Wednesday, July 22, 2009
At one point in Jamie Kennedy's Heckler, an investigation into the nature of the (de-)evolution of vocal and written criticism, filmmaker Joel Schumacher angrily asks, "Does any child want to grow up to be a critic?" Not a bad point. As someone who only moved out of his teens a few years back and obviously seeks to be one (a real one) someday, I might as well share my own feelings: from the ages of 2-5 I wanted to be a garbage man, simply because I thought the trucks were magical. Feel free to hold that over my head. Then I wanted to be an engineer, though why I can't be sure. Maybe it's because I just liked building crap with Legos and was brainwashed by all that talk of "my brother used to play with Legos all the time. He's an engineer now." Anyway, I kept with that ill-defined dream into my first year of college, at which point I found that I hated every one of my courses pertaining to the major.
I'd had the idea to perhaps study and write film criticism in my spare time since I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey a year earlier and had been changed by it, so I simply decided to shift my focus to make a career out of seeing and reviewing films, essentially because I wanted to see if there was a movie out there that could affect me so profoundly again.
I say all of this because Heckler brings up a number of good points about the impersonality of critics. A critic must rightly live in a vacuum, away from the stars and filmmakers you will later have to review, possibly negatively, and one must try to add an objective tint to the very definition of subjectivity. But that impersonality also makes some criticism perhaps too rigid, and definitely too harsh. The comics and filmmakers Kennedy assembles stress that they all have feelings, and that today's style of vicious criticism can have terrible effects on them. They're quite right: Lord knows I've devoted ream after ream of bile directed at anything and everything to do with the new Transformers, and at times I feel an almost insatiable need to insult rather than truly critique. This is a shameful practice which I've tried to curb for all but the most loathsome theater-going experiences I have in a year, but we can all agree that, sometimes, an insult is just fun.
I also share my pathetic, truncated life story because Heckler's chief weakness is its inability to see the critics, too, as people. While many have kind words to say about Pauline Kael or Roger Ebert, who are constructive even in their most scathing reviews (though the nicest thing you can say about Ebert's review for North is that he like Wood and Reiner's other films), a number of the interviewees erect critics, be they paid -- for lack of a better term -- "professionals" or anonymous Internet commentators, on a pedestal. To them, critics are nothing more than glorified hecklers, and the lot of them can be grouped into an institution as corrupt as any government.
That simple-mindedness, perpetuated not by all of the subjects but fatally by Kennedy himself, turns Heckler from a potentially insightful look into the Internet's effect on cruelty and rudeness in criticism into what feels like, ironically, Jamie Kennedy's video blog, one long rant against the haters who so torment him.
The first segment, which tackles hecklers in clubs, is the most immediately rewarding, because we can see the comics fighting back. Classic clips such as Bill Hicks' verbal assault on a hostile crowd, which remains as terrifyingly entertaining now as it was the first time I saw the video years ago, rub up against more recent footage of Kennedy and other comics handling the drunks and the asses. Revealingly, a number of these comics simply aren't funny; one poor sap even manages to turn the entire audience against him with bad jokes and worse defenses against the heckler. Kennedy himself, it must be said, is too quick to fall back on the easy sexual jokes about drunken girls' promiscuity and standoffish males' inability to get laid.
Kennedy only makes matters worse when he interviews some kids who openly profess themselves hecklers; snotty, hipster, virginal teenagers all, they cannot articulate their thoughts beyond, "You're not funny." Now, I'm willing to cut Kennedy a lot of slack, because anyone who would pride himself on being a heckler is probably a world-class douche anyway, so these interviews are actually a nice bit of fun.
When he tries to apply that same tactic to paid film critics, however, Heckler hits a speed bump. He confronts some critics -- including high-profile cases such as Richard Roeper -- and reads them some of the harsh things they said about the poor comic. Some of these excerpts are scathing but nowhere near brutal, while others cross every boundary of taste you could imagine. One critic in particular, who appears on G4's Attack of the Show with Kennedy, throws out disgusting lines that are not criticism by any standard but simply base insults.
Then the criticized get their say. Just as a number of the comics responding to hecklers in clips were unfunny and even sexist and racist (though no one deserves to be yelled at in the middle of a show), many of the filmmakers and actors weighing in on film criticism produce some awful schlock. All the makers of lame teen comedies point out that 12-year-olds thought the movie was hilarious, ergo the film succeeded. The goal of any film is to entertain, yes, but how can anyone say such a thing with matter-of-fact pride? Joel Schumacher complains that people tore apart his Batman films, saying that they were just "comic book movies." That mindset is exactly why those films were so bad (and it's not like he has audience appreciation to fall back on there; everyone hated Batman & Robin), and why Christopher Nolan's Batman was such a revelation. Even Jon Lovitz, who voiced the lead in the animated series The Critic, gets in an absurd rebuttal when he confidently asserts that he wouldn't get a job coaching the Lakers just because he's been to all the games for 20 years -- no Jon, but you could damn sure get a job writing about them, now couldn't you? And let's not even go into Kennedy's antics of reading scathing reviews of his cinematic hallmarks Son of the Mask and Malibu's Most Wanted as if the critic had laid into Orson Welles (he even asks Roeper why he loves all of Ang Lee's films but doesn't have fun with Son of the Mask).
The Internet's influence takes up a great deal of the film's running length, yet no one ever really investigates the nature of the information superhighway and its ability to give everyone a voice. Lewis Black and some others say some sage things about the toxic effect of anonymity, yet the connections between this new mindset and contemporary criticism are tenuous at best and forced at worst. Had it been trimmed down to about 20 minutes, this final segment would have been better even if it only vaguely addressed the Internet's power. Nevertheless, it does offer up golden quotes from Carrie Fisher and a reviewer for CHUD.com, who explodes in the film's best rant (in a film interviewing comics, no less!) when critic Leonard Maltin blanket insults all internet critics.
While the heckler segment contains too much open sexism and bad comebacks, it kept me completely engaged, because everyone hates a heckler. I would have admired its take on critics too, had it not been so simplistic and one-sided. Then again, the movie actually gives some critics the chance to explain themselves, which is something actual film criticism doesn't allow; the only way for a filmmaker to really get back at a critic is to make his next film that much better -- or beat them up in a boxing match; your choice, really. In the end, though, I couldn't help but laugh at all of these supposedly edgy comics and teen-targeted auteurs dismissing critics and hecklers even as they devoted a feature-length film to complaining about how mean they can be. The richest irony is that Kennedy's web site contains numerous pull-quotes from critics who gave the film positive reviews. I thought you didn't care what they said, Jamie?