|The gentleman in question|
(Like a lot of bloggers, unencumbered by the professional obligation to churn out immediate responses to the brutal mass murder in Colorado Friday midnight, I'm prefacing this post by saying this was supposed to go up Friday morning. When I woke up and turned on my computer, I saw, yeah, maybe this isn't the best time to rant about Harry Knowles. It was a time for contemplation for many, and for me a full day of sitting around stunned at what that malignant little fuck—I'm not giving him the satisfaction of saying his name; he has no name—did. Anyway, I don't really have anything to contribute to that discussion beyond the anger and sadness so many others share, intensified in this particular case because movie theaters are a place I've felt safe and free my whole life, especially in times when I felt in danger or trapped. I basically co-sign everything my good friend Filmi Girl says in the introduction to this post, so check that out, then come back, and watch the below video to transition back into our completely unrelated regularly scheduled programming.)
So, earlier this week, before anyone other than critics and a few lucky bloggers (and people like me who aren't quite as fancy as the former just yet but still a little fancier than the latter) had had a chance to see The Dark Knight Rises, Harry Knowles, founder of Ain't It Cool News, and for better or worse the ur-Internet movie blogger, spoiled the sweet living fuck out of it. While that's a little shitty, Mr. Knowles did admittedly preface everything with a spoiler alert, so it's not as bad as it could be. What is, and what makes this more notable than just internecine nerd grumping, is the way in which Knowles registers his “[p]rofound disappointment.” It's a stunningly lousy piece of criticism, fodder for everyone who would join Kevin Smith's recent crusade against not only critics themselves, but the entire form.
Whether or not Knowles' piece was meant as a “formal” review or not is a bit beside the point. Ain't It Cool is, by virtue of having been around the Internet practically since before civilians even knew what computers were, an institution. Its editorial perspective is right there on its sleeve, with its heart: ain't movies cool? I'm hardly in a position to disagree. In principle I'm right there with them. I love movies with a fierce intensity. Movies can be about anything and everything, so to love movies is to love life itself, at a certain point. On the other hand, loving cinema does not mean one loves all movies. Some are better than others.
I would submit that if the way in which your love of movies manifests itself is in the desire to write about them, you owe it to yourself and other movie lovers to at least try to get at what a movie is, rather than focusing on your own personal reaction to it to the exclusion of all other things. Criticism is not a simple matter of “I liked it” or “I didn't like it.” A big part of it is considering factors outside the self; while ultimately purely objective observation is always going to be impossible because the observer is part of the observation, it's incumbent on the observer to do the best s/he can. The best parts of oneself—knowledge, wisdom, and empathy—are the best tools of observation.
Where Knowles fucks up in that Dark Knight Rises piece, and the entire experience of watching the movie itself, from the sound of things, is in that inability to step even an inch outside himself and the Dark Knight Rises screenplay he'd already written in his head. (He's no stranger to reading the wrong script, if you'll recall his embarrassing adventures with that fake Prometheus script back in April.) Reading his reaction to the movie (since calling it a “review” is a bit much), everything that pissed him off relates to a choice Christopher (and brother Jonathan) Nolan made either in transposing characters from the comics into the very different realm of cinema, or in the effects of those characters' action in a world they, the Nolan brothers, not Harry Knowles, created.
Among those effects is something that relates to a larger discussion of fandom and sexism that's come to a bit of a boil this year. In the case of both this summer's previous mega-blockbuster superhero movies, The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man, women critics were subjected to shit like “Stick with rom-coms, bitch” for weighing in with anything other than adulation. In gaming there was the whole “getting the player to identify with Lara Croft by her getting almost-raped” crap and that woman's Kickstarter to fund a study of sexism in gaming that led to a deluge of threats of rape and a Flash game where the player could punch her in the face. Given this context, a discussion that has been unavoidable in fandom circles for months, it's a sign of great negligence that Knowles would register the following complaint (bolded emphasis mine, not his; shitty writing his, not mine):
“It is just at this stage that the film loses all sense of urgency. I mean, you have a city with a strange respirator men with an army of thugs and every hardened criminal in the city – and it doesn’t end up looking like Old Detroit from ROBOCOP? I mean – there’s 1000s armed bad guys and the city isn’t being raped and pillaged. Instead they set up courts to make people walk on ice?”
Yes, Harry, there are thousands of armed bad guys and the city isn't being raped and pillaged. Perhaps Christopher and Jonathan Nolan do not share your lazy conflation of rape and pillage with dramatic urgency. Perhaps they also share a frame of reference not entirely derived from other movies with no aesthetic, philosophical, or any other connection other than being movies. If anything, the absence of rape and pillage in this case could be interpreted as a) Bane not being an anarchist, because he's not an anarchist, and b) a sign to pay attention because (pardon the overly literal reading) something's happening, and you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Knowles?
I should clarify that accusing Harry Knowles of rape advocacy based on the above quote would be inaccurate. But it's indicative of a fundamental lack of taking a moment to think about other people and how they might think or feel, which is the same fundamental problem with his entire reaction. The near-mantra which the repetitions of “bullshit” become is derived almost entirely from the movie's interpretation of the comics being different from Knowles'. There is, I hate to break it to him, no one set-in-stone interpretation of the comics, which are, as a writer I rather like pointed out in The Atlantic recently, the product of many different authors and the different perspectives each brought to the material. Then, there are things such as Bane being “no longer South American,” which is an assumption based on the absence of it being spelled out, and not something there's any evidentiary basis to state as anything other than an assumption. And, even if he's not, not to be mean or anything, but who gives a fuck? If Knowles had liked the movie (on whatever squishy inarticulately-conveyed basis) he certainly wouldn't have.
While we're in an interrogative mood, another “who gives a fuck?” subject is Harry Knowles himself, as in “why should we give a fuck what he has to say?” His is not an a priori irrelevant voice. However irritating he's become both online and in Austin (and holy shit, if you want to hear invective, just wind Austin critic types up with a question about the guy and watch them go), and however many writers have come along who are better at doing what he does than he is (Ain't It Cool is home to some fine ones, as well as some not so fine), online movie and fandom discourse is what it is to a significant degree due to Harry Knowles' influence. And a lot of people still read Ain't It Cool. So when he hops on his computer the day before one of the biggest geek movies of the year and writes something this stupid, it's irritating.
It's also bad for criticism in general. I haven't had much to say about Kevin Smith's ridiculous and weird anti-critic tirades (in keeping with the “it's not always about me” theme here, Scott Weinberg basically nails the whole thing in this piece), but Smith and Harry Knowles are essentially on the same page on this subject. Their (apparent) weird mix of unquantifiable emotion, dogmatic certitude, and the utter refusal to address either is one of the most annoying things about movie geekery. Asking why something is “awesome” or “sucks,” or having to explain, does not in any way cheapen the experience of a movie, and in a lot of cases enriches it. Getting deeper on a movie you liked and discovering that, in fact, there are some things wrong with it doesn't mean the subjective, emotional experience of liking it is any less valid. All it means is that the movie in question did some things well and other things not so well. One can like a “bad” movie and not enjoy a “good” movie. No matter what the case, understanding is a net good.
Throwing stones at nerds, admittedly, will lead to a lot of shit getting broken in my glass house (which, because I'm a nerd, is a 1:1 scale replica of Dr. Manhattan's Martian palace in Watchmen). But, in terms of the discussion at hand, I find it particularly grating when unexamined feelings are presented as having any kind of relevance, and when the process of examination is dismissed as either boring or the occupation of sour-grapes killjoy assholes. I also think voices with large audiences of listeners should endeavor to say things of meaning and value.
Of, course, that might just be a by-product of my remembering that once upon a time, nerds were supposed to be smart.