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.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Did Titantic do more for climate change than Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary?

Sex, icebergs and individual plight: the actor’s earlier outing teaches us more about vast disasters than his new docufilm about global warming’s impact, Before the Flood.

“Now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me . . . in every way that a person can be saved.” Or did he? For Titanic actor Leonardo DiCaprio, there is one way in which Jack never did rescue Rose: from the threat of climate catastrophe. 

Over the last 15 years, DiCaprio has made the issue a personal mission. Yet even in his role as UN climate ambassador, he stills feels far from heroic:

“If the UN really knew how I feel, how pessimistic I am about our future . . . I mean to be honest, they may have picked the wrong guy.”

So begins his new documentary, Before the Flood. A quest for answers on climate change, the film sees Leo racing around the world, marvelling at the sound of endangered whales, despairing at the destruction caused by tar-sands – “it looks like Mordor” – and interviewing a series of concerned experts, from professors to Barack Obama to the Pope.

There are plenty of naysayers to stand in his way and put him down. “Who better to educate world leaders on made-up climate change and a crisis that doesn't exist, than an actor with zero years of scientific training?” mocks one commentator from Fox News.

But if DiCaprio can gather enough evidence to believe in himself – AND believe that there are viable solutions out there – then so can we. Or so the story arc promises. His journey thus stands as a guide for our own; a self-education that will lead to salvation for all. 

It's all a little messianic. The film is even named after a biblical painting. And will those who don't already know who DiCaprio is even care? 

The sad fact is that, while DiCaprio’s lasting popularity still owes so much Titanic, the 1997 box-office smash that made his name, his new documentary fails to recapture the dramatic wisdom that put him there. It doesn’t even quip about the icebergs.

This is an oversight. Titanic didn’t win 11 academy awards for nothing. As well as a must-see rite of passage (pun intended) and soundtrack for infinite school discos, it taught me something invaluable about storytelling. Though I was not initially a DiCaprio fan, over the years I’ve come to accept that my lasting love of the film is inseparable from my emotional investment in Leo, or at least in his character, Jack. What Titanic showed so brilliantly was that the fastest way to empathise with suffering on a vast scale – be it a sinking ship or a sinking planet – is to learn to care for the fate of one or two individuals involved.

Every part of Jack and Rose's story is thus intimately linked with the story of the ship. Even that famed sex scene gains its erotic force not from the characters alone, but from their race through the blazing engine room (situated as it is between the foreplay of the naked portrait and the famous post-coital ending in the back of the cab).

And such carefully crafted storytelling isn't only essential to great entertainment but to great activism too. It can literally inspire action – as evidenced by fans’ desperate attempts to prove that both Jack and Rose could have climbed to safety aboard the floating piece of wood.

So would Before the Flood have been better if it had been a little bit more like Titanic and less like An Inconvenient Truth? Yes. And does that mean we should make climate films about epic polar bear love stories instead? Not exactly. 

There are many powerful documentaries out there that make you emotionally invested in the lives of those experiencing the consequences of our indirect (fossil fuel-burning) actions. Take Virunga, a heart-wrenching insight into the struggle of those protecting eastern Congo’s national park.

Sadly, Before the Flood is not one of them. Its examples of climate change – from Beijing air pollution to coral reef destruction – are over-familiar and under-explored. Instead of interviewing a Chinese official with a graph on his iPad, I would have preferred visiting a solar-panel factory worker and meeting their family, who are perhaps suffering from the effects of the smog in a way I can't yet imagine.

If you want a whistlestop tour of all things climate change then this necessary and urgent film is the movie for you. But those hoping it will give new depth to climate activism will be disappointed.

DiCaprio's distant relationship with the effects of climate change leave him stranded at the level of a narrator. He makes for a great elderly Rose, but we need a Jack.

Before The Flood is in limited theatres from 21 October and will be shown on National Geographic on Sunday 30 October.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.