Note: This piece is written in response to the recent news of allegations against Harry Knowles. I’m not discussing them within the piece as I feel they’re not relevant to my thesis, but I stand with and support the victim.
I owe Ain’t it Cool News a debt I’m incapable of repaying. Discovering the site when I was a struggling 13 year old on the brink of an autism diagnosis was a lifeline in the dark. It made me feel like I mattered. It told me there were others like me in this world. I needed that in 1997 and I will never cease to say so.
So when I write a piece like this, it’s not fun for me. I’m not savaging something I hate or something that I think “has it coming.” I’m taking on something I genuinely liked once. That hurts like hell. But if I truly consider myself a commenter of any value then I must call things as I see it. And as I see it, Harry Knowles is the wellspring of everything wrong with film culture on the internet.
It’s hard to believe now, after a good 13 years of irrelevance, but once upon a time Knowles was seen as THE guru on film online. Sure there were other sites like the quietly stellar Dark Horizons and the still super JoBlo. But they didn’t have the easy to grasp mascot that was Knowles with his extreme personality and gift for branding. He became the guy the mainstream media looked at as the symbol for internet criticism.
Of course now that I’m more media literate, I know why the mainstream media loved him. He was a useful way of discrediting the new media. Knowles gave off every sign of disreputability and it was easy to push him as a symbol for all journalism online, a stigma that has taken a long time to lift.
Whatever the case, Knowles created something online that became a movement. He pushed hard to reclaim geek. He made fandom seem cool. His site became a space where greatness could flourish and did. Stellar writers like Drew McWeeny, C. Robert Cargill, and Alan Cerny all started with him. A number of other greats came and went such as Scott Foy and even Neil “Patton Oswalt” Cumpston. In theory, Knowles did a lot of great. But his sins are legion and still to this day affect the culture.
For starters, his site was ground zero for the complete lack of integrity that runs through a number of modern film sites. He seemed to post every rumor that crossed his desk, rarely with retractions. Sometimes that meant that he got things right. Big stories did break, but often he got it wrong. His site set a dark standard that continues to this day.
His site set the standard for comments sections to come. The “talkbacks” were the prototype for YouTube’s comment sections. The worst opinions and abuses ran wild there with very minimal trimming. The tacit approval for abuse that runs through the internet wouldn’t have spread if it didn’t have such a clear model.
Then there was the big issue that he’s best known for. Knowles was for sale and everybody knew it. He was bought with junkets left and right with Disney famously getting him amped about My Favorite Martian and Holy Man, just to prove how easy he was. In the famous Godzilla incident*, his purchasing was so blatant he even tried to double back but forever destroyed his cred. When people claim critics can be bought, he’s why they’re not wrong.
But surprisingly, that’s not what I consider his greatest sin. To me, Knowles symbolizes the closed door mentality of the “geek” community. In fact he popularized it. His site was all about how knowing more about this minute material gave you an advantage. It was about celebrating the outsiders yet desperately trying to become the cool kids. The problem is, we did become the cool but for many, we never lost that mentality. Is it an oversimplification to point to this one site? Yes, but it was truly in many ways ground zero and with Knowles’ intense involvement in Alamo Drafthouse which has advanced things further, accurate.
Knowles is a perfect symbol ultimately. His site stands for nothing but gaining attention. It’s less about the celebration of the culture than the litmus tests. He didn’t create it but like a dark humid room fosters fungus, he enabled it. He set a dark standard the culture is only now advancing past.
*Knowles was shamelessly invited to the premiere of the 1998 Godzilla, I’ve theorized in exchange for keeping the character’s design off his site, which he then foamed at the mouth over on his site. He recanted with a second review, but one that came conspicuously after the community rejected the film so hard it would’ve been impossible to maintain any signs of not being bought.