A commenter thinks he can do better than the newspaper’s lead film critic. 2,681 word. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Griswold had promised himself never to look at the online comments to his reviews, but he heard the snickering all over the newsroom so he finally had to see for himself. It was his review of a supposedly feminist comedy that featured such empowering scenes as projectile vomiting in the middle of a wedding, and then went downhill from there. He had condemned the flick as the witless and moronic trash that it was. It made $100 million on opening weekend.
“Shouldn’t comedies be assigned to reviewers who actually have a sense of humor? Or a life?” was one of the kinder remarks.
Many were personal attacks on the person they imagined Griswold to be: “He’s apparently too cool for the room. Go back to your decaf almond milk lattes and leave hilarious comedies like Sisters Of The Bride to a critic who doesn’t have his head up his ass.” Some attempted to be clever: “My idea of the date from hell: going to see this movie with Griswold. While all of us are laughing our heads off, he’s choking on his own bile.” A few were so profane or threatening that they were “removed by moderator for violation of rules.”
And then this comment caught his eye: “Reviews like yours are the problem with modern film criticism. You’re so obsessed with the bodily function gags that you can’t appreciate how the editing cleverly juxtaposes the protagonist’s conflicted feelings about her wedding with her incestuous interest in her maid of honor. This was patently obvious to anyone actually watching the film. Perhaps you should focus on what’s on screen instead of that tub of popcorn…”
Griswold was startled. He rarely ate popcorn at the movies. When seeing four or five films a week, such indulgence would have quickly made it impossible for him to fit into the seat to do his job. However, knowing what he was in from the hack who had directed this one, Griswold had decided to order a box. But how could this commenter have known that unless he or she was at the private press screening?
The remark continued: “You didn’t even mention the color scheme employed in which characters were encoded for their sexual orientation, political leanings, and potential for violence. That the maid of honor was in puce spoke volumes, yet your review indicates the understanding of a hearing-impaired person at a Robert Altman film.” Griswold knew the person making the comment might be an arrogant fool, but he was no idiot. Altman’s films were known for their overlapping dialogue. Why was a person knowledgeable enough about contemporary directing styles wasting time defending crap like this film and attacking Griswold?
He didn’t know whether to laugh at people who got so emotional over a negative review of a stupid movie, or feel threatened that such people were walking the street and knew what he looked like. He searched for an identifying name or handle on the comment. But such posts rarely bore the real names of their writers. It was easier to be abusive when they could remain anonymous.
This commenter was called “Crixster.” Again, it showed a curious bit of insider knowledge. “Crix” was Variety slang for “critics.” That’s not something the average person would know. Who was this person?
Griswold began looking specifically for comments from “Crixster.” He found one for the movie Howl At The Moon, a three-hour snoozefest about a hiker being pursued by a wolf. The wolf had shown a far greater range of emotion than the A-list stiff in the lead.
But Crixster claimed to have discerned meaning that had eluded Griswold: “Shooting entirely at night by moonlight and occasional lit match, the filmmakers make it clear that the unnamed hero is groping through life in the dark, much as we all do. What you say is a flaw is actually proof that this is the most brilliant film of the year. It’s a wonder you’re allowed to review at all given how blind you are.”
There were many more. When Griswold praised a film, Crixster would give it the back of the hand. A drama which had won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director was given four stars from Griswold but this comment was Crixster: “A big yawn. It’s so busy delivering its message it would have been just as effective as an email… and just as out of date. “
Griswold was tempted to cut off Crixster’s access because of the constant abuse. As assistant arts editor, Griswold could do that. But then, if there was a complaint, how would he explain it? Instead, he turned off his computer. He was due at a screening in an hour and he thought he first might stop by the bar next to the screening room.
It was a few weeks later when Griswold settled into his seat for an afternoon screening of Hydrophobia. It was a first film by a new director that had been the talk of Sundance, a romance involving two rabies victims. He was dreading it. Just after he sat down, one of the theater staff came over to him and asked, “Are you Mr. Griswold?”
“I was asked to give this to you.” The usher handed over an envelope with Griswold’s name on it. Inside was a note that read:
“Do your job for a change. I’ve seen this film three times already and am still discovering the depth of its mise-en-scène. I’ll be watching.”
Griswold quickly looked around the room, but it was the usual collection of his film critic colleagues, although he spoke to none of them outside of screenings. The house lights dimmed and the movie began. Griswold tried to discover what was amazing about this amateurish art film, although he was more curious as to the person who would even know how to use the term mise-en-scène correctly.
More than two hours later, Griswold emerged from the screening not sure if the pain in his butt exceeded the pain between his ears. What a piece of pretentious nonsense. The “money shot,” so to speak, was the sex scene that earned the movie it’s unrated status: two unattractive actors feigning sex while frothing at the mouth. It may have made them swoon at Sundance, but it left him cold.
“This is the sort of movie I get paid to see so you don’t have to,” Griswold began his review, making a statement on behalf of all moviegoers sick of the freak shows and exercises in cinematic self-abuse that passed for “art films” these days. Ah, for the days of Fellini, Truffaut, and Bergman. Griswold felt he had missed his era.
When the review went online in the wee hours of Friday morning, Griswold was fast asleep. After his first cup of coffee at around 9:30, he scanned for Crixster’s reaction. He didn’t have to look long. It was the first comment, timestamped at 2:03 am. “The dogs howl, but the caravan moves on,” Crixster began cryptically. “How appropriate for a movie where the critic is so dead to the world that he needs to be put down. In fact, this review suggests that he’s already gone.”
Crixster continued: “Rabies was being used as a metaphor, as would have been obvious to a 12-year-old, or at least one with my depth of knowledge of film. You probably thought Last Tango In Paris was about the search for an apartment and that Pulp Fiction was about how McDonald’s markets itself in France. Why don’t you pull a Jack D. Ripper and stand aside for someone who can actually do the job?”
Griswold couldn’t just dismiss this comment as the ravings of a demented fanboy. Crixster may have been showing off his hipster taste, but his movie references were spot on. Like an idiot savant, he seemed to know a lot about movies without actually understanding them. What really made Griswold nervous were the implicit threats of violence. Jack D. Ripper was the general who killed himself in Dr. Strangelove after starting World War III.
It was pointless to go to the police or his bosses. What would Griswold say? That some anonymous person was hurting his feelings? He was a critic. He was supposed to be used to that. Still, he couldn’t let it go. Instead, he wandered over to the tech area where the paper’s website was managed and sought ought Izzy, the woman who ran the operation. Thirty years his junior, and of indeterminate sexuality, Izzy was the beneficiary of Griswold’s movie passes and promotional swag when it came his way. He figured she might be a useful ally to have one day. He smiled inwardly at the thought that he was far more insightful than Crixster thought.
Griswold knocked on Izzy’s cubicle wall and handed her a poster for Hydrophobia.
“I thought this was a turkey,” she said, pausing whatever computing task was occupying her at the moment.
“It is. But if you don’t want it maybe you could give it away.”
“Sure. Thanks.” She was about to turn her attention back to the screen, but Griswold took the spare seat next to her desk.
“I’m having a problem with someone commenting on my reviews,” he began. “I’d like to find out more about this person. Is it possible to pierce the veil?”
Izzy – it was short for Isabella, but no one called her that – turned her attention to him. “You mean find out his real name?”
“I assume people have to provide some information to sign on to the site, like being a subscriber, or perhaps their IP address. They may post anonymously, but you can tell me who it really is, can’t you?”
When Izzy hesitated, Griswold casually sweetened the deal. “I think this is your size,” he said, handing over a black satiny jacket with “Downloadable” in gothic red letters on the back. It was for an upcoming horror film that he’d probably assign to a stringer. Still, even if the movie would be streaming online three weeks after its theatrical release, he thought the jacket would have some cachet for Izzy. It did.
“We’re not really supposed to do this, but as long as this remains just between us…” she said warily.
Griswold responded with a conspiratorial smile. “No one else has to know.”
It was a tract house in a working class neighborhood, its appearance neat but worn. The area had seen better days and was ripe for gentrification, but at the moment it was what realtors euphemistically referred to as “affordable.” Griswold parked on the street and walked up to the door. A woman a good decade or two older than Griswold answered the door in a housecoat.
“I’m Sam Griswold from the Tribune.”
“Not interested in getting the paper,” she said, starting to shut the door.
“No, I’m not selling subscriptions. I’m here to see your son Kevin. I write film reviews for the newspaper.”
The woman rolled her eyes. “That boy and his movies” She opened the door and let Griswold inside. “You’ll find him downstairs.”
Griswold smiled politely as he passed her. Below, in what had become a private screen room, he heard the sounds of tinny music and a language that Griswold couldn’t quite place.
Seated on a threadbare coach in a t-shirt and pajama bottoms sat a scrawny, unshaven young man of no more than 19 or 20.
“Just a minute,” Kevin said, his eyes glued to the screen where a scene of such violence was taking place that Griswold had to avert his eyes. The sound came to an abrupt halt with a shriek that could have come from someone of either sex, and Griswold had no desire to find out which one. Instead he looked at the manchild sprawled on the couch who was in a state that could only be described as rapture.
“Those cookie cutter Hollywood romcoms can’t hold a candle to the works of Ljubanović.” He hit a button on one of several remotes within arm’s reach and the room’s lights came up. Kevin gave a start as he recognized Griswold but quickly recovered.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m here to see you, Kevin. I’ve been reading your comments. You seem to have taken quite an interest in my reviews.”
Kevin leaned back on the couch with a look of smugness belied by his garb. “Are you here to give me your job? I’m much more deserving of it than you, and I’m sure it pays better than what I’m being offered for flipping hamburgers.”
“If I might…” began Griswold, removing a stack of unmarked DVDs off of a chair. “I’m not interested in retiring just yet, but I have a proposition that may be of interest to you.”
Kevin sat up at attention, facing Griswold. “Go on.”
Griswold had rehearsed his pitch. He knew Kevin wouldn’t be able to resist it. He wasn’t wrong.
Star Force XI: The Triumph was the $200 million budgeted blockbuster that marked the reboot of one of the most successful film series of all time. A decade after a series of lackluster entries had all but killed the franchise, a hot new director had come in with the orders to do whatever it took to bring it back to life. Mixing references to the classic entries with daring new takes, helped by a young cast along by cameos by surviving members of the original movies, this was a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. It was also immune to reviews. Advance ticket sales were already closing in on $150 million and Griswold was both surprised and pleased when the studio decided to press screen it anyway. It’s not like they needed the reviews, but to open it cold would send the wrong signal. So a press screening was set up for the morning the day before the opening, with reviewers told not to break the 24-hour embargo on posting their reviews on line. As if it mattered.
Griswold assigned his new stringer, Kevin Muller, to the review. It was unusual for the chief film critic to cede the week’s major release to a freelancer. But if anyone questioned him, Griswold would simply note that he was making an effort to reach out to younger readers, who would be especially interested in the movie. He wasn’t worried.
For his part, Muller was ecstatic that his debut professional review would be setting the record straight on a bloated Hollywood blockbuster opening on 4,000+ screens and choking off the possibility that moviegoers could be exposed to anything of merit this weekend. Griswold’s only words of advice had been, “Tell it like it is, Kevin.” Muller fully intended to do just that.
The publicist was surprised to see a stringer rather than the lead critic for the sole advance screening of the year’s most anticipated film. But she knew better than to say anything. Afterwards, when Muller asked if he could see the film again, she politely told him that this was the only press screening. That would have to change, Muller thought arrogantly, but he knew that his first movie review as a professional did not give him the leverage he needed. Instead, he headed home to write.
When he submitted the review, Griswold didn’t change a word. It was exactly what he’d been hoping to read from Muller. “Star Force XI is exactly what’s wrong with Hollywood,” the review began, “filled with life-affirming feel-good moments that treat the audience as if they were there to have a good time instead of be challenged by the limits of the cinematic art. It’s clear that director Hayim Mannaseh was more interested in obsessing over his childhood than in exploring the ramifications of this tired franchise, as if Fritz Lang’s Frau im Mond or Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville had never happened….”
Muller continued to savage the year’s most popular and talked-about film for another 1,500 words. When the review went live, Griswold made sure to open up the review for remarks from readers.
There were 2,000 comments just by lunchtime.
This short story first appeared here on February 11, 2016.
Hollywood Dementia - Film Critics Package
3 comments on “For Whom The Bell Trolls”
I shared this story with my friends online, who had a lot of good questions. Starting with: "Wait, was the moral of the story that reviewing things honestly and looking for subtext is bad and dumb and you should say that big expensive movies are good?"
No, it’s about understanding the difference between being a reviewer and being a dilettante without a clue about your audience.