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Deconstructing Harry Knowles and the geek manifesto...

posted by Paul on 7/17/02


Why make a website?

For many, the answer to that question will center on one of the following: instant riches, quasi-fame or "lack of friends". To be fair, much of what is presented on the internet doesn't play up the positive elements of humanity: if the internet was a sea, the vast majority of it would be comprised of the sea-weed of "gross stupidity". Whether it be grammatically inept death threats from AOL users or losers bemoaning those better than them, the internet routinely represents a cesspool of scum and villainy. Many sites wallow in, even encourage this spread of apathy. All the while, the quest/transmission for knowledge and truth has taken a back seat.

Fortunately, not everyone fits this glum description or chooses to follow the bleak path. Indeed, before retina-harming pop-ups and cynical (even intrusive) cash-ins, the internet was a place to celebrate freedom of speech. It was and, if executed properly, still is the last voice, our last chance to air intelligent opinion, the last unneutered medium. Ask most people to name one internet-bred celebrity, and they'll struggle. The internet was initially a promised land of easy cash and oddball celebrity which, due to greed and ludicrous business plans, never really materialized. Yet, amidst the diversity and increasing use, only a few individuals have truly come to the fore. The one who has made the leap and, in my opinion, remained true to his down-home background is Harry Knowles.

Knowles' story is an oft-told but inspiring one. He was a self-confessed comic book geek lacking direction and drifting through life - the idiot savant slacker. Essentially, he was raised on movies, spoke their language and learned to adore them; a dreamer with big ideas and literary aspirations. Most importantly, he lived for cinema. This, in itself, is unremarkable. But one day, having been bedridden for months after an accident, Knowles stumbled upon the internet. He had time to kill. The medium was relatively novel at the time. Knowles found it to be an excellent place to communicate ideas and gleam information. He was, by his own admission, an information-junkie. Over time, he realized the potential of the medium and created a movie website which he hoped would bring like-minded enthusiasts together. It gave him an outlet, a purpose and its/his fanbase grew. The website, named after a quip in "The Last Boy Scouts", became the hub for insider gossip and unfettered fan opinion.

Not only did Knowles help to pioneer a new movement, he frightened the life out of Hollywood. For the first time ever, they found themselves backed into a corner. Here was a guy who spoke out against shitty movies, a guy they couldn't silence. The key thing about Aint-It-Cool was that it didn't give a damn about the sordid private personas of the stars, their overblown egos or how much money they were making. The primary concern of the site was in covering movies, in trying to promote good movies and warn the public off the ghastly ones. Over the years, Knowles' army of spies and insiders have tormented the studios by spilling details of test screenings (uncompleted prints which try to gauge a general audience reaction) - and, when you consider how the studios have controlled the publicity machine for so long, honest feedback is tantamount to poison. As such, Knowles was held responsible for the tremendous breakout success of "The Blair Witch Project" and the relatively disappointing box-office performances of such turkeys as "Batman and Robin" and "Speed 2". He had his eyes on the good projects from the script stage and he wasn't afraid to shoot down the hype.

Depending on who you were, Knowles was seen as both a threat and a treasure. The opinion is still divided. The studios felt that his bad word-of-mouth "campaigns" against their big budget projects were unfair: surely it's wrong to review any unfinished work, they argued. That said, any movie that has earned a negative test screening review on hasn't really managed to improve significantly in the final cut: the onus is there, right? In other words, even after the consensus dictates that their movie is a dud, the filmmakers seem impotent to make the improvement from "awful" to "good". So, in essence, most movies don't alter too much in the translation.

I've been to a few test screenings myself and, despite the plus of killing a few hours and getting to watch a new movie, they're ultimately pointless. After all, as Knowles comments, the entire process is designed to be self-serving and, with researchers filling out complimentary cards (to salvage ego), is often downright fraudulent. Generally, the testers only want you to justify the movie's existence and won't really make too many corrections based on feedback - it's probably too late anyway. Not only that, but the test screenings don't really give much scope for feedback and don't ask what sort of movie you enjoy watching, what expectations you had of the screening and what disappointed/pleased you about the picture. You rate the movie based on a set, very limiting group of multiple choice questions. And the entire auditorium is padded out with immature AOLers who wouldn't know a good movie if it leaped up and punched them in their goofy heads. During one screening I attended, ninety percent of the audience yelped when one of the characters said "It's hard" (OMFGLOL!111). And the filmmakers expect some intelligence to derive from this. If you're making a modern masterpiece like "L.A Confidential", would you really want some dopey mallrat to review it?

Knowles is now seen as an important film commentator. He's been interviewed, profiled and dissected by countless publications and has even guested alongside Roger Ebert on his syndicated review show. Not bad for a guy who started a website from his bedroom. He's even written a book on Hollywood and his personal rise to celebrity. It's a fine read, written in a very down-to-earth/ unpretentious style and full of interesting anecdotes and musings.

Make no mistake about it, Knowles is a very smart guy. He knows where he exists on the Hollywood stratosphere, knows the snipers are out and knows he's living a dream. His book is laced with wry little nods to movies, as though he's aware of every possible scenario. He's risen the ranks and the Hollywood P.R reps have simultaneously tried to curry him and destroy him. As far as they're concerned, he's a threat. He never hold back when it comes to reviewing a movie. Now, this guy has met most of his idols, been praised by some amazing talent and still had the balls to speak out about a movie made by or featuring one of his allies. He also tracks and judges movies from the idea stage to the finished product. He reads the scripts, can visualize the result and will blast any movie that has taken a wrong turn. Because of the high stakes, many movies take wrong turns, even disastrous ones - Knowles writes that "Batman and Robin" was a decent script which was obliterated by star demands and merchandising requirements. With big studio movies, there are egos to feed, visions to satisfy and demands to meet.


Harry Knowles finally discovers how Chris Klein's roving tongue landed him all those juicy roles...

Knowles doesn't just watch the movie, he goes in with a full knowledge of that particular work. He has an instinct. Some movies, like "Soldier" and "Last Action Hero", get ruined by poor direction and over-writing. "Last Action Hero" had a ridiculous 27 re-writes and with each subsequent re-write, the original premise lost focus. Knowles can see this better than any critics. He can detect the original promise and feels the disappointment of wasted potential. Unfortunately, Hollywood is too trigger-happy. Writers are usually the first to go. It's a shame, really. Think of any big-budget movie that has had so many writers onboard. Tell me it was as impressive or memorable as any work with a relatively (I write "relatively", because movies are always about collaboration). Tell me "Armageddon" was as good as "American Beauty", and I'm not even discussing genre. Tell me "Last Action Hero" was more coherent than "Speed". These writers are required to change the focus; if 27 writers had been hired to doctor "Pulp Fiction", it probably would have been chronological and sub-par. Too many cooks spoil the feast.

Knowles' rise was precipitated by the inevitable question marks against his loyalties. Once he started namedropping the likes of Willis and Tarantino, his fans saw him as "going to the dark side" and accused him of selling out. In truth, he remained loyal to the cause. His site is still the same jumble of viewpoints and outsider opinions that it's always been. If anything, mentioning talent he's met only emphasizes his position as an outsider. He seems in awe that so many of his idols would consult him on projects. Who wouldn't? There's a big distinction between being starstruck and self-impressed, though. One is forgivable, the other leads to a road of burnout. He's admitted to being offered large amounts of money to talk up certain movies, but he's never compromised his integrity. In a similar position, the majority of people would wilt. I don't know him personally, but his writing and public persona seems to have remained modest. You tend to get an instinct about these things. As a human-being, it would be nearly impossible to scathe Knowles. His allegiance to his close unit of friends and contributors hasn't waned. He knows who he is. He knows who'll be there for him if the dream ever ends.


Harry Knowles discovers he has to introduce the "Freddie Prinze Jr. movie highlights" festival.

Knowles lives in humble surroundings, on the brink of a fantasy world. It's a perilous position. Hollywood sees him as vital. They don't want to, because pre-internet, the movie industry could ignore and ridicule the true fans. They would prefer to band Knowles as nothing more than an overweight guy with no relevance. Meanwhile, they can cruise around in their studio-bought Ferraris and snort crack off transvestites and make all the soulless movies they want - because box-office figures and hype will justify them. But, as Knowles notes, the true fans (the ones who don't fit snugly into stats or irrelevant studio demographics/targets) or geeks, are the ones who will be around when the Freddie Prinze Juniors and Chris Kleins have finished making terrible target movies.

The print media is, by and large, reflective of a certain class. There are few empires more manipulative of the media than Hollywood, which controls its media and spins its lies for the bottom line. With slick P.R and underhanded approaches, its modern media henchman manipulate for the mighty dollar. There are no limits to how far they'll go nor how low they can stoop. The aim: to market a movie. Now, the process of making movies is a complicated one, and Knowles knows that better than anyone. That a fan living in Texas has more of a clue on how to market movies must be frustrating to pent-up Hollywood creeps. But Harry Knowles has lived through the media. He knows the pitfalls, he knows that the media gets its jollies by building then destroying individuals. It's a credit to himself that he hasn't fallen for the traps, the bribes and the gratuities (pick your poison and prefer to be crucified) that are frequently thrown his way. He may be a self-styled "red-headed stepchild", but he knows that if you don't know your role in the family structure, you'll end up without a seat at the table.

The "head geek's" own movie reviews have always been unique in that, unlike accredited movie criticism, they are imbued with strong personal reflections. Like the late, great Pauline Kael, his reviews are very much his own, and unapologetically so. He's not arrogant enough to claim that his review is the be-all end-all, but he does write from a place. And he's one of the few to acknowledge that your/anyone's opinion of a movie can change depending on where or what frame of mind you were in when you saw it. Nostalgia can be blinding. And Movies are like that. He clearly loves them, is delighted when he watches good work and actually wants the industry to improve. As he contends, most critics are "reactive" while he's "proactive". It's fair to say that most critics do give off that air of desperation and smugness - they're not making the movies, so they'll take great pleasure on pissing on someone else's work. It takes less effort than being constructive or suggestive. Hey, if championing gems gets the right movies promoted and makes a difference to the output, I'm all for it.


Worst. Episode. Ever!

The snottier critics gripe that Knowles isn't a trained journalist, yet they forget that everyone is a critic at heart, that anyone with a mind has the power. The majority of the naysayers seem jealous that Knowles has an audience and is influential. Many are bitter that they've lost, if they've ever had, a love of movies. You read some of these critics and, granted, they write well and can point to literary intertextuality yadda yadda, but where's the passion? Do they enter every movie with an open-mind? Most enter with their literary pretensions and private agendas. Knowles, on the other hand, has that childlike quality of getting lost in the story, of falling in love with a movie, of escaping. You know the one you had when you saw "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" for the first time? The one that has probably been purged by abysmal chingers like "Scooby Doo" and "Tomb Raider".

Nobody really wants to be considered a geek, but Knowles wears it like a badge of honor. He knows the origins of the term, knows it's a back-handed compliment. Most of the great directors, even some of the better actors, are geeks. Lucas, Spielberg, Tarantino and Hanks are bound by an obsessive love of movies. It may come across as anti-social, even intimidating, but common society is afraid of intelligence. Knowles is a walking, talking encyclopedia. He isn't a nerd, dweeb or "freak". Those terms apply more fittingly to the Freddie Prinzes, the utterly vacuous and socially inept. Harry Jay Knowles isn't afraid of who he is or ashamed of what he's accomplished. And, if you'd risen those ranks on honest hard work, would you be embarrassed? Knowles holds his success, begrudged by an increasing number of detractors, and asks "Ain't It Cool?" Indeed, if you'd lived the last seven years of his life, this question might inspire you more than it should:

Why make a website?

Paul
paul@whatever-dude.com

You can read Harry Knowles' cinematic musings on his Aint-It-Cool-News website by clicking here.

Alternatively, you can purchase his first book by clicking the following link:

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BUY Ain't It Cool? Hollywood's Redheaded...




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