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BOOK REVIEW: Harry Knowles' "Ain't It Cool?"

Well... no, actually. It isn't cool at all, Harry.
by The Ultimate Dancing Machine

“Ain’t It Cool? Hollywood’s Redheaded Stepchild Speaks Out,” by Harry Knowles (with Paul Cullum and Mark Ebner) - When I first heard the name Harry Knowles back in the mid ‘90s, when Ain’t It Cool News was first gaining national attention, the image that immediately came to my mind was a grizzled, leathery newspaper vet hunched over his Underwood. I’m not certain if that had anything to do with the musical qualities of his name, or if I just assumed that anyone who kept nailing all these Hollywood scoops must be some kind of hardened Walter Winchell-type hack. In any case, I was dead wrong, for the cherubic Knowles is far closer to a Trekkie—excuse me, Trekker—than to a beat reporter. Knowles makes this clear all over “Ain’t It Cool?” which is part memoir and part “geek manifesto,” and lists not one but two co-authors (Paul Cullum and Mark Ebner). The Knowles/Cullum/Ebner squad has produced an uneven book, in places fairly engaging, in others merely vacuous and annoying.

The first half of the book, after a mercifully brief introduction from Quentin Tarantino (who tells us he likes to read Knowles’ coverage while on the can), is essentially given over to an account of the pre-fame years of Harry Jay Knowles, whose parents, Hollywood memorabilia freaks both, kept the house stuffed with everything from rare movie posters to 16mm films. The latter was a particularly valuable resource in those days before the VHS explosion, and little Harry was only too happy to avail himself of it: “I must have seen King Kong over a hundred times before I was five.” Later, as the Knowles family began to disintegrate, Harry found solace and strength in his vast storehouse of movie knowledge. When his mother tries to turn him against his estranged dad, Harry recalls similar scenes from Marathon Man, The Conversation, The Parallax View, The Manchurian Candidate; and he’s able to resist such blatant brainwashing.

I don’t believe we’re supposed to take this in anything but perfect seriousness, and it’s an example of one of Knowles’ more irritating tics: he’s forever comparing persons and events in his life to things he’s seen in the movies. It strikes me as a rather self-conscious attempt to tie in these autobiographical ramblings with his eventual role as the eminence grise of the movie biz, but the effect is ludicrous. It gets to the point where you expect Knowles to relate how he survived a zombie attack because George A. Romero’s Dead trilogy taught him to aim for the brain.

The book finally gathers momentum as Knowles gets Ain’t It Cool News off the ground; soon, this bulbous redheaded is becoming one of the least likely celebrities since Steve Guttenberg. His doomed friendship with Matt Drudge, his rather more successful friendship with Tarantino, the time a London tabloid tried to frame him with a prostitute(!)—it all makes for fairly brisk reading, though the Drudge chapter sets Knowles off on an unasked-for diatribe (keep your politics under your hat, Harry). The Knowles/Cullum/Ebner team writes competently but not spectacularly, and various minor technical problems—alright is not a word; transpire does not mean “happen”; different from is preferable to different than—recur throughout. On occasion, the team falls victim to laughably inflated rhetoric (“Perhaps the ubiquitous and coruscating irony than infects this tepid generation will be precluded by something as simple and wondrous as the Internet”), but fortunately this is kept to a minimum.

The centerpiece of Ain’t It Cool? is a 40-page “geek manifesto,” in which Knowles offers his insights into what’s wrong with Hollywood: Screenwriters get no respect, trailers give away too much plot, the whole industry is too marketing-conscious, etc. It’s all reasonably accurate as far as it goes, but is this news to anyone? Aside from Harry Knowles?

In all fairness, Knowles does seem to have picked up a good deal of incidental knowledge of the industry’s inner workings both past and present, and it shows. One of the book’s genuine highlights is Knowles’ demolition of “test screenings,” with special reference to National Research Group head Joseph Farrell. Knowles has a lot of fun with Farrell, specifically his association with the notorious mid '80s dud Mannequin, but he exaggerates the influence of this admittedly dubious practice. It’s no doubt true that the studios rely too much on test screenings, and Knowles makes a convincing case that they cannot accurately predict audience turnout; but the simple fact remains that films are homogenized to death long before they reach this stage.

A more likely cause of our current glut of mediocrity is the blockbuster mentality, which Knowles acknowledges but, perversely, traces back to Rocky. But Rocky, like Jaws, could never become the across-the-board marketing phenomenon that Star Wars became, and I think it’s clear that George Lucas’ epic (which Harry naturally adores) is responsible for all-out media blitz that now accompanies every would-be summer hit.

It points up Knowles’ basic shortcoming as a media commentator: for all the movies he’s seen and all the pals he’s made in the biz, he’s acquired no particular insight into why everything has gone wrong. At heart he’s just another film geek—wildly enthusiastic but crippled by his native anti-intellectualism. He brings up the name of Pauline Kael only to dismiss her for “leaching the fun out of Citizen Kane.” (This comes right after he blasts Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer for failing to capture the physical experience of watching films—ignoring the obvious fact that the book isn’t really about moviegoing at all. It’s called a metaphor, Harry.) He makes clumsy distinctions between “objective” (bad) and “subjective” (good) films; by this, I think he means that films should express a personal viewpoint, but he really needed to articulate his position more clearly. But perhaps this is all beside the point, because, in the end, Ain’t It Cool? is really about Harry Knowles’ love of the movies. There’s nothing wrong with that; hey, I dig Dawn of the Dead, too. But it’s not enough to save the film industry, and not enough to make this book more than a pleasantly readable time-waster.

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originally posted: 03/31/02 17:21:47
last updated: 02/04/04 08:28:53
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