Harry Knowles: Why He Was Significant and Why He’s Terrible
One big story flooding the nerd news outlets and even the mainstream media this week regards Harry Knowles and his tendency towards grabbing at women who don’t want to be grabbed at. There has been precisely three responses to this news:
A) Who’s Harry Knowles?
B) That website is still running?
C) I live in Austin, Texas, and have already been groped by this creep.
This article is going to focus on answering the first question: who is Harry Knowles? More to point, we’re going to highlight why exactly Knowles is significant in modern pop culture, what impact he’s had and ultimately why these recent allegations suggest that he’s done more harm than good for the wider nerd community.
A HISTORY LESSON
As an old bastard I remember the world before the internet. Being a geek in those days was a bit challenging, especially in Australia. News and information was available in monthly magazines and crappy TV shows like Entertainment Tonight. Finding indie producers was hard and finding people to share these hobbies with was even harder. In time the internet did change this. Small groups of fans found each other to discuss Buffy the Vampire slayer, growing into larger communities, and creators such as Sir Terry Pratchett started to interact with their audiences. During those early years it was freeform, a disorganised landscape that webrings and Geocities couldn’t bring into line.
One of the first big names of this early age of the internet was Harry Knowles. He wasn’t the first person to start writing movie reviews online but he was the first of his kind. Unlike the established critics such as Maltin, Siskel and Ebert he wasn’t coming at it from the perspective of the fan. Knowles wasn’t a cinema snob, he wasn’t an academic – he loved movies and had spent his life absorbing them. He wasn’t here to analyse film, he was here to geek out. He was one of the very people he was writing for. His site, Ain’t It Cool News, was launched in 1996 and took it’s name from action schlock Broken Arrow.
Ain’t It Cool News provided reviews, discussion and breaking news and before long attracted a large amount of traffic. The attitude and interests of the writers mirrored that of the readers and the ability to leave comments and participate in discussion was relatively novel. A community built around the site and Knowles and his crew developed a working relationship with the Alamo Drafthouse cinema. Each year they’d host ‘Butt Numb-A-Thon’, a marathon of classic and new genre films held on or close to Knowles’ birthday. Knowles also built ties within the industry, socialising with Peter Jackson and Quentin Tarantino. Rather than rely on press briefings Knowles would bring us news from the front lines.
It was Batman and Robin that brought Knowles to the attention of the mainstream media. The 1997 film was definitely a dud, but this was an age where most viewers wouldn’t learn this until after it was released or they’d seen it for themselves. When AICN attended an advance screening they followed it up with a brutally negative review.
This film is so bad, so awful, so vanity ridden with horrible over the top performances, that nothing I can say, can prepare you for it.
When director Joel Schumacher laid blame on the website for the film’s poor opening weekend it established Knowles as a critic with significant sway. He was now seen as a major influence on audiences and box offices, the first critic from the internet to garner such a reputation. As such studios wanted Knowles on side, so he was invited to premieres, set visits and interviews with some unofficial premieres for major releases coming to Butt Numb-a-Thon.
In short, AICN and Knowles, along with his crew of Quint, Capone and Moriarty, achieved a great deal of success and a large audience in a short amount of time.
PROFESSIONALISM AND PARODIES
I’ll let you in on some behind the scenes info here. Like Knowles I have garnered enough of an audience online to weasel my way onto most studios’ standard invite list. I get to go to premieres so I can review movies ahead of release and quite often there’s extra perks to go with this. Drinks, popcorn, beer, pizza, cocktails and loot are fairly common. It makes sense for publicists to do this – it puts everyone (reviewers and public) in a good mood for the movie. Early on I had to make a conscious effort to seperate out the experience from the film. Of course The Fate of the Furious is going to seem more fun after a couple of beers and a belly full of pizza, but I had to take the time to look at the movie for what it is. It’s a matter of being honest to myself and my readers.
Early in AICN history there was some controversy surrounding their coverage of Godzilla. The 1998 Roland Emmerich remake was almost universally slammed by critics because, well…it was shit. Knowles, on the other hand, praised the film. When readers pointed out that Knowles had been personally flown out to set and got an insane amount of backstage access to the cast and production it was quickly suggested that Knowles was spinning positive spin in exchange for the VIP treatment.
I do kinda get this – if you’ve had positive experiences with a crappy movie you will think more fondly of it. Getting flown out by a major studio to hang out on set will sway your opinion. The difference is that Knowles’ review was ridiculously positive for such a dire movie that is raised suspicion. People began to notice how much special treatment from the film industry impacted on Knowles’ reviews. In this instance he quickly back-pedalled with a ‘2nd viewing’ review, which was far more in line with common opinion, claiming that his first review only came across as positive because he was ‘siting (sic) special effects’.
AICN and Knowles was already criticised for the extremely poor writing (see every example provided thus far), but this new reputation for providing positive coverage in exchange for access tarnished his public image. After gushing praise of the widely panned Van Helsing and other bombs it wasn’t uncommon for Knowles to be accused of being a ‘studio plant’, a critic paid off to improve sales. Knowles would frequently boast of the ‘pwesents’ he received from film-makers and studios and his readership began to dwindle.
This side of AICN became so well known that Rainn Wilson’s online critic character, R.J. Spencer, on Entourage was generally considered to be a parody of Knowles. In the show Spencer interviews film star Vincent Chase (Adrien Grenier) about his upcoming Aquaman and threatens to tank the film through negative press if he doesn’t get his way. The plot thread concludes with Spencer hyping the film up when his deviant fantasies get fulfilled through Chase calling in a favour from porn star friends (typical story arc for the show).
This conclusion could be seen as a straight forward jab (in hindsight that’s a poor choice of words) by suggesting Knowles has some emasculating fetishes, but it spoke of another unsavoury aspect of AICN. Knowles would often include uncomfortable sexual descriptions in his reviews that made the whole site feel seedy.
Take a look at the following excerpt and try to guess what movie he’s talking about.
I believe Guillermo Del Toro eats pussy better than any man alive.
Watch his ‘HOUSE OF PAIN’ sequence in ________. __________ is the tongue, mouth, fingers and lips of a lover. The Audience is the clit. Watch your audience. This is where Guillermo Del Toro goes down on the audience. It starts with long licks with a nose bump on the joy button slowly. He smiles as he does this… Watching the audience begin to squirm, then he takes the audiences’ clit in his mouth and just licks it like crazy,
Obviously he’s talking about Blade 2, right? How can he not be? These clumsy and obnoxious metaphors are supposed to be high praise for a comic book horror action film.
The last article I read on AICN was a highly positive review of Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, a complete joke a movie that Knowles heaped praise on because it gave him jerk-off material. That’s not hyperbole, he actually said that.
It’s about giving you all the necessary visual information to carry into a shower or a Kleenex.
I won’t claim this is the greatest story ever told, but dammit it gets me hard,
And then he caps off the review by quoting Roger Ebert, who immediately rolled over in his grave despite being alive at the time.
So Harry Knowles was a creep. His website and articles frequently focused on the sexualisation of women and he used disturbing sexual metaphors to discuss film. After being invited to a Halloween party at the Playboy Mansion Knowles published extensive retellings of the experience and made it a central theme for the site for the months that followed.
Of course everyone has the right to say what they want on their own website, sexual or otherwise. If you don’t like it, don’t read it. It’s not like he’s treating women like that in real life and having his friends cover it up for him.
No, wait…they do just that.
WAIT – WHY DON’T I KNOW ABOUT THIS GUY?
A brief interlude for those wondering why, if this guy is a such a big deal, you haven’t heard of him. As I said before I stopped reading AICN after the Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle review. Every couple of years I would remember that AICN was a thing and look it up, but I remember assuming it was abandoned because it looked exactly the same as it did in the late 90s.
It turns out that they are still active, they just haven’t changed the design in TWENTY-ONE years. They have not been moving with the times. This applies just as much to their attitude. The world, the internet and the geek community is a different place 20 years after AICN first made a splash. In terms of the internet timeline these guys are ancient, and they seemed determined to resist any change.
Add to these a dwindling fan base, mismanagement of finances, poor treatment of contributors, a horrible reputation for unprofessional behaviour and sexual harassment and you’ve got a site that becomes less relevant by the day. Hell, they made a list of ‘20 Websites You’ll Never Visit Again‘ alongside The Hamster Dance and Napster, ranked just below ‘Hot or Not’, in 2013.
HARASSMENT, ABUSE, GATEKEEPING AND THE BOY’S CLUB
In the 20 years since AICN launched geek culture has changed. Most notably it has grown. Pop culture conventions have grown into major events in every city, nerd interests are dominating cinemas, there’s a board game renaissance, video games are a leading global market…it’s become our world. With this has come greater diversity in audiences with people of all backgrounds and types coming together. ‘Gatekeeping’ has been a widely criticised attitude during this time, that is to say the practise of excluding people from a hobby or interest based on a sense of superiority. This often comes in the form of excluding newcomers to haven’t ‘proven’ themselves or the implication that geek hobbies ‘aren’t for girls’.
This isn’t a problem that can be remedied with the flick of a switch, but it’s not helped with culture leaders such as Knowles appears to be one of the biggest gatekeepers we have. Former AICN writer Billy ‘The Kidd’ Donnelly has spoken publicly about the behaviour of Knowles and his collaborators and the way they would resent any outsider who entered their collective. The biggest red flag in light of recent allegations comes in the way they band around each other when faced with criticism or even wrongdoing. Described as a “boy’s club” who’d work to cover up and brush off everything from dodging paying taxes and their writers right up to and including the sexual harassment and physical assault of women.
Being inclusive of everyone isn’t just about welcoming all and sundry to Comic-Con, but building a community that people won’t be afraid to seek out and participate in. By all accounts the Butt Numb-a-Thon and later Fantastic Fest was not providing this. Multiple women have come forward to accuse Harry Knowles of improper conduct at these events, accusing Knowles of sending unwelcome lewd messages, telling women he’d get them into special screenings in exchange for ‘a kiss’ and grabbing at women without consent. If any women voiced their complaints to Alamo Drafthouse or Fantastic Fest management they’d be blown off. Explanations of “just Harry being Harry” and “he’s always like that” normalised this behaviour among the men leading this community. It became a running joke that women needed to stay out of “groping range” when Knowles was present.
That’s not even getting into the cherry on the cake – screening a previously unseen Ed Wood film described as ‘violent porn’ at the event accused of housing sexual predators and a culture of excusing these men for their repulsive attitude and behaviour.
Our subculture is one that was initially born out of exclusion. Kids started collecting comics, playing ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ and learning programming largely as a form of escapism. The long held stereotype is of socially inept victims of bullying. Knowles and his collaborators feel like the worst form of bullies – those who have been the victims and now in turn victimise others. This is speculation on my part based on the allegations and reports being made public – I don’t know what their story is. But it’s the feeling I get from these characters.
THE FINAL WORD
Harry Knowles is a creep, that much is clear. It’s been part of his written style for 20 years and, sadly for his victims, appears to make up a large part of his real world behaviour. As geek culture has become more inclusive and mainstream we’ve seen a wholesale rejected of the basement dwelling neckbeard stereotype and the terrible attitude that it embodies (if you’re unfamiliar, just think of the Comic Shop Guy in The Simpsons). Knowles embodies this stereotype, and reports suggest that he is resistant to change. He doesn’t want women to be geeks, he wants them to be sex objects for him to ogle and paw at and the other members of his online entourage will defend him so they can reap the benefits of Hollywood access and loot. Knowles bragging about his ‘pwesents’ and alluded to sexual conquests (not helped along by his infantile expression) paints him as a despicable bully.
This impression is emphasised by the number of times Knowles has been accused of lying about his accomplishments and practises. One perplexing tale he spun concerned the cast of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre turning up to his third birthday with dismembered limb props as a gift and Gunnar Hansen (the actor behind series antagonist Leatherface) cutting the cake with a chainsaw. The late Hansen, when asked about this remarkable event, stated that he had no recollection of it happening.
But, a hypothetical reader asks, surely he played a key role in pioneering the geek community you’ve been banging on about for the past 2551 words?
Harry Knowles is not a good writer. I’m not a good writer either, but his work is ridiculously poor for something so widely read and influential. Nothing on AICN looks as though it’s been proof read. He doesn’t provide any great insight of perspective on cinema. He doesn’t know more than the average film buff and he certainly has not changed the way movies are reviews, even on the internet.
He was just first.
It was inevitable that a movie nerd writing on the internet would catch a break and hit the big time. The stars aligned and the fates decreed that Harry Knowles would be the one through that gate first. And given what he did with that remarkable good fortune it’s amazing that he has enough relevance to be reported on in this day and age.
But don’t think that this story of sexual abuse should be swept under the rug because Knowles is yesterdays dickhead. This is representative of a positive trend. The contempt and disgust with which the public have responded to these claims indicates that the community Knowles once led reject this ‘boy’s club’ attitude.
Some AICN writers who have had Knowles’ back the past 20 years have earned praise for quitting the site, as has the co-founder of Fantastic Fest and Alamo Drafthouse CEO Tim League for cutting ties to AICN. Quite frankly these people are just as bad if not worse, because they have defended Knowles and his reprehensible behaviour this entire time and now people are slapping them on the back for being rats abandoning a sinking, burning and haunted ship. Steve ‘Capone’ Prokopy and Eric ‘Quint the Crusty Seaman’ Vespe have made excuses for Knowles for years and now that the situation is unsalvageable they’re sliming away like a pair of cowards. Tim League, on the other hand, deserves an award for his piss-weak attempt at public relations after saying “we are striving to respond better to allegations”. Did he just say his biggest concern is making up better excuses?
Anyway, I’ve watched the entirety of Evil Dead while writing this. As a fanboy whose online writing has earned him access to the movie industry and a representative of modern geekness I would like to conclude by saying:
Fuck you, Harry Knowles.