Thursday, July 27, 2006

Joel Siegel and Kevin Smith are having a very public row over Mr. Smith’s latest film, “Clerks II,” which opened last week. Mr. Siegel, a movie critic for “Good Morning America,” made noise — literally — when he walked out of a press screening of the film after just 40 minutes.

“Time to go! First movie I’ve walked out of in 30 … years!” Mr. Siegel said loudly to his fellow critics as he left the screening.

Mr. Smith fired back in a post on his MySpace blog. “[H]is behavior in that screening was unconscionable and professionally unethical, not to mention childishly disruptive,” he wrote.

Perhaps Mr. Smith won’t stop there. If Mr. Siegel isn’t careful, he might just end up as a hapless character in one of the director’s films.

That seems to be in fashion these days. Playwrights, filmmakers and other artists are getting back at the critics who have panned them.

M. Night Shyamalan’s “Lady in the Water,” which also opened last week, features an arrogant film critic played by Bob Balaban who gets a comeuppance of sorts for his intellectual hubris.

Locally, playwright Paula Alprin’s cutting look at a drama critic, “Alice in Underwear,” is being staged by Natural Theatricals at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria through Sunday.

It’s enough to make any critic pause just a little before pulling out the poison pen.

The relationship between artist and critic has always been one of love and hate. Take the friendship between Edmund Wilson, the pre-eminent American literary critic of the 20th century, and Vladimir Nabokov, one of the century’s greatest novelists. Mr. Wilson introduced Mr. Nabokov’s writing to an English-speaking audience, but when the critic panned the artist’s masterpiece, “Lolita,” and his translation of Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin,” the friendship cooled amidst a public feud.

Nevertheless, though Mr. Nabokov wrote ruthlessly about critics and commentators in books such as “Pnin” and “Pale Fire,” he never skewered his old friend. The revenge tradition seems to be stronger in the movie world.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “All About Eve,” set in New York’s theater world, had a go at drama critics. In the 1950 film, the victim is named Addison De Witt and is played by George Sanders. He’s not a sympathetic character: De Witt is a conniving critic drunk on his own power. “Everybody has a heart, except some people,” Bette Davis’ Margo Channing says of De Witt.

Are these portrayals fair? For every manipulative megalomaniac like Addison De Witt, there must be at least 10 Edmund Wilsons, who use their authority to revive flagging careers and give a push to new ones.

Many artists have little respect for the critic’s job. Mr. Smith revealed his disdain in his rant against Mr. Siegel: “… you’re paid to watch movies for a living and the only tasks required of you are to a) sit through said movies and b) write your thoughts about them before your deadline.”

I won’t be silly enough to claim that being a critic is as difficult as brain surgery or as strenuous as manual labor. But it has its own burdens.

While many workers go through a list of assigned tasks each day, often without really thinking about them, writers come to work each morning to a blank page they must fill, regardless of whether inspiration hits. While other people punch out at the end of the day, our work is always with us. We never stop thinking about art, the filmmakers’ or our own.

Most of us are in this business because we’re passionate about art. (There may be something to the adage that those who can’t, write about those who can.) The pay isn’t very good, the shot at eminence is long; you would be stupid to get into journalism for fame and fortune.

Critics don’t enter the theater eager to tear down and destroy someone else’s accomplishment. They enter the theater eager to be blown away, impressed, moved.

Too often, we’re not. For every “Citizen Kane,” there are a hundred “Scary Movie 4”s. Sometimes we can’t help but funnel our frustration into our reviews. We give thousands of hours of our time to filmmakers; we expect something in return.

Sometimes we get it. After all, the artist and the critic need each other to survive. Mr. Shyamalan wouldn’t be where he is today without all the laudatory reviews of his masterpiece, “The Sixth Sense.” Critics wouldn’t have an opportunity to practice their own small art if not for the work of those they’re reviewing.

However fraught the artist-critic relationship, it’s a necessary one. Do you hear that, Kevin Smith and Joel Siegel? Maybe they already have. After all, their feud has succeeded in creating free publicity for both Mr. Smith’s film and Mr. Siegel’s reputation.

It sounds like just the sort of thing Addison De Witt and the manipulative aspiring actress Eve Harrington might have devised in “All About Eve.”

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