Vlada Petric, founding curator of the Harvard Film Archive, tells this story from the time when he was film critic for Politica, an important newspaper in what was then Yugoslavia. He had a barber who called him " Mr. Artist, " but without any idea what Petric did for a living. One day he was in the barber's chair reading his own review when the barber interrupted: " Mr. Artist, don't believe that guy, he's an idiot! If he likes a movie, it's probably terrible. If he doesn't like it, you should go see it. You'll probably find you'll enjoy it! "
We film critics get no respect, anywhere on earth. That funny barber in Belgrade is speaking for all: we're wrongheaded and out of the loop of what regular folks think. We're far too opinionated and negative. Hollywood, of course, concurs: we critics who separate ourselves from the crowd are snotty, pallid excuses for people. Filmmakers, especially when stung by a bad notice, complain that we review movies out of spite and envy because we're too gutless and untalented to make them ourselves.
How does the world of film take revenge? In the course of researching a documentary on the history of American film criticism, I've been examining fictional works that include critics as characters. The result? Forget about " positive role models. " Each film critic I've discovered in a movie is a walking and laboriously talking stereotype. Some portraits are playful and satirical; others are malicious. In every case, though, the film reviewer is boorish, obsessive, and neurotic (and almost invariably male), someone you wouldn't want to be stuck next to at a movie.
There's the whining critic on the alternative Boston paper in Between the Lines (1977) who begs his editor to send him to Cannes. There's the wretch in the 1934 Lady Killer, in which James Cagney plays a gangster turned movie star: Cagney meets him at the Cocoanut Grove and forces him to eat a vicious newspaper review. There's the nincompoop in the Neil Simon-written After the Fox (1966) who testifies in court to the quality of a bogus film by fake director Peter Sellers: " It's a work of art! A classic! He's a genius! What depth! What meaning! " The judge's reaction: " Who is this man? Arrest this idiot! " Police yank him away.
Then there's TV critic Leonard Maltin playing himself in Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990): he kvetches on and on about the video release of Gremlins ( " What's fun about a movie of mean-spirited, gloppy little monsters . . . ? " ) until " the new batch " put a belt around his head and strangle him mid sentence. The sole female film critic I've uncovered is the mouthy, namedropping New Yorker ( " When I had Orson up for a weekend . . . " ) who leads the claustrophobic seminar to which actor Sandy Bates (Woody Allen) is invited in Stardust Memories (1980). " You are marvelous, you are a genius, " she says, sucking up to her celebrity guest as Allen shoots her in unflattering, wide-angle, Fellini-esque close-up.
The only film-critic protagonist I know of in an American movie is Allen's Allan Felix in the 1972 Play It Again, Sam. Felix is so Bogart-enraptured that his wife departs, saying, " All you want to do is watch movies. " Here's the germ of a dozen later Allen self-portraits: a cowardly, clumsy hypochondriac who asks a non-intellectual date if she'd like to go to an Erich von Stroheim festival. In other words: a socially inept and out-of-it person whose life is on screen.
The problem with modern Hollywood's poking fun at real-life print critics is that the public doesn't know who they are. (Only the New Yorker could have a cartoon of a wife telling her husband, who's pouting as they exit a theater, " Oh hush! You live by Janet Maslin, you'll die by Janet Maslin. " ) Who do people know? The ubiquitous Roger Ebert, of course, and his late TV partner, Gene Siskel. The movies abound with Ebert-Siskel goofs, the most recent of which was Michael Lerner's large-waisted NYC mayor Ebert and his buffoonish aide " Gene " in Godzilla (1998). Then there are the white-haired Jonathan and Mark in Amazon Women on the Moon (1987), who go from reviewing the Swedish art flick The Winter of My Despondency to rating real people's lives: " I give Harvey Pitnik a big thumbs down. "
In Summer School (1987), two hats-backwards dudes impress a buxom exchange student with their " At the Movies " routine, agreeing on a " thumbs up " for Leatherface of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In Back to the Beach (1987), Leave It to Beaver's Tony Dow and Jerry Mathers, grown up, sit at a table in the sand rating the surfers: " Thumbs down. It made me want to leave the beach! "
But the funniest duo by far are the African-American jive artists of Hollywood Shuffle (1987), who sneak into theaters and then offer a street-smart thumbs-up/thumbs-down. This is the video to rent for a hilarious 10 minutes of dissing Amadeus Meets Salarius ( " My first problem is I couldn't say the title! " ) and commending Attack of the Street Pimps for " capturing the essence of street life in a ho'-type situation. "
Their credo? " We are like movie critics and shit . . . and we tell y'all what's up, whether you should pay money and shit. " Just what the barber ordered.
Do you know of critics in movies that aren't mentioned here? Contact Gerald Peary at firstname.lastname@example.org.