So I’m a day late if not a dollar short in getting to this, but there’s no doubt that Chris Lee’s piece in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times about Ben Lyons will be well received by most of the film crowd intelligentsia, especially on the west coast. The piece opens by asking in straightforward fashion if Lyons is the most hated film critic in America, yielding at the end of its first paragraph to this conclusion: “Consensus is that Lyons, the son of New York film critic Jeffrey Lyons, is unworthy of the balcony seats once occupied by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel on the TV mainstay that has rallied audiences into theaters for more than three decades.” It goes further downhill from there for the younger Lyons.
Somewhat naturally, the Times is late to the party. All of this is after Roger Ebert basically put Lyons in the crosshairs in an October blog-post piece about the rules of film criticism and entertainment journalism. (Distilled, it’s basically, “Thou shalt not whore, or be an idiot,” two things with which Lyons has, at various points, been identified.) And this isn’t counting Erik Childress’ weekly Ben Lyons Watch, on eFilmCritic, or several other frequently trafficked Internet hit sites, most of which are mentioned in Lee’s 1,800-plus-word piece. Still, it’s fairly rare that print media (and the Times specifically) gets into the nitty-gritty of niche-culture wars waged largely on the blogosphere. Usually the real pulse of what people are murmuring is buried in a “trend” piece, or stacked up more comparatively, as if to purposefully lessen the blow. No such equivocation here.
All of which reflects more or less the chattering-class truth, I have to say. I’ve been privy to no fewer than five conversations at separate parties and/or professional gatherings where Lyons came under harsh direct fire, if not as the sole target of denigration then certainly as the chief one. Caveats? Well, let’s be honest: there’s an element of straight-up professional jealousy when it comes to the ease with which college washout Lyons, 27, has risen the ranks. In a profession where seemingly there is no such thing as terra firma, be it in print, online or on television, At the Movies is still a very plush gig, and many regard Lyons’ appointment there as a line-skipping affront.
Underqualified perhaps, but he’s not going to say no if offered the job. Who would? Still, two things could help Lyons, if more in the long-run than the short-run. First, if he exhibited more restraint with regards to the sort of gushing, simpleton praise he regularly doles out for rote studio product. I’m all for judging a movie on its own to-scale ambitions, and within the often comfier confines of its own fenced-in genre trappings, but one does have to still keep a broader context in mind, and apply an honest critical filter. Also, never give a publicist or PR flack reaction quotes immediately after seeing a film, or even verbally, for that matter. If I’m queried for something more than a simple yea-nay reaction on a movie, I will at times make available an advance, pre-publication copy of my review, or, failing that, a written, emailed response. You know, with actual sentences, not just exclamatory declarations or comparisons to previous box office hits. This helps ensure you don’t come off as a doof, calling everything “awesome,” or “a one-of-a-kind thrill ride.”
Second, surely it would help if Lyons just exhibited more a bit curiosity and application. A sizeable enough portion of film writers (and this includes both dyed-in-the-wool print critics and newbie e-critics as well) like to get into pissing matches about trivia knowledge, florid style or the ability to turn a phrase. So who’s the smartest critic? And is that the same as the best writer? Or the quickest analytical mind? Does it matter, in the end? What really rankles mightily, I think, is the ill-fitting breeziness of someone living a charmed life unearned. I’ve worked with people like that. We all know them. Intelligence and ability are great, very useful tools, to be sure. But if someone is working hard, and not only performing to the best of their abilities but also actively trying to get better at what they do, most reasoning people cut them a break. Lyons doesn’t come across as that guy. Is it any wonder, then, that in a country so fed up with still-President Bush and his off-the-mark, from-the-gut decision-making, the highest profile film critic who most obviously exemplifies the same sort of glad-handing, unexamined, hey-Dad-look-at-me! shuck-and-jive goofiness is a marked man?