When the Critic Met the Star: A Movieline Ethics Seminar
LAT critic Kenneth Turan offered an interesting piece on Sunday addressing one of the dirty little secrets of film criticism and journalism in general: Conflicts of interest when it comes to covering the work of "people I know well." The occasion was the upcoming L.A. release of The Exploding Girl, which Turan wanted to support based on the lead performance of Zoe Kazan -- the daughter of Hollywood lifers (and Turan pals) Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord. "I haven't just seen all of Zoe's film work and much of what she's done on stage," Turan wrote. "[I]f I had to I could comment knowledgeably on her key role in the Windward High School production of Little Shop of Horrors." And self-imposed rules and basic journalistic ethics be damned, he's going to review her indie breakthrough anyway. I think I have a problem with this.
Look, every critic and/or reporter deals with this kind of situation at some point. Some more obsequious types (you know who you are) literally trade on their relationships with talent and creatives, who themselves often attempt to leverage whatever relationships they can exploit to boost visibility and buzz. This has been happening -- and will continue to happen -- forever. Parasites will be parasites.
Yet it's odd to see Turan so conspicuously acknowledge it in the Times, particularly when his readers are sophisticated enough to know as much (and even participate in it) and particularly when print media have long lorded their professional scruples over the Web. I take it to mean a few things: He's out of touch with his audience, and he may be in that stage of his career where he just doesn't give a crap what you or I think of his self-admitted lapses. But I'm especially taken with the canny calculation of it all -- Turan clearly would rather get blamed for carrying Kazan's water today than called out for hiding their lifelong relationship after a glowing review. In fact, he even argues that their association makes him perhaps even more qualified to review Exploding Girl:
Watching Zoe's beautifully modulated work as the shy, quiet 20-year-old Ivy made me feel that knowing her was an advantage in this case because it gave me additional insight into how good a performance this is. Since what she does plays out with perfect naturalness, it would be tempting to hypothesize that, after all those other, busier movies, Zoe at last has the chance to be herself. Except that knowing her makes it unmistakable that this is nothing of the kind, that this is the kind of highly controlled, delicate work that is some of the hardest kind of acting to pull off.
On the one hand, at least Turan has the balls to come out and say what virtually every other film critic/journalist secretly does to varying degrees. On the other, you just know he'd never call a friend out for phoning in a performance or taking a Paycheck Role or having poor chemistry with his/her co-star. He wants to support Girl on an "objective" basis, but he also wants to express an extra level of personal resonance to which 99 percent of readers are incapable of relating. Well, which is it? Like, how's this for full disclosure: I avoided covering The Exploding Girl not because I'm casually acquainted with director Bradley Rust Gray and his wife/collaborator So Yong Kim, but because it bored me to death, and as a small indie, it doesn't need the bad press. But I'm not going to tell you that Brad and So Yong are awesome and never mind because none of this has any reflection on them. Of course it has no reflection on them. It's just one movie, nothing personal.
That said, L'Affaire Turan raises significant questions about just how close film journalists should allow themselves to be to the talent they cover. For example, it's bad enough to go to a junket and face the autograph- and photo-seeking sycophantic scourge head-on, but at least that behavior ultimately suggests a distance -- several degrees of removal, thank God -- from the objects of their affection. The privilege of access means something. By extension, that removal means even more: It's the only true route to objectivity, despite Turan's crafty hints to the contrary. Take away the access entirely, either by choice or by PR fiat, and a sort of environmental purity does influence the work that comes out of it. Call it a bubble or whatever, but its results are almost always more beneficial to the writer, the subject and, most importantly, the readers we're all doing this for in the first place. After all, there's a reason why Ben Lyons is Ben Lyons and Manohla Dargis is Manohla Dargis; their critical faculties are only part of it.
I would toss a modest proposal in here pledging a clean break between reporters/critics and actors, but that's not realistic. But I have to wonder if it's just me, or did Turan break more than his own self-imposed rule against covering the work of friends? It seems kind of epically misguided, not least of all to couch it in this context of, "I know this is wrong, but is it really?" Yes, Ken. Your first impression is usually correct, and if you spend more time rationalizing the ethics of the act you set out to do in the first place, then you are in all likelihood doing something wrong. Maybe I'm old-fashioned? Do readers even care? All I really know is that this kind of thing makes me want to never leave the house again, just to make it even.