Defending Transformers From Roger Ebert… Again… Sort Of

Roger Ebert put out a blog post on July 5th titled I’m a Proud Brainiac in response to response to his review of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and it’s been making the rounds at movie sites everywhere.  Before I start responding to that response, I want to list several links and get a few things out of the way.

Roger Ebert’s I’m a Proud Brainiac article

Roger Ebert’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen review

My Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen review

Roger Ebert’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull review

My Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull review

I encourage you to read the article in question, because it makes a lot of great points on film criticism, but somewhere within the ultimate theory he’s wrong.  In general, the article is defending what critics do, especially the doing of it from a learned perspective.

Here are a few quotes to give a general jumping off point:

“But am I out of touch? It’s not a critic’s job to reflect box office taste. The job is to describe my reaction to a film, to account for it, and evoke it for others. The job of the reader is not to find his opinion applauded or seconded, but to evaluate another opinion against his own. But you know that. We’ve been over that ground many times. What disturbs me is when I’m specifically told that I know too much about movies, have “studied” them, go into them “too deep,” am always looking for things the average person doesn’t care about, am always mentioning things like editing or cinematography, and am forever comparing films to other films.”

“It’s true that many Americans have an active suspicion and dislike of the “educated.” They ask, “what makes you an expert?” when they’re really asking, “what gives you the right to disagree with me?” The term “college graduate” has become in some circles a negative. Hostility is especially focused on the “Eastern Elite,” to the chagrin of we Midwestern Elitists. To describe someone as a “Harvard student” is to dismiss them as beneath consideration. You can often hear the words “so-called” in front of words like scientist, educator, philosopher. I don’t believe this is intended to imply that the person involved is not a scientist, etc., but to suggest that no one calling himself such a thing is to be trusted–because he is no doubt many other undesirable things.”

“So let’s focus on those who seriously believe “Transformers” is one of the year’s best films. Are these people wrong? Yes. They are wrong. I am fond of the story I tell about Gene Siskel. When a so-called film critic defended a questionable review by saying, “after all, it’s opinion,” Gene told him: “There is a point when a personal opinion shades off into an error of fact. When you say ‘The Valachi Papers’ is a better film than ‘The Godfather,’ you are wrong.” Quite true. We should respect differing opinions up to certain point, and then it’s time for the wise to blow the whistle.”

“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. Those people contain multitudes. They deserve films that refresh the parts others do not reach. They don’t need to spend a lifetime with the water only up to their toes.”

First, let me just say a few things in order to be clear about myself and my position.  I am an educator and a philosopher and have the papers to prove it.  I’ve had several film classes, and read all the books.  Among the movies I would list as my favorites are: McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Lost in Translation, Gosford Park, Lawrence of Arabia, Rear Window, Citizen Kane, and all that high-brow, boring shit.

And, before anyone gets the wrong idea, Transformers (whichever) is not remotely in the realm of great films.  “Good” is a bit trickier, because it could mean just about anything, but in the end I wouldn’t fight very hard.  But, mostly because it doesn’t mean anything.

On the other hand, I suggest that we should respect differing viewpoints on film criticism up to a certain point, and then it’s time for the wise to blow the whistle.  I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Ebert, and he can write the hell out of a movie review, but I’ll go top trumps movie brainiac with him any day of the week.  I can scoff and look down my nose at people who don’t like My Dinner with Andre better than anybody.

The problem is that there’s a kind of straw man going on in Mr. Ebert’s response post.  Did someone send in an email that said Transformers was better than Casablanca?  I guess.  Is that person wrong?  Yes (and I would put Casablanca lower on my list than probably any movie critic on the planet).  If you think Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is the best movie ever, you’re not only wrong, you’re an idiot.

Is that really why there is such a backlash against critics over this movie?  Everyone rolling their eyes at critics thinks this is the best movie ever?  No.  Average Joe America has their knickers in a twist because the movie was so hated, and so spat upon with outrage that the critics are telling them that any positive reaction to the film at all makes you a moron.  This is not the best movie ever, and a large percentage of the populace that is rather unhappy with movie critics right now would agree.  However, it is not the worst movie ever by a country mile, and the inexplicable inconsistency is what is fueling the fire more than anything.

Slashfilm.com recently put up a list of the worst reviewed highest grossing movies of all time, which naturally has the new Transformers on top, and I think the list can help make the case of average upset movie-goer.  Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen has a RottenTomatoes.com freshness rating of 19%, which is just tremendously low even for bad movies.  Bad Boys 2 has a freshness rating of 22%, for example, and if that’s not a worse movie than Transformers I’ll eat my hat.

We ease into the trouble with number two on that list – The Da Vinci Code, which has a freshness rating of 24%.  Not only that, Roger Ebert gave it 3 out of 4 stars, as compared to the one star he gave Transformers.  He also managed this quote from his review – “Yes, the plot is absurd, but then most movie plots are absurd. That’s what we pay to see.”

Now, here’s Joe America saying to himself, “What?”  See, he’s seen The Da Vinci Code and thought it was a dumbass mess (and good for him), and not only does he read about it getting three stars, but that it does so apparently despite the absurd plot which is dismissed as simply the norm.  But, turn around and Brainiac is destroying Transformers as basically utterly without merit.  Where’s he supposed to go with that?

Next on the list is Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, which is painfully horrible, and just excruciating to sit through.  Ebert hasn’t even reviewed it, unless I’m missing something, but it has a RottenTomatoes freshness of 45%.  That’s not really all that bad.

Move on a little ways, through some really awful films that are significantly higher rated than Transformers, and we get to The Day After Tomorrow.  Also at 45% on the freshness meter.  Here’s Joe America again thinking that movie was pretty stupid, or at least not something that’s miles better than Transformers, and Mr. Ebert gives it 3 out of 4 stars again, and has this to say – “So, yes, the movie is profoundly silly. What surprised me is that it’s also very scary. The special effects are on such an awesome scale that the movie works despite its cornball plotting.”

Now wait just a damn minute.  Joe America is getting a little ticked off, not because you’re championing the intellectual in film, but because you could give that quote about that (or any) movie, and at the same time demolish Transformers.  The ridiculous fanboys do not quite come together to make up the support the film is getting, or the anti-critic sentiment pouring out in waves.  Generally, the idea is not, “Hey Dumbass, you don’t think this is the best movie ever?  Then you’re useless.”  The idea is, “What the hell is going on here?”

If you move on to the end of the list, and technically off it, you find two more movies mentioned – Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  These movies aren’t on the list, because their freshness ratings are too high to count as being among the most poorly rated.  Phantom Menace has a freshness rating of 63%, and Crystal Skull sits comfortably at 76%.  Much of Joe America is fit to spit.

Phantom Menace is one of the most awful, insulting, direct-to-video-game titles I’ve ever forced myself to sit all the way through.  Mr. Ebert gives it 3 1/2 out of 4 stars, and for all that he goes on quite a while about it, his review can rather easily be reduced to, “It looks really cool!”  Think I’m exaggerating?  You read it, and tell me what else he has to say about the thing.  He even manages this quote – “Sometimes our common sense undermines a sequence (for instance, when Jar Jar’s people and the good guys fight a ‘droid army, it becomes obvious that the droids are such bad fighters, they should be returned for a refund). But mostly I was happy to drink in the sights on the screen…”

Seriously?

How about Crystal Skull?  I don’t know about you, but at the end of Crystal Skull I was pissed.  It started off with Indy surviving a nuclear blast by climbing in a refrigerator, and it was all downhill on the stupidity meter from there.  Mr. Ebert gave it 3 1/2 out of 4 stars again, and starts out his review with – “…if you, like me, are a lover of pulp fiction. What I want is goofy action–lots of it. I want man-eating ants, swordfights between two people balanced on the backs of speeding jeeps, subterranean caverns of gold, vicious femme fatales, plunges down three waterfalls in a row, and the explanation for flying saucers. And throw in lots of monkeys.”

Transformers is a pretty stupid movie, but we’ve already seen that stupid doesn’t rule out upwards of 3 out of 4 stars, but at the end I’d had a bit of fun.  Moreover, I only got the impression that the movie was just trying to throw out some wacky shit because it could and have a big, dumb, fun time.  Generally, these are ideas that Mr. Ebert sees fit to give pretty good reviews if the right person is behind it.  It’s pretty stupid, but I never got the impression the movie was calling me stupid.  I cannot say the same for either Phantom Menace or Crystal Skull.

What is Joe America supposed to do, and more importantly, what is he supposed to do with this call to arms for that which is intellectual?  What do we make of, “Those who think “Transformers” is a great or even a good film are, may I tactfully suggest, not sufficiently evolved.”?  Especially considering we have to fit the idea into the whole realm of film, which apparently includes high marks for Phantom Menace, Crystal Skull, and The Da Vinci Code, given what is said about these films? Don’t forget – “Yes, the plot is absurd, but then most movie plots are absurd. That’s what we pay to see.” Guess what, I don’t.  And, what intellectual are you reviewing movies at with that statement?  I don’t pay to see absurd movie plots, and I don’t especially enjoy tuning in to hear whichever excuse for giving Lucas, Spielberg, and Howard high marks works at the moment no matter what they make.

The populace that is throwing their money at Transformers week after week are not thumbing their nose at the critical reaction because, “screw all that intelligence, depth, and talk of cinematography,” but because something weird is going on.  Also, because maybe they think there is something more to film criticism, not because they don’t want all that high-brow information, but because they want something more.

Mr. Ebert mentions in his response article that, “It’s not a critic’s job to reflect box office taste. The job is to describe my reaction to a film, to account for it, and evoke it for others.” That’s true, but I don’t think it’s anything like the whole truth.  When I read a movie review, I certainly want the critic to describe his reaction and account for it.  Evoking it for me might be a different question altogether actually, but fair enough.  I want all that good direction, cinematography, shot composition, and all that jazz too, when it’s meaningful.  I watched Dark City with Mr. Ebert’s commentary track, and loved every minute of it.

But, I don’t want to just find out if a critic liked a movie, I want to know if I’m going to like it.  Spitting vitriol doesn’t accomplish that task to any degree at all.  Reading Roger Ebert’s review of Transformers didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know before I saw it, except “Big Thumbs Down.”  Reading Phantom Menace‘s glowing review that really said nothing apart from, “It looks fabulous,” and, “Big Thumbs Up,” didn’t prepare me in any way for the garbage I endured at the theater.

Much of the public is not real happy with what’s going on, and they have a right to be.  A food critic who delivers the review, “This restaurant has the worst food ever… I mean, it’s pizza after all,” isn’t serving a function, no matter how eloquently he writes it up for 1,000 words.  That critic is all the more confusing and irritating when next week’s review is, “You’ve got to go to this restaurant!  This pizza is wonderful.  Just look at it!”  When he long-windedly describes every detail of how beautiful he found it, he isn’t helping anything.

Now spin me a treatise on appreciating the subtle combination of flavors to be found in the five-star restaurants of the world, and I don’t know what to make of anything.  There’s something about film criticism that is being left out and/or abused, and I think that’s the real complaint.

Interestingly (let’s say), I recently became addicted to flickchart.com.  It’s a site that has you pick between two movies over and over… forever basically, and compiles a list of movies based on your picks.  There are no rules or any sort of guidance whatsoever.  Is it which is the better movie, which you personally love more, which you’d rather watch again right now if you had to pick one?  Who knows?  It’s whatever you decide to do with it, and sometimes it’s really hard.

I’ve generally taken an “if I were going to be forced to watch one of these right now” approach to things, but that doesn’t always quite work out.  There are a lot of movies I’d watch again before I choose to watch Rear Window for like the fifteenth time, but I can’t bring myself to not pick Rear Window over most of them.  How do you not pick Rear Window? On the other hand, Elf is so high on my list it’s just farcical, because even though it’s rather silly and stupid, I’ll be damned if I couldn’t watch it 100 times.

Just before I started writing this I was given this choice – Papillon vs. View from the Top.  I have to pick one.  What on Earth do I do?  Now I like Papillon even more than most critics.  I don’t really know why that particular movie stands out so much for me, but it does.  View from the Top is a completely stupid bit of nonsense that is almost universally hated.  I have a sort of very mild like for that one.  But, I had to pick View from the Top given the choice.  Papillon is not quite something like Rear Window to me, and I will never watch it again… ever.  On the other hand, you wouldn’t have to tie me up to get me to watch View from the Top, though I might try to suggest something else.  Three Amigos! vs. Cinema Paradiso?  I love Cinema Paradiso!

There’s something going on that would force me, practically against my will, to pick View from the Top.  I might prefer Gosford Park, or Lost in Translation, but I can’t just look snooty and deny that I could watch Strange Brew all day long.  There are parts missing from much of the world of film criticism, and it is a part that causes much of the public to roll its eyes and say, “Screw you.  I like pizza.”  At some point the wise get to step up and say, “you’re wrong.”

The worlds have to collide somewhere, and if you’re going to tell me Phantom Menace not only passes but gets nearly the highest possible rating while Transformers is torn limb from limb, you better have a story that goes with that.  And, it better be a story more interesting than, “This has great special effects whereas that has great special effects, but I don’t like it… and it’s loud.”

If you want to spend a few hundred thousand words hashing out the best movies ever, and you want to get all deep and “movie theory” serious about the details of position and why The Seven Samurai, Jesus of Montreal, and The Three Colors Trilogy (as one entity) should be on it, but Casablanca shouldn’t… I’m your guy.

But, don’t give Crystal Skull 3 1/2 stars and tell me it’s raining.

Are You Screening?

Marc Eastman
Marc Eastman is the owner and operator of Are You Screening? and has been writing film reviews for over a decade, and several branches of the internet's film review world have seen his name. He is also a member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Broadcast Television Journalists Association.

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