Sunday, February 22, 2009

Against My Better Judgement, Here's This:

I’ll keep this short and sweet. The basic shape of the thing is this: The first third consists of talking heads, mostly other comics, commenting on how they deal with hecklers. Suddenly the subject shifts as Kennedy informs the viewer that he equates criticism with heckling. Now the talking heads give their thoughts about critics and Kennedy throws in some footage of himself confronting various people who dismissed his film Son of the Mask. There’s also some footage of Uwe Boll boxing people who don’t like his movies.
All in all I think Jamie Kennedy is duping me. I think this movie is a put-on. However, the irony, if that’s what it is, doesn’t make it a better or worse film; it just makes it a different kind of stupid. If this movie is for real, as every reviewer at Netflix and Rotten Tomatoes seems to think, then it is offensive. If it is a put-on, a sort of mockumentary, then it is merely dimwitted.
There is a clip of Reagan telling someone to shut up while he’s trying to give a speech, and I can’t figure out why it is there. Am I supposed to think Reagan is cool in that moment? Never mind that he taxed the poor and deregulated corporate oversight. Never mind the multiple covert wars. Forget that he invited fundamentalist Christians to dictate social policy so we end up with things like the war on drugs and the “pro-life” movement. Forget that before he was a politician Reagan was a B-movie actor whose claim to fame was his position as informant for Joseph McCarthy. Reagan needed to be heckled. He is exactly the kind of person that deserves all the heckling he can get. It would have been interesting if Kennedy had thought a little bit about heckling authority figures as a form of criticism. It also would have helped if he had remembered that every comedian got his start by heckling his teacher in school.
It could be that I am a simpleton and the movie is so masterfully ironic, that it critiques that footage of Reagan. What it fails to do is define its terms accurately, and this is why, mockumentary or not, it is superfluous. Simply put: Criticism is different from reviewing. Reviewing is only another part of the promotional program for film. Whether of the professional or anonymous on-line variety, the reviewer is not a critic. A critic does not waste his time writing about Son of Mask. He has bigger fish to fry.
Put-on or not, as the movie continues it turns into my own personal anger machine. From taking Bill Hicks out of context (Kennedy should really have more respect for the Gods of Stand-Up) to appearing to praise Ronald Reagan to showing Boll pummeling teenagers for not liking Alone in the Dark, a movie in which Tara Reid portrays an archeologist, the underlying message seems to be that I should not criticize rich people when those rich people are trying their best to just entertain me. I feel like I could put Heckler in my DVD player and churn out a rant any time I get stuck. It is in that spirit that I dedicate the rest of this commentary to world-class blowhard, George Lucas, and his ten-second appearance in the film.
Lucas tells Kennedy, “There are two kinds of people in the world, creators and destroyers… (dramatic pause) I prefer to be a creator.” I wonder how many times Lucas has trotted out this line to insulate himself against criticism of his hackey, B-movies. Granted that it is impressive that he can, with a straight face, refer to the way in which he injects his understanding of a book by Joseph Campbell into a puppet show for pre-adolescents as “creation.” However, this is precisely the problem with Lucas’ statement. He is not a creator at all; he is a maintainer of the status quo. What he does with Campbell is literally the definition of kitsch. According to Clement Greenberg, who defined the term as we use it today, a distinctive feature of kitsch is the predigested quality of all the knowledge contained in the work of art. Applied to Lucas’ Star Wars films, this means that his art does not arise organically and then require a Joseph Campbell to unpack all of its mythologies. Quite the contrary, Lucas read Campbell, and used his theories as a template. That is not how mythologies are made. Nor is taking an idea you read somewhere and grafting onto a story a process for creating a work of art.
I imagine Lucas did not read Campbell enough to get to the part where he talks about Indian/Hindu mythology. Had he made it this far, Lucas might have a different idea about destroyers. It is evident from his tone that Lucas views the dichotomy between creator and destroyer as interchangeable with that between good and evil wherein creation is good and destruction is evil. Suffice it to say, without launching into a summary of eastern philosophy, that this view is excruciatingly one-dimensional. If Eastern philosophy is not your cup of tea and you do not feel like reading the Vedas or the Tao Te Ching, take a look at William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell. It is little wonder that a man with such meager intellectual, spiritual and emotional chops would be capable of little more than eye candy for children.
Here is where I would continue my rant against Kennedy for bringing to his cause every hack and lightweight he could find. Director Michael Addis has espoused the belief that documentaries are not supposed to profess a position about their subject, but merely transmit information. I would ask: what, then, is editing? It seems like a cop-out to me. Also, I would not put it past Addis and Kennedy to continue confusing the issue in interviews and other personal comments about their film. For all I know it could part of a massive ironic performance piece. This is why I am trying to limit my comments to problems that are legitimate regardless of the ontological nature of the film.
There are two fundamental problems. What makes them fundamental and crucial is that they are unacknowledged. This is why the film does not work for me as a put-on any more than as a sincere tirade against critics and bloggers. The first problem I acknowledged already: no distinction is made between critic and reviewer. The second problem, or perhaps it is part of the same problem – that being the mistake of making intellectual arguments without distinct intellectual categories, is that so many of the talking heads in this film, folks like Henry Winkler, Joel Schumacher, Carrot Top, Joe Rogan and, most notably, Kennedy himself, think that having good intentions insulates one from criticism. Comic after comic and rich Hollywood producer after rich Hollywood producer keeps repeating some version of the idea that the people who criticize have no respect for how hard the entertainer has worked to come up with something to entertain them. How dare the audience be so ungrateful! This is when I am almost certain that Heckler is a mockumentary. They can’t be serious can they? Their feelings are hurt when they try so hard to entertain me and I tell them that I’m not entertained? And all their money doesn’t help? As someone with ten years experience teaching 100 and 200 level college courses, I think I know a bit about working very hard to present ideas that I think are very important and being met with disdain. I know about dealing with people who a totally ungrateful and uninterested in what I am trying to give them. And for my troubles I was compensated to the tune of about $1000 a month.

And this is why I think they must be joking. Surely no one is that narcissistic. But then I remember that they are all in Hollywood, and I think, of course they are not joking. If they were not really that narcissistic they would not be in Hollywood in the first place. So it is for the rest of us, those of us who lack the pathology toward fame, that I issue this reminder: Everyone has good intentions. That should be printed on the jamb above your front door so that you have to read it every morning when you leave the house. And not because it should encourage you to give everybody a free pass! Jamie Kennedy when he makes this movie, J. Knecht when he writes about that movie, George Bush, Dick Chaney and Donald Rumsfeld when they make up a reason to go to war, Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot when they ship undesirables and dissidents to concentration camps – WE ARE ALL TRYING TO DO THE RIGHT THING. It is a mistake to judge someone according to his or her intentions. In some cases it is a grievous error.

Monday, February 2, 2009

What Are the Chances That We Are Going to Grow Up Sometime Soon?

Just a quick thought about David Denby and his new book, Snark. He was talking about it on the Diane Rehm Show last week, and I quote from the website: “The author argues that a certain mean spirit is infecting the national conversation and debilitating America.” Are we running out of things to talk about in this country? Or is it rather that we cannot turn our attention to things that really need to be discussed? I can accept that a certain degree of grace and tact, what we used to call manners, facilitate discourse. But are these things ultimately so crucial? Isn’t the real problem in this country not that people say things in mean ways, but that they really have nothing to say beyond their attitude? Isn’t the problem that so many people with a public forum are all personality and no substance? Is this not less a question of mean spirit and more a question of weak mind? I cannot stand Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter or Bill O’Reilly either, but their problem is that they are wrong about everything, not that they are mean. The question of mean spiritedness is entirely subjective. It is really just a question of one personality responding to another in a positive or negative way. The problem with criticizing mean spiritedness is that it then becomes an out for any encounter one may have with an unwanted idea. In other words, if you tell me something I do not want to hear, it is now very easy for me to accuse you of being mean to me. After all, if you were nice you would agree with me, yes?

Heckler: A Pre-View Review

Last week I was listening to Adam Carolla Show co-host, Teresa Strasser, praise Jamie Kennedy’s documentary, Heckler. At first I was intrigued because she said that Bill Hicks was in it, and I am always interested in any archival footage of Hicks that is unearthed. Strasser started to lose me, however, when she described an extended sequence in which Uwe Boll boxes, and reportedly beats senseless, several online writers that trashed his films. She said it was really satisfying to see him beat these men after the terrible things that had said about his movies. Wait. Did a Jew just praise an German for beating on people who disagree with him? Maybe she should choose her words more carefully. Never mind. What is really at stake in her assessment is class allegiance. Clearly Strasser was taking sides with the “artist” against his “critics.” This problem is underscored by the trailer for the film which features the line “the battle between those in the spotlight and those in the dark.” I will wait until after I see the documentary for a more detailed review, but it does seem that Kennedy has already tipped his hand in the preview. I should admit that I am wary of the film, because it seems to be based on the idea that entertainers should not have to suffer criticism from the unwashed masses.

I put this movie in my Netflix queue and then did something I have never done before: I began to read the user reviews. I have no idea where this urge came from. I do not read use reviews, because the “users” are typically an uninteresting lot. They tend to praise mainstream movies that everyone else in the world praises, and they tend to find art films boring. If one of the points of Heckler is that the internet gives people who have not earned their voice the opportunity to express their opinions, I certainly agree. I have a lengthy C.V. that attests to my authority as a critic, and I will admit that I do not like the idea that anybody with an internet connection can spout off about things they do not understand any time they feel like it. What Kennedy needs to understand is that this is a purely intellectual problem. He seems to turn it into a status problem. Where I would simply choose not to read what idiots have to say, it seems that Kennedy wants to prove that they have no right to say it.

In any event, I read these Netflix reviews, and the majority of them did not like the documentary because they disagreed with Kennedy’s attack on critics. At first glance this seems intuitive enough. If they perceive him to be attacking their rights to spout off, certainly these anonymous critics are unlikely to support his position. On the other hand I happen to know for a fact that most people hate critics, and I wonder why I found not one review that praised Kennedy for finally sticking it to them. This would involve some cognitive dissonance to be sure, but I would expect nothing less from the average online reviewer. I would add that it takes a remarkable degree of cognitive dissonance for Kennedy to make this film in the first place. Comedians, so far as I understand, are social and cultural critics. I wonder if Kennedy defines his art this way, and I wonder how thoroughly he delineates the relative values of his kind of criticism (if indeed one would call it that; I have never seen his act) versus the opinions of lay persons.