In late 2006 I got an email from a guy who said he was working on a documentary with Jamie Kennedy and that he wanted to interview me. The film, he said, was about critics, and he wanted me because Leonard Maltin had singled CHUD out for a bit of derision in an interview he did for the film. He also had an idea that he wanted the film to end with me over the credits, critiquing what had just played out.
I was skeptical. Jamie Kennedy had a prank show, and I wasn’t exactly one of his biggest critical supporters. Was this going to be some kind of elaborate trap? In the end my fiendish desire for fame won out over my practical thinking skills and I headed uptown to where Michael Addis and his crew were waiting. First they showed me the Leonard Maltin clip – he held up a Talladega Nights newspaper ad that had my quote on it and basically talked shit on the site – and had me respond. I called Maltin a hacktastic twatmuffin. That made the final movie, and will likely keep me out of the LA Film Critics, which he heads. Then Addis had me do the critique, which was tough, because he didn’t have a movie to show me. I sort of riffed for a little while and he seemed happy enough with the foul verbiage spilling from my heavily bearded mouth.
The next time I saw Addis was when I saw the actual film, Heckler, which played at the Tribeca Film Festival in early 2007. My dad came to town to see it, which was cool. Less cool was seeing my head projected in huge-o-vision on a movie screen. It was disconcerting at best. I went to the afterparty and saw Jamie Kennedy take publicity photos with some woman who was on America’s Next Top Model. It was weird, and the party was kind of lame and in the roped off VIP section of an epically shitty nightclub, but it was an appealingly weird experience.
Addis and I kept in touch, and then I moved to LA. I saw Heckler a second time in theaters, as part of the AFI Fest. The film still didn’t have a distributor, which I thought was weird, since it’s a pretty good and funny documentary with a couple of really interesting people in it. I think that the failure of The Aristocrats may have poisoned the well for comedy docs. Anyway, another after party, and once again Jamie Kennedy. He always calls me Ferucci. I was credited in the end titles as that for a while.
Finally Heckler found life as a direct to DVD film (except in Canada, where it played at a couple of theaters), and it’s out today. My journey with Heckler has been an eventful one – I met my current girlfriend because she was Addis’ assistant, and I appeared in Addis’ well-viewed McCaingels comedy shorts, and I may do a pilot with him at some point – and I’ve just about gotten used to seeing myself (in my New York City winter bearman aspect) on screen in this film. I’m still not happy with my closing credits improv – I wish I could have been given another shot, or that I had a better understanding of what the film was. But it’s neat to be in a movie with George Lucas and Bill Maher (on the
IMDB page I’m sandwiched between Mike Ditka and Craig Ferguson!), and it’s nice to be on film comparing Joel Siegel to a troll doll. If not a little hypocritical.
What is the film anyway? It’s an interesting documentary, and I think it’s funny enough to easily recommend to you even if I wasn’t in it. Hell, it’s worth it just for the scenes of Uwe Boll boxing critics from Something Awful and Aint It Cool. I don’t agree with the movie’s thesis all that much – it compares film critics to drunken hecklers – but for me, professionally, it’s an interesting thing to look at. Just because I see a difference between hecklers and film critics doesn’t mean that filmmakers do. What’s fascinating to me is that the film – and many film professionals – seems to have a hard time drawing a line between BatFan69 on the IMDB message boards and Mr. Beaks over at Aint It Cool. There’s a lot of mixing up the medium and the message, and I don’t think it’s just in this film.
(By the way, Scott Weinberg at Cinematical, who gets namechecked in the movie but does not appear, mentions the weird hypocrisy of a movie that takes critics to task slathering critical blurbs on the DVD cover. Interesting take.)
My thoughts on critics and criticism have changed a lot over the years. The web creates a weird ecosystem where critics get critics of their own – I’ve been mocked on this website and in emails and I’ve had serious, socially maladjusted trolls try to wreak havoc in my real life because of what I wrote on the site. I have to admit that I don’t always handle that criticism well (and to his credit, Jamie Kennedy in Heckler comes to admit the same thing and comes to understand that his problem with critics is a lot of whining), but it’s made me very aware of what it’s like to read strangers shit talking you. I’m doubtlessly more successful than my detractors, but sometimes I still take the words to heart; filmmakers, who are doubtlessly more successful than I am, probably do the same with my words. Over the years I’ve toned down my rhetoric and moved away from shitting on people as people unless it’s really, really necessary (shitting on their art remains part of the job description).
It’s also made me realize that the internet is a swamp of opinion. I pissed off a couple of my colleagues last week when I wrote that I don’t trust everyone’s opinion, and while I’m sorry to have ruffled feathers, I stand by it. The internet remains a place where a domain name and basic HTML makes anyone a pundit, and while that’s exciting in the same idealistic way that anarchy is, it’s terrifying in the same realistic way that anarchy is. As a nation we’ve moved away from respecting expertise and intellect and have come to trust enthusiasm and gut instinct, and I think that’s sad.
Don’t get me wrong – I know that when I started in this game seven years ago I didn’t have the depth of knowledge and experience I have today. Looking back at my stuff from when I began I cringe; the lack of basic understanding of filmmaking in my pieces jumps out at me. I look forward to some of my newer colleagues coming to get a grip on how movies are made, to learning the history of the art and business, to getting a better understanding of the craft of filmmaking. But in the meantime not only is everybody a critic, everybody has a soapbox, and we somehow have come to believe that all opinions have equal validity.
Which is all part of what fascinates me about Heckler (which is not to mention that film is actually really funny, and some of the heckling stuff is gold). I don’t agree with the main thesis, but only to the point that I think the ire is misplaced – the morons on the IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes boards are the drunken hecklers. Of course those guys would probably be just as offended by that characterization as I am by the film’s characterization of internet critics. And so, as Vonnegut said, it goes. I hope that the film serves as a catalyst for more discussion about the weird and sorry state of criticism today; if you’re not a real, serious movie lover this all sounds like wanking to you, but if you truly give a shit about movies as an art and not just a way to pass the time, it’s a crucial topic. While the internet has allowed more voices to be heard, it’s also created a scenario where the truly great voices, the respected and educated critics, are having a hard time making a living. And where those voices suddenly get lumped in with people writing under pen names taken from Steve Martin movies – if you were buying a car you would take the origin of any reviews into account, but apparently when talking about movies, people accept any words from any one.
I don’t know what the future of internet film writing is. I don’t know where it goes from here, how we figure out the wheat from the chaff (I still feel like writing for a site called CHUD has kept me from being taken as seriously as I would like by some people, so I feel for the smart guys toiling in even greater obscurity). I don’t know when we reach the saturation point, when we have enough movie sites and can support no more. I don’t know if we’re going to look back at this time as a golden age or the chaos from which something better arose. I just hope that Heckler gives you a place to start having that conversation. And introduces you to the word twatmuffin.
Buy Heckler right here!