By Scott Brown
Updated July 20, 2006 at 12:00 PM EDT

Pity the critic, ladies and gentlemen. Even the <a href="
“>theater seats have turned against him. (Rex Reed rescued from a carnivorous chair… by a blogger? Oh, the indignity!)

It’s been a tough week for critics. We’re clearly in existential crisis, caught between <a href="
“>self-righteous defiance, profound self-loathing, and, saddest of all, theater seats. On top of that, M. Night Shyamalan, having predicted the critical drubbing of his Lady in the Water during the writing process, inserted a loathsome film-critic straw-man into his fairy tale.

The tension among critics, filmmakers, and audiences has always been palpable. But it’s nearly erupted into a shooting war of late. The question of who owns American popular culture (something that didn’t even exist as a discrete concept 20 years ago) provokes an almost nationalistic zeal in people these days. So when Joel Siegel curses Clerks II in a media screening and histrionically departs the theater, you’d think he took a crap on the Dome of the Rock.

Between you and me, hundreds of thousands of readers, this is nothing new for Siegel. It may be the first movie he’s walked out of in “thirty *&#%@! years,” but it’s not his first screening-room outburst. I was present at a showing of Starsky & Hutch where Siegel, as the lights came up, stood and pronounced the film “the most anti-Semitic movie I’ve ever seen.” No elaboration was forthcoming — at least not for general consumption. He started talking to Katie Couric. Potted plants like myself went for our shoulder bags and contained our amusement until hitting the street.

Look, the guy’s a TV personality, which means he’s given to at-times crude absolutes. That’s his job. And while I’m clearly not saying “what happens in the screening room stays in the screening room” (considering I just violated that unwritten rule of the critic brotherhood), I’m feeling curiously defensive of Siegel’s right to be rude, flamboyant, and theatrical in his disapproval, at least while moving amongst the herd of his fellow media types. I don’t agree with him in the slightest — in fact, I think it’s fair to say our tastes are almost diametrically opposed. But this wasn’t a commercial theater: This was a critics screening. You see the same people, over and over. It’s like an awkward family reunion, with Siegel playing the role of Old Uncle Mustache.

Smith would probably argue that this makes Siegel’s behavior even more reprehensible: He was pulling the focus of his fellow critics and blatantly attempting to influence their opinions with hissy-fit performance art. All true. And yet… some movies are circuses, and every circus needs a clown. Anarchy loves company. To me, the meltdown, the freakout, the Rite of Spring riot–they’re all part of the big, madhouse polylogue we call free expression. (And let’s face it, the notoriously thin-skinned Smith oughta pay Siegel for the free publicity this trumped-up “controversy” is netting him.) So don’t hate Old Uncle Mustache too much. He was moved to fury by this movie. That’s significant.