Monday, June 1, 2009

On Heckler

The documentary Heckler (2007), co-produced by and starring Jamie Kennedy, is about the "heckling" of artists (in the main comedians, but creators of all sorts), consisting mainly of interviews with celebrities running the gamut from a "Who's Who" of stand-up, to filmmakers both celebrated and reviled, to journalist Christopher Hitchens. The category "heckler" is also broadly interpreted to encompass critics of all sorts, the sole criterion apparently being that they said really unkind things.

There is no denying that critics are often ignorant, narrow-minded, unfair, petty and just plain vicious in their assessments. (Indeed, it is both striking, and sad, how inspired people can get when tearing someone else apart, and especially in the case of "Internet" critics, how much time and effort they're willing to put into their attacks.)

There is no denying that certain prejudices tend to prevail among critics, and that playing the critic too much for too long can produce an undue harshness, and even an obsession with finding fault, in their reviewing.

There are also some grounds for suspicion on the part of working artists toward critics who are not coming from the same place (more commonplace in film than literature, where there are more practitioners, a large portion of which are active reviewers). No one should review a work in a medium or genre they do not like or understand, or without some sense of how artists actually work.

Nonetheless (and this is, admittedly, coming from a critic), to say that there is a lot of bad criticism out there, and that it can be problematic for performers and other creators, is not to say that no one has the right to express an uncomplimentary opinion (or that all such opinions are necessarily "heckling"), which would be an absurdity. To suggest that any opinion about a movie, or a comedy routine, proffered by anyone not in the business is baseless and illegitimate is almost equally absurd.

Yet those on camera in the documentary seem to suggest such things frequently. Of course, much of it consists of the interviewees venting about the raw deals they feel they got in the past, and so this plays like an exercise in catharsis and revenge rather than reasoned argument, but that is part of the problem with this movie. Not only is it unbalanced and one-dimensional, but it backfires in making an astonishing number of the interviewees look like raving, hate-filled egomaniacs, at least as bad as the hecklers against which they are lashing out. (Kennedy appears especially clueless in his apparent inability to understand that someone out there might genuinely dislike his movies.) Making matters worse, the line-up presented here is likely to make even a broad-minded viewer feel that some of them deserved at least some of what they got (even while they feel sympathetic to those of the interviewees they do admire)-all the more so after seeing them at their nastiest here. (Interestingly, some of those who appear in the film have publicly "heckled" each other, a point not mentioned in the course of the documentary, though the response to that would have been interesting.)

And of course, the fact remains that for all their troubles, the people doing the complaining here are the ones who've won the Dream Jobs. There are far, far worse places to be than theirs-something most of those depicted so unflatteringly in the documentary certainly realize, not that you'd guess it from this doc.

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