The Big Sick
Finds that laughter-through-tears sweet spot, often in the unlikeliest of places.
Breathless reports have swooped around the web about John Anderson, film critic for Variety, pounding the legendary publicist Jeff Dowd (aka The Dude) at Sundance. There was a jab to the chest! One to the shoulder! Dowd kept his guard down! A punch to the head! Anderson turned and walked away, then came back and threw his best right to the jaw!
I have this blow-by-blow account from The Dude himself. Park City Police Officer Bob deBotelho responded after a call from the Yarrow restaurant, collected eyewitness testimony, and offered to arrest Anderson. But the Dude declined to press changes, magnanimously explaining his forbearance: "I like John, I think he is a good journalist and critic and a person who is a dad and someone who cares about our planet and future. And I don't think he is a danger to society or would inflict violence on women."
Why didn't The Dude, who is a towering giant, fight back? He explained in his e-mail: "I stood there with my hands at my sides. I am a wrestler and an activist and we are trained to keep our hands down so as a wrestler we can tackle someone if necessary and as an activist so our hands raised won't be mis-interpreted as a possible attack position."
The Dude at Sundance 2006 (All photos by Ebert)
What was the fight about? A documentary named "Dirt! The Movie," which was explained to Spout.com's Karina Longworth by one of its makers, Bill Benenson: "[It] tells the story of humans trying to re-connect to Dirt--the living skin of the earth. For thousands of years we humans got along very well with this magical matrix of all life on land. Then we grew apart."
In the Sundance online description, the film "possesses both a cosmic perspective that reaches into the vastness of time and space, and the kind of warm, earnest energy that inspires small revolutions inside human hearts."
As a friend of The Dude over the years, I must say that description sounds uncannily like something he might himself have written. Jeff Dowd, I must tell you, is
perhaps the most enthusiastic and passionate film publicist on earth. Dowd was hammered in the forge of 1960s radicalism, and if he accepts a film, it becomes a Cause. He is rivaled only by Mickey Cottrell and Bobby Zarem (who was played by Al Pacino in "People I know"), but they are handicapped by better manners. When The Dude is publicizing your film at a festival, that film gets PUBLICIZED! Steven Spielberg could be having a premiere at the same festival, and all you'd hear about would be "Dirt! the Movie."
The Dude got his nickname because he worked on behalf of the Coen Brothers on their first feature, "Blood Simple," and it's said that in their film "The Big Lebowski," the Jeff Bridges character (aka The Dude) was inspired by him. The Dude's friends might consider the Coen version a little dialed down. The Dude operates like a tout at a race track. One year at Sundance I was still getting my car from Hertz and I heard his voice in my ear: "The biggest film here is going to be 'The Blair Witch Project'." He describes himself as a Rep. It's not always clear if he's Repping a producer, a director, or what. Often he will even Rep a film he is not the Rep for, just like a tout will tip you to a sure thing just to improve his rep.
Dude and Duder: Jeff Bridges, who played "The Dude" in the Coen Brothers' "The Big Lebowski," with the original Dude at Toronto 2000
Now you might well ask why John Anderson, a respected critic, would walk up to Dowd and start pounding him in a Park City restaurant--and at breakfast, not late at night. I have deliberately not sought out Anderson's side of the story, because I do not require it. Having The Dude's version and knowing Anderson a little, I will supply Anderson's thoughts myself. After all, Ronald Reagan started by improvising play-by-play broadcasts of baseball games while reading off the Western Union ticker, and he went on to be President. Why can't I recreate the ringside broadcast from this fight? I will quote from Dowd, and then add my fictional "Anderson" in italics.
We begin by knowing that Dowd had somehow already learned what Anderson's opinion of the film was. Did Anderson tell him? I don't know, but I doubt it. Did someone at Variety leak it? Treachery! (When someone asks my opinion of a movie, what often works for me is, I say, "I write in a trance. I never know what my opinion is until I read it in print.") Now the blow-by-blow begins:
Dowd: My disagreement with John was not over his critical reaction, which he has every right to and I very often find enlightening, but his statement that the film wouldn't appeal to the public. I suggested he come back into the theater for the Q&A and he would observe what we had seen at all four screenings--that audiences felt the film had all kinds of new information and practical solutions. It wasn't homework, but hope made pragmatic on how we can change the planet in keeping with Obama's Inauguration speech.
Anderson: He followed me out of the theater and wanted me to follow him back in. I said I was going to an appointment. He followed me for a block across a snow-covered parking lot and we had to climb that mountain of snow the plows always leave at the edge of the Yarrow parking lot. Then we had to walk another block around to the front of the Yarrow. He was talking the whole time.
Dowd: It should also be said that a vast majority of audience members liked the film not just because they "support the cause." We have heard scores of comments about the quality of the filmmaking and storytelling as well. In the spirit of John Waters we even had smell-o-vision at one screening where you could smell the sweet earthy scent of dirt and mother earth.
Anderson: What am I supposed to think? How could any sane man inhaling that aroma dislike "Dirt! The Movie?"
Dowd: What especially bothered me is when I told John how well the audiences were reacting, John said: "They are just sheep."
The Dude and the superpublicist Bobby Zarem at Toronto 2004: Time for a long, quiet talk
Anderson: Maybe that's why they fell for the sweet earthy scent of dirt. My job at Variety, a trade journal, is to predict for buyers, distributors and exhibitors whether a film might draw gratifying numbers of ticket-buyers. If I based this opinion on Sundance screenings, I would be fired.
Dowd: I told John Anderson one of scores of examples of this was when John Densmore of The Doors stood up at our first screening (after a sustained audience applause at the end) and said "I have my own film here--which I clearly care about--but here is my ballot which I marked 4 stars because 'Dirt!' is the film that should win the Sundance Festival."
Anderson: You can vote after every film you see. Densmore is also likely to award four stars to his own film. If Variety wanted to poll the John Densmores of this world on their movie opinions, Variety would be standing on the red carpet between E! and Entertainment Tonight.
Dowd: We are at a historic time when information and dialogue are the life-blood of democracy and are essential to the future of the planet. At this time when we are at 'THE CLIFF'S EDGE,' gratefully informative and hopeful movies like 'Dirt! The Movie' deserve discussion, not the simple dismissal John was unfortunately giving it.
Anderson: Perhaps my right to my opinion is part of the life-blood of democracy. How can a movie be gratefully informative?
Dowd: After a couple minutes of calm discussion with John Anderson as we walked from the Holiday Cinemas to the Yarrow he decided to cut off the conversation because he had a breakfast meeting (ironically with Diane Weyerman formerly head of Sundance Docs and now at Participant Productions which is all about progressive films like "An Inconvenient Truth" and grassroots follow-up. I had also spoken with Jeff Skoll founder of Participant about "Dirt!" and he was interested)."
Elvis Mitchell, Chaz Ebert and The Dude at Toronto 2004
Anderson: As I said, when I didn't return to the theater, he followed me across the parking lot. Maybe he was afraid my opinion might get back to Skoll and harm the film's chance of a sale.
Dowd: So after John left I had a choice: Do I let John write a review which I felt at best was half the story and would be the first review out of Sundance or do I try to re-engage him? What would you do? What would Gandhi or Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks or Michael Moore do at that moment in time? What was my responsibility to the filmmakers, the sheep who loved the film, my two daughters and the future of the planet? Should the Dude say fuck it and just go bowling or should I not let this intellectual aggression stand and try to re-engage John?
Anderson: His responsibility was to leave me the fuck alone. There would also be reviews from the Hollywood Reporter, Screen International, and dozens of other print critics and web sites.
Dowd: I went into the Yarrow dining room and sat down next to John and Diane and said: "John I think this is worthy of more discussion." He responded: "I am trying to have my breakfast and if you don't leave I am going to punch you out." He then rose and screamed "Throw this riff raff out of here."
Anderson: The asshole followed me in to breakfast and sat down at my table during my interview. I admit it. I lost it.
The Dude just happening to run into me on my way to the screening of his movie at Toronto 2000
Dowd [leaves dining room]: At that moment Jackie "The Joke Man" Martlin of the Howard Stern Show came up to me and said: "Jeff what a great film DIRT is. I learned so much and was so inspired." As we walked into the dining room I introduced Jackie to John Anderson who was about 8 feet away on the other side of a table for six and said: "John here is one of those people who liked Dirt!" John said, "Are you a friend of Jeff's?" Jackie responded: "I know Jeff, but the point is that this is a very important and inspiring film." John said: "I am trying to eat my breakfast." Jackie said: "I understand but this may be more important than you continuing to eat your breakfast for a bit."
Anderson: What part of "throw this riff-raff out of here" didn't he understand? Now he wants me to discuss "Dirt! the Movie" with Jackie the Joke Man at a distance of eight feet in a crowded dining room.
Dowd: John then turned red and rose up and said: "Jeff I warned you I was going to punch you out if you tried to talk to me anymore." [Dowd describes the four punches] None of them even fazed me which I think surprised John who works out and has a stance that looks like he has indeed boxed...I only hope John doesn't find himself in a real situation where he overestimates his boxing skills and gets hurt.
Anderson: I turned red and said, "Jeff I warned you I was going to punch you out if you tried to talk to me anymore." I thought for an instant of all the grief Lou Lumenik got when he whacked Roger Ebert with a folded-up program at the Toronto festival. I decided I didn't care. Dowd was bigger than me, but I was pissed off enough to take my chances.
Dowd [after Officer deBotelho responds]: In all fairness, Nick Frazier from the BBC and a colleague told the officer that they felt I was harassing John. They of course hadn't seen the movie or witnessed John's anti-intellectual and un-democratic attitude towards me. And as a Jew and an Irishmen I of course understand that there is an unfortunate tradition of British violence and failure to get to the bottom of the story--Tony Blair! I have faith that when Nick sees 'Dirt' and hears the whole story he will be able to make a distinction between harassment and intellectual engagement at crucial times in history.
Anderson: Nick Fraser of the BBC is lucky The Dude was not also an African, an Indian and an Arab. Down with the BBC 's imperialistic pigs! Nick has produced 50 documentaries, including the recent one on Hunter S. Thompson, and is fairly experienced at the distinction between harassment and intellectual engagement.
Dowd [on why he didn't press charges]: He was just having an overwhelming and busy day which had severely lowered his intellectual capacity to room temperature and was clearly needing food more than ideas and inspiration at that moment. Under other circumstances we might have shared a meal together, had a good conversation and I might have learned from him and he from me.
The Dude just happening to run into me on my way to a screening of his film at Cannes 2000
Anderson: I can think of a reason the day grew overwhelming as early as breakfast. The learning opportunity is an attractive idea, but unfortunately, under present circumstances, I cannot make a reservation at the Yarrow.
The Anderson-Dude bout will go into Sundance legend along with Harvey Weinstein's celebrated shoving match, the booing of Bob Dylan after the premiere of "Masked and Anonymous" and Tammy Faye's inspirational Q&A after "The Eyes of Tammy Faye." Only at Sundance do people fight about ecological documentaries that reach into the vastness of time and space.
Now, then. Has this event influenced my opinion on "Dirt! the Movie?" How could it? I haven't seen it. It made the cut for Sundance, which is a good sign. Do I think John Anderson should have punched Jeff Dowd? No, I don't.
I think it was inexcusable, and considering the Dude wasn't fighting back, the fourth punch was just mean. You just can't go around doing things like that. In a way, he was threatening The Dude's livelihood. If The Dude had hit back and it got around that a publicist his size was capable of punching a film critic, he might become unemployable. If you are going to be a film critic and attend film festivals, you are going to have to deal with the Dude. That is a fact of life. Often you will enjoy it. He's better than some faceless intern stuffing your mailbox with press releases.
Two more questions. Do I think Mickey Cottrell should sit down with his pal The Dude and have a long, earnest talk about the most fruitful ways to approach film critics? Yes, I do. Mickey has spoken to me about countless films and I have never wanted to punch him. Next question. If I had a little film at a film festival, would I hire The Dude to publicize it? Yes, I think I would. You can't say he isn't dedicated to his work. There is something heedlessly Quixotic about him.
Anderson talks to Variety colleague Anne Thompson here
The Dude explains what happened to Movie City News (sound too low for first 60 seconds)
"Dirt! the Movie" official website is here
The Dude at work at Toronto 1999, repping "Goat on Fire and Smiling Fish." Ebert article here
2/28/10: The Dude on the Rude: Jeff Dowd on Oscar nominee Jeff Bridges..