I have always found Knowles to be an intriguing personality. Here's a guy who, with little more than a home PC and a handful of industry contacts, is able to successfully maintain a website that attracts hundreds of thousands-if not millions-of viewers every week, with virtually no overhead costs. Companies routinely invest obscene sums of money trying to acquire that kind of viewership. For a while he was a hot item in the press, an overnight folk hero of sorts, heralded as an ordinary guy simply pursuing his passion and attracting the world's attention for it. Thus, I was looking forward to reading this book to find out what Knowles had to say about the intriguing turns his life has taken.
"Ain't it Cool?: Hollywood's Redheaded Stepchild Speaks Out" starts out promisingly enough. The opening chapter explores Knowles' turbulent formative years coming of age in a severely troubled family environment. Raised by hippie parents who peddled vintage movie memorabilia for a living, Knowles' adolescence was thrown into chaos when his mother without warning abandoned her brood to move back in with her own family in rural Texas. Knowles was soon forced to join her there, amidst the company of relatives that, as Knowles describes it, were "the closest I've personally come to consummate evil". His mother eventually succumbed to chronic alcoholism and passed away under tragic circumstances. By then Knowles, now in his late teens, had returned to Austin to live with his father, whom he lovingly describes as his "best friend". Over the next several years Knowles helped his father run his memorabilia business until, one fateful day, an accident he suffered working at a collectors' fair left him immobilized for six months. This was during the mid-90s, when the Internet was just starting to make its way into domestic households. With little previous experience in computers, Knowles was soon expertly scouring the newsgroups and chat rooms, offering his insight and opinions to an attentive audience of fellow film aficionados. He learned to use the Internet as a research tool, digging up rare tidbits of news, gossip and conjecture and repackaging them for newsgroup distribution. Eventually he started his own website dedicated to the pursuit of providing original, breaking news about films in every stage of development and production. And thus, Ain't It Cool News was born.
Up to this point Knowles' tale is heartfelt, honest, and moving. Quickly, however, the book lapses into a self-aggrandizing portrait of the Movie Geek as Internet Revolutionary. He spends 300-plus pages fervently justifying his existence, bragging incessantly about the influential role his website has served to the culture of film fandom and to the film industry itself. He liberally dispenses anecdotes of his experiences rubbing elbows with Hollywood royalty, having us believe that movie directors routinely call him up in the middle of the night asking for career advice. He paints himself as a steadfastly independent-minded, free-thinking "film advocate" whose loyalty cannot be bought, but can be earned by making a good film. The only problem with that latter point is that, if one were to do a little research, this assertion of journalistic integrity is put into serious question. Knowles himself touches briefly upon some of the more disparaging accusations in his book, such as the controversy surrounding his coverage of the "Godzilla" world premiere in Times Square, but he is more defensive than apologetic in tone about his alleged transgressions and never admits to any wrongdoing.
I was also troubled by two chapters in Knowles' book that aggressively attack fellow Internet reporter Matt Drudge, and National Research Group chairman Joseph Farrell, respectively. In the latter case, I can understand Knowles' disillusionment with the film industry's controversial audience test-screening process (which Farrell's company solely administers), but I fail to see how distributing Farrell's private phone number to the press and obsessively analyzing a list of movies that Farrell may or may not like-in an attempt to infer something about his character-is helpful to Knowles' cause. The chapter dealing with Matt Drudge just feels dirty and cheap, as well completely out of place in the book. It is not appropriate for Knowles' to tout his own "Jeffersonian, liberal-humanist agenda" in the form of a critique on Drudge's personal politics, and then try to disguise it as a discussion on journalistic ethics. That in itself seems, to me, unethical.
The final chapter of the book is a call-to-arms for Hollywood to make better pictures, and Knowles offers a number of (highly unrealistic) suggestions on how the industry can alter its existing business model to accommodate his appeal for qualitative change. While I couldn't agree more that Tinseltown has for the most part been putting out an abysmal product for years, I have to question Knowles' own conviction that "movies should be better". Recalling some of his film reviews I had come across in the past, I decided to go to his website and see just how bad he thinks the majority of today's studio-produced pictures are. "Armageddon", "Charlie's Angels", "Rush Hour 2" and "The Mummy Returns" all received glowing reviews. It seems to me like Knowles is perfectly content with the kind of product Hollywood is churning out these days, so it's mystifying that he would purport to want to see broad changes in the way studios make films. Or maybe he just wants to establish some kind of journalistic credibility by offering a pseudo-intellectual analysis on the state of the industry. In any case, there seems to be a bit of disingenuousness on Knowles' part, both pertaining to his questionable journalistic standards and to the apparent contradictory nature of his attitude about the kinds of films Hollywood should be making.
There is no question that Knowles is a knowledgeable and passionate movie enthusiast who has a lot to offer in the way of film appreciation and connoisseurship and, to that end, his website will always serve a purpose. It is perhaps advisable, then, that the next time he decides to write a book, that should be the sole focus of his efforts.