Justin Souther’s article that appeared this week on my 10 years at the Xpress caused me to reflect on just what those years had meant to me, what they’d given me and what I’ve learned from them. And how, yes, I sometimes have felt like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange (1971). It also made me decide — after I read it on Tuesday — that I’d break my threat or promise (you decide which) not to write a Screening Room this week. Well, after all, it was really a promise to myself not to work over an unprecedented Christmas off — and since I’m at least starting in on Wednesday, I might pull that off yet.
I remember the day that Marsha Barber — then the managing editor of the Xpress — offered me the reviewing job as if it was yesterday. Actually, that’s an exaggeration, but I remember it well and it certainly doesn’t seem like 10 years ago. The whole story is actually more complicated than that sounds or than it appears in the printed piece.
Following an exploratory trip to the area in the spring of 1999 — which is when I decided I’d like to move here — I came up from Florida in the fall of that same year and did a few weeks of house-sitting for a friend out in Reems Creek. I actually spent most of my time over in Hendersonville with another friend, who clued me in on the fact that the Mountain Xpess was looking for a reporter. Well, we both knew that I had no experience as a reporter — and I certainly knew my notions of reporters pretty much came from the 1928 play The Front Page — but it was a writing job, so we both figured it could do no harm to at least apply for the position. I made an appointment for an interview.
At that time, Marsha was transitioning from A&E editor to managing editor, but she was already doing the interviewing. I presented my credentials — such as they were — and we talked for a while. That talk clearly convinced her that whatever value I might have as a writer (something she had no way of assessing) I was absolutely no use at all as a reporter. (That was undoubtedly true — as I’ve pointed out to people over the years, I am not a journalist, I’m a columnist and the two are not the same.)
And it didn’t help matters that the paper already had a firmly entrenched reviewer, Ashely Siegel, so there was nothing for me there. But for whatever reason, Marsha did introduce me to Melanie McGee, who was taking over as A&E editor, explaining to her that I was planning on moving to Asheville and might be worth considering as an A&E freelancer. My plan at the time was to come back shortly after the first of the year, but to keep me fresh in the minds of Marsha and Melanie, I sent some t-shirts from Scarlet Street — the magazine I was working for as a writer and associate editor at the time — and had them put on the comp list for a subscription. (I never asked if anyone actually read the thing, but I suspect I know the answer.) As it turned out, I didn’t make it back here till August of 2000. It was then I made my presence known — an occurence that I can’t say was met with joyous rapture, but it was duly noted and though there was nothing going at the time, I was told I’d be called when something came up I might be suited for.
This is where the infamous Brewgrass article comes in — and I still maintain that my best line (“As Bob Dylan might say, the tipples they are a-changin’”) was cut, but no matter. It wasn’t, however, a sudden leap from that literary gem to movie reviewing. I also did a piece on the North Carolina Shakespeare Company and one on a series of films that were going to be on UNCA TV. I was a little better suited to that, and the latter introduced me to local filmmaker Debra Roberts. The actual progression from there is, I confess, a bit confused in my memory, but somewhere along the way Marsha asked if I’d be interested in reviewing Exorcist 2000 — the revamped version of The Exorcist (1973). For reasons involving the desires of Ashely Siegel, the movies were under the managing editor not A&E.
That was followed by Lost Souls, which I was not kind to. (“First-time director Janusz Kaminski (a former cinematographer best known for being married to Holly Hunter, who was smart enough to stay out of this movie) makes his bid for the Son o’ Satan Sweepstakes with Lost Souls. The results are so derivative that the film should have been titled Satanism by the Number — a fact obviously not lost on the producers, since this opus gathered dust on a shelf for two years before being fobbed off on moviegoers as part of the seasonal Halloween crop of horror offerings.) Then I was handed Red Planet, to which I was even less kind (“cardboard characters, a trite plot, inane dialogue (no less than three speeches by people wanting to be left to die for the good of the others and/or mankind in general) and a typically dismal computer-generated “monster” named AMEE (think K-9 from Doctor Who on a rampage).”). In fact, giving it my lowest possible rating earned me a talking to from Ms. Siegel about how that rating was only to be used sparingly.Of course, she also did not have a policy of reviewing every movie that came out.
Somewhere in there I took over doing the movie listings, which at that time was an incomprensible riot of Quark codes that I only managed thanks to copy and paste functions, but that’s not terribly interesting. Instead, let’s move to me pointing out to Marsha that I was actually capable of reviewing movies that weren’t horror or sci-fi, and the news that Ashely was stepping down as head reviewer. This was not an immediate job offer, though, since the idea of merely using an array of freelancers was being seriously considered. I made it clear that I would like to be considered for the job if indeed it did become available.
I have no clue (I’ve never asked) what went on behind the scenes that caused the decision to go with a main reviewer. Of course, I’d like to believe that everyone was so dazzled by my work that that played a factor. (I think I’d also reviewed The 6th Day and Unbreakable by this point.) I suspect, however, that Marsha pitched putting me in that position to publisher Jeff Fobes. I also suspect that it was as much grounded in my ability to turn in clean copy on time as talent. Whatever the case, Marsha Barber and Jeff Fobes are responsible for me landing the job. I’m thankful for that, and I hope neither of them regret it. The rest of you can decide for yourselves how you feel about it.
So that’s a more complete accounting of how I got here. Now, there’s the question of what I’ve learned. Quite a bit, I think.
My first — and perhaps greatest — lesson was that I’d actually been a little hard on movie critics. It’s easy when you see only a small, carefully chosen number of movies a year to not grasp that there’s a difference that goes with seeing and writing about several movies a week. There is a very large difference between seeing a film — and often seeing it more than once — and giving it lengthy consideration and seeing one and writing a review of it the same day, or at best in a day or two.
By its very nature, a review is mostly a fairly immediate reaction. That has its own value, but in the case of a film of any complexity, it’s a kind of snapshot response. And that should be borne in mind. There are equal measure risks of being overly impressed and overly critical when compared with a long-range viewpoint. This, by the way, does not mean that I don’t still heartily dislike some critics, but I’m mostly less likely to — well, criticize them. Mostly. There are exceptions, but this being the holiday season, I’ll say no more about that.
Then there is the business of the ingrained prejudice. This was a tougher lesson to learn. It is humn nature to dislike certain actors and directors. I have friends who have laundry lists of people whose work they won’t see based on this. I came into reviewing with quite a few similar prejudices, but I also knew that this didn’t mean I could avoid their work. Yes, I could fob some of it off on someone else, but by no means all of it. Well, much to my surprise, I soon learned that some of my prejudices were ill-founded and that even people whose work you have come to dislike can surprise you. If you’d told me when I started this that I would ever give Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts or Leonardo DiCaprio good reviews, I’d have bet you otherwise. If you had told me that I’d end up with a Steven Spielberg or a Richard Linklater film on a Ten Best list, I’d have made the same bet. I’d have lost those bets.
There’s nothing like full-immersion baptism into the movies to give you a different sense of the bigger picture of it. Left to my own devices, I might never have seen A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), Gangs of New York (2002), The Rules of Attraction (2002), Closer (2004) or Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) — to name but a few. Even within the confines of the decade of reviewing changes have had to made. The Mexican (2001) may have made me write off Gore Verbinski for life, which would have meant I would likely have missed The Ring (2002) and The Weatherman (2005). That list could go on, too. I’d never heard of Will Ferrell till I started this gig. After Old School (2003) I hoped I might never hear of him again. His presence in Stranger Than Fiction (2006) might have kept me away had that been a viable option. Happily, it wasn’t.
I have spent a decade having to constantly reassess filmmakers and performers. I not only don’t regret this, I’m very glad of the experience. I’m not saying I haven’t slogged my way through some incredible crapfests, nor am I saying that every new encounter with a prejudice has resulted in re-evaluation. I’ve had no cause to experience anything other a series of gigantic Suspicions Confirmed occurences in a lot of cases. Michael Bay, Roland Emmerich and Uwe Boll are right where they were on my first encounters with them — only perhaps more so. But there have been enough of the other kind to make it worthwhile and then some.
This is something a great many moviegoers never experience. Certainly, it was new for me. Come to think of it, I know a few critics who are “too good” to review certain movies. Pompous nonsense. That’s an attitude that simply strikes me as limited and limiting. I tend to believe that as a critic you need something like the whole picture — not just the arty, the indie and the obscure. I much more readily understand why the general public eschews movies they suspect will be awful. I’d be hard-pressed to see the good movies if I was paying to do so. I certainly don’t expect sane human beings to pay for the experience of sitting through Furry Vengeance or Yogi Bear. But movie critics generally don’t pay or are reimbursed by their publications.
There’s also something that I’m still working on processing — and it may be some time before I truly understand it, and perhaps I never will entirely. That’s the unique — for me — experience of being almost completely immersed in a decade while it was happening. Sure, I’ve got a solid working knowledge — in movies terms — of the decades I lived through in a state of conscious recognition. That’s truer of the latter half of the 1960s and the first half of the 1970s than the others, but even there there’s a lot of retrofitting of titles. In many cases, I didn’t see the films as they emerged, but caught up with them over the years.
I probably have one of the stronger groundings in the era from 1927 through 1936 that you’re likely to find, but it is obviously something that I pieced together as the movies in question became available to me. (And I’m still working on it. There’s an aspect of it that I think I’m only beginning to understand.) It’s not the same as watching it unfold as it happened, though I think a case can be made for either approach. However, the 2000 era movies represent something very different in that sense of “you are there.” Well, I was there and my sense of the decade is different as a result. Just exactly how different and how it does differ, I’m working out.
Of course, there are other — and smaller — things I’ve learned. For instance, there’s the ever-present “there’s one in every crowd” factor that goes with the territory of putting your opinions and the reasoning behind those opinions out there week after week for 10 years. There’s always someone waiting to take issue with you, or to blast you for being “wrong,” or to pounce on every gaffe you might make. Of course, that’s actually exploded during the decade thanks to the growing ease of reader commentary online — which, for the most part, I’m in favor of.
When I started, it was still a case of letter-writing, which required a little more dedication (and the cash investment of a stamp). My favorite was an unsigned letter — in bright pink ink — from a reader branding me as a “racist” for giving the stoner comedy How High (2001) a bad review. This was also my first encounter with the now classic phrase, “I’ve never liked any movie you gave a good review, and neither have any of my friends.” I will say here and now, if you’ve indeed never liked any movie I’ve given a good review, then you have really dubious taste.
And I have to include the nagging suspicion that — despite my oft-stated claim to the contrary — maybe I actually do like westerns. OK, so there haven’t been all that many westerns in those 10 years, but there’ve been a few. In all that time, the only one I recall that ever got a flat-out bad review from me was that “Cute Boys with Big Guns” saga American Outlaws (2001). So, yeah, maybe I do like westerns. Do not expect me to indulge in an orgy of singing cowboy pictures any time soon, though — except maybe Son of Paleface (1952).
Oh, yes, I did manage not to work on this over Christmas, which is also why it’s appearing a little later than usual.