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Curse of the Rabbit-Eared

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2012-05-21


Besides being the busiest film actor of his generation, Samuel L. Jackson is also indisputably the coolest — his onscreen persona, a perfect blend of machismo, droll humor, live-wire menace, crackling energy, and surprising emotional complexity has made him a-one-of a-kind performer, totally magnetic, totally dangerous. Totally cool. Even in his bad films — and the sheer volume of his work guarantees that he's made more than a few — he never loses his iconic stature, he's never diminished by the bum dialogue or dodginess of the lesser material. He remains, irreducibly, a movie star, even though he generally does his best work in supporting roles.

Amazingly, this terrific actor has only been nominated for an Academy Award once, and that was for his career-making turn as the gangster Jules in Pulp Fiction. (He lost that year to Martin Landau, for "Ed Wood;" a typical Oscar travesty, one of those "career achievement" awards that the Academy likes to hand out. Nothing against Landau, but I can't remember a second of that performance, while virtually every moment of Jules in "Pulp Fiction" is alive, indelible.) It should be noted that Jackson also has one of the great voices in film, and his incendiary rants (particularly in Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown) are often explosively funny. Nobody handles pejoratives like Jackson, he swears better than anyone, and his scatological outbursts are frequently the most quoted lines in his films. Further proof of his complete, manifest coolness.

So it was distressing to discover that such a transcendently cool actor would choose to ally himself so completely with a bunch of fan-boy movie fans. Jackson called on supporters of his current blockbuster, Marvel's The Avengers, to give the business to New York Times film critic A.O. Scott. Scott had produced one of the few mildly negative reviews for the film, and Jackson took umbrage — on his Twitter account, Jackson tweeted, "#Avenger fans, NY Times critic AO Scott needs a new job! Let's help him find one! One he can ACTUALLY do!" I should point out that Scott's review was hardly savage, it was more of a wearied critic's response to the bombast that typifies so many Hollywood blockbusters.

Maybe I've confused Samuel Jackson's persona with his true nature, but I was kind of hoping he'd be above this sort of thing. It's surprising to learn that such a pre-eternally cool persona could have such typical, easily-offended, actor's rabbit ears, especially when the film in question has reached almost universal critical acclaim (on RottenTomatoes.com, The Avengers received a 93% favorable rating from all critics.) Outside of Scott, I could only come up with two reviews from major publications that were negative, Anthony Lane's from The New Yorker, and Andrew O'Hehir's very funny dismissal of the superhero genre on Salon.com. ("If you're not much of a Marvel Comics person but want to get an early start on your mindless summer moviegoing," O'Hehir wrote, "well, I guess this picture is no stupider than anything else.")

I was hoping that Samuel Jackson, the person, would respond to criticism like Samuel Jackson, the persona — namely, by not responding at all. In my mind, I could see him silently cashing the billion-dollar check, and then using the money in some typically cool way, like buying another home in Malibu or a motorboat or adding a new wall to his massive French wine cellar. To see him tumble down from the mountaintop and call out the basement-dwelling dweebs who populate the screenings of comic-book films seems a violation of his ultra-cool essence.

Jackson's response reminds me of another highly visible Hollywood player who also took offense at one of the few dissenting voices who questioned his recent project. In 1998, James Cameron, director of the uber-successful Titanic, was outraged that LA Times critic Kenneth Turan hated his film, and so he took out an ad in the paper attacking the critic and also e-mailed the editors of the Times, requesting that Turan be fired. Fortunately, the editors ignored his plea, and eventually even allowed Turan to review Cameron's subsequent film, the massive success Avatar, a film that Turan surprisingly gave an unqualified rave.

When you look at Cameron's actions, you have to wonder, just how much affirmation does the guy need? Titanic made $600 million dollars, it won an entire wheel-barrowful load of Oscars, it was met with almost universal critical acclaim. . . the guy couldn't sweat out one negative review? Good Lord, if I get one positive response for every negative blast that I receive for something I've written, I feel like I've been granted eternal life. But Cameron not only had to get one pat on the back, he had to get every pat on the back from every set of arms. If this isn't the purest expression of megalomania from a major artist, then I don't know what is. Maybe it is an old, hoary aphorism and cliche, but "You can't please everyone" still applies to every writer, painter, musician, actor, director.

It's never a good idea for artists to get so bent out of shape over a lone bad review, especially when the work in question is a roaring financial success. I will always hate Meryl Streep for claiming that the only people who didn't like "Mamma Mia!" were bitter, old-fogy, gray-haired film critics, guys who hated life and couldn't understand the universal crowd-pleasing charms of the life-affirming, mammoth musical hit. I fully admit that I am, indeed, a bitter, old-fogy, gray-haired misanthrope, but that isn't why I hated Mamma Mia! — no, I hated Mamma Mia! because it stinks on ice, always has, always will, and it represents a career low for every actor involved.

So thank God for A.O. Scott, for Anthony Lane, for Andrew O'Hehir, for anybody who's willing to buck the trend of current critical thought. I get the feeling that these contrarians might be on to something, namely, that the overwhelmingly positive notices for 2012's big hits, The Avengers and The Hunger Games, might not be warranted. In a few years, when a little perspective creeps in, it's a good bet that neither film will be as well thought of. But we're in the midst of the dominating force of the huge franchised blockbuster, the movies that people want to be a part of, the movies that people camp out for. It is a phenomenon that began in 2001, when the initial Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies debuted, and it's not going away anytime soon. (Ready for Thor 2; Captain America 2; The Avengers 2?) People are so enraptured with the idea of liking the "event" movie that they'll refuse to question whether the event is really any good.

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