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Criticwatch – At the Movies: Ben There, Done With That

Photo Courtesy of Kim Childress
by Erik Childress

The Ben Lyons Quote of the Week is in its sixth month of existence and in that time there hasn’t exactly been a groundswell of disagreement in its position (and the position of many) that Ben Lyons has no business being anywhere but on the publicity machine of E!, smiling away through puff pieces and being their official “film expert.” Which is like Rod Blagojevich winning a follicle award against Otto Kerner, George Ryan and Dan Walker. Congratulations! The only one who has come out with any sort of defense for Lyons has been Cenk Uygar, who was Ben Mankiewicz’s former radio show partner. Way to show that liberals won’t just defend anything, Cenk. Guilt by association is not always the fairest of criticism. Parents will speak up for their children, friends will play devil’s advocate when defending their closest and colleagues will command a professional respect for those in the same field. At least those they believe are professional.

This week, Associated Press writers Lynn Elber and contributor Caryn Rousseau have released a piece called At the Movies critics dish it out, take it too.” I was interviewed for it several weeks ago, so the timing of it is rather circumspect. During Oscar week, Lyons and Mankiewicz were being trucked out on talk show after talk show giving their picks and having to listen to Joy Behar on The View wonder if The Reader had too much sex for a Holocaust film. Even they don’t deserve ltsuch torture. But as the pair have had nearly as many reruns this year (of their Best, Worst and Oscar shows) as new broadcasts, it’s almost as if the Disney powers that be are hoping that getting their boys out there will help swing a little positive publicity their way between the talk show appearances (notice Leno & Letterman haven’t come calling) and the live chat on their website that they conducted with “fans” who weren’t allowed to get in any tough questions. And Elber’s piece fits right into that mold. With minimal counter from myself and StopBenLyons’ Scott Johnson wedged right into the middle of it, this article is easily the most lengthy “in their own words” feature since they were initially announced (to everyone’s horror) as the new hosts of At the Movies. Lyons, you may remember, was scheduled to be interviewed for the infamous LA Times article, but ducked out at the last moment. But this is their moment. A chance to set the record straight. To answer the criticism and prove that everyone has been wrong about Lyons since they took the reins last September. But no dice. Oh, don’t be mistaken, they are trying to do all of that but in his defense of Lyons, Mankiewicz has sunk an even deeper hole. Lyons is certainly wielding a shovel as well, but Mank has received the benefit of the doubt more often than not, coming off as a reasonably astute television presence next to the head-shrinking banality of his co-star. But that honeymoon comes to an end once and for all as Mankiewicz has aligned himself with the devil and lost, for good, whatever credibility he had maintained up to this point.

“Nobody who meets him is going to doubt that this guy knows a lot about film and is thoughtful about it, is interested and wants to talk about it,” said Mankiewicz. “Everything came through this prism of presuming that he’s young and didn’t know what he was talking about.”

Again, as I’ve stated time and time again including to the AP writer I spoke to over the phone, the attacks on Lyons have not come because he is “young.” There are elder critics in the business who have about as much credibility. Just look at his dad, Jeffrey. Many colleagues I have known over the years were once Lyons’ age as well. I was just six years ago. I know up and comers now who have presented a greater knowledge of film history and an ability on how to discuss the art of filmmaking than Lyons has ever presented in his time on At the Movies. Maybe the guy sounds like Francois Truffaut behind closed doors with Mankiewicz but we would never know that from the guy who said that “you hardly ever notice editing in a film unless it’s bad.” Do you know anyone who isn’t interested in film and doesn’t want to talk about it occasionally? Maybe if Mankiewicz wasn’t blinded by the prism of trying to be the good soldier he would have noticed through the looking glass that ageism is the least of Lyons’ problems.

Elber writes, “At the Movies critics Ben Mankiewicz and Ben Lyons have been taking it as well as dishing it out since joining the show last fall. That’s especially true for Lyons, who’s gotten heat from fellow critics and others for hobnobbing with Hollywood insiders and his alleged quest for blurb glory in movie ads. They don’t like his reviews much, either.”

Mankiewicz says that’s “just wrong,” but manages to bury the lead by reminding us just how much his partner loves movies. Elber gets back to the basics though quoting myself (“It’s kind of mindboggling to me that we’re at this point that Ben Lyons basically has become the face of film criticism”) and Scott Johnson who said that Ben “seems more interested in kind of playing into what’s the latest vehicle for hype and seeing if he can jump on the band wagon rather than being critical and offering an opinion that’s going to challenge people.” It’s here where Lyons defends himself and says that he’s been blurbed “far less than those of other critics.” Really? Let’s go to the numbers.

In 2006, when we first saw Ben Lyons name on an ad, likely around the time he started appearing on his father’s Reel Talk show, he was quoted six times. A year later, his numbers jumped over 300%, getting blurbed 19 times including saying American Gangster was “Goodfellas for the next generation” a week after saying Mr. Untouchablemakes American Gangster look like a fairy tale.” It was also the year of the now stapled Lyons blurb, when he called I Am Legend one of the greatest movies ever made.” In 2008, Lyons’ numbers spiked again to 22 blurbs. Granted, its not even in the same ballpark as your Peter Travers, Pete Hammond and, well, his dad, Jeffrey Lyons (who had 56 quotes last year and was still only third.) You even have names like Claudia Puig from USA Today, the Entertainment Weekly duo of Lisa Schwarzbaum and OwenI liked What Happens In VegasGleiberman, the New York Times staff (A.O. Scott, Manohla Dargis and Stephen Holden) and, of course, Roger Ebert who get the (excuse the pun) lion’s share of ad mentions. But Ben Lyons’ 22 puts him in the same territory of names like Kenneth Turan, Joe Morgenstern and David Ansen – or more like Shawn Edwards. Who knows which camp of critics Lyons considers himself amongst, but the term “blurb” is generally associated with those of the notorious quote whores who happen to deliver easily digested quotes to the studios (or even attaching their names to pre-written ones.) Before Lyons was on At the Movies, that’s precisely what he was. He wasn’t writing reviews. Just providing quotes. Half of the quotes from 2008 are pre-At the Movies. And even with 11 blurb-able statements prior to his network gig, Lyons was quoted more last year than Earl Dittman, Jim Ferguson, Jeff Craig, Steve Oldfield and Mose Persico (to name just a few) and just barely behind Paul Fischer (13) and last year’s Whore of the Year, Mark S. Allen, who had 15.

For the sake of argument though, let’s say that everything Lyons has been quoted on has been taken out of context. Let’s imagine his words have been stripped down and discombobulated like William S. Burroughs trying to transcribe Lost Highway. How can there be any conflict of interest when it comes to Lyons’ praise anyway? As Elber writes, “mingling with Hollywood insiders is helpful as long as he keeps his reviews honest.” At least that’s what Lyons insists.

“In the past, it might have hurt the show a bit that (reviewers) were isolated in Chicago. I enjoy the fact that I’m out here in L.A. and I know writers and directors and actors. I’m young and I’m going to be out and social and to meet people and develop genuine friendships with them and understand the (artistic) choices they’ve made,” he said.

Poor Gene and Roger. So isolated in the middle of the country in the third biggest city in the country. How did they EVER do their jobs as film critics without ever having lavish birthday parties in Vegas and friends like Aaron Yoo and Columbus Short? I am literally so dumbfounded by this statement I can’t even fathom where to begin in attacking it. “This is a combination slam of Chicago critics and an eHarmony profile,” said Steve Prokopy, editor of Ain’t It Cool News from the Island of Chicago. Dann Gire, President of the Chicago Film Critics Association takes it a step further, troubled by Lyons' party boy approach to film criticism.

“What Lyons doesn't comprehend is that Siskel & Ebert clicked because these two critics DID come from Chicago where they were removed from the incestuous milieu of social/industrial relationships that skew the lines of entertainment journalism in Hollywood.”

Getting back to Lyons’ comments though, do we actually believe Lyons understands what an “artistic choice” actually is? I’m not even sure that I understand it. Has he really ever used the words “artistic” or “choice” when interviewing people on E!? He can’t even be honest with the ladies of He’s Just Not That Into You when he was asked what he took away from it. “To be honest, direct, and to not be afraid to say something that's bad toward somebody,” says the guy who said on At the Movies that “for any real insights into relationships or good quality romantic comedy, turn elsewhere.” I’m sure that Jennifer Aniston, Drew Barrymore, Ginnifer Goodwin and Scarlett Johansson are ready to form a genuine friendship with a guy who just lied straight to their faces. Genuine friendships? This is Church and State territory, buddy. There’s nothing to say that you can’t be friendly with people in the industry. You can even form friendships based on mutual respect for each other’s work. But Lyons has taken so many photos with celebrities that they had to name a special section at E! after it. And how many obscure celebrities have gotten plugs directly on the show for roles that have next to nothing with the points they are trying to make. Edi Gathegi in Twilight. Jamie-Lynn Sigler getting mentioned instead of Michael Imperioli or Lorraine Bracco in his Sopranos DVD cast list. Has anyone figured out Lyons’ connection to Kate Jennings Grant, who played the nearly mute Diane Sawyer in Frost/Nixon and was still singled out?

Lyons has put himself “into a situation where he can be accused of using his TV position to help out his new ‘genuine’ friends,” said Gire. “Contrast this view of critical journalism with that of Dave Kehr, one of the most respected film critics in North America, and, by the way, the former film critic at the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Reader. Kehr never interviewed any of the filmmakers whose movies he reviewed. Why not? Because he believed that a film critic should remain impartial, fair and detached from personal relationships with those whose films he would be judging. He believed that meeting and interviewing filmmakers and getting to know them compromised his critical integrity on some level. Apparently, Kehr could understand the choices filmmakers made without having to ‘develop genuine friendships’ with them.”

Kehr did find himself facing his own critics when he panned Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List back in 1993. When word got around the paper’s office that he was going to be fired, Kehr reportedly called colleague Richard Schickel and asked if the situation could be brought to the attention of Clint Eastwood, a filmmaker that Kehr had been a staunch supporter of (even in the Pink Cadillac/Rookie days.) The rumor surfaced that Clint did intervene, called the publisher, and Kehr’s job was saved. If such a call did take place and Kehr was aware, it could be said that anything he published in the future about Eastwood would be questionable. Except Kehr had already well-established himself as an Eastwood admirer. Anyone taking a shot at him today for saying Gran Torino was one of the best movies of 2008 because Clint saved his job 15 years ago has less of a leg to stand on since once you defend Pink Cadillac, there are far greater criticisms you lob at a person. Just kidding, Dave. Does make you wonder who Ben Lyons will be calling to help save his job before the second season.

(RING!)

BRIAN FRONS, ABC/Disney: “Hello?”
VOICE: “Yo, Brian. This is Idris Elba.”
FRONS: “Who?
ELBA: “Idris. Elba. Your boy Ben Lyons said I was going to be a household name.”
FRONS: “Whose household?”
ELBA: “Never mind. I DJ’ed with your boy in Vegas. Listen I hear you’re going to dump Benny.”
FRONS: “Who am I talking to again?”
ELBA: “Stringer Bell, dude.”
FRONS: “Weren’t you killed?”
ELBA: “Yeah, third season. But that was a show. I’ve been in The Reaping, The Unborn, I got this Obsessed thing coming up with the chick from Heroes, I was in a Tyler Perry flick.”
FRONS: “You’re the dude in drag?”
ELBA: “Listen man, I can’t have you doing my boy Ben like that. He drops my name like its hot.”
FRONS: "And what's that name again?"
ELBA: "Man, you really aren't in touch with your viewers are you?"

(CLICK!)


Maybe Lyons needs to type up the following movie quotes and carrying them around on a laminated card.

We live in their world but it is THEIR world.” – Robert Duvall, The Paper

Look, this is a one-on-one business... Every time you form relationships, bad things happen.” – John Cusack, Grosse Pointe Blank

What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he's around? Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail. No. I'm semi-serious here. He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation and he will never do an evil thing... he will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance... Just a tiny bit. And he will talk about all of us really being salesmen.” – Albert Brooks, Broadcast News


I left out the part about him “getting all the great women” as I don’t want his ego stroked any more than this AP piece. But maybe all the real film critics in this country need to be carrying around that last quote in their wallets. Card-carrying Lyons haters with pinky shakes that remind each other that in a time when the profession is rapidly changing that some of us still do give a damn about movies and the way we discuss them. A real damn. Unlike Mankiewicz who says:

“This is a TV show and the notion that only people who qualify to talk about film criticism are people who have written for a newspaper seems silly."

“So where are all the Siskel & Ebert imitators who took over the many incarnations of their show as they jumped from network to network? You know, the ones who WEREN'T print critics from Chicago,” asked Dann Gire? That may be true in another ten years if the newspaper industry continues on the path it’s headed. But it doesn’t change the fact that Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were writers. Ebert more than Siskel just in pure column space, but they wrote. If it wasn’t a newspaper it would have been a magazine or a book. These days it would be online. They did it for 30 YEARS. Ebert had already won a Pulitzer by the time he was 33. Guess he wasn’t too young to know what he was talking about. Gire says Mankiewicz exhibits a staggering ignorance of his own show’s roots and fails to understand “that he would not have his current job on At the Movies had Siskel and Ebert hailed from Culver City and not been bulldog print journalists first.” Again, the direct implication of people’s problems with Lyons and Mankiewicz isn’t that they don’t write reviews. It’s that Lyons comes off like an integrity-challenged, sub-fanboy who wears his E! credentials like a badge of honor and in six months has made no serious effort to sound like anyone different. I’m sorry, Mr. Mankiewicz, you were saying something?

“Look at it this way, Would anyone suggest that NBC anchor Brian Williams write 750 to 2,500 words on the stimulus package before he discusses it on the air?”

In a related story, apes read philosophy. They just don’t understand it. Many broadcast anchors do just read the news rather than discuss it, but I bet even Brian Williams would say that if he was thrust into a position where he HAD to discuss it, he would be far better prepared if he had written something up beforehand. Even if Brian Williams doesn’t write his own copy, I highly doubt you would ever see him come on the air saying, “You hardly notice the redacted lines in the Iraq reports unless they are black. And a nice shout-out to Daniel Akaka from the great state of Hawaii.

Elber writes that Mankiewicz is not signaling “any less respect for films or those who make them.” And with that, more name dropping. Mank has the benefit of producing Oscar winners like his grandfather, Herman, who wrote Citizen Kane and great-uncle, Joseph who directed All About Eve. Lyons’ grandfather was New York Post columnist, Leonard Lyons, whose column “The Lyons Den” has now been usurped for his grandson’s E! blog. And we all know Jeffrey Lyons, the “deeply absorbing” quote slut who said there was no nepotism involved in getting Ben to where he is today - even though he gave him air time on his own network show and is a fact that even Ben disputes - and called Roger Ebert a pathetic old putz who is lucky to still have his print gig. I think Peter Sobczynski, board member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, said it best. “It feels like some kind of Oedipal form of film criticism. Though, ironically, it is the viewing audience that wants to put their eyes out.”

So you have one host collectively viewed as being a film idiot who has gone on record multiple times to say that he uses the xBox game “Scene It” to keep his movie knowledge sharp; a game mind you that features scrambled words and pictures represented by children’s drawings. And the other ignorant enough to defend him by dissing newspapers, writers and anyone who hasn’t met Ben Lyons, who according to the AP piece has been left “unfazed” by the attacks even though they are “inaccurate.”

Precisely which part, Mr. Lyons? Are you not the guy who said you didn’t care about story and character as long as Max Payne just shot people? Not the objective critic who said he doesn’t have the stomach for horror movies? Not the guy who called Appaloosa “a great old Western” only to tell people to “rent it?” Not the guy who was upset with Doubt because we didn’t hear the full story from the little boy at the center of a movie called DOUBT!!!!???? Not a single quote used in the “Quote of the Week” column is taken out of context. You namedrop B-&-C-list actors on the show that appeared at your birthday party. You said on your own chat that you saw five movies at Sundance this year. FIVE MOVIES! TOTAL!! I saw three movies this past Tuesday and I was just at the Chicago screening room.

The only thing anyone can question as being inaccurate are the ratings numbers quoted in Elber’s write-up. According to her, the ratings dipped from 2.4 million (from the last season with Roeper & guests) down to 1.8 million. But now, miraculously, “there’s been a steady uptick, to 2.3 million viewers in January,” (wait for it), “according to ratings released by Disney.” Colleagues of mine jokingly warned that all the Lyons bashing may lead to more people tuning in just to witness the train wreck that the show is. Chicken and the egg, though. Are more anti-Lyons sentiments coming out because bloggers are watching the show or because they are following the lead put out by the few writers who continue to watch it? Here's some advice. DON'T WATCH IT! You can read all about it here or at StopBenLyons.com. I know Mankiewicz is discouraging writing and reading when it comes to movies, but give it a try. The Nielsens haven’t exactly been forthright in releasing the ratings of At the Movies to myself or other journalists who have inquired, but if we’ve learned anything in this trying economic times though, never trust the numbers presented to you by a large corporation.

Everybody can be a critic but that doesn’t mean that everybody takes it seriously or responsibly, and that’s something we can do. It’s our job, it’s what we do and love, so we treat it with the utmost respect.” That’s how Elber’s piece ends. More a whisper than a bang. More another chapter in damage control after the LA Times piece than anything that’s going to truly endear these guys to the moviegoing public. The verdict is already out there. The only people defending Ben Lyons are his dad, Brian Frons of Disney/ABC-TV, his partner, Mankiewicz and his partner’s ex-partner. The people that were defending Mankiewicz were many. Even if it was just the benefit of the doubt and his colleagues couldn’t blame him for taking the gig while others balked when confronted being partnered with a twit like Lyons, Mank was just an afterthought. Not anymore. Call it towing the company line or trying to muster out a second season of the show for himself, I can’t imagine people taking seriously another word he has to say. Congratulations, Mank. It’s not just a first name you have in common with Ben Lyons anymore.


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2689
originally posted: 02/28/09 11:38:54
last updated: 03/01/09 08:22:11
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