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No Respect?

     Vlada Petric, founding curator of the Harvard Film Archive, tells this story from the time when he was film critic for Politica, an important newspaper in what was then Yugoslavia. He had a barber who called him, "Mr. Artist," but without any idea what Petric did for a living. One day he was in the barber's chair reading his own review when the barber interrupted: "Mr. Artist, don't believe that guy, he's an idiot! If he likes a movie, it's probably terrible. If he doesn't like it, you should go see it. You'll probably find you'll enjoy it!"

     We film critics get no respect, anywhere on earth. That funny barber in Belgrade is speaking for all: we're wrong-headed and out of the loop of what regular folks think. We're far too opinionated and negative.

     Hollywood, of course, concurs: we critics who separate ourselves from the crowd are snotty, pallid excuses for people. Filmmakers, especially when stung by a bad notice, also complain: we review movies out of spite and envy; we're too gutless and untalented to make them ourselves.

     How does the world of film take revenge?

     I've recently been researching a documentary on the history of American film criticism, and examining fictional works which include critics as characters. What I suspected has been verified: forget about "positive role models." Each film critic I've discovered in a movie is a walking, laboriously talking, stereotype. Some portraits are playful and satirical, others malicious, but there's little variance in the picture of the film reviewer as someone boorish, obsessive, and neurotic (and almost invariably male) you wouldn't want to be stuck next to at a movie.

     For example, there's the whining critic on the alternative Boston paper in Between the Lines (1977) begging his editor to send him to Cannes. There's the wretch in the 1934 Lady Killer, in which James Cagney plays a gangster-turned-movie star. Cagney meets him at the Cocoanut Grove and forces him to eat a vicious newspaper review.

     There's the nincompoop in the Neil Simon-written After the Fox (1966) who testifies in court to the quality of a bogus film by fake director Peter Sellers: "It's a work of art! A classic! He's a genius! What depth! What meaning!"

     The judge's reaction: "Who is this man? Arrest this idiot!" Police
yank him away.

     Then there's TV critic Leonard Maltin playing himself in Gremlins 2 The New Batch (1990), kvetching on and on about the video release of Gremlins ("What's fun about a movie of mean-spirited, gloppy little monsters..?") until "the new batch" put a belt around his head and strangle him mid-sentence!

     The sole female film critic I've uncovered is the mouthy, namedropping New Yorker ("When I had Orson up fora weekend…") who leads the claustrophobic seminar to which actor Sandy Bates (Woody Allen) is invited in Stardust Memories(1980). "You are marvelous, you are a genius," she sucks up to her celebrity guest, as Allen shoots her in unflattering, Felliniesque, wide-angle closeup.

     The only film critic-protagonist in an American movie is Allen's
Allan Felix of Play It Again, Sam (1972). Felix is so Bogart-enraptured that his wife departs because "All you want to do is watch movies." Here's the germ of a dozen later Allen self-portraits: a cowardly, clumsy, hypochondriac who stupidly asks a non-intellectual date if she'd wish to go to an Erich Von Stroheim festival. In other words: an out-of-it, socially inept, live-in-the-screen film critic.

     The problem with modern Hollywood poking fun at real-life print critics is that the public doesn't know who they are. (Only The New Yorker can have a cartoon of a wife telling her husband, pouting as they exit a theater, "Oh hush! You live by Janet Maslin, you'll die by Janet Maslin") Who do they know? The ubiquitous Roger Ebert, of course, and his late TV partner, Gene Siskel.

     The movies abound with Ebert-Siskel goofs, the last of which was Michael Lerner's large-waisted NYC Mayor Ebert in Godzilla (1998), followed about by his buffoonish aide, "Gene." There are the white-haired Jonathan and Mark in Amazon Women on the Moon (1987), who go from reviewing the Swedish art flick, The Winter of My Despondency, to rating real people's lives: "I give Harvey Pitnik a big thumbs down."

     In Summer School (1987), two hats-backwards dudes impress a buxom exchange student with their "At the Movies" routine, agreeing on a "Thumbs Up" for Leatherface of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In Back to the Beach (1987), Leave it to Beaver's Tony Dow and Jerry Mathers, grown up, sit at a table in the sand rating the surfers: "Thumbs down. It made me want to leave the beach!"

     But the funniest duo by far are the African-American jive artists of Hollywood Shuffle (1987) who sneak into theatres and then offer a street-smart Thumbs Up-Thumbs Down. This is the video to rent for a deeply hilarious ten minutes of dissing Amadeus Meets Salarius ("My first problem is I couldn't say the title!") and approving Attack of the Street Pimps for "capturing the essence of street life in a ho'-type situation."

     Their credo? "We are like movie critics and shit... and we tell y'all what's up, whether you should pay money and shit." Just what the barber ordered.

(Boston Phoenix - March, 2001)

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