THE TIME ROGER EBERT PICKED A FIGHT WITH ME
Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.
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I was once a huge fan of Roger Ebert, and harbored a world of respect for a man who was writing great film criticism before many of today's critics were in diapers. So I was not thrilled when Ebert called my capsule review of "Goodbye Solo" a "pathetic review" after an anonymous commenter on Ebert's site "Roger Ebert's Journal" took my review to task for "spoiling" the film's otherwise 100% rating on Rottentomatoes. Naturally, I took it on the chin at the time, but what the fuck?
I believe the word "anal" best describes this unknown commentator's obsession with the Rottentomatoes thermometer. Don't get me started on the whole "Toy Story 3" thing. Once again, Rottentomatoes serves as an expediter of groupthink.
My dissatisfaction with "Goodbye Solo" was piqued by the notoriously navel-gazing corporate film critic A.O. Scott (New York Times) whose praising review of the film mistakenly designated it as a "neo-neo-realist" film. What an amateur. I was disgusted. This is what passes for corporate film criticism. Vomiting all of the time now.
Regarding what constitutes a great neo-neo-realist film, I would invite interested viewers to watch Mike Leigh's triumph of the genre with his 1996 film "Secrets & Lies." I think you'll agree that it is a much better film than "Goodbye Solo" — which, by the way does not meet the criteria of the genre; it is a drama. You could also check out Kazakh filmmaker Sergei Dvortsevoy's "Tulpan," which I reference in my letter to Roger. "Tulpan" also blows "Goodbye Solo" out of the water. "Tulpan" has a 96% approval rating on RT, and "Goodbye Solo" is at 94%, for what it's worth.
That "Goodbye Solo" is a rip-off of Abbas Kiarostami's far superior film "Taste of Cherry" (1997) is a different matter all together. Where is Gene Siskel when you need him?
I posted a defense of my review on Ebert's site, and he was kind enough to reply, although kindness was not really on Ebert's list of priorities. My original capsule review of "Goodbye Solo" follows the transcript.
I share the exchange here.
By Anonymous on March 30, 2009 12:31 PM
I can't believe it. Cole Smithy [sic], who brags he is "the most intelligent movie critic in the world," has just spoiled the perfect 100% rating of "Goodbye Solo" the TomatoMeter. All he writes is a short, shallow, idiotic dismissal. What an a$$hole.
Ebert: I went to look at it. What a pathetic review. A few generalities and some snarking at Tony Scott. One expects better from the most intelligent critic in the world.
By Cole Smithey on April 12, 2009 11:30 PM
In all fairness Roger, regarding "generalities," I was very specific about what I see as a glaring flaw in the screenwriting of "Goodbye Solo," where the author is far too in love with his leading character's name. I'm sure you know that this was a pet peeve of Cassavetes, and I dare say that "Goodbye Solo" is not on a par with films like "Opening Night" or "A Woman Under the Influence" — both very tangible examples of "neo-neo-realist" films.
I credited Tony for mis-branding the film as "neo-neo-realist" movie because I overheard someone quoting his review and was surprised to discover that he really had written it. He should know better. I stand by my opinion that "the film ["Goodbye Solo"] represents a barely competent script made gripping by an inspired director and two equally talented actors. Ramin Bahrani is a promising filmmaker who needs to work much harder at crafting dialogue and complete stories."
It's a capsule review for crying-out-loud.
A film like "Tulpan" puts "Goodbye Solo" to shame. Let's give credit where credit is due.
Love the dialogue.
Ebert: Well, we disagree, but I thank you for elaborating. I know what it's like to swim upstream in a river of rotten tomatoes. Just consider my review of "Knowing."
-end of dialogue-
Before this exchange occurred I'd met Roger in Cannes on several occasions over a period of years between 2003 and 2008. We once spent a half hour chatting in the lobby of the Olympia Cinema while waiting for a delayed screening to begin. I brought up having read his book "Two Weeks in the Midday Sun: A Cannes Notebook" that includes his sketches.
Still, I never fawned over him the way I witnessed some critics doing (I won't name names).
Ebert and his wife sat behind me for a Cannes screening of "Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang." I sent Ebert a hang-in-there email when he had surgery.
So I was dismayed that this man whom I greatly respected, and had always treated respectfully, felt it necessary to punch down on a critic who was by no means a threat to him or his status. Punching down is so déclassé. I was insulted. Was he really that insecure? I could point to specific Ebert reviews that are primarily plot summaries with a few "generalities," but what would that prove?
Roger Ebert bought into his own hype, and expected to big dog every one around him, especially any film critic he perceived as a threat. How banal can you get?
Ebert was a millionaire, thanks to his stock investments in companies such as "Steak 'n Shake," Apple, and Google, and yet he wanted to start a public fight with me. It makes no sense. For a guy who gave speeches on empathy, Roger Ebert did not walk the walk that he publicly espoused.
I suppose the thing that strikes me the most about Ebert's awkward stance toward me is how easily distracted he was by my brand. It's as if he felt threatened, but by what? A brand? I could be wrong, but I get the feeling that Gene Siskel would not have had time for such nonsense.
During my brief time under the tutelage of the now defunct United Media, (the syndicate that handled Charles Schultz's "Peanuts") the company created the brand of "The Smartest Film Critic in the World" for me as a was a way of setting me apart from other critics at a time when having a brand was all the rage. It still is. It's funny how now it's a given that everyone must have a brand. At the time, it was a simple case of me following corporate orders. Imagine that.
I think Ebert's line, "One expects better from the most intelligent critic in the world," is fall-down-on-the-floor-funny because not only does he switch out the brand with what he imagines I'm going after (ostensibly a high IQ), but he takes the bait so earnestly. Ebert's ridiculous use of the (outdated) royal "one" to start off the sentence shows Ebert attempting to rise above the fray, before he takes the bait hook, line, and sinker. Chomp. Sucker.
I expected more from Roger Ebert, a lot more, considering we had met on several occasions and our conversations were always cordial. Talk about "pathetic," Roger Ebert acted like a child. I suppose going after one of his corporate colleagues was too much for Ebert to stand.
Or perhaps it was because "Goodbye Solo" was included in his film festival. C'est la vie.
Certainly, I could have replied to Ebert after his tepid olive branch, but I was done. Ebert had already shown his hand. I'd seen too much of his character, and been too insulted. I've never been in the ass-kissing business to begin with; I wasn't going to start now. Besides, Ebert's invitation to read one of his reviews was a heavy-handed ask. I thought it better to give the man the last word on the subject for a good long while.
Since his passing, his wife Chaz has co-opted his brand — as I'm sure he knew that she would. It doesn't make any sense to me that she would attempt to usurp his career but what do I know?
I understand that The Smartest Film Critic in the World brand gets under the skin of some insecure critics who imagine they could be the next Roger Ebert, as if such a thing were even in the realm of possibility.
Personally, I have no interest in such an endeavor. Roger got lucky with fame, but there are few things less satisfying than being recognized on the street by complete strangers.
There's still no such thing as a free lunch. Being a film critic is a grind; screen, write, edit, post, repeat. For me personally, it had been even more involved because I write, direct, and produce video essays and a podcast series. However, lately I'm spending a lot more time playing solo Bossa Nova guitar — the pay is better, and you get treated with significantly more respect as a professional musician than you do as a film critic — a word to the wise.
If Roger Ebert was on the up and up, he would have respected my voice. What a hypocrite. Talk about a guy who didn't practice what he preached, I present Roger Ebert.
"Smart" means different things to different people. The word is integrated into the name of my trademarked company Smart New Media Inc. That was a happy accident for which I have my wonderful wife to thank.
As Iggy Pop once wrote (from the song "Take Care of Me" on his amazing album "New Values"), "It's an old, old story I suppose, a heavy price for a heavy pose."
I'm just a guy doing the best work I can do in my chosen field of study. Sure, I've got a brand. The whole purpose of brands is to ignite your imagination with something that sticks. Thanks United Media, and thanks Iggy.
My original film review for "Goodbye Solo" follows.
Co-Writer/director Ramin Bahrani ("Chop Shop") could learn some lessons from the late John Cassavetes who eschewed having his characters speak each other's names because it's not how people talk in real life.
In Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Senegalese cab driver Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane) is an effusively optimistic family man training to become an airline attendant when he picks up a cantankerous and depressed 70-year-old passenger named William (Red West).
William contracts Solo for a thousand dollars to drive him one-way up to the mountainous Blowing Rock National Park in two weeks. William's suicidal plan is obvious, and the two-week timeline gives Solo plenty of time to befriend the old codger with an idea of changing the old man's mind before the fateful day arrives.
William and Solo's step-daughter Alex (Diana Franco Galindo) speak his name with such a repetitive frequency that the all suspension of disbelief is smothered. Film critic A.O. Scott famously misnamed "Goodbye Solo" as a "Neo-neo-realist" film. Rather, the film represents a barely competent script made gripping by an inspired director and two equally talented actors.
Ramin Bahrani is a promising filmmaker who needs to work much harder at crafting dialogue and complete stories, and not believe the false praise being bestowed on him by the A.O. Scotts of the world.