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Lashing out at critics: when film cast and crew go feral (with comment from Richard Wilkins)

#Avengers fans, NY Times critic AO Scott needs a new job! Let’s help him find one! One he can ACTUALLY do!

Those were the “them’s fightin’ words” shot down the barrel of the Twitterverse last week. They reverberated across the geekosphere with the force of a Hulk smash to the nads and spawned blog and news stories the world over.

It is safe to assume the many angry responses it generated were not the intention of its author, even if he is one of the baddest muddas currently dominating the dojo on Hollywood screens and, it ought to be noted, the latest example of a celebrity who isn’t very “good” at Twitter. If you want another example check John Cusack’s feed. If you understand what the boyish 46-year-old star of High Fidelity and 2012 is on about, you’re admirably fluent in the language of gibberish.

The aforementioned tweet ricocheted across social media c/o the angry fingertips of Samuel L. Jackson, star of The Avengers — well, one of many stars of The Avengers – who was upset by a negative review of the film from NY times critic AO Scott. No doubt the review has chalked up great hits as a result of Jackson’s virulence.

There are questions to ask about the motivations behind Jackson’s tweet, though they all point to the same one: why bother?

The Avengers has already amassed remarkable popularity (it smashed box office records across the world before opening in the US, then seized the crown from Harry Potter for the biggest opening weekend of all time). It’s had a hugely positive response from reviewers (at time of publishing, The Avengers is rocking a 93% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes). Plus — if that wasn’t enough to cop a dissenting voice on the chin — there’s the old slice of wisdom about how artists (particularly actors such as Jackson, who have more than filled their bad movie quota) ought to grow thick skins.

When one Twitter user responded by suggesting that perhaps, just perhaps, people were entitled to their own opinion, Jackson shot back :

That is My Opinion! @TheFilmNest & what’s irrational about it? They aren’t going to fire his jaundiced ass & You & I Know It!

Cast and crew members publicly lashing out at film critics isn’t exactly a new or rare phenomenon. It strikes me as particularly bizarre if a) the person on the offensive represents a production that costs hundreds of millions of dollars and involves thousands of people — not exactly a small, personal film — and b) if that person isn’t one of the main talents behind it. Not, say, a writer, director or producer.

Still, art is inherently personal and subjective, so emotions inevitably get mixed into the fray. People spend years devoted to working on something that can be almost instantly dismissed as tish tosh by critics with the push of a few keyboard buttons and a mouse click or two, so they have every right to publicly retaliate. The problem is it’s very rarely — if ever — a good look.

The Jackson incident reminded me of an email I received shortly prior to the release of Superman Returns in 2006. It was a ferocious spray from somebody infuriated by my (highly critical) appraisal of the film. It read like they’d constructed a Buckmaster voodoo doll, stabbed it repeatedly, doused it with kerosene, threw it into a bonfire, danced around in circles in their underwear then opened Microsoft Outlook. I had the honour of being called a “brain juice lacking monkey typewriter” (one of the nicer parts) and was assured that the screenplay I was evidently working on (apparently every critic is a wannabe screenwriter) will “never, ever see the light of day.”

When I punched the recipient’s name into the Internet Movie Database search engine, I discovered this cantankerous chap worked in the film industry. Not only that, he’d worked as the first assistant camera operator — and here we go again, not quite a writer or director or producer — for a film called…wait for it…Superman Returns. A link to his amusingly cranky email was then featured prominently on the homepage of the website I was writing for. Not ideal, I assume, from a PR perspective.

Closer to home, where the film industry is smaller and local features rely more heavily on critics and word of mouth, bursts of anger from cast and crew members who feel they’ve been hard done by are not an uncommon occurrence either.

Former The Age film critic and perpetual provocateur Jim Schembri was a magnet for them, famously blasted (“fuck you Jim Schembri!”) on stage at the 2008 AFI awards by the screenwriter for the AFI award winning film The Black Balloon.

More recently, in January this year, Schembri was again chastised during an AFI (now known as the AACTAs) acceptance speech in an unbroadcast spray from director/presenter Stephan Elliott. Elliott accused the former Age scribe — who described Elliott’s goofball comedy A Few Best Men “unreleasable” before it went on to earn the most successful box office figures of any Australian comedy in over a decade — of personal attacks and implored him to “put down the poison pen.”

Channel Nine film reviewer Richard Wilkins was also slurred during this year’s AACTAs, albeit at the after party, where presumably alcohol may have loosened a tongue or two. One in particular. Actress Louise Harris, who picked up  a gong for Best Supporting Actress for Snowtown, was asked what she would say to Wilkins in response to his scathing zero star critique of the film.

“I’d say ‘you’re a wanker, mate,” she said. ‘I’d say ‘sucked in.’ We got the last laugh, didn’t we?”

Curious how Wilkins reacted, and his thoughts on issues canvassed in this post, I asked the veteran reviewer his thoughts on Harris’ chide. The self-effacing tele personality — shoe-less at the time of our interview, or so he said; he certainly sounded comfortable and candid over the phone — discussed it with me, beginning with a long caveat about the difficulties of making a film. Here’s what Wilkins said:

“I take my hat off to anybody who gets a movie made. It’s an incredible process. For the stars to align, for the producers to get the script, the talent, the money and the right people together and to actually get a film made and released I think is a gigantic task and a huge effort in its own right. Like people who make an album, or write a book. I did that (and) it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I have an inbuilt respect for anybody who can get a movie up and good luck to them.

With regards to Snowtown, I always play the ball but not the man, which I think is a point worth making. I knew very little about the film before I went in and I didn’t know what I was going to see. I knew vaguely what it was about and that it was based on real events.

I didn’t like it at all. There must have been I guess 20 people at the screening I went to, half of which left before the end. I felt physically sick in the kangaroo squelching, dismembering scene. It’s only recently that I’ve been able to recall that scene and not almost retch. I was heaving in the cinema. I hated it. There were other scenes where I just couldn’t look at it. Yes, of course it was powerful and confronting, but I just found it disturbing.

I was sitting down writing my review and I was thinking to myself: what am I going to give this? One star? Two stars? I started seeing all these headlines around saying “a triumph!” “A masterpiece!” “Tasteful!” Then I realised it was rated MA and I thought MA, you’ve got to be kidding me! I’ve got a 15-year-old son. I don’t want him and his friends wandering in to see this on a Sunday afternoon.

So I took the decision and I said to myself, you know, fuck it — I’ll go hard on this thing. It was a conscience decision.

When Justin (Kurzel, the director) was asked about me he firstly said thanks for the publicity, which is fair enough, and secondly that everybody is entitled to their opinion. I have never met Louise. I am sure she is a perfectly nice person and I thought they gave very nice speeches.

But I stand by what I said. I didn’t like the film and I think my parting shot was: I don’t want anybody to see this on my recommendation.”

Wilkins is alluding to an issue of conscience, a question of morals in the context of a film that not so much ruffled his feathers as ripped them out and poked them in his eyes. He was so angered he felt not only uncomfortable recommending Snowtown but believed it his moral duty to implore people not to see it.

Moving on from issues of conscience — yes, in case you were wondering, most film critics actually do have one, or are at the very least, um, engaged with the concept of what it might be like to have one — any reviewer worth a pinch of table salt values the establishment of trust between them and their audience. Other than being a good and insightful writer nothing, I would argue, is more important. If that trust breaks down, and readers/viewers/listeners begin to suspect you don’t really mean what you say or write, or that you’re deliberately tempering your opinion to serve an ulterior motive, the gig is up.

If a critic absorbs something that fills their filmic palette with the taste of dung, as Wilkins did, they have a responsibility to Tell It Like It Is while carrying the cruel knowledge that their opinion, no matter how informed or erudite, may hurt some feelings (often the more informed, the more it hurts). That’s why anybody with the gumption to criticise somebody else’s achievements needs to have a thick skin, to take return criticism on the chin, to acknowledge that such reactions are usually more a product of heart than mind. If a critic can’t take it they should return to their darkened dens of despair (borrowing from what I assume is popular perception) to moan about something else, something safer — say, the proliferation of cat videos and Bieber spoofs on YouTube.

Still, Samuel ‘Snakes on a Plane’ Jackson — hardly an ambassador for High Art — shouldn’t have reacted the way he did, just as Stephan Elliott shouldn’t have blasted Jim Schembri. It’s not a matter of offending the delicate sensibilities of the axe-wielding critic. It’s about looking like a delicate, idiotic princess. Sad, then, that Sammy J, one of the coolest actors on the planet (not everybody has the effortless chutzpah required to play John Shaft, you know, even if it was in the remake) is the latest sensitive soul to stoop to this low level of thin-skinned douchebaggery.

 

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  • 1
    sickofitall
    Posted May 9, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    Chutzpah? didn’t seinfeld and the nanny end 12 or 13 years ago?

  • 2
    Jake Wilson
    Posted May 9, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    Take care, Luke — if I’ve learned one thing as a writer for publication, it’s that nothing brings out the nutbags like the use of Yiddish colloquialisms. On a separate note, I’m truly impressed you got such a lucid response from Wilkins.

  • 3
    James Madden
    Posted May 9, 2012 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    I thought it was Wilkins’ shtick to shelp along as a schmuck. He sounds like quite a mentsh even! My favourite reader criticisms/declarations of detest have come from positive reviews I’ve written, which apparently cause a “love fest”. Ever the humble reviewing goy, I simply kvetch and cry out my “oy veys” when hitting the comments button through shielded glances. Feh!

  • 4
    Woody
    Posted May 10, 2012 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    You were spot on re “Superman Returns”….just beat the word of mouth that killed off that boring, misguided film and led to the upcoming reboot. As the ranting email you received hints at, the poor behaviour and sloppy, wasteful work of the crew during the Sydney shoot of that film destroyed big international productions in this country, until the high dollar finished them off once and for all.

  • 5
    Posted May 10, 2012 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    It’s worth remembering that with regards to film reviewers on TV, or any commentator for that matter, it can be hard to get a good impression of their character (and even their thoughts on issues, beyond the basics) due to the constraints of the medium. TV works in quick bursts; often question/answerer for three or four minutes then move onto the next bit. Speaking at length with people you’ve only even seen talk in short bursts can be very interesting — and a lot more insightful in terms of their personality.

  • 6
    Rourke
    Posted May 11, 2012 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    Richard Wilkins’ reaction is actually exactly the same as the exalted David Stratton’s when he saw Romper Stomper: he gave it zero stars (or more exactly, refused to score it) on the basis of how repulsive it was at its core. While I could see Stratton’s point, I wonder if he would approach that movie differently now.

    BTW, I have had Snowtown on my PVR for a couple of months but am yet to work up the (literal) intestinal fortitude to actually watch it.

  • 7
    mikeb
    Posted May 11, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    I think the problem occurs when a review is so far from the general consensus that it is seen as not being objective – e.g. the writer has a prejudice or grudge or …. Not that I’m saying it is the case here, but I can see how people who have a big personal investment in a movie can get angry (like insulting someone’s kid). For a big star like SLJ however it’s best to just STFU and let others do the ranting.
    As for Snowtown getting zero stars! Wilkins is an idiot – ’nuff said.

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