Hi. My name is Melissa, and I’m watching movies at Fantastic Fest this week.
If you haven’t been watching the news, here is the broader implication of that: I’m at ground zero of an internet news hurricane. A few weeks ago, Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse — the theater I’m watching movies at — admitted they quietly rehired movie critic Devin Faraci one month after he stepped down as head editor of Birth.Movies.Death. after a woman came forward with her experience of being grabbed inappropriately by Devin. A few days later, similar stories started coming out about Harry Knowles, an Austin-based critic, who runs Ain’t It Cool News and who was one of the founders of Fantastic Fest. This year’s Fantastic Fest started up with a firestorm already in progress, as Alamo Drafthouse CEO Tim League left the state to travel to other Drafthouse locations and talk about policy changes, and as various critics and film intelligensia declared that they were pulling away from Drafthouse, Fantastic Fest, and/or Ain’t It Cool.
If the whole story sounds messy, it is. I’m not even going to try to summarize it here, especially since the news is still developing. If you want to dig in, Indiewire.com has a tag for Alamo Drafthouse news items, and their coverage is fairly complete.
I’m not typing this to repeat the news items. I’m here to describe what it’s like at the eye of the hurricane and to unload some junk from inside my head.
I’ve known Harry Knowles for almost 20 years. I met him through CONvergence: he was a guest of honor for the convention during its first year, and he returned as a guest of honor a couple other times after that. After I started dating Christopher Jones, who was on the CONvergence board of directors at the time, I was invited to Butt-Numb-a-Thon, the 24-hour film marathon that Harry held every year for his birthday, as part of a group of Minnesotans who were invited every year.
It was an honor to be included in BNAT festivities each time. The event hosted Hollywood sneak previews as well as vintage film, so I wound up meeting people like Peter Jackson, Mel Gibson, and Samuel L. Jackson as they dropped in alongside various premieres. Even better than that, though, were the folks who gathered at this event, an entire theater-full of movie mega-nerds from all over the world. The people who migrated annually to BNAT became family to me. Many of us called the event Geek Christmas, not only because the event fell in mid-December, but also because it really was a gathering of family and happiness.
Harry was the Grand Poobah of all this, but BNAT was ultimately not about him. It was about all of us.
Yes, I believe the victims. There are many of them, more than the ones that are talking to the news outlets. Their stories are all consistent with each other and what I already knew about Harry.
Harry always had a gross, childish, shock-jock sense of humor. The movies selected for BNAT could be anything, from Martin Scorsese’s latest drama to a Hong Kong porn remake of Big. Harry delighted in shocking the audience, and there was almost always something in the lineup that contained content that would make a film very difficult to see in any other way. For instance, on year he showed a pre-Hays Code film named Wonderbar, which is a genuinely interesting film that also happens to contain a horrifically racist minstrel show during one of the scenes; when that scene came up, Harry just turned around in his seat with a big grin on his face, just to watch the shocked faces in the audience.
In conversation, he’d often throw around gross comments with his friends. In my experience, these comments seemed to be equally distributed between women and men, and the comments were made just for the sake of being gross. If a male friend asked if they could get together and watch a movie, Harry might say, “You have to handle my balls first,” and then everyone would just roll their eyes and move on. If he said something like that to a woman, it seemed to be only to a friend who would take the joke as only a joke.
I’m learning this week that what I saw wasn’t exactly reality. Ironically, his sense of humor shielded him from further scrutiny. At least one of the women who has come forward to news outlets this week said that he offered BNAT seats to some women if they showed him their breasts, when most folks (like me) had to go through an arduous application process to be considered for a seat. Another account says that he offered a seat at a Marvel premiere for a kiss. I’ve heard several other firsthand stories this week, many of which aren’t public yet, that also tell of him trying to leverage his access to get handsy with various women.
I had heard only one (incomplete, secondhand) story like this before this week. I’d heard it about six months ago, and it sounded to me like Harry made a pass at a friend that she just wasn’t into. Something about the story seemed a little extra skeezy and it set me on edge, but ultimately I didn’t do anything about it.
Now, with all these stories coming to light, all those gross comments have suddenly been recontextualized. He hadn’t been shocking us for the sake of humor. He had been looking for targets. Was I only qualified to join the BNAT crowd because I had tits? How many women had he tried to manipulate into a grope over all these years?
Many of the male members of this community are kicking themselves right now. Hard. How did they not notice? Why did they not call out his behavior earlier? Why did nobody tell them?
I’m afraid i was as clueless as the guys on this one, and I’m doing the same thing they are. I didn’t spot it. Worse, I’m a woman and I didn’t spot it. I should know this stuff, right? It comes from having the Woman Card, right?
Unfortunately, I am a friend to many, but a confidante to few. I’m not sure if that’s due to being outright oblivious to normal human interactions (entirely probable) or being so androgynous that I get lumped in with the guys without getting the other benefits of being a white male American (I don’t get “hit on” much, so I don’t know the signs).
I realized that Harry had surrounded himself over the years with an enormous number of truly lovely people. I only saw him at events I found delightful. Like many of the people around me, we probably didn’t see his comments as anything other than just, “well, that’s just Harry” because it was all being drowned out by the joy and adventure of being with the folks around him. We didn’t think to dig deeper.
And, of course, this is also why the women didn’t come forward earlier. Each one thought she was isolated, and that nobody would believe her. Or worse, each woman feared her film aspirations would evaporate if she left the Harry Gravity Well. Sadly, it looks like these women had to wait to come forward until Harry’s Hollywood power sank enough and America’s understanding of harassment rose enough. This is why we’re now suddenly flooded by these stories: once one woman was taken seriously, the others knew they could also step forward and be believed.
So, as I told my friend Tim in the midst of his own self-flagellation about this, we’re late to the truth party, but at least we’re here now.
(Truth parties need better snacks.)
In the wake of all this, my guess is that BNAT has died. Alamo Drafthouse has announced officially that it will have nothing else to do with Harry Knowles, and I doubt that any other theater will work with Harry to run the event.
The community of BNAT is bigger and better than Harry, though. I’m sure something else will rise from the ashes. We’re a creative and stubborn bunch.
Meanwhile, there’s Fantastic Fest. (Remember Fantastic Fest? I’m at Fantastic Fest.)
The Venn diagram of the BNAT and Fantastic Fest communities has a lot of overlap. I see many of the same faces at both events every year, to the point that I often say that Fantastic Fest is like an eight-day-long BNAT.
Because of that, being here while all of this news is coming to light has been fascinating. The conversations in the hallways veer from joyous movie nerdery to serious discussions of toxic masculinity. Writers who once worked for Harry look shellshocked and exhausted, but they’re also getting lots of hugs and sympathy. There are fewer tales of drunken zaniness and a lot more talk about how the Fest can continue to add women to the voices that drive movies. And if that sounds boring, I will also tell you that I saw a movie about a murderous lump of sculpting clay, so it’s still the same old Fantastic Fest in many ways.
It has been remarkably chill and kind here, in comparison to other years. It has not been without tone-deaf mis-steps, but it does feel like being in the eye of a hurricane. People at home are hitting refresh on their browsers to find out more and more dirt, but here… it feels like we’re past that stage. We’re helping each other and looking each other in the face and asking seriously what needs to be done.
I’ve quietly removed Harry from my Facebook and Twitter feeds. I don’t expect to talk to him ever again. Over the years, he has given so much to me and to so many people around me, and for that, I am thankful; yet in spite of that, the decision to excise him from my life was remarkably easy. The only question now is what I can do to help heal and improve this film community that I love so much.