have the last word. A good forum has a moderator who can sense when a conversation is devolving into a shouting match, and who then steps in to change things.

    Limitations can be your friend. People with big opinions, big egos, and lots of time can overpower other voices and wear out their welcome. I’ve learned this the hard way, by stepping back and realizing how much time I’ve spent arguing, and how many posts I’ve contributed to a conversation-turned-debate. I don’t want to dominate conversations, and I don’t want to participate in those where one person “hogs the microphone.”

    Nobody likes a panel discussion where one person dominates the conversation. I’ve been in classes where one opinionated student swallowed up most of the available time showing off his knowledge and opinions. I’ve been in prayer groups that turn into long sessions for one person’s ongoing, self-narrated, personal drama. And I’ve been in writer’s groups where a self-appointed authority had to critique everything, and then critique everyone else’s critiques. None of these groups were healthy, and most fell apart fairly quickly. All of them lacked a strong moderator, host, or instructor.

    And all of these in-person dynamics are multiplied a hundredfold online.

    People tend to be more eager to jump in and tear something apart than to talk about what really works in a movie.

    It’s easy to find tomato-throwing parties. It’s difficult to find a community that knows how to celebrate the good stuff. I’ve run into a few prolific film enthusiasts who, 9 out of 10 times they post, are there to point out the flaws in a film. For me, those voices become unpleasant company in a hurry.

    Voicing opinions is good, but aggressively trying to spoil someone else’s pleasure in a film is a quick way to wear out your welcome.

    I know, because in the past, I’ve had issues with particular movies and ranted about them above and beyond the call of duty. (Some of you probably know which movies I’m talking about.)

    I’ve had people almost ruin great movies for me, not by persuading me to agree with them, but by implanting their rants in my head until I cannot forget about them and enjoy the movie anymore. After voicing their complaint, they then commit themselves to interrupting, challenging, and debating every step of the way. Their own dissatisfaction seems to give them a desire to disrupt any pleasure that others found in the film.

    Nothing wrong with honest critique… but there’s a difference between politely voicing a dissenting opinion and relentlessly negating and challenging anything anybody else says to the contrary.

    These days, I prefer to discuss movies in email exchanges, one-on-one — or (gasp) in person! — rather than in an open, public forum where nearly anything goes.

    When people aren’t talking in front of an audience, they feel less driven to perform and prove themselves. Sometimes, they actually listen.

  • Psychopomp

    What’s missing from this discussion is the fact that excellence is defined by the community of film critics, in part, by what is in vogue amongst critics themselves and their elitists readers. This has always been the case. During Shakespeares life, critics of the time mostly rated the popular Shakespeare below less popular writers, and they condemned Shakespeare for mixing the comic with the tragic — such was not considered excellent at the time.

    The problem is not snobbery amongst critics, but rather it their often unrecognized inner desire to be part of a smaller “in the know” community, who sees what the masses can’t see.

    Putting “Up” and “Raiders” on your best pictures lists, is still in vogue, but how often are there films on your “best of” lists that the rest of the critical communty rejects?

    What’s impressive about Ebert is that he’ll write and defend a review of “Knowing”, calling it one of the best science fiction films he’s ever scene, when the whole of the critical community stands against him. There are very few critics who ever do such a thing, and it’s why Ebert has always been the country’s favorite critic. “Knowing” did big business, because the masses saw its excellence, but the critical community — Ebert excluded — found it excellent.

    But I’m sure if Michael Mann had made “Knowing” it would have been better reviewed, just as I’m sure if Alex Proyas had made “Public Enemies” it would have gotten much worse reviews.

  • Rick R

    Some of the comments to Ebert’s article are as insightful as his article is. As pointed out by several people, there does seem to be in our culture these days a “us vs. them” mentality, an immediate leap from differences in opinion to personal attacks and entrenched thinking. Gone is good, open conversation, discussion and debate. What we have now is name-calling and an “I’m right, you’re not” mentality.

    In particular, I liked these two posters at Ebert’s site:

    By Slappyfrogg on July 5, 2009 7:42 PM
    “…One problem I see is an relatively recent (last 5-10 years) cultural shift where everything is my way or the highway, music, politics, food, TV, what have you…it’s no longer possible to disagree politely, any discussion is a personal attack on one’s deeply held beliefs and it is perfectly acceptable to lose one’s mind over the perceived slights.”

    and this:

    By FunWithHeadlines on July 5, 2009 7:51 PM
    “This is now endemic in society: You have to choose sides, and once you do you must deprecate the other side regardless of reason or logic. We see it in politics. We see it in cola wars. We see it in PC vs Mac wars. And in recent years, perhaps since the publicizing of the Top Movies of the week on the news, we have seen this polarization in the movie world. It’s no longer enough to like a movie, you now must criticize anyone who makes a choice that disagrees with yours.

    So no longer is it a matter of opinion, it’s a matter of right versus wrong. People have become so self-doubting, they cannot stand it when someone else has a different opinion about a movie they like. Unable to admit they might be wrong, it means that de facto the other person has to be wrong. And this being the Web age, best to tell the world that the other person is wrong.”

  • And that is why Raiders of the Lost Ark is still on my short-list of all-time favorites, and why Up will rate above so many art films or adults on my list at the end of this year.

    And anyway… a good hamburger *is* a steak with high-quality trimmings. When I find something like that, I don’t usually think of the restaurant as fast-food anymore. :)

  • Whatever else we might say, I think the fact remains that a good hamburger is still better than a lousy steak. The problem we sometimes encounter in film criticism is that steaks are often praised for not being hamburgers, even when the steak in question isn’t particularly good. In cases like those, the critic very often is being a snob, and not the good kind of snob, because the critic is allowing a class-based preference for steaks over hamburgers to trump all other considerations.

  • Some of the problem is a misunderstanding of Christian encouragement. We think encouragement always means a pat on the back. Or we think that to encourage a person we must always think their work good. Which is ironic because we would never apply the same principles to theology or preaching.
    Also (and here I dabble in the devil’s advocate role), perhaps Christians have become relativistic in this. We can’t call anything “bad” or “good” because God can use all of it. (Notice my sarcasm.)

  • Personally I like the balance that I’ve struck on the “great art vs. dumb entertainment” continuum. I love great recent movies such as The Wrestler, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Into the Wild, and those are the kinds of films that tend to dominate my end-of-year lists. They are aesthetically excellent and touch on some very profound truths. However, my appreciation for these films in no way hinders my enjoyment of stuff like Transformers 2. Is Ebert correct in his review? Yes, it is a really, really stupid movie. Do I give a crap? Absolutely not. I like to watch giant robots hit each other. I say that without any shame or guilt, and not out of a sense of nostalgia either. It is simply something I enjoy.

    True, I have my limits on both ends of the continuum. There are tons of dumb action flicks I won’t go anywhere near, such as anything directed by Renny Harlin or Rob Cohen. Believe it or not, both of those guys make films that are way worse than what Michael Bay is doing (at least they do these days, as both have made relatively decent pictures in the past). Or perhaps they just lack the skill or initiative to imbue their dumb material with the sheer energy and grandeur that Michael Bay puts into his. Likewise, I find I don’t enjoy a lot of really arty stuff. Supposedly “transcendent” films like Tokyo Story, Last Days and The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant simply don’t engage me emotionally or intellectually. I actually believe that many (but not all) art film directors use things like silence and stillness as a crutch in the same way an action director uses explosions. Does my believing this have anything to do with my being “dumbed down” by Transformers 2 and others of its ilk? Would my appreciation for the collected works of Hsiao-hsien Hou suddenly blossom if I put aside the films of Michael Bay forever? I highly doubt it. I don’t think one has anything to do with the other.

    But that’s just me.

  • Jonathan

    Your third paragraph reminds me a bit of C. S. Lewis’s preface to Mere Christianity when he talks about the definition of Christianity. It should be more about conveying factual information rather than an expression of what you like or dislike, otherwise the word becomes useless. He says that in the great hallway of doors, you should never ask the question, “Which one do I like?” but rather, “Which one is true?”

    I hear you’ve read a bit of Lewis, eh?

  • Well put. I am one of those who enjoyed Transformers 2, though not remotely because it was a good movie – I enjoyed it only as I would an occasional bit of junk food. Thus in my initial review, I responded strongly against reviewers who panned the film for its lack of finery (especially those who came across as unnecessarily haughty and snide, as Ebert initially seemed to), not because I lack respect for critical reviews and fine films — far from it — but because I felt like that missed the point of the movie; it was never intended to be a “good” movie, but was always meant to be a snack film.

    However, though I still sometimes indulge in fast food in my pursuit of fine cinematic cuisine, this post and Ebert’s defense are once again inspiration to continue that pursuit to the point that even the occasional candy bar is unsatisfying. Thanks!