There’s always something very dubious about public feuds; spitting contests luminaries get into that play themselves out in a mass media culture hooked on diversion. No matter how vituperative and nasty and entertaining they are for those of us chomping down popcorn here in the bleachers, there’s always a lingering, vestigial mist of performance about them. At best, each party knows (unless they’re complete waterheads) that they’re lending the other a generous helping of publicity; thereby lessening the entertainment value of their respective scorn. At worst these are totally cynical, publicity-driven shams committed by parties who harbor toward one another no actual ill feeling (the working paradigm for this is still Walter Winchell and Ben Bernie’s war of insults in the 1930s). Like any other public conflict, if these people aren’t really out for blood then they’re just wasting our time.
Of course in the present matter of Kevin Smith and Joel Siegel we’re dealing, are we not, with individuals whose credibility makes its home at a far distance from the province of question. Cynicism?? Surely this cannot be said of the writer/director of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back; the man Andrew Sarris, no less, once coronated in the pages of Film Comment as the next Martin Scorsese; by implication representing the walking summa of American film artistry (before some ill-mannered wretch mutters the word ‘senile’, they would do well to keep in mind that such blunders are nothing knew with Sarris. Remember how much critical capital he invested in Clive Donner when the world was green). And surely Joel Siegel could never be so jaded as to ride a publicity wave as long and as far as he could just for the sake of it. The man’s a film critic, after all (does that count for nothing?). No, when titans of their stature engage in pitched battle, it can only be because the stakes are high as an elephant’s eye.
So it must be me.
I mean, the minute I read about these two going at each other like sex-crazed Ocelots (though with far less benign intent . . . I think), I immediately rendered a Solomonic, ‘pox-on-both-your-resumes’ judgement. It smelled like a public relations shuck’n’jive designed to hump a movie whose forbidding release was then impending. It still does. Facts’re facts. If I wasn’t a recidivist cynic, I’d probably see this dustup as the matter of high principle it almost certainly is.
I should probably recap this contretemps before going any further. So let us turn to an account in that estimable source of News You Can Use, the mighty Page Six of Uncle Rupert’s New York Post:
Don’t joke about women, donkeys and bestiality if you expect Joel
Siegel to watch your movie. That’s what director Kevin Smith found out
when the pun-loving “Good Morning America” film critic stormed out of
a press screening of Smith’s “Clerks II,” which opens Friday – an act
that’s sparked a vicious war of words between the two. “Time to go!”
roared Siegel to his fellow critics. “First movie I’ve walked out of
in 30 [bleeping] years!” His tirade came 40 minutes into the
long-awaited Weinstein Company sequel to Smith’s 1994 cult classic
about two foul-mouthed Long Island convenience store clerks who razz
customers and goof off. In the scene that sent Siegel to the exit, the
characters graphically discuss hiring a woman to perform sexual favors
on a donkey. Siegel told Page Six: “It was so foul and mean and
repulsive. I finally realized I could not say anything positive . . .
I wasn’t ready for this kind of smut . . . I hope he doesn’t make any
Now, film critics are wont to make spectacles of themselves from time to time. Not always in the midst of a screening, but it’s been known to happen. I recall reading an anecdote testified to by the aforementioned director of Boxcar Bertha, wherein Rex Reed and Judith Crist went the whole hog in publicly expressing their sense of violation upon seeing Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch before its release way way back in 1969. No, they didn’t walk out (at least not in Scorsese’s version of the story . . . which tellingly has he and another movie reviewer, Jay Cocks, as the lone guardians of cinephile standards at this four-person soiree; if nothing else a vestige of the segregationist impulse toward moviegoing at the heart of all cinephilia in the last 50 years), but they were indignant. Aghast. And they didn’t disguise it.
As I say, this is not uncommon. Some critics like performing for their confreres. Stuffed to the occipital rims with all manner of insecurity and inchoate knowledge of their own modest gifts; a notch below disc-jockey on the show business ladder; they become clowns, knaves or thugs according to the bent of their souls. They form strategic alliances, groups, draw their own sets of fawning, like-minded toadies and courtiers; hewn from a breed of arriviste that seems specific to the cinephile community. In their interactions they turn film criticism into a bizarro-world fantasy re-creation of High School, only here they are, at last, no longer the geeks they once were.
Odd, then, that in the immediate aftermath of Joel Siegel’s walk-out a consensus took shape which was not, I think, an unreasonable one: Whether he “roared” his disapproval or was simply overheard muttering it before he fled the screening, to have said anything audibly while the other critics were trying to decide how best to write Kevin Smith’s latest film into the official pieties was indeed a demonstration of bad form.
But if this only concerned a film critic comporting himself in a somewhat boorish fashion, then this would not be a tale worth telling. For when word of Siegel’s abrupt departure found its way . . . in what must have been a whirlwind, head-spinning rush through the grapevine . . . to the ears of the Lubitsch of Red Bank, NJ, he unsheathed his formidable wit, trained a vengeful eye upon its target, and struck.
Once again, the New York Post takes up the narrative:
Smith fired back on his MySpace blog:
“Getting a bad review from Siegel is like a badge of honor. This is
the guy who stole his mustachioed-critic shtick from Gene Shalit years
ago, and still refuses to give it back. …
Fozzy [bleeping] Bear laughs at this guy.” And there’s more: “I
don’t need Joel Siegel to [bleep] my [bleep] the way he apparently
[bleeps] M. Night Shyamalan’s, gushing over his flick [‘The Lady in
the Water’] before he’s even seen it, but [bleep] man, man – how about
a little common [bleeping] courtesy? You never, never disrupt a movie,
simply because you don’t like it. Cardinal rule of moviegoing: Shut
your [bleeping] mouth while the movie’s playing. …
A noble sentiment on its face; and one that anybody could hold and sleep the sleep of the just. However, if I may be permitted leave to go out on a limb, I think something apart from principle is at work here, and I believe we are seeing a good deal less than complete candor. Why, one may profitably ask, is Kevin Smith dragging poor M. Night Shyamalan . . . who never did nobody no harm . . . into the middle of this hideous mess; seemingly for no reason other than his undisguised suspicion that Siegel favors the latest work by the auteur of Praying with Anger over his own. Please note, should you think I’m extrapolating a bit too wildly here, how the number of deleted expletives begins to mount when his statement enters the vicinity
of Shyamalan’s name; note also the citation (concealed by bleeps though it is) of an act, whether metaphorical or not, which in some senses bespeaks what Lord Alfred Douglas called “the love that dare not speak its name” (presumably the words characterizing this act were excised from the above quote by the Post to maintain the spirit of Bosie’s designation . . . okay, maybe that’s a stretch).
It is, of course, a task for minds more capable than this author’s to divine the psychological significance of Smith’s lament over the apportionment of Joel Siegel’s carnal attentions. I only mention it (and I dare anyone to prove I had a different purpose) because it throws the steadfastness of Smith’s “badge of honor” preface into grave and immediate doubt. After all, to say that the disapprobation of a critic (even one so egregious as Joel Siegel) is occasion for pride is not, I think, substantially different from holding it as an object of shame. In either sense, it contains an estimate of the critic’s value that is alarmingly, tellingly disproportionate. Were I of an exceedingly cynical mind I would say that the only solid conclusion one can draw from Kevin Smith’s self-aggrandizing tirade is that he really does, deep in the heart of he, care what Joel Siegel thinks of his movie.
But what am I saying? Kevin Smith is an honorable man.
(to be continued)