|Aint It Retarded? When Film Critics go Horribly Wrong
|by Chris Parry
I'm really getting sick of this entire industry. Over the last month I've watched as news came to light that the Bush Administration's Education Department paid 'journalist' Armstrong Williams to push their policies as news and opinion on his TV and radio shows. Then I saw White House Press Corps hack, Jeff Gannon (AKA JD Guckert), exposed as a Republican operative whose job was to throw softball questions during government press conferences. Then I read Rolling Stone's top notch drubbing of Sinclair Media, a network of TV stations that make it their business to do a nightly 'opinion' show where a station bigwig touts conservative news and opinion without any counterpoint... seems the owner of the station, which drenches itself in supposed family values, started his working life as a porno bootlegger. Classy. So, amongst all this, It struck me today as I leafed through a spoiler-filled fake review of the upcoming Batman Begins on Harry Knowles' Aint It Cool News website, that film criticism, and journalism in general, is officially dead. Not that Knowles makes any claim to being a film critic or journalist - he's always hidden under the "I'm just a fanboy" excuse-all - but when the studios are sending him fake reviews to gauge interest in upcoming films, while they use Shawn Edwards pull-quotes for movies that everyone knows are awful, while they invite scumbags like Paul Fischer to their junket roundtables, and shows press screenings for awful movies late the night before they open, as supposed 'entertainment news' shows spend hours of TV time talking about how 'Brad doesn't seem to be displaying any heartbreak after his split with Jen' as if anyone really gives a damn... well, it seems that the film critics and journalists that take pride in their work are pushing Tim Allen movies uphill.
Let's break down the specifics and identify those who are clearly more interested in personal gratification than the purity of the industry they make a living in. Let's go with the big game first:
HARRY KNOWLES: This heffalump has made a name for himself not through the witty and insightful words that flow from his keyboard, nor from the proud pledge to get largely unseen films seen by a broader audience. No, Harry Knowles got famous by spoiling movies. He built his website, Aint It Cool News, on the novelty of getting reviews of test screenings out to the general public. These used to just be poorly spelled ramblings about how his day went as he snuck into yet another test screening, with a paragraph or two about the film itself, but soon Harry's rep for big net traffic was so wide that he was co-opted by the studios, flown to Paris to hang with filmmakers, offered roles in the films he raves about, and was called 'friend' by any filmmaker or actor desperate enough to reach a teen audience that they'd willingly spend half an hour in the same room as the Orange Crush. The problems came when Knowles began to believe his own publicity and got it in his head that he mattered.
Five years down the line and Knowles is officially the joke of the business. He regularly runs 'reviews' that are clearly studio plants. He's repeatedly run reviews that the writers have later admitted were outright hoaxes. He hyped the unbought screenplays of his sidekick, Drew McWeeny, without making the disclosure that this "great writer" he was talking about was actually working for him. Together, the duo bitched to the world when people were downloading an early edit of 'The Hulk' that such things were ruining the film industry, while only months earlier McWeeny had boasted of downloading 'Spirited Away' - months before its release. He regularly publishes reviews of films from festivals where the filmmaker has clearly asked people to hold off on their reviews, and, oh yeah... then Harry got a production deal at Revolution Studios.
Does Knowles matter when he's so clearly a respect-free zone? Yes, he does. Because of crap like this. Knowles, in one piece, has not only published a clearly fake review, but he's also made it clear there's a draft of the screenplay of this unreleased film floating around on the net, and he also gives a few dozen spoilers an internet home where they'll sit for weeks, while the filmmakers do their best to deliver an actual surprise or two to the audience. Whether the fake review is the work of a studio hack or a teenager with delusions of grandeur, it has no place in the world of actual film fans, to say nothing of legitimate film criticism. Here's hoping someone publishes an early copy of one of McSweeny's scripts so he can learn what it feels like to have his work ruined... oh wait! They have... and Drew McSweeny took LEGAL ACTION to have them taken down. Hypocrites of the new millenium.
On to the next hack-for-hire:
PAUL FISCHER: Now, my beefs with Paul Fischer go back a long way, and it seems after talking to many people at Sundance about his slovenly ways that I'm not alone. Three publicists (out of six) that I spoke to about Fischer said they flat out refuse to invite him to roundtables anymore. And I'll be damned if I won't be working hard to add a few more to that list. Here's Fischer's MO: He turns up at a roundtable (often late) where up to a dozen journalists are supposed to interview an actor or filmmaker at one time. He's almost always rude to the publicist (I've witnessed him raising his voice to many a pub when they say 'no' to his request for an interview, once prompting a reply from Fischer of, and I kid you not, "Do you know who I am?"), he'll ask his question, and then, as the talent is finishing their answer, he'll ask another question over the end of their response, thereby assuring that he gets ALL the questions. Now, most journalists just roll their eyes and allow this to go on, because nobody wants to have a fight with another writer while Nic Cage is telling us how wonderful it is to work with Jon Turteltaub - it's just not professional - but some have spoken up in no uncertain terms.
The LA Times' David Keeps refuses to be in the same room as Fischer, having once told the world's most sweatingest hack, "you know, there are other people at this interview. Do you think you could maybe shut up once in a while and let one of us talk?" Femme Fatale's Paul Zimmerman (an occasional writer at this site) says, "Fischer's the worst. Ask anyone who has ever been at a roundtable who is the worst journalist out there, and they always say 'that fat Australian guy, what's his name?' He's just awful. Talks over you, asks the dumbest questions, he's always late... a lot of people won't do a roundtable if he's in it." Our own Scott Weinberg had his first Fischer experience at Sundance this January, when during a roundtable for the movie 'Pretty Persuasion,' Fischer rolled out the entire laundry list of junket hackdom.
"Of all the journalists I've encountered over the years, this guy is shitheel #1. First, he talks over everyone. You ask a question, he'll talk over you and then ask his own. As the actor is finishing their answer, he starts in with his next question. And he's RUDE! For this roundtable, the filmmakers were being interviewed first, and obviously Fischer didn't think he could do much with them because he just sat his tape recorder down in front of them and TURNED HIS BACK! He sat there with his back turned to the people he was"interviewing!" I couldn't believe it.. Then they're done and Evan Rachel Wood joins the table, and now Fischer's interested. So what does he ask? 'You've done a lot of roles where you're playing a lesbian... is that something you have a special interest in?' The girl is 17 and he's asking her that? She's been in about twenty movies in her life and, oh my god, two of them were lesbian roles - she must be a dyke, eh? Well, Wood says something like, 'I just try to take on good roles, and if they're lesbians, so be it," and Fischer says... "hmmm.... interessssting...." like some dirty old man. I wanted to shower after being at the same table as him, but it just got worse."
Weinberg continues, "When Ms. Wood was done, the publicists come over and say, 'James Woods and Jane Krakowski have a little spare time, so they've agreed to come join the roundtable for ten minutes or so.' Now, most of us are happy as heck to hear this, because dude, it's James Woods! Fischer, on the other hand, looks bothered by the news and says, 'Well, how long is it going to be? Because I have another appointment, you know.' Go, you scumbag, go be at your appointment already! Here he is, he's being given something he could never have expected, and instead of being gracious, he's bitching about time? So they come over to the table and they're both great people, and Fischer's doing his talk-over-everyone thing, but he's asking every question of Woods, probably because he figures he can sell that easier than a Krakowski interview. So Woods actually says, "hey, what about we ask something of the lovely Ms Jane Krakowski, since she's here and all," and one of the journalists happily does so. But when she finishes her answer, what does Fischer do? He immediately asks another question of Woods. Honestly, I've never met a so-called "professional" this rude, low-minded and tacky... and I've my fair share of pompous airbags. He's the epitome of everything wrong with this business, and the publicists need to realize that and cut off his supply of content before he actually finds a paying gig."
Now, we've documented plenty of Fischer's sins in the past, from being Australia's version of Earl Dittman and phoning in his pull-quotes the moment a press screening finishes, to making terrible mistakes in reviews, and writing some of the most typo-filled articles known to man. We've documented the time he sold the same Arnold Schwarzenegger interview to two competing newspapers in the same city, who duly ran the article - both on the same day, word for word similar, right down to the headline. We've told how he once said in a review of Akira Kurosawa's 'Ran' that it would have been more enjoyable if the actors "didn't all look the same". And we did an entire piece on the kneecap-job Fischer did on Ben Affleck at the 'Surviving Christmas' roundtable, in which he asked Christina Applegate if she humped the bedpost as a teenager, in between characterizing all of Affleck's answers (to some of the worst questions ever conceived) as Affleck 'cracking up'. But now Fischer's pullquotes are beginning to appear in the North American advertising of unquestionably bad movies. He called 'Walking Tall' "an exciting, intelligent and deeply human action film." He said of 'King Arthur': "Spellbinding! One of the year's best. Unforgettable." He called 'National Treasure' "the year's most entertaining film. The Indiana Jones of the new millennium!" He said of 'Alexander': "Magnificent. Powerful. Colin Farrell is majestic. An Oscar-caliber performance."
Paul Fischer needs to be stopped. He needs to be taken out of the Hollywood junket chain and beaten with a tire iron behind the woodshed. His name needs to be tarred with the same now laughable brush as Earl Dittman, whose appearance in any Hollywood advertising alerts an ever-growing number of people that the movie in question is patently awful. Publicists, take note: Paul Fischer, from this day forth, is persnna non grata. And any self-respecting journalist who sees him at a roundtable needs to make it abundantly clear to those running the show that they'll never sit with him again - period.
SHAWN EDWARDS: Not exactly a household name, but rapidly becoming a publicist's dream, Shawn Edwards is what we like to call a QuoteWhore. A lot of journalists (sometimes for want of a better word) get quoted in movie ads, but most view it either as an irritant or a perk of the business. They don't actively seek representation in the ads, or if they get some, they don't see it as a mark of excellence. Shawn Edwards is different - he actually PURSUES mention in film advertising, and when he gets it, he boasts about it as proof that he's at the peak of the business. Edwards recently set up the African American Film Critics Association (which we're told has a whopping seven members), installed himself as President, and told the Kansas City Star, "The quotes you read of mine, alongside Roger Ebert and all the top-notch critics, has totally helped my career as a film critic and my credibility." Nice grammar, Shawn.
Now, Shawn Edwards is no Roger Ebert. In fact, I dare say Roger Ebert wouldn't empty his colostomy bag on Edwards if he were on fire. For Edwards to even consider lumping himself in the same category as the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic of our time is a travesty. But you could kind of understand it if, oh, I dunno, Edwards had ever been published in any newspaper or magazine with a huge circulation. Or even a little circulation. Or if he was seen anywhere outside of Kansas City.
But he isn't. The reason being - he's a joke. We've actually talked to people who work with Edwards, and he's not a well-liked guy, nor is his work well-respected in the Fox station that (for some reason) cuts him a weekly paycheck. In fact, just over a year ago, some of the viewers of the station where Edwards "works" put together a movement to have him sacked. Station management stood firm, but when your viewers despise you so much that they unite to have you removed, man, you must be doing a worse job than Jules Asner, and that's saying something.
Edwards has covered himself in glory in the quotewhore stakes this year by saying 'The Wedding Date' is "tremendously Funny", that 'Are We There Yet?' "will have you laughing from beginning to end," and that 'Hitch' is "yhe comedy of the year..." when we're only six weeks into 2005.
Bring the pain!
'EASY' EARL DITTMAN: Seriously, what more needs to be said about Dittman than this: "[Hide and Seek is] Bone-chilling. Heart-stopping. Panic-filled. Robert DeNiro's performance is shocking and intense. A provocative nail-biter! It'll raise your heart rate! It will keep you guessing from start to finish."
Come on, Earl, it's a De Niro thriller. Seriously, not even a hack like you could believe the words you're saying. We've done the Dittman thing over and over... how he doesn't write reviews, he writes capsules. We've talked of how he has a press agent that sends his clips out, and how he makes no excuses for having loved 'Boat Trip' so much that he was quoted for it in the advertising. But we don't need to recap all that - people know that when Easy Earl Dittman is mentioned in a film ad that the film is patently awful. They get it.
In fact, I think I'm going to stop here and go chew on soap for a while. I feel dirty even thinking about these blemishes on the name of film criticism but, perhaps surprisingly, they're not the biggest frauds in the game. I could sit and talk about how Bill Zwecker has become a marketing tool dressed up as a film critic, and how he actually (publicly) complained when the head of the Chicago Film Critic's Association suggested that junketeers need to clean up their act and not sign waivers allowing publicists to approve their articles before publishing (Zwecker's exact words: "I too am sick and tired of reading those snide comments regarding 'junket whores' -- written by people who either are jealous they are not invited (because they work for inconsequential outlets) or don't know what REALLY goes on at junkets [...] I just wish some of our so-called 'colleagues' would do a little basic journalistic research before mouthing off with those holy-than-thou diatribes about something they know NOTHING about!"). Or how Peter Travers was once told by his editors to get quoted more, thereby ensuring free publicity for Rolling Stone...which is now mentioned in every movie ad across the country, and how Travers' entire review (and the Rolling Stone logo) were used in the ads for 'A Knight's Tale', so that movie and magazine could split the display inches between them. I could go on about how Joe Leydon once told a film fesitval panel "I'm a whore and I'm proud of it," or how Elvis Mitchell shrugged and said "The New York Times can't open a movie anymore... what are you gonna do?", like it wasn't HIS fault that the once proud powerhouse of box office is influential no more. We could talk about Mose Persico and Jim Svejda and Clay Smith and Mark S. Allen, and how none of them are actual critics, yet they're quoted as if they're not just talking heads that spout endless streams of hype and fluff. We could ask why Larry King is quoted in movie ads when he's not now, nor has he ever been, a film critic. We could ask whether Rex Reed will still be published after he's dead, since he seems to have no problem getting published while suffering dementia. And, you know, we could even ask what gives with Roger Ebert, publishing reviews of films that for some reason include mentions of scenes and character from entirely different films....
What I'm basically getting at here is this: film critics can't be trusted. Even the ones that have been at it for forty years and have won literary prizes are finding it hard to just do what the common movie fan expects - be honest and be a journalist.
The answer? You need to find a film critic that you CAN trust. Someone whose opinion jibes with your own, and who likes the same things you do. You need to look at every pull-quote in every movie ad and identify the names that appear in movies you hate, and then you need to yell at the TV screen "Ha! They're using a Paul Fischer quote! I'm not buying a ticket to that piece of shit."
Over time, if enough of you bother, the art of film criticism may well one day return to that of the proud traditions of Kael. Until that time, if you see Paul Fischer or Harry Knowles in the street, tip them over.
For the children.
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=1346
originally posted: 02/12/05 07:07:52
last updated: 02/12/05 09:00:48