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An Interview with David Manning.
by Alex Paquin

Last year, a scandal shook Hollywood to its foundations when it was revealed that David Manning, supposedly a film critic for the "Ridgefield Press", had been created by two executives at Sony to provide blurbs for such surefire hits as "A Knight's Tale" and "The Animal". Being one of the very few people who had been convinced of his existence from the beginning, I have spent several months tracking down the ever-elusive Manning, until I finally had my chance to invite him to an interview in Montreal. This revealing conversation might well be the greatest surprise, and the definitive film history-making moment, of the year 2002, unless you didn't expect "A Beautiful Mind" to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Some people will call it a hoax, but it is the truth. Here it is, raw and unembellished.

A.P.: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. For those of you who are not with us at this moment and who will read the transcript of today's discussion somewhere on the web, let me explain, for completeness's sake, that it is here, in the convivial ambience of Albert's Bar and Grill in downtown Montreal, that I will spend the next minutes talking about film. As I am speaking these words, the restaurant is unusually packed, and even though the main interest seems to be the hockey game broadcast on the sixty-inch television screen, the room is, I have no doubt, filled with film lovers delighted to hear me converse with my guest on the fascinating world of the motion picture. This week, my guest is the renowned David Manning, ex-film critic for the Connecticut-based Ridgefield Press, who stirred up a great amount of controversy last year when it was claimed that Mr. Manning was the creation of two executives at Sony Pictures looking for a way to incorporate glowing reviews, or, as they are commonly called in the industry, "blurbs", of Columbia films such as The Hollow Man and A Knight's Tale into these movies' advertising campaigns. Having assessed Mr. Manning's existence, I immediately invited him for an interview here in Montreal. And in spite of my complete obscurity, he enthusiastically agreed. Mr. Manning, thanks, and welcome.

D.M.: Alex, I'm delighted to be here today in Montreal, in front of this distinguished -- albeit unreactive --audience.

A.P.: Mr. Manning, you have been accused of being a nonexistent critic. What is your response to such a claim?

D.M.: First of all, I want to stress the fact that I exist. The rumours of my nonexistence have been greatly exaggerated. I had been writing reviews for the Ridgefield Press for quite a while, but ever since that libelous Newsweek article claimed that I had been invented -- invented, mind you -- by a bunch of film execs over at Columbia, how could I have any sort of credibility as a critic? Much against my own will, I retired from the film reviewing business, and now I'm forced to earn my living as a freelance journalist. I already miss the junkets.

A.P.: You have been labeled a phony. How does that affect you psychologically?

D.M.: Alex, as someone who writes film critiques, you should be aware that all film critics are phonies. You just get used to being called that. You could go on saying that Peter Fincher's The Panic Room isn't good because Hitchcock was much better with that sort of material, that David Lynch should have filmed it, the sort of thing critics do all the time. Ludicrous stuff, all of it. I wanted to shout to the top of my lungs: "Bullsh*t! The Panic Room is the best thriller of the year!"

A.P.: Hmmm... The Panic Room is a Columbia film, isn't it?

D.M.: Yeah, it is. What of it?

A.P.: Nothing, really.

D.M.: Well, these days, it seems you just can't enjoy too many movies from one company, or too much mindless stuff, because you'll end up being labeled a traitor or something. Or someone who doesn't exist, as in my case. Roger Ebert wrote a full-length positive review of A Knight's Tale and they hail him as the greatest film critic alive. I just say a few words about Heath Ledger being this year's hottest new star, well, that was last year, and voilà, I'm a pariah. You'd watch A Knight's Tale and I bet you'd think that Ledger is a great star. I mean, even Brian Helgeland -- that's the film's director -- said he smiled like Errol Flynn. Not just any B-rate actor. Errol Flynn, for chrissake. And I get blamed for writing stuff like that because I'm a critic.

A.P.: But people have seen Roger Ebert on television, while nobody seems to have seen you anywhere.

D.M.: What does that prove? Roger Ebert could be a fake name, and whoever created him just had to hire a starving third-rate actor to play him in public. And in my case, the fact that I usually prefer to keep a low profile does not prove that I don't exist. I think it's pathetic to try to attract attention to oneself just for the sake of it. Even after the Newsweek article I decided to stay away from the spotlight because I thought that the fact of my existence was so obvious that I didn't have to prove it. I mean, if people believe in God, whom none of us has seen, and even Santa Claus, why shouldn't they believe in the existence of someone as unimportant as a film critic?

A.P.: What do you perceive is the purpose of film critics in society?

D.M.: To act as scapegoats. Seriously. Because moviegoers are these people who are thankful when you tell them not to go and see a film they're unlikely to appreciate, but if you dare to write that Pearl Harbor is an atrocious film, they're the kind to comment that you're anti-American, or that you would love the film if you had been there at the time. Of course they weren't there either. Just as well; write a positive review of a film they hated and they'll claim it's evidence that you've sold your soul to the devil.

A.P.: You have written a glowing blurb, if you'll excuse the term, on The Hollow Man, a film a majority of critics hated. Would you consider that as enough proof that you have sold your soul to the devil?

D.M.: If it's honest, no.

A.P.: Was it honest?

D.M.: Perhaps I have been overly enthusiastic about it.

A.P.: Have you ever thought of suing Newsweek for their article?

D.M.: Of course there's always the impulse of wanting to see justice done, and I seriously thought about it for a while. But then I realized that when you sue someone, especially for libel, the average person thinks that you do so because you want to restrict somebody else's freedom of expression, not because that somebody else is wrong, but because they are right. What they would have thought is that I wanted to obtain retribution from Newsweek for publishing something about me which was true, not untrue. Nobody would have gained from that, certainly not me. There's no vindication out of it.

A.P.: In the meantime, angry moviegoers have threatened to take legal action against Sony over your "creation". Do you have any comment on that?

D.M.: Yeah, I've heard about that. I've tried to have a talk with the folks at Sony to discuss the situation, but apparently I'm persona non grata over there, if you see what I mean. Since then, I heard that Sony paid the Attorney General of Connecticut over $300,000 to avoid a lawsuit. Just because I said The Animal was "another winner". I think the whole idea of suing a studio because some people have seen a bad movie is entirely contemptible. All studios would be in the red if that attitude became widespread. Overall, it's like going to the racetrack. When you bet on a horse, you expect that you may lose money, just the way you may see a good film or a bad film. Film critics are just those people who tell you on which horse to bet. You can't turn around and blame the owner of the horse if you don't make a nickel.

A.P.: Unless there had been collusion between the person who gave you inside information and the owner of the horse.

D.M.: Oh. Right.

A.P.: Or if the owner created the hype himself.

D.M.: So we're back to the question of my existence or nonexistence, eh? Well, if I'm sitting here in front of you, I assume it's all the evidence you need that I exist.

A.P.: Indeed. I never disputed this fact, but most people still think that you were invented.

D.M.: What the heck do I have to do? Get my syndicated reviews published in the New York Times? I probably got myself banned over there for writing that Woody Allen's films are overpoweringly frantic, pretentious, and repetitive.

A.P.: Perhaps to help prove your existence, it would be better for us to discuss a film of which you have written a review, even if it's only as much as a sentence. Take, for example, Brian Helgeland's A Knight's Tale, starring Heath Ledger.

D.M.: I see, it's some kind of dialectic, probably the only word I remember from when I was in college. From our discussion we're supposed to arrive at some kind of truth, unless you've decreed that what you think is the truth. Okay, then, I'm willing to participate.

A.P.: The film's detractors have complained that A Knight's Tale is your run-of-the-mill teen movie with a medieval setting, How do you respond to that?

D.M.: When talking about "teen movies", we must not generalize the category to include all film with young protagonists. A "teen movie" must fit certain criteria. Just a caveat. Oh, that's a second word I remember from college.

A.P.: I agree. But would you argue that A Knight's Tale is a teen movie?

D.M.: Well, I would say yes and no. Yes because the action fits the established pattern, but also no, because it's not set in your usual high school prom or whatever, and it's not even contemporary. You don't get medieval teen movies every month.

A.P.: Indeed, but the medieval era has inspired the production of so many films which are not in themselves teen movies, but which are aimed at teenagers.

D.M.: I suspect you are referring to Dungeons & Dragons and that ilk. Of course there are period films which target teenagers, but where do you draw the line? Titanic is considered a teen movie, but Braveheart's not. Go figure. Of course, Mel Gibson is not quite a teenager anymore, but tons of teenagers saw Braveheart. And I don't need to tell you about sobbing young girls going out in droves to see Leonardo Di Caprio go down with the ship again, and again, and again. And where would you situate Gladiator? The sword-and-sandal epic is an ancient genre, but could this one be considered a teen movie? Most teens have no point of comparison for Gladiator. They've never seen, say, Spartacus, or Demetrius and the Gladiators. Those films were more profound than hack and slash. I didn't get that impression with Gladiator.

A.P.: To allow the audience to judge the matter for themselves, could you provide us with a summary of the plot of A Knight's Tale?

D.M.: Well, that's simple. Heath Ledger plays the part of William Thatcher, a squire who has always wanted to joust in tournaments, but who cannot because he is not of noble birth. When his master dies, Thatcher decides to pretend he comes from a noble family, and changes his name to Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein. He has a few assistants who know the truth about his origins and who serve mostly as comic relief -- Mark Addy as Roland, Alan Tudyk as Wat, Laura Fraser as Kate, and Paul Bettany as Chaucer.

A.P.: That would be Geoffrey Chaucer, the real-life author of the Canterbury Tales. So the action can be situated in the mid-fourteenth century.

D.M.: Yes. As you probably have noticed, the title of the film is a reference to that book as well. But the comparison does not go any further. Well, Sir Ulrich falls in love with the lady Jocelyn; that's Shannyn Sossamon playing the part, and she's really hot. But he cannot tell her about his real past, and there's also the villainous jousting champion Count Adhemar -- Rufus Sewell in the role -- who is vying for her. I guess that's all our distinguished audience needs to know.

A.P.: And of course, we all know how it's going to end. William will be exposed by Adhemar but will obtain a knighthood and get the girl. Sort of a rags to riches to rags to riches story. I can smell the ending from five miles away.

D.M.: Yes. And so did we for Titanic, and I'm not only talking about the ship. I'm talking about the protagonists too. It's all a question of formula, and it's not reserved for teen movies.

A.P.: Indeed.

D.M.: But does its predictability make it any less enjoyable? I would say that it doesn't affect the fun we have watching the film. If you want something cerebral, there's always Citizen Kane or The Seventh Seal, even The Godfather. But if you want fun, you just don't go for film classics, you pick up Star Wars, or the Naked Gun series, you get the popcorn, and you enjoy. That's in that case a film like A Knight's Tale really works. For fun. If fun films didn't exist and if we had to spend the rest of our lives watching oh-so-profound Ingmar Bergman films, I can't imagine what the suicide rate would look like.

A.P.: Another controversial aspect of the film is the soundtrack, which includes hits by Bachman-Turner Overdrive and David Bowie, which is not only anachronistic, but which moreover is by no means the type of music that today's teenagers are likely to enjoy. How do you explain it?

D.M.: I have no idea why Helgeland chose classic rock music from the seventies and eighties, perhaps because that's his type of music, but I liked that. Reminded me of my youth. I have some comments on the question of "anachronistic" music, though. Why must A Knight's Tale be blamed for its non-medieval music when Excalibur featured Wagnerian excerpts, or when the Alan Parsons Project penned the music for Ladyhawke, and that both films got praised for their soundtrack? And of course most music scores from medieval films are anachronistic, whether it's The Lion in Winter or The Adventures of Robin Hood, both of which are Oscar-winning scores. If you extend the list to include all Oscar-nominated scores, you can add Ivanhoe and Braveheart. If you don't accept that type of music because it's anachronistic, what would you take? Gregorian chant?

A.P.: Gregorian chant could be effective in medieval films.

D.M.: Yes, if you were to shoot a dark, Gothic film set in a monastery. I think Gregorian chant could have done a great deal for The Name of the Rose. But not for a lighthearted medieval romantic comedy like A Knight's Tale.

A.P.: And what about other unhistorical elements in Helgeland's film? The heraldry was mostly accurate, and I was pleasantly surprised by this, but the medieval crowds behave exactly like modern attendances at football or baseball games. Do you think these anachronisms can be reconciled with the film itself, or do they hamper the credibility of the film to a great extent?

D.M.: I was waiting for you to bring that question forth. They had a Christmas tree in The Lion in Winter. The film is set in the twelfth century, and the tradition of indoor Christmas trees would only begin four centuries later in Germany. The language is also distinctly from the twentieth century. Nobody obviously wants to watch a film in twelfth-century English, if of course the English monarchy of the time didn't speak French to begin with. And yet there are so many people who think The Lion in Winter is a masterpiece. Personally, I think it's heavy-footed and very pompous, but I'm sure you'll encounter several people who would name The Lion in Winter as their desert island flick and who wouldn't give a heck about A Knight's Tale.

A.P.: If I get your point correctly, you consider that all medieval films are mere interpretations of the period from the perspective of the time the film was made, and that historical accuracy is just an unattainable objective. Is this what you mean?

D.M.: All that I mean to say is that you really have to be an idiot to expect to learn history from movies. When I watch a film, I never expect it to be entirely accurate. Remember those knights having dinner in full plate armor in Excalibur? Of course, the whole thing was so heavy that the only thought those knights could have had was to take it off as soon as possible after the battle. But I wasn't particularly bothered. You're right when you say that any period film plays on social conventions to be convincing. But conventions change with society. Just watch those medieval films from the fifties, say, Ivanhoe, and you can't think of them as anything other than artificial. Something is just wrong with them, whether it's because of the costumes, the sets, or some less tangible reason. People now scoff at Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, a mere decade after it was a major hit. In a few years Braveheart too might look artificial, least of all because of the anachronistic kilts. But I don't think A Knight's Tale will suffer from that, as the film never strives to be taken seriously. I think that Helgeland's concept revolved around how to make the past relevant today, just like The Lion in Winter, but unlike most writers or directors, Helgeland wisely never treated the subject with a stiff upper lip.

A.P.: A critic could argue, however, that the whole enterprise is of course not a serious medieval film, but also not an effective send-up of the genre.

D.M.: I don't believe the intent ever was to send up the medieval genre, at least not as obviously as Robin Hood: Men in Tights did, for example, not only for Prince of Thieves, but also for the Flynn version. There is no direct reference to any film in A Knight's Tale. You could say it's a parody of sports films, because the good guys always win the most important game, but I guess the main target of the film is precisely the teen movies we've been talking about earlier. Helgeland used the medieval context to make a parody of teen movies as a whole.

A.P.: Both a teen movie and a parody of teen movies. Interesting. But isn't the film then having its cake and eating it too?

D.M.: At times it's so outrageously over-the-top that it's obvious it's a parody. You could say the same about Army of Darkness, mind you. But I doubt that the teen audience has picked up the irony while watching the film. They've just assumed that it was the type of film that they liked, and they perhaps were grateful that A Knight's Tale pandered to their tastes, without ever realizing that they were to a certain extent the victims of a joke. That's how I understand the Nike logo on William's armor. Of course you can't say that in a blurb.

A.P.: But at certain points in the movie, the action seems devoid of such sarcasm. Take, for example, the extremely maudlin reunion between William and his blind father, towards the end of the film.

D.M.: Indeed, that spot gets criticized a lot. I agree it's cliched and that it doesn't give the impression of denouncing the cliché. If this sequence had been done with less seriousness, it could have worked; as it is, it clashes violently with the rest of the film. But it doesn't mean it's necessarily bad. Perhaps just superfluous to the subject matter.

A.P.: You wrote in May 2001 that Heath Ledger was "this year's hottest new star". A year later, do you still agree with your statement?

D.M.: I do. I still believe that Heath Ledger has immense star potential in the Ronald Colman mould. Great potential in adventure films. And Hollywood seems at last to have found how to use him. He is slated to star in yet another remake of The Four Feathers, and after that, in Oliver Stone's biopic on Alexander the Great. Might I also suggest Beau Geste as another vehicle? Or The Charge of the Light Brigade?

A.P.: Yes, Heath Ledger is good, but he is not, I think, memorable enough to become a star. If he fails in the Colman vein, he will soon return to the teen comedies until his good looks wane. And in A Knight's Tale, he was mostly the straight man. The comic relief was left to others.

D.M.: That is what is expected of a lead character, who has more lines but less meat around them.

A.P.: But William is one of the most uninteresting characters, along with Jocelyn and Kate. In comparison, Roland could rely on his pessimistic wit, Wat is constantly hysterical, and the show is stolen by Bettany's Chaucer.

D.M.: I beg to differ. It is William who holds the story together, and your use of the term "straight man" is entirely justified. His lack of humour as a character is the reason why the others are so funny. Jocelyn is the love interest; that type of part doesn't get developed a lot these days. Here, she just has to look cute and inaccessible; for that, you don't need many lines. Kate could have been the "other girl" you usually find in teen films, but in this case, she's not. I found her presence refreshing because of that, even though she has not much to do. Roland, Wat, and Chaucer are great, particularly Chaucer. And don't forget Rufus as Adhemar -- he's great.

A.P.: Again, the unfair will say that Adhemar is your typical sneering villain you love to hiss, and that Chaucer is more of a wrestling ring announcer than a fourteenth-century herald.

D.M.: Of course, Adhemar is stereotyped, but intentionally so, to make the film funnier. And Chaucer was a riot.

A.P.: Actually, I thought A Knight's Tale wasn't that bad. As I once wrote, I found it "mindless but enjoyable". And I really liked Chaucer's introductions. Hilarious.

D.M.: Yes, I have read your review, and you noticed a few positive points, even though I enjoyed the film more than you did overall. You did point out that the acting was good.

A.P.: Except for Shannyn Sossamon. Her debut in A Knight's Tale didn't quite impress me.

D.M.: I think she has a great future in movies. Her talent will become obvious as she gains experience.

A.P.: Do you intend to publish a full-length review of the movie?

D.M.: Yes, along with reviews of Vertical Limit, The Hollow Man, and The Animal, in my upcoming autobiography.

A.P.: Your autobiography?

D.M.: It's tentatively entitled The Critic Who Wasn't There. I won't say much more about it for the time being, except that it is going to deal a strong blow at the world of film criticism and Hollywood.

A.P.: Sounds interesting. I am curious to find out what you have to say about last summer's controversy.

D.M.: The book is scheduled to be released later this year.

A.P.: Mr. Manning, thank you for this fascinating interview. I can see you are a popular guest, If I can judge from the applause.

D.M. Hmmm.... I think that's because your local team just scored a goal.

A.P.: Oh.

Special thanks to the staff and patrons of Albert's Bar and Grill.

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originally posted: 05/18/02 13:56:54
last updated: 01/01/09 06:09:59
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