The Digital Journalist
Selected photos from Michael O'Brien's The Face of Texas.
© Michael O'Brien

Harry [& Jay ] Knowles - When Harry Knowles earned a trip to the regional spelling bee in Stephenville, TX, and the competitors had been whittled down to just Harry and another high-school freshman, Harry misspelled the word "harmonica," blowing his chances for State.

"I don't know what happened to my brain," says Knowles, who later missed only one question on the ACT college entrance exam. "The word was too easy. But it's my fondest mistake, a moment that reveals a simple flaw that can be endearing."

Knowles, a college dropout who created in 1996 at the age of 24 after an accident confined him to bed for six months, feels the same way about his famous film-fan website. AICN is full of misspellings, grammatical errors, Knowles' refreshingly politically incorrect opinions and tall tales about secret advance screenings and Hollywood film junkets.

"I type faster than I think," says Knowles, whose book, "Ain't It Cool," was published by Warner Books in 2002. "It's all breathless enthusiasm, train of consciousness. After I see a film, I can't wait to get it out of me. I believe perfection intimidates, and faults endear you to people."

After seeing the long-awaited "Spiderman," Knowles wrote a record 3,400-word review; and the site - with a server that can accommodate three million hits - was so deluged that it shut down.

"I generate more text than any reporter in history," says Knowles, one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood. "Other writers don't have the stamina - or typing skills!"

To this day, Knowles remembers his Seymour High typing teacher, Ms. Conners, "a big, bouffant beehive blond typing witch" who came up behind him one day and snipped off his "rat tail" that he kept tucked discreetly under his collar. But he learned to type. He even went so far as to join the typing club and every other club, from drama to Spanish to stay away from home. After his parents divorced, he and his little sister had moved with their alcoholic mother to a ranch in northwest Texas, and their home life was beyond gruesome. When he finished high school, he fled back to Austin.

"I'm very old-fashioned," says Knowles, who still shares the cluttered, 900-square-foot house in north Austin with father Jay, his personal assistant. "I don't think it's necessary to leave your family to become your own person. Fame is an empty cup."

At any given time in his office, Knowles whose writing stretches can last as long as 14 hours might be simultaneously screening a film, doing an interview on speakerphone, typing a review and spending time with his very understanding girlfriend.

"I'm a multi-hyphenate," he says. "I'm very much about AICN."

Since he grabs only three to four hours of sleep some days, he crashes for occasional 18-hour blackouts. When the laundry builds up, Jay heads to the laundromat and conducts "laundry orgies," marshalling nine washers and three commercial-size dryers. Father and son organize their whole existence around the movies.

"I call myself a film advocate," says Knowles, who grew up helping his hippie parents in the film-memorabilia trade. 'Film critic' is a term of bitterness. To a film critic, movies are guilty until proven innocent. I think a film's great until proven otherwise. I haven't walked out of a movie in nine years. There's usually SOMETHING there."