Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Destroying the Artist: Heckler

I found Jamie Kennedy's Heckler for $3.99 used at a local Walgreens, the obvious hub of film for a cinemaphile like myself.  I hadn't seen the movie before, but a documentary examining the irritants known as hecklers seemed like it would be interesting.  As far as Kennedy goes -- I've liked some of his stuff more than others (the Jamie Kennedy Experiment was pretty damn good), but I can say that about almost anyone (and I'm sure it's been said about me).  Watching the movie, however, proved it was far more than interesting.  It was, no hyperbole intended, essential viewing for any artist or critic.

Kennedy's film starts out with some great stories about hecklers, and plenty of comedians and others in the public eye share their experiences with them.  This examination of the heckler soon turns into a very pointed look at critics and their role in society.  As someone who has been a professional critic (meaning I get paid, yo) for more years than I care to remember, this hit home. I know I've been guilty of writing scathing reviews.  I know I've probably been more personal than I should have been.  I also know I try to write something positive about movies I hate, too.  On the flip side of that, I've also been "heckled" as it were.  (One reader, angry about a review I gave a CD, wrote into the magazine I wrote it for saying he wanted to cut my head off and shit down my neck. He wasn't even associated with the release.  He was just a fan of it.)  That said, I'm glad this film doesn't let critics off the hook (in fact, some of them are confronted face to face with results that are shocking, to say the least).

I could write about who is in this movie and how funny they were (or not, in some cases), but you can look up the subjects on your own.  What is important is what this film says about the critic (a professional heckler,perhaps).  I've written about this before.  Artists and non-artists alike tend to dislike critics.  I can understand the artist disliking them, but the non-artists' disdain has always puzzled me.  When these people tell me they can't trust critics, or that critics don't like anything, I always ask what films (usually) they recommend or would steer me away from.  Inevitably they will name something, and when I ask for a reason why I should see it or spend my time elsewhere, I get the worst answers.  ("It sucks."  "It has cool car chases.")  The critic is supposed to dissect and explain why a piece works or doesn't work.  Lately, though, everyone really is a critic, and therefore you get critics who can't explain their own damn feelings. 

I've defended the profession of the critic often in the past, but even I will admit it gets hard when a critic, like one covered here, tells Kennedy to his face that his panning of one of Kennedy's films has now given Kennedy a new "dark place" to go "cry."A  s someone who has been accused of being "mean-spirited" in the past, even I would not go this far.  (Except, of course, when it comes to that band The Presidents of the United States.  Those guys know why they piss me off.)

What was Kennedy hoping to accomplish with this film?  People who already agree that critics are worthless slugs on the plant of life are only going to nod their heads in agreement.  People who think creators who put their creation in the public eye have to accept that the criticism will not always be kind will think that Kennedy and company come across as whiny, pampered stars.  (Judging by some reactions on the Internet, there are a lot of people in this camp.)  Was Kennedy hoping to cause viewers to feel sorry for him?  Was he trying to get people to stop reading critical pieces on film, music and the like?  No on both counts.  What he is trying to do, or at least what I think he is trying to do, is to get everyone to be better at their craft.  When anyone with a computer can hop online and write anything they want with anonymity, it cheapens all words.  When anyone can go into a comedy club and disrupt someone's act and think that's okay, it continues to foster disrespect for someone's art.  (And while I am the first to admit I don't like all art, I do respect what goes into it.  The process of creation, and comedy is art and creation, is not an easy one.)  Kennedy doesn't want critics to stop writing what they think.  He wants them to write it better.  He wants them to create work they can be proud to call their own.  Hell, while he doesn't go out and say it, I bet he wants critics to spend as much time on their work as he spends on his act.  You may not like everything he does (and you may not like everything a critic has written), but if you can tell there is time and thought put into something, you can respect it more.  (One scene features Kennedy reading an awful review of his work back to the critic who wrote it.  Kennedy is clearly hurt by it, but he takes the time to tell the writer that he uses "beautiful" words.)  You can respect it for that.  We've lost a lot of that respect for art, and in turn we've lost it for ourselves ... and what we do.

I actually don't like writing negative reviews of films, books or music.  (I think plenty of people do like writing those because it's easy, and you can actually have some fun with it.)  I find it to be taxing, and I feel as if I've wasted my time.  I try to find something I can respect in every piece (sometimes that is quite hard).  I will admit, though, I've written some nasty reviews (nothing I've thought was unwarranted, though), and when I did "Excess Hollywood" for Film Threat I wrote more than my share of pure hatred.  I can honestly say, though, that this anger comes from my passion for movies, books and music.  I love and respect these things so much that when I feel they have failed, I do take it personally.

Years ago I got an e-mail from a director whose film I trashed.  She wasn't happy with me, but she thanked me.  She said I made some good points about what went wrong with the film, but the part that stuck with her the most was that even though I hated it, I pointed out one thing I thought did work ... and it was her favorite part of the film.  That letter meant a lot to me.  It showed me that my words not only have power, but they are also read by people who can be directly effected by them.  Heckler demonstrates the exact same thing.

Kennedy may go on to bigger and better things.  I think he is talented enough to stick around for a while, if he doesn't get discouraged by all the crap that is thrown his way.  This will be the most important film he'll probably ever make, however.  I don't mean that as a slam or as a prediction on his future career.  What I mean by it is that he has made something that is bigger than it has any right to be.  Rarely do artists speak out about these sorts of things because they don't want to be seen as whiners and ungrateful.  Kennedy not only shows that the hecklers and critics have an effect on artists and their work, but that critics should also try to elevate there's so that there is real criticism going on ... and not just pointless rants that amount to nothing more than a man yelling, "You suck!"  People may still say Kennedy sucks, but after seeing this you won't be able to deny that he's made a bold film that few others would have the guts to create.

Mandatory FTC Disclaimer:  I paid for this film, and I think I didn't pay enough.  Also, if you click on a link you may end up earning me a small commission.

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