It appears that the “Screening Room” has now officially crossed the one year mark. The first of these sometimes rambling—and often shamelessly self-indulgent—articles appeared on Feb. 1, 2008. The very thought of having done a year of these things makes me want to take a nap. When Steve Shanafelt put the idea of such an undertaking to me, I’d no idea that his original proposal would become the time-consuming monster it did.
I am in no way blaming Mr. Shanafelt for this, mind you. His proposal ran something like this, “Would you consider doing a blog on movies? You could talk about anything movie related that you wanted to.” As much as I dislike the very sound of the word “blog” (and don’t even get me started on “twitter”), that was an irresistible invitation. It sounded like fun. And it was supposed to be simple. Simple—that must be distinctly understood. The idea was something in the range of 750 to 1,000 words. Now, anyone who knows me—let alone anyone who’s ever edited me—knows full well that a word count like that is far from daunting. (You’re talking to someone who spent 50 pages of a book discussing Tommy.) Such an assignment struck me as something I could easily knock off in an afternoon.
What I hadn’t reckoned on was the discovery that nobody would yell at me if I went past that word count. I even apologized once for going “long,” which at that point meant I’d turned in something in the 1,500 word range. It was then that I realized that length wasn’t a consideration. Oh, my. No one had to shrink type or jockey ads around to make something fit. As if this wasn’t dangerous enough, I soon learned that, yes, it was possible to run more than one illustration in a column (I’m set in my ways and still think of it as a column).
Being someone who can take the simplest idea and make it complicated, I should have known what this would lead to. Back when I used to try my hand at making movies, I’d come up with an idea that could be shot in a day or two, but before I knew it, I’d have added elephants and dancing girls and all manner of “wouldn’t it be great if” embellishments. If you go back in the “Screening Room” archives, you can see this mindset in practice. The first two are simple and the only photo is a frame-grab of me sitting at the Fine Arts Theatre from interviews done for a Charlie Chan documentary. The articles then start getting longer, but still only have a single photo (not of me). By the ninth article, however, multiple photos have started to appear. The simple “knock it out in an afternoon” concept had become something else. Hell, with my lack of organizational skills, it can take an afternoon just to find where I’ve put the necessary DVDs for the frame-grabs—nevermind locating the shot I want and the rest of it.
Am I complaining? Only about myself. I enjoy doing the “Screening Room”—except on those occasions when it’s Thursday morning and I haven’t written word one—and am completely aware of how lucky I am to have the opportunity to do it, not to mention that there are people who actually read the things. It’s sobering to realize that there are instances where more people have read a “Screening Room” than have read books I’ve written. Actually, that’s kind of depressing, so we won’t dwell on it.
In the words of J.K. Simmons in Burn After Reading, “What have we learned?” I mean, what have we learned besides, it’s not smart to undertake writing this column for Friday by starting on Thursday afternoon. That one, I’m pretty set on. For me, I’ve also learned that the old joke film writers—including me—used to make about William K. Everson—“Leave the man alone for five minutes with a piece of paper and he’ll start writing something about movies”—can also be made about me. Well, there are worse things, I suppose.
Another thing I’ve learned is that I really don’t have a clue what will or won’t prompt discussion from readers. Why should a column where I bitch about Warner Bros. not putting Ken Russell’s The Devils out on DVD garner scads of comments, while one on the Little Rascals receive nary a one? I’m pretty certain that more readers grew up on those old short films than have seen The Devils. (And how am I to justify in my own mind spending 90 bucks on those shorts? OK, so I’d have done it anyway, but you get my point.) Talking about great movies that I don’t like as well I’m supposed to also touched off a flurry of discourse. Why? I don’t know—unless there are simply a lot of folks out there who are less than whelmed by the “greats.” (Then again, the list of “greats” is always a bit in flux.)
One of the more disappointing responses—or should I say non-responses—came when I put forth the idea of having a movie marathon. No takers. Oh, well, at least that occurred within the confines of the Xpress site and not while standing in an empty theater waiting for an audience to materialize. That doesn’t, by the way, change the fact that I’d still like to see such a marathon—and, no, holding it in my living room isn’t an option.
All in all, however, I’ve been impressed by the level of discourse on these columns—and, for that matter, on the movie reviews themselves. This has nothing to do with me and everything to do with the readership—and I thank you for it. When the movie reviews started allowing comments, I cringed at the idea—having seen the parade of mindless abuse heaped on critics (very often by people who cannot possibly have seen the films in question) on Rotten Tomatoes, the idea held little appeal for me. And at first—see the review of 300—it seemed my fears were justified (“Hanke is an clueless fruitcake”), but that changed to a generally far higher realm that has been enjoyable and edifying.
Oh, sure, there have been the occasional bouts of unpleasantness. I was recently branded “an certifiable moron” (what is it with attacks and this “a” and “an” confusion?). And someone—apparently annoyed because I ignored his virtually identical comment on Rotten Tomatoes—went out of his way to wander over here to lambaste me for using the term “avoirdupois-afflicted” instead of “fat” in my Saw V review. (It reminded me of the time when someone on—yes, Rotten Tomatoes—called a review [not mine] “worthless” because it used the word “lugubrious”, and since the reader didn’t know what it meant, the writer was at fault.) The fact is I used “avoirdupois-afflicted” because it was fun—and if you don’t think language is fun, why are you reading in the first place?
In the “Screening Room” area in particular the comments and debates—along with readers’ personal anecdotes—have been lively, civilized, fun and thought-provoking, which is exactly what online exchanges ought to be. I enjoy a good debate, a productive exchange of ideas. I don’t even mind having my foibles and hobby-horses pointed out to me. I do draw the line at being called a “tool” or a “douche” or whatever—not because it particularly bothers me, but because it’s prosaic, childish and lame stuff that belongs on an elementary school playground. Happily, I’ve never seen this behavior here. (Now, of course, someone will have to call me a “douche” just to disprove that statement. I stand ready for that eventuality with remarks about that person’s mother’s footwear and father’s facial adornments.)
Now, that I’ve established the fact that I think highly of the folks who post on here, let me put something to you. Where do we go from here? What topics would you like to see explored, addressed, considered and batted around? There are quite a few things I want to do—some of them have been in the works for a while, which should tell you that I’m in the biting-off-more-than-can-be-masticated mode here, and the matters under construction could well remain so for a good deal longer. In the meantime, I’m open to just about any suggestion—as long it doesn’t involve sending me a rope with instructions, or exploring the history of films from the Ivory Coast (there’s esoteric and then there’s something beyond that).
So have at it—throw out some ideas and suggestions. Failing that, you’re in for my examination of the mystery of the use of triptych mirrors in movies. Well, come to think of it, you’re likely to get that anyway, but we could conceivably stave it off for a while, which would probably be for the best. (Just ask Justin Souther.) And, yes, I know—this is shorter than usual and boasts only the one illustration. Hey, it’s been a year, I think I deserve to slack off a little this week.