While syndicating film critics leads to a deadening homogenization (you get the same review whether you’re from Anaheim or Arizona), the real problem is the increasingly common belief that serious critics are like an appendix, irrelevant yet potentially harmful. Terrified that they‘ll lose their audience, print editors dread seeming passe or elitist -- The New York Times’ Howell Raines reportedly wants ”less Peking Opera, more Britney Spears“ -- and they mistrust critics who know too much film history or view movies with analytical detachment. We‘re long past the days when young people actually thought that film critics like Pauline Kael were heroes.
”In the arts,“ Kael once remarked, ”the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising.“ While she herself sometimes failed to live up to this credo -- her advance raves for Nashville and Last Tango in Paris read like ad copy bound for Valhalla -- she knew that critics struggle to resist the cultural pressure to turn everything into PR. This requires more strength than you might think. When I was first hired as a film critic at this paper in the mid-1980s, I wrote several pans of big Hollywood movies -- including Prizzi’s Honor. The then-editor took me out to dinner and told me that he kept hearing (from whom he didn‘t say) that I was ”hostile“ to the industry. Was that true? I took the point, and unheroically found a movie to praise in the next issue -- just that once. We all make our compromises.
Some more readily than others. These days, the thoughtful Henry Sheehans are being overshadowed by self-promoting fanboys like Harry Knowles, the Haystacks Calhoun of movie geeks, who recently visited L.A. to promote his new book Aint It Cool? Hollywood’s Redheaded Stepchild Speaks Out (written, it seems, by two other guys). Knowles appears to be an amiable sort who adores ”cinema“ (as he‘s taken to calling it) and fills his Aintitcool.com website with gush, gossip, sneak-preview reports and attacks on those who issue ”spoilers.“ Early on, studios felt threatened by his site’s habit of reviewing works in progress. But they quickly realized that Knowles is no bomb-thrower, no dissident. He‘s a starstruck hanger-on who blithely takes paid trips to premieres or movie sets, cheerfully stuffs freebies into his suitcase, blissfully does lunch with the directors he worships. In return, he promotes the movie industry with every waking breath -- endlessly dropping the names of people he’s met, promoting the movies he likes months before their release, working hard to make the no-life thing seem, well, cool. Even when it came out that he was accepting gifts that would get a real film journalist fired, his fans dug Harry for ”getting away with it.“ He‘s the Junketland Messiah.
Appearing on both KPCC and KCRW last week, Knowles’ Texan garrulity steamrolled both Larry Mantle and Elvis Mitchell, who spent their shows tossing him softballs. At one point, he said that he‘s not into the detached style of critics who do things like fault Batman and Robin for its terrible script. You see, Knowles had read Akiva Goldsman’s original script -- which was good, he said -- and he blamed director Joel Schumacher and interfering franchisers for turning the movie into irredeemable crap. Bedazzled by his ”inside“ knowledge, he didn‘t bother to explain why non-geeks should care about the production histories of rotten movies or why critics shouldn’t continue to do what they‘ve historically done -- treat a movie as a finished artifact and examine its form and meaning. Hearing Knowles give his take on film criticism, I was reminded of the enthusiastic dwarf in Donald Barthelme’s novel Snow White who explains that, when you live in a culture that‘s overwhelmed by rubbish, ”the question turns from a question of disposing of this ’trash‘ to a question of appreciating its qualities . . . because it’s all there is.“
By the way, Harry will sell you Ain‘t It Cool boxer shorts for just $12.99.