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An Open Letter To Roger Ebert

March 6th, 2006

Roger Ebert used to be my favorite movie reviewer. He struck me as the Everyman to Gene Siskel’s High-and-Mightyman. Of the two, he would typically be the one championing the popcorn film. These days, however, he often pisses me off. I don’t know if it was Siskel’s death, his own health problems, or simply evolving tastes, but I’ve detected a creeping arrogance in Ebert’s writings, an “I know more than you” attitude. Yet I still read his columns when I have the opportunity, and occasionally jot off a reply when he cranks my winch.

I wrote the following in response to a piece that appeared in the local paper this weekend, and although I sent it directly to Ebert’s “Answer Man” column, I’m also posting it here.

In your February 18 Oscar preview, you suggest that “a generation is forming that has no feeling for narrative and character,” blaming the usual suspects–television and video games–for the tepid audience response to this year’s Oscar front-runners.

From the perspective of a movie lover who has only seen one of the Best Picture candidates (Good Night and Good Luck), I don’t believe scapegoating is necessary to explain their limited appeal. Capote might be the best picture about Truman Capote ever made, but if I’m not interested in Truman Capote, I’m going to spend my eight bucks and two hours of precious weekend elsewhere.

Why do people go to movies? Some may be seeking high art or dark reflections of human nature, but I’d wager that most of us are looking for a bit of escape. It’s not that I’m oblivious to narrative and character, it’s that I want them put in service of subject matter that interests me. Give me a choice between a wrenching expose of LA race relations and a 25-foot monkey on a skyscraper, and I say “show me the monkey.”

The beauty of a film like Peter Jackson’s King Kong is that it delivers the larger-than-life thrills I desire without skimping on characterization. Art vs. entertainment needn’t be a zero-sum game, even if it frequently plays out that way at the multiplex.

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