Two cheers for Tom Cruise. He hasn't exactly been a benchmark of emotional control just lately - what with capering like a gibbon on Oprah's sofa, and other expressions of romantic delirium - but he did a lot better than I could manage if I'd just been squirted in the face by a cretin. In case you missed the moment, it happened at the Leicester Square premiere of War of the Worlds, and the squirter was one of those comedy ambush interviewers, who lie in wait on reception lines to pour cold water on a star's ego. Traditionally, the cold water has always been metaphorical - but the witless individual responsible for this stunt couldn't even think up a novel insult, so he settled for the real thing instead.
Curiously, the very first thing that crossed Cruise's face was a smile - which flickered into place for about half a second before the star managed the tricky gear shift from autopilot charm into aggrieved bemusement. Then he engaged and let the clutch out. "Now why would you do that?" he asked quietly, effectively delivering the line as a genuine sociological inquiry, rather than a yelp of indignation. The culprit stammered something inaudible about a joke. "What's so funny about that?" Cruise replied. Again, the deadly thing was that the question wasn't rhetorical. He wanted an answer and it must have suddenly dawned on the squirter that he didn't have a clue how to give one. Even more frustratingly, Cruise still hadn't lost his temper and was calmly waving away his squawking minders. It was all going so badly that the squirter decided to retreat. "No, no... don't run away," said Cruise, and the humiliating reversal was complete. Game, set and match to the prey.
So, why only two cheers, then? Well, Cruise's triumph wasn't entirely unblemished. He called the guy a jerk - which was unquestionably true - but which would better have been left for others to say. And then, more seriously, there was the niggling moment when Cruise seemed to suggest that his walkabouts were a kind of charity work. The implication was that if celebrities couldn't be protected from random acts of facial irrigation, they'd be forced to call a halt to their generous acts of giving. And there are people who agree with him.
The publicist Mark Borkowski, for one, who seems to feel that a Cruise-less world would be a bleak affair. "We need him to brighten up the TV news, to fill the tabloids with pictures, to feed our gossip in the pub," he wrote, in a piece that also warned of the terrifying possibility that Hollywood PR minders might shut Britain out of the schmooze loop entirely.
Oh please... don't tempt us. The Cruise stunt might have been feeble and unmannerly, but if I thought it would dissuade stars from taking part in these fatuous, self-advertising circuses, I'd be down there in Leicester Square myself with a Super-Soaker Triple Shot and a bowser full of London tap. Because what got missed out in coverage of the stunt is that film publicity is an insult in itself. And the promotional circus isn't just a regrettable by-product of the Hollywood system. It is fundamentally implicated in the poor quality of most big films - which now have to be conceived to feed just this kind of synthetic "event". The damage doesn't stop there, either, because the hype-mill corrodes everything it touches, from television arts programmes to the ambient culture that surrounds new releases. How often do you see, in those newspapers that still take film seriously, a 1,000 word lament for the vacuity of the latest blockbuster, alongside a 150-word rave for some small-budget masterpiece? And why is it that the predictably mediocre will frequently secure more coverage than the unpredictably excellent? Because the coercive force of Hollywood has made it seem almost perverse to favour the good over the promotionally powerful. Cruise said that he confronted his squirter because he doesn't like bullies, and yet he obliges a cultural bully every day. If you seek an example of the ruthless intimidation of the weak, a studio publicity department will do very nicely.
Water-squirting is a useless response to this because it simply creates more headlines. The utopian solution would be for no one to turn up. Imagine - no paparazzi lightning storm, no film crews jostling for pole position, no fans pleading with Tom to have phone sex with their mums, just the whistle of the wind through the redundant crash-barriers. Next day, we'd gossip about something more interesting, and - who knows? - actually see something new in the press. It isn't going to happen, though. We're just going to have to live with the unending drench of promotional sewage. And alongside that, a splash of clean water seems almost refreshing.