On-screen Obscenities: Tammy and Life Itself

by Armond White
What’s worse: bad movies or bad movie criticism?

Melissa McCarthy’s first line of dialogue in Tammy is an obscenity, and the movie goes downhill from there. It sinks because the filmmakers’ only idea is that profanity and gross-out behavior are sufficiently comic. Tammy presents McCarthy as a blue-collar fast food worker who, despite her slovenly appearance and unfriendly behavior, falls in love. That this mash-up of various condescensions (from minimum wage to lesbian stock figures) was produced by McCarthy herself, and directed and co-written by her husband Ben Falcone, exposes a desperate calculation that puts one out of the mood to laugh.

McCarthy has the right to turn herself into a bankable nasty pig but Tammy also dares ridicule segments of the population that deserve better. The film’s white trash caricatures emulate reality-TV personalities from Honey Boo Boo to Duck Dynasty: Tammy, an obese illiterate termagant goes on a road trip with her horny alcoholic grandmother who suffers from gout (Susan Sarandon) to visit her lesbian pyromaniac aunt (Kathy Bates). Their obnoxious behavior is meant to draw sympathy, then appear adorable. Sarcasm and Revulsion — a strange brew. The combination might have something to do with Hollywood social pretense; when Tammy sets fire to a stolen car she complains about gas prices: “$4 a gallon. Thanks Obamacare!” Making fun of political ignorance and psychotic behavior confirms we have reached the nadir of movie culture.

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“F— Pauline Kael!” says a friend of the late Roger Ebert in the documentary Life Itself. It’s a bizarre way to pay tribute to Ebert — who, the film argues, was the world’s most famous movie reviewer. But the strange slam of Kael (greeted with laughter in the screening room) is consistent with the downturn in critical circles that happened as a result of Ebert’s rise to prominence.

Life Itself makes a case for Ebert’s fame as a way of commemorating him. He died in 2013 following years of suffering thyroid cancer. The sight of Ebert’s disfigurement and suffering is so truly horrifying it seems to preclude all responses besides pity (and self-pity). It becomes nearly impossible to react to the film as anything besides a eulogy. But this unfair, shameless tactic from director Steve James (who works no other way — James’ career was made when Ebert overpraised his condescending 1994 poor-blacks-and-basketball documentary Hoop Dreams) inadvertently turns Life Itself into a eulogy for film criticism itself.

As James assembles the mourners (filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog; reviewers Richard Corliss, A.O. Scott and Jonathan Rosenbaum; TV producers Thea Flaum, Donna La Pietra, Gene Siskel’s widow and Ebert’s wife Chazz; and several Chicago Sun Times journalist friends including Kael-basher William Nack), he merely plumbs the shallows of Ebert-devotion which, in the context of celebration, slants perception of the journalistic profession to Ebert’s own particular definition of it. Criticism is seen only in terms of its popularity — through television broadcasting, tabloid simplicity or using celebrity as ultimate proof of eminence and value.

Those are, undeniably, the terms of our contemporary social valuation. But they are also, unfortunately, the very terms by which criticism has recently lost its standing as a counterpoint to commercial production and artistic arrogance, as a guide to social usefulness and esthetics, and as a form of literature. TV producer Flaum recalls encouraging Ebert to learn to write for TV (i.e., simply) and a high-positioned reviewer and former Eber employee suspiciously corroborates Flaum’s directive by citing Ebert as “the definitive mainstream film critic in American letters.” Whatever that means exactly, it reduces the legacy of criticism — especially film criticism — from the rigorous practice and high aim of James Agee, Kael, Andrew Sarris, Stanley Kaufmann and a few others to something dubbed “populist.”

One eulogist credits to Ebert the phrase “democratizing criticism” (a notion parroted by bloggers) but the ass-kissing term is peculiarly inaccurate since the expertise that is inherent to professionalism cannot be “democratized.” Praising Ebert for his Average Joe approach to movies may flatter Internetters but it encourages criticism to aim low. Ebert’s lowest common-denominator style recalls old journalist mythology, reeking of barroom arrogance and newsroom smugness, yet James’ film doesn’t follow that mythos to TV, the consecutive news medium that gave Ebert a larger audience than print criticism ever had (a dubious achievement now mistaken for proof of importance).

Essayist George W. Trow once reasoned that children have three parents: mother, father and television. But recent generations of film reviewers have a fourth: Ebert, whose significance is one with TV’s perceived omnipotence. His corporatized omnipresence reduced the impact of critics who worked traditionally, using language, knowledge, experience and literary complexity. And Ebert’s followers are like children who adore the bad parent who lacks discipline. Ebert fools them with “love of movies” candy. One on-screen mourner describes the Siskel & Ebert TV show debates (with the Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel) as “Towering figures clashing. Because they couldn’t agree, that raised the temperature of the movies they discussed.” That’s just publicist gibberish. It confuses Marshall McLuhan’s media theory with belief in hype as cultural determinant. The clips of Siskel and Ebert’s chew-toy growling over Benji: The Hunted shows the level of their erudition.

James reiterates the news of Ebert’s Pulitzer Prize (he was the first of several indistinguishable film reviewers to win) conflating it with critical worth even though nobody in the doc can mention a single esthetic or cultural idea that Ebert originated. James quotes Ebert’s review of Bonnie & Clyde (1967), implying that it announced a revolution in American movies and movie criticism (credit that rightly belongs to Pauline Kael’s long New Yorker essay that both changed the film’s fortune and reshaped the culture — an historical fact that Internet mavens are ignorant about.

Also repeated is Ebert’s “Movies are like a machine that generates empathy”–a motto favored by epigones equally prone to intellectual banalities. Ebert’s banalities subverted criticism’s esthetic and moral ambitions and its toughness. His producer’s advice “People are interested in what you have to say not how you say it” is outrageous, beat only by Ebert’s disingenuous humility: “A youth will understand that people can make up their own minds.” A presumption refuted by his Internet disciples who all yell the same juvenile opinions at each other. Ebert clones were criticism’s first rotten tomatoes, the end of true discourse.

Ebert’s popularity comes from how he ingrained resistance to hard-thought ideas. His quote “I think Raging Bull is one of the great American pictures of the year” sussed the 1980 cultural mood but his hype lingo corrupted the mood. How many “great American films” were there that year? It’s as hollow as his L’Argent clip praising Robert Bresson as “a man filled with unlimited passion.” Such TV gossip reveals how Ebert’s careerism outstripped his criticism (he maneuvered from public television to Disney sponsorship and personal copyrighting–all overlooked in this documentary). Ebert found a way to make reviewing work commercially, turning him into an icon for the era of Hollywood-journalism collusion. He won followers by appointing various Siskel replacements but bonhomie and patronage do not make a critic great.

It is necessary to separate Ebert’s real influence from his suffering. Chazz Ebert’s loving dedication is deeply admirable and evokes great sympathy for her. But further promoting Ebert’s widely imitated sophomoric style is not a proper paean, even though it is now popular to do. And that popularity, based in intellectual insecurity and defensive derivativeness, can get extremely resentful and hostile — which explains the Kael obscenity. Director James’ petty means of sentimentalizing and misrepresenting Ebert’s criticism — and its impact on film criticism’s current state — corrupts an old adage: When the lie becomes legend, film the lie.

— Film critic Armond White is author of What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About the Movies.