Call him Media Mike.
He doesn’t really exist. He was the invention of Owen Gleiberman and his former friend from Entertainment Weekly, David Browne.
Said Gleiberman to his friend Browne, with some movies it’s like “some guy sitting there in a little room, surrounded by computer consoles, with a microphone in front of him, and he tells everyone exactly what to think.” His name, offered Browne, is “Media Mike.”
He was a “running metaphor. He was the Dweeb Buddha of Groupthink and he practically became a real person to us! ‘Media Mike is not wild about R.E.M.’s new album’ we would say. ‘But for some unfathomable reason he suddenly loves Mariah Carey.’ ‘He thinks Will Smith is cool now.’ ‘Mike is deeply suspect of how “Reality Bites” got sold to Gen X. In the case of that movie they wouldn’t stand for any of the marketing crap’ … He says you aren’t allowed to dislike Arcade Fire.”
Gleiberman explains: “The difference between an honest majority and a Media Mike majority was like the old definition of pornography: hard to define but you know it when you saw it. You could just about smell when there was an overly collective, from-the-top-down agreement in pop culture, and an honestly diverse range of opinion was suddenly deafening in its absence.”
Gleiberman and Browne first conceived of Media Mike when Gleiberman gave a “respectful but dismissive review of ‘Apollo 13’ ” but then noticed the “collective hosanna of praise” which “left me feeling like I had seen a different film.”
The volume of dweeby groupthink among critics is one of the trade’s bigger, older and more shameful secrets. To give you one example, look at the rose petals strewn by critics in the path of the movie “Gone Girl” despite the fact that the film was merely a nicely performed and pedigreed crime thriller and very little more.
Here’s an even better example: If you are at all up to date on coverage of books in American media, you have no doubt seen all the serious attention paid to A.O. Scott’s book “Better Living Through Criticism.” (Reviewed by me in The News in early February.)
Scott’s book is a mess but an interesting one – alternately tedious and academic for long stretches and colloquial, smart and engaging in others. But Scott has the cachet of being the New York Times chief movie critic. And his publisher is conspicuously behind him too, as well as other academics. (Scott teaches at Wesleyan. The dust flap of the book informs he’s the “Distinguished Professor of Film” there.)
On the other hand, Media Mike has said little, if anything, about Gleiberman’s book – certainly not with the same kind of high profile.
So let me add my still, small voice to the chorus and nominate Gleiberman’s “Movie Freak: My Life Watching Movies” (Hachette Books, 338 pages, $28) as the best book yet written specifically about the life of being a working movie critic. It is also the best journalistic memoir from a critic since James Wolcott’s 2011 memoir “Lucking Out”.
The book begins “If you have any notion that this profession is, on some essential level, ridiculous, that it’s simply far beyond all shame, and that those of us who do it are slackers dignified by their salaries … well to quote Martin Sheen in ‘Apocalypse, Now’ you’re absolutely (expletive) right. The role of the professional movie critic is, more or less, the cushiest job that Western Civilization ever coughed up. Maybe that’s one reason why criticism is now dwindling; as Western Civilization declines, so go the people who were fortunate enough to make a living not creating art or entertainment, but evaluating it.” (Scott makes the obvious counterargument that criticism, in its own way, is both an art and an entertainment, too.)
Gleiberman was, for 25 years, the movie critic for Entertainment Weekly, until he was let go. Before that he was the movie critic for the Boston Phoenix. He now works for BBC.com.
Neither Gleiberman nor Scott are among the greatest living film critics in English language journalism. Nor, for that matter, was Roger Ebert, even at his best toward the end of his life when he was truly great. My preference, among those still living, is The Three Davids: Thomson, Edelstein and Denby (who no longer reviews movies regularly anywhere).
I found “Movie Freak” an amazingly frank and startling piece of work for anyone who cares about media in America. Gleiberman writes of his difficulties with his father, his “attention” to porn (even though it was “drenched in shame”), the office politics of the Boston Phoenix (where getting fired was “my own damn fault”) and Entertainment Weekly and “the perils of Paulette-ism” (that is, the dangers of being inspired and nurtured and mothered by Pauline Kael. See Wolcott’s “Lucking Out” also). This is an obsessive man, candid enough to tell you he’s seen Michael Mann’s “Manhunter” at least 50 times.
What happened to his profession is a matter of perception more than necessity, he says. It resulted from: 1. “The Internet, touted as a liberator, now squashes art with overkill.” 2. “The New Renaissance era of television, while all too genuine, is also about the re-embrace of our status as (cautious) couch potatoes.” and 3) “Reality has now conquered Art.”
A thoroughly remarkable book that explains more than any other its current subject.
Tell Media Mike, will you? He needs to know.