Thursday, May 22, 2008

Roger Ebert & The Blogosphere Of Gloom

"If you eat four pounds of sausage, how do you choose which pound tasted the best? ... True, 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' stands alone as an action masterpiece, but after that the series is compelled to be, in the words of Indiana himself, 'same old same old.' Yes, but that's what I want it to be." Roger Ebert, here.

I was a little taken aback to read Roger Ebert’s defensive-sounding review of the latest Indiana Jones flick. Defensiveness is not a posture I associate with this man, even when he’s in frail health, so this set me to wondering.

In his original Indy blog post Ebert makes mention of the earliest online review — a “meh” from Ain’t It Cool News — then is pleased to report that the grade in Metacritic and, more significantly for Ebert, the Tomatometer are firmly in his enthusiastic camp. I did a quick check, and it’s true: in numeric terms, it would seem the critics who’ve been exposed to this latest Lucas – Spielberg – Ford production think the world of the movie. But on closer glance, even the most positive reviews all have a “Well, sure. It was pretty good. I guess” quality to them.

Ignoring, for the moment, the movie in question (which, I am sure, is pretty good — I guess) I can’t help but wonder if Ebert’s change in tone doesn’t reflect a marked change in overall perception — and not just in Roger Ebert. Ebert should be reporting from Cannes; instead he’s reporting from bed while his wife is in France. I’ve been sick while my wife has gone international. My incapacitation hasn’t been anywhere near as severe as Ebert’s, but I can attest that when you’re stuck with a limited locale and the internet as the chief (if not your sole) source of information and communication, life has a way of very quickly becoming small and petty.

I suspect this has something to do with the way written discourse is being changed by the internet. Look again at the Rotten Tomatoes page for the film: how many of those snippets prompted you to follow up for the rest of the review? The majority of sound bites, some of them not even complete sentences, are more than enough for most readers. Now how does that affect the way you respond to the page as a whole? I’m guessing it depends on your predisposition to the film. If you want to see it, it will be, “Good. Let’s go.” Or, “Kewl! Rawk on!!!” If you don’t want to see it, it’s probably, “Puh-lease.” Or, in my case, “How can your numbers be so out of this world when the tone of your bites is a nearly-unanimous ‘It’s-okay-I-guess’?!” In the main, the inner response is a primal two or three words.

A critique is different when the person writing about books, cinema, television — choose your art form — is actually out there bumping elbows with people in the industry, whether those industry people are performers, artists, technicians or financiers. It has a perspective on the end result that is by necessity larger than, say, a shut-in’s would be.

Which is all to say, first and foremost, that I wish for Mr. Ebert a full and speedy recovery. But secondly, I’m starting to wonder: is wireless, texting and all the other media-warps of the English language reducing our cultural dialog to that of a shut-in?

Some post-scripts:

Chaz, Ebert’s lovely wife, is posting some of her Cannes experiences here. They are crafted chiefly with her husband in mind. They give the reader some sense of the regard that industry folk have for the man — particularly this account of a black-tie dinner with Clint Eastwood. That same posting also, I think, goes some distance to account for why Eastwood’s above-average films have been hailed by pro-critics on-the-scene as absolute triumphs of the medium. Is it cronyism when the man is, in fact, a
mensch you truly adore?

Secondly, Ebert’s sausage metaphor is amusing, but a little thin. Apply it to another franchise, like James Bond, and it no longer fits. When it comes to the 007 films, I’ve consumed 21 pounds of sausage over the years, and will vigorously assert that the most recent pound was much tastier than the seven that preceded it. In contrast, I've watched local television broadcast the Jones movies over the last couple of weeks, and just a few minutes of each movie quickly makes it clear which one changed the way we think about sausage, and which ones had a list of ingredients that wasn't quite complete, and threw in an unpleasant substitute instead.

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