Harry Knowles and the menace of generic movie love.

Harry Knowles and the menace of generic movie love.

Harry Knowles and the menace of generic movie love.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
April 15 2002 12:15 PM

Attack of the Fans

Harry Knowles and the menace of generic movie love.

Book cover

In case you haven't followed the Harry Knowles Passion play, you can catch up in his new book, Ain't It Cool? Hollywood's Redheaded Stepchild Speaks Out. Knowles was the twentysomething Texas shut-in who, back in the Web-frontier heyday, started a site called Ain't It Cool News, devoted to the comings and goings of Hollywood projects still in the pipeline. Ain't It Cool News was as much a forum for the outsized personality of its proprietor as for the network of enthusiasts who logged on to swap tidbits, speculate, swoon, and denounce. As such, AICN proved the perfect vehicle for that novel brand of humble vanity by which a courageous maverick (Matt Drudge, the Gardner brothers, Harry Knowles) founded a new media outlet (Drudge Report, Motley Fool, AICN) devoted to reforming a cherished American institution (journalism, finance, Hollywood) taken hostage by unaccountable elites by returning power to the people. Within a few years, AICN had an audience numbering in the millions, from which Knowles culled a "network of spies," as he calls it, to sneak into Hollywood test-screenings, vet early drafts of scripts for mega-projects, and purloin details of breakthrough special effects. (The network, Knowles tells us, is a hodgepodge of movie industry tattlers and AICN fans who slip into prerelease screenings.)

Stephen Metcalf Stephen Metcalf

Stephen Metcalf is Slate’s critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.

Knowles had done nothing with his life if not nurture the Donkey-Kong-playing, smoke-bomb-throwing 14-year-old boy within, so it's no surprise that the most common type of film discussed on AICN is the multisensory turn-on, meant to bypass the brain on its way to jamming the nervous system. ("Ain't it cool" is a line from one such movie, the John Woo action flick Broken Arrow.) Knowles' Web site has created a prose appropriate to such movies: On AICN, the paragraphs pour forth like sweat off a prizefighter.

One can only imagine the meetings Hollywood machers took when they got wind of Knowles' deviousness and the size of his audience: Should we woo or destroy? To appreciate how pressing this issue was for the studios, think of movie marketing as a battle between anticipation—the salivary tingle we all get when we hear for the first time that, say, Jack Nicholson is going to play the Joker—and word of mouth, i.e., the inescapable conclusion that, in retrospect, Batman was a pointless dirge. If Harry Knowles can, by gathering opinions from test-screen guinea pigs before a film is released, unleash word of mouth that knocks out the salivary tingle, well, that can be very bad news indeed, especially for a big-budget project whose success is predicated on a pre-word-of-mouth opening weekend.

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After some early potshots that only served to enlarge Knowles' status as an effective prerelease buzz-killer, Hollywood decided to pitch some serious woo. Knowles is now courted by directors and studio heads, shown scripts in the development phase, and flown to premieres and movie sets. Brill's Content called him one of the media's "50 most Powerful People," and Entertainment Weekly added him to its roster of "101 Most Powerful People in Hollywood." Then came the inevitable backlash: In 1998, the Los Angeles Times ran a scathing 5,000 word hit-piece, accusing Harry of selling out his mission—to spook Hollywood into making better movies—in the face of cozening from bigwigs.

One good huff on the atmosphere of celebrity filmmaking, and any one of us could go a little ditzy. It happened to none other than Pauline Kael, whose mutual-admiration society with the screenwriter-director Robert Towne led her to praise the genuinely wretched Tequila Sunrise. In Knowles' book, he attempts to explain away the positive review he gave Godzilla after becoming "good friends" with its producer, Dean Devlin, and the time director Michael Bay flew him to NASA's Johnson Space Center and introduced him to Bruce Willis, right before Knowles gave Armageddon his hearty thumbs up.

But what's fascinating about Knowles' memoir isn't his flimsy self-defense so much as how his book displays the two fallacies surrounding AICN and its mandate to shame Hollywood into making better movies. The first is that only movie-lovers will save movies. But it's the very attitude of generic movie-loving—typified by the show-biz obsession AICN caters to—that has lowered people's expectations over the years and defined delight down. By movie-lovers, Knowles, of course, means Knowles-style movie-lovers, the real addicts, the video-clerk-style autodidacts. But they're even worse. To wit, this recent posting from Moriarty, Knowles' chief correspondent: "It's the anticipation that makes this fun. ... I look beyond 2003," Moriarty continues, like some sort of clairvoyant flack,

and see movies like IRON MAN or WALLACE & GROMIT IN THE GREAT VEGETABLE PLOT or HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN or WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE or THE POLAR EXPRESS or Brad Bird's THE INVINCIBLES or Quentin Tarantino's GLORIOUS BASTARDS or even McG's SUPERMAN, and I root for them. I root for this to just go on and on, this warm and fuzzy glow I've been feeling.

Here is the hyperventilated state of semipermanent arousal the studios most cherish in their customers, as it helps movies open big, regardless of their quality. It's the salivary tingle times 50.

The second fallacy—and, as Knowles argues in his book, the raison d'être for AICN—is that "sunlight is the best disinfectant." Here Knowles is incoherent: He combines a classic argument—that studio executives are so worried about preserving their jobs they have lost any taste of their own, and thus green-light safe, derivative pictures—with a novel one—that a Watergate-style public airing of all studio decision-making is the best way to combat this cowardice. "If all you have to do is go to some Web site," he argues, "to get the latest updates on script drafts, pitches, casting, early cuts, release schedules, marketing strategies—not to mention raw opinions every step of the way, from right-thinking people—the studios ought to find this incredibly liberating." And this would be liberating because …? "Now no longer can an executive be bamboozled by whoever stands to gain, or bullied by someone with a private agenda, or leveraged by peer pressure. … [N]o longer do studio executives need to dread their own instincts. … My Web site allows executives to finally behave in a manner they'd like to behave, to heed the better angels of their nature." Knowles is essentially saying that the lost inner direction of studio executives can best be restored by instant consultation with a mass audience, surely a most unusual argument for self-reliance. The idea of Argus-eyed prying by Knowles' public is silly on its face. But it does demonstrate the goofiness of AICN: Sunlight may be the best disinfectant, but originality grows in the dark, an idea completely foreign to the trivial, scoop-grubbing mentality of the site.