On Sunday morning, about 4 a.m. Los Angeles time, Shia LaBeouf sent me a direct message on Twitter. Three of them, actually: One with a link to Twitter's "Short of the week" feed, the second with a password-protected Vimeo link, and a third reading simply:
The Vimeo link led to a copy of LaBoeuf's short film HowardCantour.com, which turns out to be a portrait of an online film critic, played by comedian Jim Gaffigan.
The premise naturally set off alarm bells. Although most critics don't see their job as an adversarial one, Hollywood actors and directors often do: Think the vicious end M. Night Shyamalan devises for a know-it-all film buff, inexplicably named for critic Manny Farber, in The Lady in the Water, Roland Emmerich's nasty caricature of Roger Ebert in Godzilla, or George Lucas naming Willow's villain after Pauline Kael, who was infamously not a fan of the Star Wars series. While many of my colleagues embraced Ratatouille's scowling food critic Anton Ego (voiced by the late Peter O'Toole), especially the moment where a well-prepared dish sends him zooming back to the pleasures of childhood, the underlying implication was that creators, like The Incredibles' superheroic family, are a breed apart, and that it's the role of critics and other mere humans to praise them when they do well and keep their mouths shut otherwise. (It's not, of course, that all filmmakers feel that way, but the ones who don't never seem moved to portray critics onscreen.)
So when HowardCantour.com opened with Gaffigan, in voiceover, proclaiming "A critic is a warrior," I braced myself for the downhill slide. There he was, cradling movie-theater popcorn between his legs as he sat behind the wheel of a video-game car, fulfilling the stereotype of the gluttonous, immature writer who uses entertainment to escape his humdrum life.
"Most critics," he goes on," will give any movie three and a half stars if it flatters their self-image. I take it much more seriously. Have you ever noticed how most critics usually disagree with the public? That should tell you a lot about critics."
But then, HowardCantour.com -- which, as my colleague Kiva Reardon points out, is an uncredited adaptation of Daniel Clowes' comic "Justin M. Damiano" -- starts to take some surprising turns. For one, it turns out that Howard, contrary to the elitist tone of his earlier voice-over, is something of a populist, despairing of "directors with their never-ending view of sordid humanity" and openly championing escapism. "If I want reality, I'll watch Cheaters With Joey Greco."
Update: BuzzFeed reports that Clowes was unaware of the short until it hit the web today. Given that most of HowardCantour.com's dialogue is taken word-for-word from Clowes' strip, this should be interesting. See Criticwire's story about LaBeouf's admission that he used Clowes' work without permission.
The crux of the short is an unexpected encounter between Howard and director played by Fighting's Dito Montiel. Howard has come to loath his work, with its "Everyone's immoral except for me because I wear a turtleneck" philosophy. But as his web-based rival Thomas Lennon gleefully points out, Howard once wrote an article in a defunct publication called Cactus Culture (nice touch) praising him. But rather than merely reflecting hypocrisy, Howard's apparent about-face turns out to be a function of a former relationship: Basically, he wrote the article to impress a girl. After meeting the director, whom he doesn't seem to speak to, Howard hesitates over posting his negative review, but after musing about "a cinema of collective wish-fulfillment," he does it anyway, giving a kind of ambiguously heroic integrity.
HowardCantour.com hasn't really been reshaped to fit the screen instead of the comic-book page, and its visual style isn't abstract enough to pull off Clowes' trademark brand of existential despair. But it does, for once, treat a movie critic like a human being, albeit one with serious flaws and a fairly incoherent aesthetic philosophy. So Shia, feel free to DM me any time.