July 18, 2012

Convenient Truths -- HECKLER

This column originally ran on COMICS BULLETIN
Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.

Today he and his friends Jason Sacks and Paul Brian McCoy found 2007's Heckler directed by Michael Addis and produced by Jizzy Entertainment.
ElkinHeckler is a documentary that is, ostensibly, about the reactions of artists to the vitriolic nature of people who either interrupt performances by shouting out their (usually drunken) criticism or who have published savage personal attacks in the press or on their blogs. The film mostly focuses on actor/comedian Jamie Kennedy as he confronts both individuals who have some rather strong opinions on why his comedy act is, in their eyes, terrible; as well as internet movie critics who have posted overly harsh reviews of his movies. Kennedy also interviews fellow comics, filmmakers, and Mike Ditka(?) about how they deal with this sort of maliciousness.
The film draws some interesting parallels between the Heckler and the Critic who, more and more, seem to be operating in a world of absolutes, driven by ego, protected by anonymity, and adding less and less to a meaningful dialogue. As a person who, in the past, has written some rather nasty personal attacks on creators (I regretfully point you to my “review” of Ogre #3 as the most blatant example of this), I have had a building nausea associated with these sorts of ubiquitous diatribes. Lately I have been going through a process of evaluating why I have chosen to write about comics and documentaries, what I hope to add to the world at large, and my own sense of self. Heckler has provided further insight into my misgivings and my understandings.
Sacks: Some people just need to grow a pair. Seriously, guys, though I was sympathetic to Jamie Kennedy and the intense angst that the guy felt about his negative reviews and criticism, what the fuck did the guy expect? He starred in shitty movies like Malibu's Most Wanted and Son of the Mask and then expected the rest of the world to suck his metaphorical dick? As a creative person, you do your best to do good work and then you throw it over the fence. At that point, the work is in the hands of the world and you have absolutely no control over it. If the world hates the work you do, well, at least you're making a pretty damn good living creating work that some people might enjoy. At least people are still talking about Son of the Mask rather than have it be completely forgotten.
I'm just not as sensitive as you to my occasional diatribes, Daniel. I honestly don't feel bad about writing negative reviews for this website, just as it doesn’t bother me to write as many rave reviews as I do (and I'd guess that my rave reviews outnumber my negative reviews by a ratio of at least ten to one). I don't set out to savage or to gush over a work, but also I won't hold myself back from sometimes allowing myself to cut loose on a work that just doesn’t work for me. My review of The Fury of Firestorm #1 from a few months ago is a good example of that – it was tremendously fun to rip into a comic that was horrible from beginning to end. Likewise it was tremendously fun to rave over the Little King book from Library of American Comics, and share my honest reactions to the work.
It's all about writing from the heart, to me, and I always figure that my opinions have to be shared by other people. And if they aren't, well, fuck 'em. I'll stand behind my opinions even if the rest of the world disagrees with me.
Though I hope that I don’t come across like one of those asshole dipshit reviewers in Heckler.
Somehow I don't think you're staying up at night worrying about being disliked by creators, Paul.
McCoy: Ultimately, no. You can't worry about being disliked, but I have to agree that some of those reviews Kennedy read from weren't really reviews. They were just personal attacks and Kennedy had every right to be upset or even disturbed by them. Were his films bad? I haven't seen them.
But I haven't seen them because I don't like Jamie Kennedy's comedy. The man has never made me laugh and the comedy bits we see him performing in Heckler just re-emphasize that he's not doing comedy for me.
But Patton Oswalt's comments about the subjectivity of comedy being like the subjectivity of porn is true. That's why I don't normally write about comedy (or porn, for that matter). Just because something makes me laugh (or doesn't), doesn't really describe the real quality of a comedic work. Some people love fart jokes and parading fat women around in their underwear for a laugh.
But an actual critic critiques the work, and that seemed to be what most of the people interviewed reinforced. Taking personal pot-shots at a creator is crossing the line, even though I've done it before, too. But it's something I've tried to rein in since I started editing other people's writing.
As for this particular work, I thought that Heckler was pretty amateurish and would have been a much stronger work if it hadn't consistently fallen back on Kennedy and his hurt feelings. I would have much rather seen more emphasis given to performers actually dealing with hecklers in the first part. I was actually surprised when the film took the turn and started talking about critics and then expanded to including the internet in the discussion. However, I also would have liked to have seen more emphasis given to finding real criticism on the web rather than just painting it all with such a broad brush.
Elkin: I agree with you, McCoy that Heckler, as a film, did not live up to the general standards I use to gauge my sense of what makes a “good” documentary. It was too didactic and, like you said, it seemed to have a problem with focus. What I liked about the film though was the issues it raised and that seems to be the point of our discussion here.
Sacks, you said above about your review of The Fury of Firestorm #1 that “it was tremendously fun to rip into a comic that was horrible from beginning to end.” I guess I want to focus on the word “fun.” Sure, I cannot deny that it's sometimes enjoyable to let our demons out of our meat bags and let them swirl across the page ranting and dancing with fiery, pitchforked glee. We get into a savage rhythm while writing something like that, and, to be honest, that rhythm is kind of intoxicating. But ultimately I wonder to what end is this high?
Sure, you might amuse some people with a particularly piquant and powerful pan, but what more does it offer the world? Isn't a diatribe of this sort more masturbatory in nature than a thoughtful criticism? It seems to me that blasts such as these are a result of our own sense of self, and the more caustic and personal we get in our writing about something, the more we reveal about ourselves.
As Henry Winkler says in the film, “Criticism coupled with your own failing self-image ... it is brutal ... it is deadly.” And who's going to argue with the Fonz?
I guess what I am wondering is how particularly mean-spirited and personal attacks are a form of valid “criticism?” What is its purpose in the end? What does it add to the dialogue? How does it improve the world we live in?
This conversation brings to mind the writing of Lester Bangs. Bangs wrote some pretty savage stuff about music and musicians and music audiences, but he always did so with the hope that something good would come out of it. As he said:
if the main reason we listen to music in the first place is to hear passion expressed-as I've believed all my life-then what good is this music going to prove to be? What does that say about us? What are we confirming in ourselves by doting on art that is emotionally neutral? And, simultaneously, what in ourselves might we be destroying or at least keeping down?
When Bangs was being savage, he did so because he thought it mattered, and he always told you why it mattered. So much internet criticism, especially the kind featured in Heckler, isn't about that. It's about the “critic” pumping up their own ego and pointing a finger at themselves and not what they are really reviewing. And that's where I become uncomfortable.
SacksWell, God knows that any of us would be making a hell of a lot more money, getting a lot more girls and building more fame if we were doing something other than being a critic, especially one who's generally as high-minded and evangelistic as I often can be on the website. I often feel like it's my responsibility, or at least my deep passion, to bring to readers' attention materials that they might enjoy if they only knew about them, works of art or just plain fun that might lift them up in some way, improve their lives in some way, help to bring another lover of my favorite artform into the fold as a fan.
It's very telling that while I at least knew about nearly all of the celebrities and near-celebrities in Heckler, the only critics I knew were the guys who were on TV – and thus were celebrities themselves. The website critics that were shown were nobodies, or even worse than nobodies. Maybe because of the way this often amateurish movie was staged or cut, those critics were shown as pretentious egomaniacs driven more by a passion for the richly authored turn of phrase than by ambitions to find insights in the material that they present.
Then again, I do love my own turns of phrase. I do feel like my criticism is well written, thoughtful and pithy. I do have an ego and I do want to be known. I don't think I have a failing self-image that is reinforced by my reviews – we on CB work hard to leave our snark at the door and I can't remember the last time we really brought the kinds of personal pot-shots that Paul and the other editors work so hard to eradicate on CB.
In the end I agree with Lester Bangs, which means I kind of disagree with the thesis that Jamie Kennedy and some of his buddies advocate in this movie. The job of a critic is to fight for what's great and what's interesting and do his best to lift creative works up. A critic is not a reporter, nominally responsible for being neutral. A critic is supposed to have a specific approach, a clear aesthetic that can be clearly stated. He should be a fighter. He should be an evangelist. He should be fearless in stating his opinions. He doesn't need to be an asshole but at times it's fun to let one's hair down, cut loose and really lay into a work that you find to be completely wretched. I have no regrets about ripping that terrible Firestorm book and I wouldn't have any qualms about rippingMalibu's Most Wanted, just as I have no qualms around raving about Master of Kung Fu or Louieor Ganges.
Wow, maybe my ego is running rampant. I did end up making this all about me, didn't I?
McCoy: It's hard not to, really. As soon as the film slipped into commentary about criticism – and equating most of it to heckling – I couldn't help but react to it as a writer of online criticism. If we didn't feel our writing was good on some level, we wouldn't keep putting it out there for anyone to read.
Writing criticism is inherently tied up with ego. We're choosing to say on the page what does and doesn't fit our subjective aesthetic criteria and why the reader should agree with us and our evaluations. We are setting ourselves up as the arbitrators of taste, without question. Our creative urge is being channeled into writing about other people's creative works, though, and therein lies the problem.
Or the source of where the problem can spring up.
A couple of those internet "critics" were using the opportunity to rage against Kennedy and his films as a creative writing exercise rather than as an example of real critical expression. And while I don't doubt that writing those things were fun, they were ultimately pointless and self-aggrandizing, saying nothing about the work at all. If they had just said "it sucked" the same point would have been made and it would have held the same critical content.
That's the biggest problem I've seen when trying to recruit new writers to the site. There's a lack of critical engagement in many writers as they struggle to be entertaining and informative. Not to mention the fact that some people just aren't as funny as they think they are (which falls back on the subjectivity of humor argument), or think that being funny is the point.
If a review doesn't actually discuss the work in some detail, as your Firestorm review did, then it's useless. And there's a massive ocean of useless writing out there on the internet. The film did get that right.
But it also utterly failed to address good critics or hold up examples of what works. David Cross specifically mentioned intelligently written bad reviews as something to appreciate and maybe learn from, and there were a couple of other brief comments to that effect, but this is where Kennedy really dropped the ball with this documentary.
In the end, it wasn't a documentary about heckling, criticism, and the internet. It was all about Jamie Kennedy's hurt feelings and urge to confront the worst pseudo-critics he could find willing to go on camera, so he could insult them with lines as lazy and unoriginal as the examples of his stand-up he chose to include.
That's what made the Uwe Boll segment so telling. If you want to confront your critics and prove a point, make a good movie or be funny. Hitting them and insulting them back is meaningless.
Elkin: Yes, but that Boll packs a mean punch, doesn't he?
But your point is perfect, McCoy. The best way to one-up these sorts of attacks is to rise above them and create something of value. Kennedy's point seems to be, though, that no matter what you do, when the “criticism” is personal, the art itself no longer matters.
There is already so much negativity in what passes for public discourse nowadays. The bandwidth available for a thoughtful person to be truly “critical” of ideas and expressions is getting narrower and narrower as those lucid voices are drowned out by all the shouting, finger pointing, and name calling. We live in the “Information Age” – but it seems to me that more and more of that “information” is nothing more than opinion.
But opinion is the realm of the critic, I know.
But the more that opinion becomes a vehicle for a personal attack that panders to a like-minded herd, the less “information” is transferred and we all become further polarized in our interactions with the larger society. Do we desire to become part of a twitching hive whose judgments are reduced to either “sucks” or “awesome?” I would hope not. But as our attention gets further and further stretched by the wealth of options available to us, we crave instant judgment: a thumbs up, a 47%, an “I'd rather put a bullet in my head than sit through this again.” It makes it easy for us to make decisions about how we spend our attention, but once again I have to wonder at what cost?
When teaching writing to my students, I constantly tell them that to succeed in creating a thoughtful argument, the word “because” is their best friend. Keeping “because” in mind forces them to justify what they are saying. I think this should apply to criticism as well BECAUSE it elevates the writing. If all a critic wants to say about something is it “sucks”, in order for that “sucks” to have any value, it should have thoughtful explanation as to why that is. Then the criticism has value. Then the criticism is justified. Then it is “criticism” and not self-aggrandizing groin kicking.
Is this what Kennedy is trying to say by making Heckler? By making this documentary, is Jamie Kennedy pleading with us to elevate the tone of our public interactions? Does the star of Malibu's Most Wanted ultimately want to see a society based on the value of ideas and a world where thoughtful and inspired criticism moves us forward as a society to achieve greater and greater conceptions and expressions?
It would be nice to think so, wouldn't it? Then again, it is Jamie Kennedy we are talking about (BOOM!).
Sacks: Well, yeah, it would be cool if we all could be high minded and approach material from a level of elevated aesthetics, where we examine every work without regard for the personalities or histories or other external elements in order to assess a work. It would be cool if we could all elevate our tone and take the high ground.
But Jamie Kennedy’s work can’t be separated from our perceptions of him. He’s perceived at best as a lightweight comedy actor, and all future work by him – if there is any (BOOM!) – will be assessed from that standpoint. In the same light, a serious movie starring Adam Sandler movie is treated differently from his latest braincell-killing atrocity inflicted against the movie-going public. Or, for that matter, a silly comedy starring Robert DeNiro (say, Midnight Run if you remember that movie) will be assessed against his more serious work and be given a bit more gravitas.
As human beings we categorize and judge according to our categories. Sometimes those categories are true and sometimes they are not true. I’m often happily surprised by works that are better than I expect – for instance, part of what made some comics from Scott Lobdell or from Bluewater Comics so wonderful is that they are much better than my categorization of them seemed to be. They changed my categorization. I got shaken up. I was forced to change my opinion. And that, to me, was pure gold.
I’d like to think that’s the difference between Paul’s pseudo-critics and the work that we do here on Comics Bulletin: we allow ourselves to be surprised and shaken up. And we try to avoid the ad hominem attacks.
But I still think that Jamie Kennedy needs to grow a pair.
Trailer for the film:

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