Critics: Anton Ego and Mr. Cranky

There was a time when I didn’t know what a film or restaurant critic was. These were in the halcyon days of my youth, when I would go to restaurants or movies in New York City with my mother, the internet didn’t exist, and the only critics I knew about were “us.” [Of course, my mother, being a stage and commercial actress was well acquainted with reviews since the earliest days of her dramatic career, beginning in the 1920s (I think she appeared in an elementary school play at age 4), but she charitably kept me insulated from their mercuriality.]

We had successes and failures. As I have written about before, we loved Fonda del Sol, Xochitl, Mamma Leone’s, Proof of the Pudding, and many others.

We loved Peter Sellers as a comedian, but when we went to see “Only Two can Play,” my mother was mortified and I – at age 11 – was uncomfortable – we left the theater and mom demanded a refund.

Bottom line, we knew what we liked.

Then came the electronic age, with Rotten Tomatoes, Flixster, Yelp!, Wikipedia, UrbanSpoon (much better than Yelp, but sadly defunct), and access to reviews from hundreds of sources. And because these things are highly subjective and largely a matter of personal opinion¹, reviews varied widely from one pole to the other, and I often found that if reviews of a movie were negative I would come away from a movie I had enjoyed, wondering what the critics were talking about.

The best summation of a critic’s rôle I think I ever heard came in the beautiful soliloquy of Anton Ego in the dénouement of “Ratatouille,” for which credit must be given to the inestimable Brad Bird:

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau’s soon, hungry for more.

Over time I came to see that most critics indeed would shred films because negative publicity got more traction, more buzz, or in modern parlance, more clicks – and hence more exposure for their particular brand. (There were exceptions of course – Siskel and Ebert’s point/counterpoint usually gave a good feel for consensus, and the Deseret News’ Chris Hicks tried to be honest without being snarky, meaning that I usually found myself in agreement with his assessments.)

But without question, the most savage movie reviewer of all time was Mr. Cranky, otherwise known as Jason Katzman.

cranky

From 1996 until 2008, Mr. Cranky reveled in writing the snarkiest, most deprecatory reviews one could imagine. His rating scale was only negative, with “one bomb” being the best one could hope for:

bombs

I once wrote to him, asking if there were any movies he liked, and he responded, “I don’t like movies.” As I learned when his website came to a close, this was simply part of his online persona. Much was revealed in his departing essay, making clear that his efforts over time were less about shredding movies than they were about shredding reviews and reviewers in general. I reproduce the entire essay below:

Mr. Cranky says “Goodbye!”

MESSAGE FROM YOUR HOST: In the summer of 1995, Hans Bjordahl and I were sitting in a friend’s dining room drinking beer when he posed this question: “Do you have any good ideas for a web site?” Hans was the creative director for a small internet firm about to build its first internet mall. I was the film critic for a local newspaper. After a few more beers for creative inspiration, Mr. Cranky was born.
The site began building in October of 1995 and was launched in February of 1996. It was an instant hit and the mall’s most frequented property. Traffic skyrocketed within the first three months. Emails came in fast and furious. Some were actually furious – mad at Mr. Cranky for trashing some recent film. There were death threats. However, most emails were ecstatic, thrilled that finally somebody was out there not blowing smoke up the ass of Hollywood, but dragging it over the coals for its failures. Mr. Cranky received mention in “The New York Times”, “The Guardian”, and many, many others. We were the “Cool Site of the Week”. When books printed lists of the best movie web sites, we were on them. The phone started ringing with offers of advertising revenue and such.

Much of the reward for doing Mr. Cranky all these years has been the excitement it created. There was a lot going on during the 1990’s and we frequently found ourselves in the midst of all kinds of developments. We were flown to San Francisco and wined and dined by an up and coming Internet company. We had our pictures taken for the Hollywood issue of “Vanity Fair”. We found ourselves with an agent and discussing book deals. Like most things that seem “pie in the sky” when you hear them, most of them fizzled out. Like most things, the excitement was never met by the potential financial rewards that seem to be mentioned in the same breath. That being said, Mr. Cranky did turn into a pleasant hobby with a small financial reward at the end of the year.

Even after the end of the Internet boom, Mr. Cranky still got by. We were excited to be picked up by “Redeye” in Chicago, a new type of daily directed at Gen Y. The feature was so well received that the editor of the Chicago Tribune mentioned it in one of her meetings. Google contacted us to assign our account its own ad representative – something they probably do for most accounts or groups of accounts, but still, it made us feel important.

Well, as they say, all good things…. Let’s face it, Mr. Cranky has been dying a slow death for a number of years now. It’s increasingly irrelevant, if not completely irrelevant. We’d rather sign off before that becomes the case and we’re probably already too late. Are there other reasons? Well, it’s not bringing in the revenue it once did. The time it takes to keep the site going is substantial. There’s too much other stuff to do. When I first started writing Mr. Cranky, I would sometimes see 8 movies in a week and make 6 trips to Denver from Boulder (70 miles RT). That was great when gas was $1.99. Now, not so much.

Before we retire Mr. Cranky, there are some questions that seem worth answering. Did one person write all the reviews? The answer: about 98% of the reviews were written by me, Jason Katzman. The other 2% were written by others, but mostly Hans, who took up the mantle when I was too tired or had a conflict. Not a single person ever figured out who wrote what even though we got many emails from people asking where “the real Mr. Cranky had gone”. In every instance, they were comparing two reviews I had written, just in very different styles.

Another question that was asked of me often was “Are there any movies you like?” I’m proud to say I never once answered that question and we never tried to pander to the people who just didn’t get it. Not only are there movies I like, I usually enjoy most movies in some way, shape or form. It’s actually pretty rare when I watch a film that has no redeeming value. Is there anybody out there who really thinks that I would spend as much time as I do watching movies if I didn’t enjoy it?

That being said, the reasons we started Mr. Cranky are more than simply “we like to make fun of people”. There are the simple ones, like we wanted to reject the culture of celebrity worship, which is utterly repulsive. Unfortunately, it’s only grown larger since Mr. Cranky started. During my time as a film critic, I did tons of interviews and went on lots of junkets. I can tell you, generally-speaking, most actors aren’t that interesting and aren’t that smart and will rarely tell you the truth about something, particularly what they think about another person in the industry (there are some exceptions, of course: John Sayles, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Guillermo del Toro come to mind. There are also the few stars one meets before they’re stars. I met Kate Winslet when she was 19, before the release of “Heavenly Creatures” and she told a story that I doubt she ever repeated).

A less obvious reason we started Mr. Cranky also emanates from some of these experiences. Film critics, in general (myself included), are full of themselves. They believe that their opinions actually matter. They also believe that somehow there’s a right and a wrong when it comes to film criticism. Mr. Cranky was started to thwart that notion by making fun of film critics and film criticism and pointing out that film writing could be subjective to the point of a critic who didn’t like anything. Besides, if these junkets proved one thing, it’s that most film critics could be swayed by nothing more than a plate of donuts (watching a group of largely fat film critics charge toward a free plate of food while in the midst of a junket in which they’re supposed to form unbiased opinions of the film is its own form of hell). And if the Internet has proved one salient Mr. Cranky point, it’s that anyone can be a film critic. The forums were put in place for just this reason. Mr. Cranky was the first site to invite the reader to challenge the film critic, in fact, to make that challenge a founding principle of the site.

And how could I depart without mentioning the site’s many fans – the Crankizens. There’s no doubt that the activity in the forums have powered the site over the years and become larger-than-life and something we never expected. Over the years, I’ve met a fair number of fans of the site and have been overwhelmed by it all. One of the people I met and befriended through Mr. Cranky is now a successful screenwriter in Hollywood. Early on, a fan from Perth, Australia embarked on a Mr. Cranky World Tour, visiting various places around the world populated by Mr. Cranky fans, culminating with a surprise visit by me in Los Angeles. Then there were the numerous Crankycons that spawned. I went to two: one in Toronto and one in Cedar Point in Ohio where I rode every roller coaster I was challenged to ride (keeping my cool on the world’s fastest, highest coaster, I might add). Heck, people met on Mr. Cranky and got married. I was truly humbled by the invitations and the interest in Mr. Cranky.

And we don’t want to completely close the door on this whole thing. For dedicated Crankizens, there is one sliver of hope: August 31 is our deadline to discontinue the site, but also the deadline to see if there’s any last-ditch means of selling or saving it. We’ve had ‘big plans’ for Cranky 2.0 many times over, but other priorities (not the least among them our “day jobs”) have always intervened, and at some point you’ve just gotta break that cycle and put up or shut up. Serious inquiries along those lines (i.e. those backed by serious levels of funding or remuneration) should be directed to mrcranky@mrcranky.com. Until that time, there won’t be anymore reviews, but the site and the “Goodbye Mr. Cranky” forum will be open for fans to search and recall the past.

Thanks to Randall Gaz for keeping the site going all these years. Thanks to Holley Irvine for all her design work. Thanks to Hans Bjordahl for all the hard work and 12 years of a partnership that was 99% fun with virtually no conflict whatsoever. And most of all, thanks to all the Mr. Cranky readers past and present who made writing Mr. Cranky so rewarding. It’s been a pleasure. We feel like Mr. Cranky introduced a certain style into the Internet world and we hope to hear Mr. Cranky mentioned when the history of the web is written. If not, we’ll be sure to contact whoever is doing the mentioning and tell them to stick it where the sun don’t shine as only Mr. Cranky can.

The site is now passworded, but thanks to the miracle of the Wayback Machine, all of Mr. Cranky’s reviews are still accessible; if it ever comes to the Zombie Apocalypse and our electronic information vanishes, 100 of his most snarky reviews were published in a dead-tree edition. The reviews are interesting to peruse, especially the one-bomb category – if Cranky “hated a movie less than most,” it was usually guaranteed to be pretty good. That said, we didn’t always agree. The most scathing review he ever wrote was of “I am Sam,” and I thought that was a pretty tender film. (Note: Don’t read it if you either like the movie or have a sensitive soul.)

Nowadays, Rotten Tomatoes gives one a pretty good idea of which way the wind is blowing. A movie can have good critic reviews but be reviled by the general public, or vice versa. But for myself, it’s rare that I’ll read a review one way or another and decide to see or not see a movie based on critics’ opinions; I’ll generally give more credence to how the movie was received by viewers.

And in the end, like Mr. Cranky said, there are few movies that I don’t like on some level or other. Only rarely do I see a film and say at the end of it, “I want those two hours of my life back.” The last one to do that to both me and my wife was “The Lobster,” despite its 87% rating at RT, but an earlier one I actually took the time to write up myself at my Livejournal was “A Sound of Thunder;” my wife agreed.

Mercifully, those are few and far between.

The Old Wolf has spoken.


¹ My opinions about food are, in the eyes of many people, questionable. Visit my Banquet from Hell for a taste.

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