Netflix kept pushing a documentary named Heckler on me. So I finally watched it. I’m curious about the phenomenon. It is very strange to me that people go out to see a comedian and then decide to interfere with the show. I understand they are usually drunk, but I still don’t get it. So I was quite interested in what people had to say on the subject. And the 15 minutes of this film that is about hecklers is quite interesting. The rest of the film is an attack on “critics” and a plea for understanding that performers have feelings too.
I write about performance art a lot. And I always try to approach a work on its own terms. It is stupid, for example, to complain that Without a Clue is silly, as some critics have. Yes, it is silly! That’s what it is. Complaining that a work is not what you wanted it to be is not criticism. And that is sadly what most of what we call “criticism” is. But in the case of Heckler, I feel the filmmakers tricked me. They claimed to make a film about hecklers when it was really about criticism.
Having said that, it isn’t as though I’m against watching a film about criticism. I think the state of film criticism is deplorable. And Heckler does a reasonable job of this. It doesn’t talk about what I think are some of the worst aspects of criticism. And it implies that a critic savaging an independent filmmaker who is just getting by is no worse than savaging George Lucas. But okay: the film works well enough.
I do not, however, think that Heckler succeeds in making its argument. In fact, the filmmakers even seem to know this. The film follows Jamie Kennedy (who is also a co-producer) as he confronts a number of online critics who have savaged him films in the past. At first, I felt sorry for the guy. But after a while, it was clear who the real bully was. The people who were attacking him were minor critics, some of them not even professional. Kennedy, on the other hand, has a net worth of $6 million. And he seemed particularly upset that people had panned Son of the Mask—a film with an $87 million budget. I have no opinion of the film since I haven’t seen it. But I’m not terribly sympathetic to a millionaire who worked on a big budget film and got bad reviews.
At the end of the film, Kennedy takes all of his reviews over the years and throws them on the ground. Then he has two obese women in bikinis set them on fire and the three of them walk away, wrapped around each other. When I saw that I almost lost it. Really?! That’s the final point of the film? Luckily, that was not the end of the film, although I have a hunch it was originally. After this scene, Internet film critic Devin Faraci comes on and says, “Well, I guess it’s really nice that people who make a lot of money for fucking around in front of a camera get an opportunity to really complain about the people who have to sit through the stuff that they make. And, of course, it’s always nice to have big, fat ladies at the end of your movies. Burning your reviews—congratulations. I guess that there’s some kind of real catharsis going on there. Hopefully, that’ll carry through to Malibu’s Most Wanted 2.”
Of course, maybe I’m wrong about what the filmmakers thought. Right after Faraci’s comment, the music started with the lyrics, “Hate is all around…” But Faraci’s take is my own. Kennedy is a whiny man who deserves very little sympathy. And in general, the complaints about critics were that they were too harsh and too absolute in their judgments. That’s pretty funny coming mostly from stand-up comedians whose stock and trade are absolute and extreme opinions about the world. Critics often work in hyperbole for the same reasons: they are trying to entertain.
Most of the other stars interviewed were substantially better than Kennedy. Arsenio Hall really stood out as someone who had a good perspective. So too did Louie Anderson, Patton Oswalt, Bill Maher, and Paul Rodriguez. But there was nonetheless, far too much whining. There was also a bizarre section of the film regarding Uwe Boll’s boxing matches with critics. The whole thing did little more than strengthen stereotypes of Germans as brutes. What’s more, it reminded me of an SNL skit where a caveman learns the secret of fire. Everyone says he’s smart. The alpha male kills him and then says, “Now I smart!” I’ve never seen any of Boll’s films, but his boxing skills don’t make me wish to see them.
The biggest problem with critics is the power they have over small independent films. They have little impact on big budget Hollywood films like Son of the Mask. And I think that the real power that critics have should be challenged and they should be held accountable. One bad review of a small film in the New York Times can destroy the film’s chances for a decent distribution. Given these very real stakes, the minor complaint that stars get their feelings hurt seems like a waste of the opportunity to make a film.