Ebert Bounces Back

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Don't like Jolly Roger's political asides? Tough titty, sez he:

Q. I was offended by your remarks about Trent Lott, which were totally unnecessary and irrelevant to a review of "Gods and Generals." Please stick to reviewing movies, not giving political statements.

Susan Bean, Lee's Summit, Mo.

A. I wrote that "Gods and Generals" was a Civil War movie that Trent Lott might enjoy. So it actually is, in my opinion. The movie embodies a nostalgic view of the war in which whites on both sides are noble, heroic and pious, and African Americans are all but invisible. That was the vision Lott seemed to be evoking when he said that if the segregationist Strom Thurmond had been elected in 1948 "we wouldn't have all these troubles today."

But you raise a larger question: Do political opinions belong in movie reviews? When they are relevant to the movie, of course they do. Where did so many Americans get the notion that there is something offensive or transgressive about expressing political opinions? Movies are often about politics, sometimes when they least seem to be, and the critic must be honest enough to reveal his own beliefs in reviewing them, instead of hiding behind a mask of false objectivity.

When I read other critics on tricky movies, I seek those who disagree with me. For example, Mark Steyn, the conservative political columnist, doubles as the film critic for the Spectator, a conservative British weekly that has been my favorite magazine for more than 25 years. I read his reviews faithfully. Presumably they are informed by his conservatism, but since he is such an intelligent and engaging writer, I would rather be informed I am wrong by Steyn than correct by a liberal drone. If you disagree with something I write, tell me so, argue with me, correct me–but don't tell me to shut up. That's not the American way.

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  1. It is one thing to have and express a political opinion, and quite another to use that opinion (or the freedom to express it) as an excuse to take a cheap shot at a real person. Ebert had a reasonable point to make about the movie. To make it, he didn’t need to drag the name of Trent Lott out of left field and further into the mud. His remark seemed less about political commentary and more about character assassination, or perhaps a personal vendetta, the nature of which his readers can only imagine. Ebert seems to have accepted the mainstream media’s designation of Lott as the icon of not-so-closeted racism in the Washington halls of power. Seen in that light, his choice to represent a certain mindset by evoking the name of Lott was indeed spurious and irrelevant to the movie review. It may also have been bad writing: will people who encounter Ebert’s review of this movie in ten or 20 years know or care who Trent Lott was, or what Ebert’s snide remark actually means? Unless he provided enough context in the review (wasting column inches that could better be used to explore the movie in question), future readers who know little or nothing of the Lott scandal will not be able to appreciate the remark properly, thus diminishing the effectiveness and usefulness of the review for them.

    I just think Ebert should have shown better judgment. If we can’t trust his judgment in areas of simple human courtesy and common sense, a subject he should have been studying and practicing far longer than he has been a movie critic, why should we value his judgment of movies?

    No, I am not a fan of Trent Lott, Republicans, Washington politicians, Strom Thurmond, slavery or racism. I used to be a fan of Ebert, though, and now I’m not so sure.

  2. His review has about as much chance of beng read 20 years from now as this thread. Sure, it was tacky and lame to insert Lott, but it got the point across (at least to the current generation of readers).

    It’s pretty hard to argue that Lott isn’t a dumbass for making that statement, especially considering his position.

  3. “It may also have been bad writing: will people who encounter Ebert’s review of this movie in ten or 20 years know or care who Trent Lott was, or what Ebert’s snide remark actually means?”

    Your vision of a future where an affable movie critic of yore is still read, while a powerful politician is utterly forgotten, describes my utopia almost perfectly.

  4. I don’t think I qualify as a liberal anymore, but Ebert was right on in this review. There are a lot of people, mainly southerners, that see the civil war in these terms. I don’t doubt that Lott was (and is) one of them.

    And I really think that the Lott episode will long be remembered as the first time the repubicans “got it” on a racial issue.

  5. Difference between Steyn and Ebert is that Steyn – despite his hawkish views on the war – is a much more interesting political commentator than Ebert, who is a pretty lame movie reviewer to boot. Ebert should use that lightweight Michael Medved as a more suitable point of comparison.

  6. Ebert seems to want to be Pauline Kael now, attempting to transform what was once hack writing into legitimate social commentary. The difference is, Pauline Kael pulled it off with spectacular result, while Ebert’s mediocrity will shine through no matter what. He can still review a movie just fine, I’m sure, but the fact that he has opinions doesn’t make him a artist.

    This is not altogether different from Geraldo Rivera’s dubious journey from talk-show sleaze to “Real Journalism”.

  7. Actually, geophile, Geraldo started out as a real journalist. He broke some big story about abuse at psychiatric hospitals on Long Island, or something. Then he started interviewing transectual dog lovers and then, searching for ever deeper depths to plumb, signed on with Fox News.

  8. Well, I don’t know about you all, but I have read 10- and 20-year old reviews of movies and plays, collected in “So and so’s Guide to Movies,” for example. Siskel/Roper/Ebert will continue to be a “brand name” for many years to come, and so the chance that writing under that brand will survive as long as people are interested in the movies that are covered (in library videocassette jackets, for example) is high. The chance that people will be conversant with the facts of the Lott affair will, I think, be low. How many people understand the issues in the Joe McCarthy scandal, for instance? Just some points to ponder…

  9. Wake up people! The point of this thread is NOT:
    1) The quality or lack of quality of the stoopid movie
    2) The quality or lack of quality of Roger Soo Ebert’s review writing ability
    3) The chowderheadeness or long term memorability of Trent ‘Empty’ Lott
    4) The political POV being expresso’ed
    5) The ‘right’ to make a cheap shot – and yes indeed we do have the right (see points 1-3)

    Lets get back on track and comment on Roge’s point – should political commentary of the reviewer be blended into the review? Sorry, consurevatives, but Ebert scored a run home on this one. Just cuz you don’t like the food don’t mean it shouldn’t be served to none others (xtra points on the quadriple negative)!

    Put yourself out in the public domain, don’t matter if its the Senator across the aisle or the bagger at the grocery store or the movie reviewer with big readership doin the shootin, you’re a candidate for compare and contrast and shots that are expensive AND cheap. That means you are FREE to slam Mr Ebert, Mr Lott, and even this humble poster, in any non-threatening fashion, verbally or written (with or without bad taste) (wringing of hands and knashing of teeth optional) (coherence ideal but not required), that you wish.

    Get over it. Express yourself! See you next post.

  10. For those of you who think it’s unlikely anyone will be reading Ebert’s reviews in 20 years, please pause to reflect on the fact that his reviews from 1985 onwards are all available online. I’ve read a few of them (since they’re linked from the IMDB, and Ebert’s one of the only people with online reviews for pre-mid-90s movies).

    Of course, the main effect of this has been to inform me that his abilities as a reviewer are highly questionable. I mean, 1.5 stars for “Raising Arizona”? That’s one of the best comedies ever made! Then there are the bad marks for The Usual Suspects, Fight Club, and Reservoir Dogs, and the high marks for Speed II and The Phantom Menace…

    I find the quality of his political writings to be on par with his movie-related writings. Sometimes I agree, sometimes I disagree, but his reasoning is usually faulty and inconsistent in either case. 🙂

  11. Another point: Ebert makes the remark “If World War II were handled this way, there would be hell to pay”.

    Das Boot featured heroic German sailors bravely fighting the allies (by sinking cargo vessels). The crew of the sub in Das Boot were convenient anti-Nazi, ridiculed the German high command, and were shocked — shocked! — to see people dying on the ships they’d torpedoed.

    Ebert gave Das Boot four stars.

  12. Well Gods & Generals is sentimentalist pap – which ne-Confederates tend to love. BTW, since when did Trent Lott deserve anything less than outright ridicule? I mean, not only is the asshole an outright racist, he’s about as anti-capitalist as one can get.

  13. Dan,

    Well, it is true that some of the more famous u-boat commanders couldn’t stand the Nazis. Though this had less to do with the particular racial ideas of the Nazis and more to do with, well, a professional military being ordered around by a bunch of Wagnerian wierdos.

  14. Thanks to Dan for confirming both the longevity and availability of critical writing on motion pictures, especially that of Ebert/Siskel/Roper and other “brand name” critics. You saved me from having to remind people of the Ebert & Roper (formerly Siskel & Ebert) website and its collection of reviews going all the way back to the Reagan era.

    I agree that the reader who lambasted Ebert simply asked him to refrain from political observations; but clearly, it makes little sense to avoid politics altogether, when talking about a movie that covers a politically charged subject. I doubt that the reader was really wanting a blanket prohibition on political statement in reviews. Rather, the reader’s comment struck me more as a protest of GRATUITOUS politically-oriented remarks in media reviews, a prime example being Ebert’s invoking of Lott’s name for seemingly no other reason than to kick the guy when he’s down and cement the meaning of his name as equivalent to “racist cracker” in the modern-day liberal duckspeak vocabulary.

    Hell yes, Ebert has the right to state his opinions in any way he damned well pleases. But he made his fortune and reputation on his knowledge of movies and moviemaking, not on his political connectedness or astuteness. For the most part, people don’t pay him to be a political pundit. They pay him to say something intelligent and useful about the artistic integrity and entertainment value of motion pictures. So, if he is going to make political comments, he would be wise to ensure that any such comments speak to the topic of a movie’s worth (not just for the benefit of today’s audiences, but tomorrow’s as well). Can anybody argue in good faith that a derogatory reference to Trent Lott sheds ANY light whatsoever on the content or worth of a Civil War movie, especially if the reader isn’t familiar with the details of the Lott scandal? Could not Ebert have found a better way of expressing his idea, one that would be more accessible to a broader range of readers in the modern day, not to mention in the future?

    I’m sad to think that Ebert seemed to view his critic as a potential censor, rather than as a dissatisfied customer. As I read the complaint, the person wasn’t asking Ebert to shut up, but rather to stick to the point. Ebert recast the complaint as a call to shut up, however, and then proceeded to knock down the straw man. That is, I suppose, the privilege of the person who has the megaphone. But if he abuses that privilege too many more times, I hope he won’t be surprised to find that people may no longer be listening…

  15. Well pr9000 your 3d paragraph but sums up the feelings of over 50% of the voting population.

    Those would be the ones who did not vote for G.W.

    And if you continue to ignore the fact that a dangerous precedent to the constitution has been set…

    enough has been said…

  16. Well, it is true that some of the more famous u-boat commanders couldn’t stand the Nazis.

    Of course. But it’s equally true that many of the more famous Confederate generals disliked slavery, and that almost all of the Confederate army, whether officers or enlisted, were motivated by patriotism rather than a desire to protect the institution of slavery. But Ebert unfairly condemns “Gods and Generals” for showing that.

    Well, slavery wasn’t the issue, not once the Confederacy was invaded. Ironically, people like Robert E. Lee had an attitude similar to that of modern anti-war protesters — that the US Government didn’t have the right to force its will on other sovereign states.

    For the record, I think Lee is wrong for the same reason the anti-war protesters are wrong; I think it’s perfectly fine for the USA to act to topple oppressive regimes.

  17. Like many people who are incredibly good at one thing, the fame that results from being so good leads that person to believe that his opinions on issues outside that one thing are equally valid.

    For example, Ebert had no problem last week mocking Dubya for his Protestant religious beliefs. (http://www.pr9000.net/archives/000609.html#000609) Ebert incredibly simplifies the way he thinks non-Catholics pray, and then (do we see a trend?) rips those simple Protestants apart for being smug, self assured and blinded by arrogance.

    I got into an argument on another website that I used to frequent — it focused mostly on technology and culture, but lately has been veering far more into AlterNet territory, an echo chamber where people who think Bush (1) stole the election and (2) wants this war only to kill brown-skinned people and engorge himself and his fatcat supporters on crude oil …

    I posted a comment in a thread to support one brave soul who dared speak up and lament the passing of his beloved site — because what relevance does hating Dubya have to matters of technology?

    We were pilloried because all those who disagreed with us started chanting “fascist” and “censorship” and on and on …

    Confusing a call for people who are good at one thing to STICK TO THAT ONE THING for censorship is where our discourse sits, I suppose, nowadays.

    Sorry for the long post.

  18. Trent Lott is a scumbag. Just accept what Ebert said was true and get a life.

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