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Gilbey on Film: the Kevin Smith mystery

Why does the director of Red State dislike critics so much?

I like Kevin Smith. Not his films, necessarily (with the exception of the ones for which most people retain a residual fondness -- Clerks and Chasing Amy). But I have a lot of time for him. He's a genuinely riotous comic speaker who can be astonishingly dexterous with even the largest audience in the most cavernous venue, and he's also a stimulating thinker beneath that laddish exterior. He talks a really good film, but it's been a while since he got around to making one; his recent work has thrown up a few amusing moments but not much more. No matter. There are plenty of more successful filmmakers out there who have far less to offer.

But Kevin Smith doesn't like me. Well, not me personally, but film critics in general. A month ago, his horror film, Red State, was scheduled to be screened by its UK distributor, eOne, to London critics. Nothing controversial there. But Smith found out about the preview via Twitter, and got on the phone to the distributor to insist that it be cancelled. The official line was that he had to add an introduction to the movie before it could be shown. This, it seems, was news to eOne, but the preview was pulled with hours to go.

Smith's Twitter feed shone a new light on the story. What he wanted to do was to strike a sizable section of the critics -- or "whiners" as he called them -- from the screening list and give their places instead to 20 dyed-in-the-wool fans willing to suck up to him in the appropriate manner on Twitter. How many of them, I wonder, would have been honest when tweeting their reactions to a preview screening to which they had been granted entry by their hero? But that's not the point. No one expects impartiality from fans. Only from whiners.

Smith affixed the hashtag #OnlyPayingCustomersMatter to his tweets (prompting this pertinent interjection from UltraCulture: "now that they're no longer the aforementioned Paying Customers, those fans presumably cease to matter, in which case they don't get to go to the screening, in which case they're Paying Customers again, in which case they matter, in which case they do get to go to the screening after all, in which case AAAAARRRGGGH PARADOX"). You can read more about the fall-out here.

It's an unusual take on the critic/filmmaker relationship, and one which Smith seemed less eager to expound back when his debut film, Clerks, was being celebrated by critics such as Janet Maslin, one of the first and most vocal of Smith's champions. Here are some quotes from her 1994 review of Clerks in the New York Times:

A buoyant, bleakly funny comedy... an exuberant display of film-student ingenuity... a classic example of how to spin straw into gold... the two main actors are fresh and engaging... varied and wry... [Smith] has an uncommonly sure sense of deadpan comic timing... [he] keeps his film's improbable elements just loony enough to sustain energy... small and rough-edged, with all the earmarks of a first effort. But it's one of the good ones.

What a whiner! Jeez...

I have no axe to grind with Smith; I wasn't intending to go to that Red State screening, so I was not in any way inconvenienced. I interviewed Smith in 2006 when Clerks II was released and found him to be personable, engaging and intelligent, as well as disarmingly honest about how bruised he felt to be out in the cold now that Judd Apatow and his contemporaries were ruling Hollywood:

I see The Wedding Crashers or The 40-Year Old Virgin and it's like these dudes are making movies like I made. But they're doing them with famous people and making shitloads of money. I feel like I invented the wheel and forgot how to use it - or didn't use it the way other people learned to.

There is more honesty and self-awareness in that one paragraph than most people will give you over the course of an entire interview. So why the aversion to the honesty of critics? I don't buy the paying customers line. Smith did not pay to see an early cut of Kick-Ass or Scott Pilgrim Vs the World, and yet he was happy to be paid a fee to rave about the former on BBC2's Review Show, and to go to town encouraging his Twitter followers to see the latter. So is it okay to rave if you haven't bought a ticket? Is it just that you shouldn't say negative things about a movie if you haven't paid the full ticket price? I think that's the gist: if you haven't got anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. Hmm. What a stimulating and enriched culture we'd have if we all followed that philosophy.

But I'm confused. Smith knows his film history. He must remember that even the greatest directors sometimes listen to critics or call on them for help. Coppola reportedly made The Godfather Part II a more morally searching work in response to complaints that its predecessor had been too enamoured of its characters' violent lifestyles. Spielberg lightened up the Indiana Jones series after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was accused of being too dark and nasty. (I happen to think he got it wrong there -- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade can't hold a candle to Temple of Doom. But I'm just whining.) And where would Terry Gilliam's Brazil have been without the film critics of Los Angeles? When Universal was refusing to release the film, Gilliam arranged secret screenings for the LA critics, who ended up awarding it their Best Film prize -- thereby forcing Universal's hand and getting the picture released. Not bad for a bunch of whiners.

Red State is released on 30 September.