At Sundance, Variety critic John Anderson punched Dirt! producer Jeff Dowd in the face. Via the film’s publicist, Dowd sent out an e-mail discussing the incident. Now there’s more. A lot more. So who am I to deny the Dude a chance to (inimitably) speak his mind? Extended excerpts from Dowd’s long second missive regarding the incident:
“Film criticism is fine, but ill-informed assumptions about how the public will react are not what is best for the planet and not in the spirit of the dialogue that goes on at Sundance. He simply didn’t do a reporter’s homework and listen to audience members before saying, ‘People will not respond to this film.’
What especially bothered me is when I told John how well the audiences were reacting, John said: ‘They are just sheep.’ Had he stayed for the Q&A, John would have seen that these were some pretty smart sheep, who see a lot of films and are perfectly capable of critical thinking and also have a deep enough analysis of what’s going on in the world today and how Dirt! The Movie and what it shows is possible can play an important role in making life on our planet better before it is too late. I guess I am just a sucker for inspired sheep more than critical lemmings who are about to go of the cliff’s edge.
I think this is why John and Laura Kim conducted an extensive interview with me for their fine book I Wake Up Screening. I spoke about the relationship of movies I had worked on, like Academy Award winners Hearts and Minds, Chariots of Fire and Gandhi as well as War Games and many documentaries like those of my friend Neil Young, and how they opened people’s hearts and minds and inspired them and therefore gained tremendous critical, media and grassroots support. I reminded John of this yesterday and said I believe based on the reaction of several hundred ‘sheep’ at four screenings that Dirt! The Movie will be one such film. I know that by the shank of the fest critics are justifiably burnt-out, nonetheless John simply didn’t allow himself to see the reality here.We are at a historic time when information and dialogue are the life-blood of democracy and are essential to the future of the planet. At this time when we are at THE CLIFF’S EDGE (caps his), gratefully informative and hopeful movies like Dirt! The Movie deserve discussion, not the simple dismissal John was unfortunately giving it.”
Now, more about the fisticuffs, specifically:
“After a couple minutes of calm discussion with John as we walked from the Holiday Cinemas to the Yarrow, he decided to cut off the conversation because he had a breakfast meeting (ironically with Diane Weyerman, formerly the head of Sundance Docs and now at Particpant Productions, which is all about progressive films like An Inconvenient Truth and grassroots follow-up. I had also spoken with Jeff Skoll, founder of Particpant, about Dirt!, and he was interested).
So after John left I had a choice: Do I let John write a review which I felt at best was half the story and would be the first review out of Sundance, or do I try to re-engage him? What would you do? What would Gandhi or Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks or Michael Moore do at that moment in time? What was my responsibility to the filmmakers, the sheep who loved the film, my two daughters and the future of the planet? Should the Dude say fuck it and just go bowling or should I not let this intellectual aggression stand and try to re-engage John? I went into the Yarrow dinning room and sat down next to John and Diane and said: “John, I think this is worthy of more discussion.” He responded: “I am trying to have my breakfast and if you don’t leave I am going to punch you out.” He then rose and screamed, “Throw this riff raff out of here.”
I left and ran into the Dirt! filmmakers heading into the Yarrow to have breakfast and conduct an interview. At that moment Jackie “The Jokeman” Martlin of The Howard Stern Show came up to me and said: “Jeff, what a great film Dirt! is. I learned so much and was so inspired.” As we walked into the dinning room I introduced Jackie to John Anderson, who was about eight feet away on the other side of a table for six and said: “John, here is one of those people who liked Dirt!.” John said, “Are you a friend of Jeff’s?” Jackie responded: “I know Jeff, but the point is that this is a very important and inspiring film.” John said: “I am trying to eat my breakfast.” Jackie said: “I understand but this may be more important than you continuing to eat your breakfast for a bit.”
John then turned red and rose up and said: “Jeff, I warned you I was going to punch you out if you tried to talk to me anymore.” I stood there with my hands at my sides. (I am a wrestler and an activist, and we are trained to keep our hands down so as a wrestler we can tackle someone if necessary and as an activist so our hands raised won’t be mis-interpreted as a possible attack position.) John then approached me and threw three jabs to my chest , shoulder and head. None of them even fazed me, which I think surprised John, who works out and has a stance that looks like he has indeed boxed. He turned and started to walk away a few paces and then looked at me and walked back and threw his best solid jab at my mouth, trying to floor me. My head went back a few inches but it didn’t faze me either. I only hope John doesn’t find himself in a real situation where he overestimates his boxing skills and gets hurt.
We left and the manager came up to us and said he had called the police to arrest John. When the police arrived several people came up to the Park City police officer Bob deBotelho and gave him their business cards and said they wanted to testify that John assaulted me. The same was true of many restaurant staff members. In all fairness, Nick Frazier from the BBC and a colleague told the officer that they felt I was harassing John. They of course hadn’t seen the movie, or witnessed John’s anti-intellectual and un-democratic attitude towards me. And as a Jew and an Irishmen I of course understand that there is an unfortunate tradition of British violence and failure to get to the bottom of the story — Tony Blair! I have faith that when Nick sees Dirt! and hears the whole story he will be able to make a distinction between harassment and intellectual engagement at crucial times in history. Maybe he should ask Lord David Puttnam (the producer of Chariots of Fire) about me.
The officer said: “I have more than enough witnesses to arrest the assailant, do you want to press charges?” I declined at that time because I like John, I think he is a good journalist and critic and a person who is a dad and someone who cares about our planet and future. And I don’t think he is a danger to society or would inflict violence on women. He was just having an overwhelming and busy day which had severely lowered his intellectual capacity to room temperature, and was clearly needing food more than ideas and inspiration at that moment. Under other circumstances we might have shared a meal together, had a good conversation and I might have learned from him and he from me.”