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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit