By Aaron Hillis
Within all the symposiums, panels and debates trying to decipher what arts criticism is and will ultimately become in the Internet age, those artists and entertainers who are skewered by critics’ ink are rarely discussed. Comedian-actor Jamie Kennedy (“Scream”) has experienced the vitriol of opinionated haters for decidedly non-masterpieces like “Son of the Mask” and “Malibu’s Most Wanted,” but it has to be worse when it happens in the middle of a stand-up performance. Produced by Kennedy and directed by Michael Addis, “Heckler” is a deeply personal and often funny doc about the relationship between performers and their critics, right down to heated confrontations between Kennedy and his online eviscerators. The film features a surprising gamut of talking heads: comedians like Patton Oswalt and Kathy Griffin make sense, as do directors like George Lucas and Uwe Boll, but who would’ve suspected to hear from Christopher Hitchens, Larry Flynt and Jewel in the same film? In honor of indie film’s most ubiquitous topic and this week’s DVD release of “Heckler,” I spoke to Kennedy to attempt to find understanding between our symbiotic careers.
In your own words, what’s the difference between a heckler and a critic?
There’s your definition right there.
Hecklers are critics? Then are all critics also hecklers?
Well, vocal hecklers critiquing your show are one form. Then critics, in newspaper writing and professional reviews, are another form. Third is bloggers, and stuff like that. The film should be like “Capturing the Friedmans;” it shouldn’t be that biased. You take away what you see. Another interviewer said he loves the fact that I drew psychological comparisons to critics, hecklers and bloggers. I wanted to get Manohla Dargis, Kenneth Turan and Elvis Mitchell in the movie, and they said, “We don’t want to be in it because we don’t want to be lumped in with those people.”
Do you think criticism is detrimental to what you do?
Not at all, the point is I’m not against any of that. If anybody wants to be in the spotlight, they’re going to get criticized. It’s part of the territory. My thesis of the movie is: who are these people, what are they doing, and why do people get personal? My whole thing is “review the piece, not the person.” If I make a movie about a baby that flies and turns green, that’s one thing, but don’t start attacking me, my family, my life and my faith personally. Do you know what I’m saying?
Absolutely, that rubs me the wrong way, too. Character attacks have no business in that forum. My qualm is that the film offers a chance for critics and performers to face one another, yet it’s one-sided.
I like critics. We need critics. Criss Angel said, “I need critics. I can learn [from them] until the day I die.” There are people in [“Heckler”] that talk about what they are, and then there are critics saying all of us are invalid and idiots. It’s obviously going to be a little biased; I am a performer. But there are big people in, little people in, and you’re a rare person: you take what you do very seriously. Most of the guys in your field don’t. You or Kenneth Turan or Elvis Mitchell, you’re real. But the Internet, the bloggers, all that stuff is becoming so vague that it’s usurping legitimacy of your business. Don’t you think?
Only to an extent that the democratization of the blogosphere breeds a lot of terrible, unedited, uncivilized trolls amongst the many impassioned, enlightened online critics. Your film includes face time with the former, but not the latter. It’s not representative of our culture’s finest tastemakers.
I tried to get those tastemakers, but they wouldn’t do it. [laughs] You’re not 100 percent wrong. There are great critics. In one of the interviews I did earlier, I talked about how the New York Times has never really given me a bad review. First of all, they’re so polite. When they reviewed “Jackass,” they said, “Well, Mr. Knoxville…” Everything is Mr. or Mrs., which is really cool, and they don’t judge “Malibu’s Most Wanted” against “There Will Be Blood.” They’re cinephiles. But that’s a rare thing these days.
I disagree, but let’s talk about what you learned after making this film.
Some people really love the movie, some people like you question the movie, and then other people hate it or think, “Yo, I don’t understand. You just gotta let shit roll off your back.” That’s not who I am. It’s not a job, it’s my life. What I learned is that a lot of people out there really care about movies and performances and if something’s not good, they’re going to say why. If something is bad, they’re going to be informative. It’s not about them trashing. That’s number one.
I also learned there are people out there who are just [bad-mouthing] to make a name for themselves. They consider themselves entertainers. They’re entertainers by hate and borderline lying at times. That’s their way to get famous. Then there are those who feel vindicated in what they write, whether it’s good or bad, but I learned who they are. Most people don’t want to write about you. They don’t think you’re really a person. They think you’re a product.
I doubt I can convince you why I think “Heckler” unfairly belittles my livelihood, so let me turn around the point of subjectivity. What if you’re just being overly sensitive to negative reviews?
Well, I’m definitely sensitive and overly sensitive, yes. That is very, very true. I guess it’s about being informed. Some dude reviewed “Malibu’s Most Wanted,” and was like, “Jamie Kennedy doesn’t even talk correct English. He doesn’t form full sentences.” That’s the joke! That’s the character. Obviously, he didn’t get it, and there’s nothing I can do about it. But you can’t review a movie about hip-hop if you don’t know anything about it. It’s like going into Emeril Lagasse’s kitchen and telling him how to make a casserole. I would never do that, and I would never act like I’m better. It’s a hardcore process that we do on my side of the camera. I talked to somebody today, a very big person, who was like, “Yeah, you spend two years of your life [on a film] and somebody with a pen calls you a piece of shit.” That’s all.
Maybe we’re talking in circles here. What I’m trying to navigate here is the mutual respect between what I do and what you do.
Already by talking to you, I can tell I respect you. I’m going to do stuff and you’re going to say it’s not that good, and here’s why. I may say, “You’re right.” If you look at “Son of the Mask,” it’s not that good of a movie. We didn’t make it right. I’m not that good in it. But I would think that you’d try to be constructive. It’s a matter of just having that dialogue with educated people who know about the process. There’s no accountability with some of these people, and that irks me. They may have a readership of 70,000, and then people [agree with the writer]: “Wow, that guy is a piece of shit.” The next thing you know, how come I’m not getting an offer? Your career starts going, and you’re like, “Am I really a piece of shit?” It just breeds insanity.
Can heckling be positive?
Yeah! I’m not immune to it. In a way, I am a toaster. If a toaster doesn’t work, you get on a feedback [forum] and say, “I bought this Sunbeam toaster off Amazon, and the thing didn’t make my toast brown.” Heckling is feedback. It’s okay, they can heckle a show. Criticism is feedback. It makes you better. But they felt like saying, “Fuck that toaster, let’s blow up the toaster. The toaster shouldn’t have a career.” What the fuck did I do?
Uwe Boll’s infamous boxing matches with bloggers are featured in “Heckler.” Have you ever seen one of his films?
Ha! I can’t say that I have. I got offered “Postal” and turned it down. I don’t know enough of his films, but I make a point where, look, there’s a guy who has been [viciously] talked about, and he wanted to box them. I just wanted to show how he dealt with his critics. If you watch those guys, they say, “I haven’t seen any of his movies, but I really don’t have to.” That to me speaks volumes. You don’t have to see his movies to review them? That’s fucking garbage! Of course you do.
There will always be those who spoil it for the rest of us. But to hammer my point some more, I don’t consider any of those featured in the Uwe Boll segment representative of the professionals.
Can I ask you this, though? You’re being an elitist right now. If you went to Comic-Con and I put you right next to Harry Knowles, he’d have a way bigger following than you. Does that mean he’s a critic? Not in your eyes, but to those guys he is. So he is part of the critical mass because he affects millions of people’s minds. Would you not agree?
Sure, and I’ll accept “elitist” if we can call it “progressive.” Knowles may be more well-known, but the difference is in form and function. Anyone can have an opinion, but I’m striving to better myself, criticism and the filmmaking I write about.
You realize that you’re very rare. Come on, I’ve never had this conversation with anyone in your field. You should be in front of the Chicago Tribune.
What are you critical of?
First of all, it’s always a little man to belittle. So know that I’m one of the most critical people you’ll ever meet. That’s why I’m so sensitive; I have my own insecurities. But I’ve grown through the years, and know that sometimes when I’ve been critical, it’s because I’ve been jealous, [or] angry about something else in my life. Other times, I’ve had really good, constructive criticism. I’m critical of my own work; of women–it’s hard for me, that’s why I’ve never been married; and of a lot of things in my business: comedians, movies, all that stuff. I’m just as critical as the next person, but now that I’ve gone through the fire and made movies, television, and been talked about positively and negatively, I have more respect and I know it now. Someone like Uwe Boll, I have much respect for him to be able to make those projects, just because he got them made. I bet half of the people writing shit about him would give their left nut to do it.
[Photos: “Heckler,” Echo Bridge, 2007]
“Heckler” is now available on DVD.