07 April 2013

Mr. Squish, movie-reviewing sell-out.

Back in the early 1990s, Universal Pictures probably got tired of all the one-star reviews the professionals were giving them for their insipid, stupid movies. Because instead of tucking into their TV ads the typical “Heywood Jablome of the Saskatoon Auto Trader gives it five hubcaps!” they began showing a camera crew asking average citizens, as they came out of the theater, what they thought of the movie they just watched.

Now, be realistic: If you come out of a movie theater and there’s a camera crew, and they’re gonna put you in one of their national TV commericals if you give their movie movie a positive review, and you really want to be on TV, what are the chances you’re gonna give them a bad review? Many a struggling actor would perform foul, unspeakable acts for the very glimmer of hope to be on national TV. In comparison, it’s way easier to just slap a big fake grin on your face and say, “Mannequin 2: On the Move was the best comedy I’ve seen in, like, ever.” Souls are easily sold cheap this way.

I expect that was precisely what Universal was counting on. So—rather than pull the word “Clever!” out of the sentence

If I were a clever man, I’d have gone to the dentist for my root canal before attending this movie, this time gratefully accepting such a massive hit of nitrous oxide that I’d be fuddled beyond the reach of compehending thought for the next 20 hours, for it’s the only way to watch this movie; as it is, I did it the other way round and was tortured unnecessarily both places.

…then project it full-screen over some scene from their infected anal gland of a movie—they just showed clip after clip of over-enthisastic movie-goers shouting, “Oh, it was awesome. I loved it. I would watch it again.” Because you can always find people who are willing to lie for the camera.

Leonard Squish is no exception.

Mr. Squish, CSUS Hornet, March 1991.

You may recall how I just established that Leonard is now a movie critic. I figured it was time to show him in action. His new job consists of going to movie previews with anonymous mustachioed guys (I never did turn that other fellow he’s with into a regular character; for all we know he’s Leonard’s bi-curious date) and eating from massive tubs of popcorn. Obviously that tub Leonard is carrying in the first panel is an exaggeration. But not by much.

At the time I drew this strip, I’d never yet written a movie review. But I had been to plenty of movie previews. One of the perqs of being the Arts & Features editor of a newspaper is all the free (or comped) tickets which people offer you so you’ll publicize their events. For far too many student journalists, that’s the real reason they want to work on the school paper: Freebies.

Well, when I became the A&F editor, I took away a lot of those freebies. Not to hoard them for myself, but to give them to people who could actually write. If you’ve ever read a high school or college newspaper—heck, if you’ve ever read your local newspaper—you’ll notice how most reviews are rather poorly written. The reviewers will talk about how they love (or dislike) this particular restaurant, movie, book, play, or what have you… but when they have to explain just why they love or dislike it, words fail them. They can’t articulate it. They can’t describe what they found off-putting or enjoyable. Sometimes it’s because they’re afraid to say—they don’t want to offend the director or the restauranteur for hating their work. Sometimes it’s because they have a low opinion of their own ability to critique. But most of the time, it’s because they simply don’t know how to defend their own likes and dislikes. They just wanted to watch a free movie, or eat a free meal, and figure, “How hard is it to say ‘It was good’ or ‘It sucks’?”

Long tangent short, I picked three fellows, based on their clips and what they liked to write about. I picked my assistant Warren to write on music, a fellow named John to watch movies, and another fellow named Brian to visit nightclubs. There weren’t enough plays to have a regular critic, and I dropped the TV reviews altogether, ’cause my thinking was, “TV is free; we’re not saving Sac State students any money by warning them (after the fact), ‘Don’t watch that new sitcom!’; and we can of course use that space for other articles.” So I just had the three regular reviewers, and gave them, and only them, those beats. They did great. Although Brian found his job a lot more stressful than he ever expected: Many nightclubs expected to be publicized, not reviewed, and were furious that Brian dared to critique them. We lost some advertising, and were threatened with lawsuits over it. But big deal: Brian did an outstanding job exposing some of the clubs which regularly exploited Sac State students’ quest for a good time, and didn’t deliver.

Whenever we got free tickets, our reviewer got both of them. I didn’t mind if they brought dates. But our reviewers weren’t big on the dating scene, so half the time they took me to their functions. John dragged me to a movie preview or two, and Warren to a concert or two. But since I was still only 19, there was no clubbing for me unless baby seals were involved.

Round about this time, John and I had gone to the Crest Theatre to see Universal’s advance preview of The Hard Way, an amusing little flick about an movie star (played by Michael J. Fox) who was preparing for a role in a movie by following around an irritated cop (played by James Woods). On our way out of the Crest, we joked about the chances of a Universal film crew acosting us and asking us what we thought of the movie.

“What would you tell them?” I asked John.

“I’d tell them I liked it.”

“Because you actually like it, or just to get on TV?”

“I wouldn’t say I like something just to get on television.”

“I might,” I said. “But I’d say something ludicrous like, ‘Best picture since Citizen Kane!’ That way people who know movies would immediately realize I’m not to be trusted as a reviewer. Or I’d fake being drunk: ‘Bess picture…’ [doing a lame impersonation of Dudley Moore in Arthur; Russell Brand was fifteen at the time, you know] ‘…It was awesome…’ [now pretending to be on the verge of regurgitation; swallowing; grinning weakly] ‘…So good.’ Like that.”

But there was no camera crew. No chance to pretend to nearly chunder all over the camera for a commercial of The Hard Way.

No problem, though. I drew a strip about it, which was just as amusing.

Still, John had standards, and I would just goof around. But there are plenty of people who would do precisely as Leonard did, and tell the camera just what the studio wants to hear. Because it’s TV. You’ve seen reality TV. Most of us would (and literally have) take a tack hammer to the gonads for the chance to be on TV. Even people who are already on TV. I think some of the reason why various local TV personalities act like squirrels on cocaine is because they’re hoping someone, anyone, on the national level is going to see their antics and bump them up to the big show. Anything for fame, and jibbering for a shiny new product, whether it be the latest Hollywood schlock, the results of a taste test, some new cosmetic, or what have you, is not all that high a price for fame. It’s certainly a cheaper price than letting a skeevy producer paw you, or compromising every shred of artistic dignity you once had simply so your show could be on a network, or signing a contract that obligates you to make one decent movie or album or book, followed by five frothy glasses of Hollywood chum.

I could go on, but I don’t wanna.