Critical Mass

by Nat Segaloff

A film critic picks a fight with his city’s biggest theatre chain. Will his editor support him? 2,596 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.

Jensen Hirsch had the second most dangerous job on the newspaper. He was the film critic. If he’d held the most dangerous job, war correspondent, he might have at least received some respect. But movie criticism, as The New Yorker editor Harold Ross once told filmmaker Nunnally Johnson, “was for old ladies and fairies.” And Jensen Hirsch was neither.

“Look at it this way,” Hirsch liked to say whenever anyone dismissed his job as cushy. “A film critic is the only person at a newspaper, magazine, television, radio station, or website whose job is to criticize an advertiser. Sports writers, political columnists, and beat reporters can say what they want and nobody ever complains. But God help the journalist who takes on supermarkets, car dealerships, furniture stores, or real estate.”

Hirsch knew that film criticism was almost an S&M relationship between the movie studios who buy advertising and those who draw a salary for saying if the films are worth seeing. Sure, Hirsch would be on the other end of the occasional call or letter from a director or actor objecting to something he’d written about them. But they were always polite, assuming that Hirsch would be reviewing what they did next. The only people who routinely griped were theatre owners whose box office was dented by a negative Hirsch review. But, even then, they were making so much on advertising kickbacks and inflated house costs that they usually held their tongues. Nevertheless, every now and then some angry exhibitors would call the newspaper publisher to complain and threaten to pull their advertising unless Hirsch was fired. Sometimes they did cancel their ad buys, but they would always skulk back a few days later after the studio raised holy hell. In such cases, Hirsch’s editor, Russell Pelota, would summon the critic and warn that the next negative review could be the one that got him fired.

“Do you want me to like everything?” Hirsch always responded. “A critic who likes everything likes nothing.”

“No,” Pelota said, “But why can’t you just stress the good scenes and minimize the bad ones?”

“For the same reason that good news doesn’t sell papers,” Hirsch countered. “People buy the Sun-Herald or go on its website to read me drag a rotten film across the coals.  If I spelunk for praise of Transformers 6 and commend it just because it has no visible splices, that’s not damning with faint praise, it’s praising with faint damns.”

Hirsch’s one-line pans were legendary. He deemed Grown Ups to be “like being locked in a room with the Jar-Jar Binks’s family reunion.” He dismissed the remake of Conan The Barbarian with “the filmmakers should spend time on the Wheel of Pain.” And he pissed off the objectivists by deeming the film version of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged to be “a monumental time of waste of a monumental waste of time.” Hirsch insisted to Polota that he was nastiest to studio films because studios had the resources to do better, whereas indie filmmakers played with the hands they were dealt.

Time and again, Hirsch would reason his way out of confrontations. He knew he was right, and he knew that Pelota knew he was right, but he also knew that Pelota was looking for a way to fire him and stop the aggravation. To head that off, Hirsch figured he had to create a firestorm so huge and such a threat to the Sun-Herald’s First Amendment freedom that Pelota would need to grow a pair and support him.

There was only one man for the job: Max Pouch.

Pouch owned all the major cinemas in town, something like twenty of them. He was always a good subject for stories because he reminded people of the colorful moguls who had founded Hollywood. But Max was an exhibitor, not a mogul. He created nothing. All he did was show the movies that the studios created and then hold onto as much of their ticket money as possible. He was brash, he was crass, and he was uneducated — but he was also successful.

He had entered the exhibition business at just the right time. Legend had it that he won his first theatre in a poker game when another player defaulted on a huge IOU. Before long, Max came to believe that he had a God-given gift for choosing hit movies. That’s even the way he put it: “I have a God-given gift for choosing hit movies.”

The fact that Pouch Theatres played every damn movie that was released made this technically true. He even began to boast that he could tell if a movie was going to be successful by watching only the first twenty minutes. Then fifteen. Then ten. After a while, his employees joked — behind his back, of course — that Max could pick a hit by looking at the film while it was still in the can.

But Pouch had a weak spot. He could not accept personal criticism without a fight, but he spent so much money buying advertising in local media that he never had to face one.

It was on the night of the advance preview of Simon Says, a new frat house comedy starring the screen’s top grosser (meaning vulgar) Bobby Krakauer that Hirsch planned to take down Pouch.

It wasn’t that Hirsch hated Pouch. He hated Pouchism. He loathed the way advertisers like Pouch thought they owned the First Amendment and their money gave them permission to call the editorial shots, especially where media needed the ad revenue. It wasn’t that Hirsch was especially brave, but he had tired of having to defend himself not only from Pouch but from his own bosses.

Lines formed an hour early at the Pouch Plaza 20. But Hirsch liked to linger in the theatre lobby talking to his critic colleagues because he was confident a row of seats inside the auditorium was reserved just for them. He wanted to engage Pouch in front of people who would talk about it and maybe even write about it. So the moment Hirsch saw Pouch and his entourage enter the theatre, the critic turned his back and pretended not to know the exhibitor was there.

“I pre-hate Bobby Krakauer films,” Hirsch said as loudly as possible when he knew Pouch was nearing. “The man literally sucks the energy out of any movie he’s in.”

“It’s nice to know you’re reviewing this film with an open mind,” chided Christina Morgenstern, the studio publicist. She also knew that the film about to be shown was critic-proof.

“And Simon Says is playing exactly where it deserves to be,” Hirsch continued as the Pouch party approached. “A crappy film in a venue that deserves better. Why has Max Pouch let his flagship theatre go into the toilet? How sad. With all his money, you’d think he’d show a little taste. I guess it takes one to know one.”

“One what?” Pouch bellowed from behind Hirsch. Hirsch could feel the exhibitor’s hot spittle-filled breath hit the back of his neck.

Max was the kind of man who left an impression wherever he went, a guy who, if you saw him alone in an elevator, you’d wait for the next one. A husky five-foot-ten, he had a bulldog face showing each of his sixty years, icy grey eyes that stared through you, and a cologne that wrestled with his thick cigars for aromatic dominance. He was the anti-Semite’s idea of a Jewish movie mogul all the way from his cantilevered nose to his diamond pinky ring.

“Wasamatter, you don’t like my theatre?” Pouch barked. Not only did he never whisper, he never needed to.

“Look what you’re doing to it,” Hirsch boldly replied.

“What’s your problem?” Pouch challenged.

“I don’t like your taste in movies.”

Pouch considered this. “Well, tough shit. I don’t like yours. Or you.”

“People disagree with critics all the time,” Hirsch said with clear condescension. “That’s their prerogative.”

“You just gotta show off with big words, doncha?” Pouch said. “Well here’s a word for you: get the fuck out of my theatre.”

“You can’t throw me out,” Hirsch said. “The Shubert Law.”

“What the hell is the Shubert Law?”

“The Shubert Law says that because I’m a critic and I need to see this show to do my job, you can’t bar me.”

Pouch looked at Christina Morgenstern. “Is this asshole right?”

“Yes, Mr. Pouch,” she said. “You can make him buy a ticket to a public showing instead of getting in for free, but you can’t keep him out.”

“We’ll just see about that,” Pouch said, then called, “Security!”

Nobody came.

“You don’t have security any more,” Hirsch taunted. “Just like you don’t have projectionists. The most you’ve got is two scared ushers with acne.”

“No problem,” Pouch grunted. He proceeded to pick up Hirsch by the collar and drag him across the lobby. Then he kicked open the side door and tossed the critic out onto the sidewalk. “You come in here again and I’ll show you what ‘two thumbs up’ really means.”

Pouch then strutted back across the lobby and stopping before the other critics who didn’t know what to do or where to look.

“How’s that for a five-star review?” Pouch smiled at them. “Show’s over, folks. Time for the movie.”

They all filed in.

Predictably, the picture stank, but none of the critics had the guts to say so. Also predictably, Pelota called Hirsch into his office the next day.

“What the hell did you do last night?” the editor brayed at the critic, then said, without waiting for an answer,. “You picked a fight with our fifth largest advertiser, that’s what you did.”

“He didn’t cancel any ads, did he?” Hirsch said confidently. “I checked with the Ad Department on the way in this morning.”

“No, he didn’t pull the advertising,” Pelota conceded. “But he pulled you.” The editor gave Hirsch what looked like a handbill. “This is going up in all the box offices in every Pouch Theatre in town and he’s even sending it to his competitors. You happy now?”

The handbill showed a photo of Hirsch with the words, “Do not let this man buy a ticket or get into this theatre.”

“What about the Schubert Law?” Hirsch said. “That protects me.”

“I checked,” replied Pelota. “It only applies to live theatre where you can’t see a performance anywhere else. But you can catch a movie almost anywhere. Pouch can indeed keep you out of his theatres.”

“What about freedom of the press?” Hirsch insisted.

“Oh, our press is still free,” Pelota said, opening his office door as a signal for Hirsch to leave. “But, from now on, your movie tickets are not. If you can’t do your job any more, I’ll find someone who can.”

“Am I fired?”

“I’m not sure. But if you don’t shape up and remember who underwrites your paycheck, you will be. Now get out.”

Hirsch went home, fed his cat, and turned on the oven, preparing to climb in. His folly finally hit him. He was a film critic. What else could he do? He’d heard all the jokes about his profession: “’Critics are like eunuchs in a harem,” the Irish writer Brendan Behan had famously said. “They know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves.” And Ernest Hemingway had quipped, “Critics are men who watch the battle from a high place, then come down and shoot the survivors.”

Despondent, Hirsch went for a walk. A long walk. He returned home at sunset and rested in an armchair. The next sound he heard was the phone ringing. He rushed to answer it.

“Is this Jensen Hirsch?” the urgent voice said. “This is Tony Rogers from Channel 4 News. Turn on your TV and stay on the line.”

Hirsch did as he was told. There was Max Pouch being interviewed in front of the Pouch Plaza 20 box office. Behind him was the poster with Hirsch’s photo taped to the cashier’s cage. “Stand by for a live interview,” Rogers warned Hirsch. “I’ve been trying to reach you all afternoon. Here we go… This is Tony Rogers speaking exclusively with Sun-Herald film critic Jensen Hirsch about how it feels to be banned from Pouch Theatres”

“No problem,” Hirsch managed. “I’ll just see the movies somewhere else.”

“But you’ll miss advance screenings, free tickets, and special previews,” the TV reporter insisted.

“In that case, I’ll enjoy watching the movies with the public. They’re the ones I’m writing for.”

“Do you think you’ll be fired for insulting a major advertiser?”

“I feel confident that my editor, Russell Pelota, and the publisher will support me in this First Amendment challenge,” Hirsch said stalwartly.

“Then I’m afraid I have a surprise for you,” Rogers said in his best interviewer’s voice. “The Sun-Herald has announced that you’ve been relieved of your duties by order of the publisher. You’re fired. Now back to our studio.”

The line went dead. Hirsch looked at the TV screen. He saw his picture with a big “X” drawn through it, then the camera panned right as the co-anchor chirped, “In other stories…”

At 7 am the next morning, Hirsch’s phone rang. He wasn’t awake enough to be civil since a film critic’s eyes don’t even focus before the crack of noon. “Is this Jensen Hirsch?” a woman was asking.

“Please, no interviews. What time is it?” Hirsch responded.

“It’s time to talk to Brandon Nelson. From FLM-TV. Hold please.”

Before Hirsch could scratch himself awake, a razor-voiced man acted like they’d known each other for many years. “Jensen Hirsch, Jensen Hirsch – I love the sound of it. This is Brandon Nelson. Call me Brandon.”

“For crissakes, don’t you know what time it is?”

“Your time is what I want to talk to you about,” Nelson continued with all the enthusiasm of an evangelist. “How’d you like to come work for me? I run FLM-TV. We’re the top movie network after HBO, Showtime, Turner Classic Movies, Hulu, Amazon and Netflix.”

“That puts you somewhere between the Home Shopping Network and a test pattern, doesn’t it?” Hirsch said cynically.

Ha ha ha, that’s the kind of humor I’m looking for, Jensen. Look, your photo is all over town. Max Pouch has banned you from nearly every theatre. You’re a celebrity now. Overnight, you’ve become the most famous critic in America. There’s only one thing for you to do now: come to my network and do on-camera reviews for me.”

“Is this a prank call? Bob on the City Desk busting my chops?”

“I love it,” Nelson giggled. “No, it isn’t. This is your lucky day. Max Pouch and his theatres aren’t a factor on our network. No local advertiser is. When can you start?”

Hirsch mentally computed how long it would take him to sublet his apartment, pack up his belongings, grab his cat, file a change of address with the Post Office and throw himself a going away party.

Then he woke up.

An hour later, Hirsch slinked quietly into the Sun-Herald building. Bob on the City Desk didn’t say hello. Hirsch went to his cubicle, searched where Simon Says was playing in a non-Pouch theatre so he could catch the matinee, write his review and post it online. It would run a day late in print because he had missed the preview.

But first he had to write a letter of apology to Max Pouch. After all, he had a cat to feed. And Hirsh had a face made for newspapers.

Nat Segaloff for many years was a critic for CBS Radio, Westinghouse TV and the Boston Herald.
Author photo by Liane Brandon. 
Hollywood Dementia - Film critics package.

About The Author:
Nat Segaloff
Nat Segaloff is a journalist, producer, author and critic whose memoir Screen Saver: Private Stories Of Public Hollywood and its forthcoming sequel Screen Saver Too are published by Bear Manor Media. He has been a professor (Boston University, Boston College), publicist (Fox, UA, Columbia) and broadcaster (Group W, CBS). He has written more than a dozen books, the latest A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison (NESFA Press).

About Nat Segaloff

Nat Segaloff is a journalist, producer, author and critic whose memoir Screen Saver: Private Stories Of Public Hollywood and its forthcoming sequel Screen Saver Too are published by Bear Manor Media. He has been a professor (Boston University, Boston College), publicist (Fox, UA, Columbia) and broadcaster (Group W, CBS). He has written more than a dozen books, the latest A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison (NESFA Press).

  5 comments on “Critical Mass

  1. If my memory is correct, Sack theaters pressured the Boston Herald to restrict Nat Segaloff to the writing of celebrity puff pieces rather than movie reviews. I believe they complied for a while, but eventually allowed the critic to resume his job of reviewing movies.

  2. Once again, Nat Segaloff shows me the inner workings of an aspect of "the industry" while completely entertaining me. Thanks Nikki Finkle for providing this vehicle for these talented writers. I enjoy reading Nat’s work because of his great experience and his ability to share it with us readers in such an enjoyable way. Keep it up guys!

  3. The ring of truth has once again cracked another liberty bell. Boy, do I remember this! I believe what was called into question was the theater’s drapery. The critic had over-reached his bailiwick and gone beyond the screen and the pale – and the pail. I love your witty storytelling style, Nat. Love the one-line pans and "praising with faint damns". Keep it up. You’re a lucky boychik. As the late Pouch would say, if he were alive today he’d be rolling around in his grave!"

  4. OK, you got the critics for the big boys pretty well set. But you have forgotten about those of us who were or are ‘little’ critics. The ones who can be just as snarky and, yes, intelligent, but with a smaller readership. Other than that a most enjoyable read.

  5. "Pouch." Ha, ha, I get it, Nat. This was all a little before my time in the Hub, but I’ve heard the stories from other veterans. Pretty funny.

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