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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The Wallets

A short story by Colin Barrett.

Doon was doing nothing, just killing time, while he waited for his mam to finish at meeting. Once she went down the steps into the basement he got out of there. The hour was too long to wait and he did not like seeing the others. There was always one freshly dire specimen hanging around outside, wrung-eyed and jitter-limbed and making a pitiable hames of trying to light up a cigarette. Sometimes he recognised the parent of some kid out of his class. He didn’t want to see the parents and he didn’t want them to see him. The meetings were another world. His mam went down there and an hour later she came back out.

He did laps of the town with his hoodie up. The drawstrings of his hoodie had little laminate tubes at the end that flailed as he walked. It was autumn, blond and ochre and umber leaves matted together and turning to slick mush underfoot. He was wearing dark olive combat boots laced tight, the ends of his combat trousers crimped into the tops of the boots. Passing an apartment block he saw something on the blue wooden slats of a bench seat. It was a wallet. He commended himself for noticing it and kept right on walking. As he walked he clenched his stomach muscles, an isometric exercise to promote definition and also a means of keeping warm.

He browsed a Men’s Fitness magazine in a newsagents, reread three times an article detailing the correct techniques for executing power cleans and deadlifts off the rack, and bought a large raspberry slushie. He’d loved slushies as a kid. Every six months or so, usually in one of the small newsagents still scattered around the town, he’d notice the plastic rotors mesmerically churning the blue- and blood-coloured ice in their transparent bins, and would buy one. Only after tasting it would he remember how nauseating they were. Three strawfuls in and there was already the sickly sensation of the syrup turning in his stomach and a bout of brainfreeze running through his head like static.

He went a few doors down, into the lobby of the Western Range Hotel. Still stubbornly sucking on the slushie, he strolled into the hotel bar. The bar was a spacious rectangle of smoked glass, carved teak and piped muzak, and went back a long way. Four men in suits were stalled by the counter, luggage cases on wheels poised beside them like immaculately behaved pets. A pair of them bid goodbye to the others, and headed towards the lobby. Doon watched the automated doors, the way they seemed to flinch before smoothly and decisively giving way. To escape the chatter of the remaining men he went and stood at the far end of the room. A recessed bank of floor-to-ceiling windows yielded a direct view on to the town’s main street, already streaming with Saturday morning shoppers. He watched the flow of bodies, the pockets of arrest within the flow. Directly across the street was the gated rear entrance to the county district court. The gating was innocuous, black bars without identifying signage, and if you did not know it led into the court, you would not have been able to tell. The gate was ajar, a concrete step leading down into the narrow mouth of an alley. In the alley a tall redheaded woman in a suit jacket was urgently conferring with a rough unit on one crutch. The man’s smashed-and-resmashed-looking face, the colour of baked clay, was tilted towards the sky. It was impossible to tell his age. He was leaning on his crutch and staring into the blazing nullity of the sky as the woman attempted to direct his attention to something in the heavy-looking black ledger she was holding tucked against her diaphragm. A page lifted up, levitated free of the ledger and fluttered down the street. The woman cursed, slammed closed the ledger, and stooped after the page as it curlicued along at shin level. The man turned his face from the sky and stared with bovine dispassion at her scooting, bobbing rump.

“You can’t eat that in here.”

Doon turned. The barman was behind him, a kid not much older than Doon with awry lugs glowing either side of his head, his black barman’s shirt squeezed over a snub-nosed paunch.

“I’m not eating anything.”

“That.” The barman pointed at the slushie. “Can’t eat that in here.”

“Don’t make me correct you again, I’m not eating anything,” Doon said, and took an emphatic suck of the slushie. From the depth of the plastic cup came a clotted suctioning noise that reminded him of being at the dentist: Snnnrgggkkk.

“C’mon man,” the barman said, his fussy little face turning the same colour as his lugs. “Just go finish it outside.”

“You get at all your potential customers like this?”

“You’re not a customer.”

“Could’ve been a case I was about to be.”

Snnnrgggkkk.

“Even if you want something, you’ve to finish that outside first.”

Snnnrgggkkk.

“So no one’s allowed just stand here for five minutes, make their mind up on giving you their custom.”

“Not no one,” the barman said, “but you’re you. You’ve to take that outside.”

“Nah.”

“C’mon.”

“This is profiling, lad,” Doon said.

The two men remaining at the bar were watching this exchange. The older, a tall lean man with grey hair, laughed, then cut the air with his hand, like enough.

“Lad’s got a point,” the grey-haired man said to the barman, indicating Doon with a nod of his head.

“We have a policy,” the barman croaked.

“What’s that?” The man went on, “Harass the kid with the skint head and hoodie? So he’s eating a slushie, so what? I worked in a bar myself when I was a young buck. Just let the shift see itself out if it’s going quiet, lad and don’t give patrons grief that aren’t giving you grief.”

Snnnrgggkkk.

“See, listen to the oul fella,” Doon said and grinned at the man.

The man grinned back.

“Let’s resolve this simply,” the man said, taking out his wallet. “I’ll get him something, so then he counts as a customer, and we can all let him finish his drink in peace. Do you want a Coke or a coffee, lad?”

“Pint of Guinness, fella,” Doon said.

“Ha, now, lad. What age are you? I’ll buy you a coffee but I’m not buying a minor a pint on a Saturday morning.”

Doon took an extended, convulsive suck of the slushie’s remnants as the barman beetled in behind the counter. When it was empty, Doon placed the cup on the bartop.

“You’re alright so then. Coffee’s worse for you than drink,” Doon said. He considered the two men again, and grinned. “You boys are in a savagely dapper condition for this town, even of a Saturday afternoon. Is there a wedding in or something?”

The men smiled at each other. The younger one, who had a V-shaped hairline with a bald patch spreading out from his crown, like Zinedine Zidane, shook his head. “We were in for a convention. Sales conference for the NorthWest Connaught Regional Estate Agents Association.”

“Christ, I lost interest halfway through that sentence,” Doon said.

The grey-haired man grinned again.

“So,” the barman interjected, but talking to the man, not Doon. “Did you want a coffee then, or?”

“You heard me decline the fella, didn’t you?” Doon sneered. Now he turned his back on the men, to focus his ire squarely upon the barman. “Congratulations, son, three souls in your dying-on-it’s-hole bar and you’re successfully chasing a third of them off. Profiling is what you were doing.”

Doon began walking backwards towards the lobby, his face bright with contempt.

“Your mam’ll be well proud. Speaking of which, tell her I said hello,” Doon said, and stuck his raspberry-coated tongue all the way out.

He heard the two men behind him chuckle again and his leading heel struck something. “Watch,” he heard the grey-haired man say as he swung his other heel into place alongside the first. He turned, knocking over the carry cases. “Jesus,” Doon said, stepping across the two men at the exact moment they stepped forward to right their luggage. “Sorry,” he said, feinting to step one way, then another, but somehow ending up still between them and the cases. He faced the grey-haired man and grabbed hold of his forearms, as if balancing or restraining him. The man stepped back and Doon stepped with him, like a dance partner.

“Sorry, lads, sorry,” he said to the man. He was close to the man’s face. The man’s face was indrawn and baffled. Then Doon stepped off him. He turned, picked up and righted the man’s case.

“I’m all of a daze with the harassment,” he said, gripping the case’s handle and yanking it twice to extend it out, before offering the handle to the man. The man looked at it, looked at Doon, and took it. Doon was already walking straight towards the automated doors.

He went through the lobby and out on to the street. He looked left and right, because that’s what people do. He checked the wallet, took the nice big fifty, left the two tens and a fiver. He went back in, said, “Found that outside, doll,” to the best-looking receptionist, dropped the wallet on the counter and went straight back out again.

 

***

 

His mother, as usual, was one of the first ones out. She came straight up the steps with her head facing forward and did not look back. She handed him the car keys and they walked towards the car park. They passed the apartment block. The wallet was still there, on the bench, and the instant Doon knew his mother would see it, she did. She stopped. “Look at that wallet some eejit’s after leaving there.”

“Come on,” Doon said.

“Check it to see if it says whose it is,” she said, nudging him.

Doon stayed in place. “Leave it. It’s not our concern.”

His mam looked at Doon and smiled. “‘Not our concern,’” she repeated. “Christ lad, where you get your talk from sometimes. You sound like a policeman.”

“A policeman’d be over there rooting through it with his big snout.”

“I don’t mean the sentiment,” his mam said, “I mean the tone.”

“Feck off,” Doon said.

“Now, now, don’t be regressing to sewer-mouthery just cos I’ve hit a nerve.”

“You’ve NOT touched a nerve,” Doon snapped.

She placed her hand on his neck.

“I mean you’ve got this authority to you,” she said. “It’s just your way. My lad. Soul of a policeman.”

Colin Barrett’s debut short story collection, “Young Skins” (Vintage), won the Guardian First Book Award and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge