Andrew Sarris once wrote of The Immortal Sergeant, a movie directed by a great Hollywood unknown named John M. Stahl: "This is the cinema of audacity to the point of madness, and yet always preferable to the relative sanity of discretion." Substitute the word criticism for cinema and you get a pretty fair picture of the L.A. Weekly film section over the last 20 years — from audacity to madness and all that comes in between. I cite Sarris not only because it’s a terrific line — both a challenge and an invitation — but because he was, and for all I know still is, the favorite American film critic of the L.A.Weekly’s first film editor, Michael Ventura. And besides, Ventura was fond of starting his articles with quotations.
For a while, struggling to take measure of two decades of the film section, I seriously considered writing only about Ventura, one of the great unknowns of American film criticism. Passionate, political, learned, Ventura’s film writing at the Weekly exemplified a certain forcefully personal approach to American movie criticism, in the tradition of diverse outsider critics such as Otis Ferguson, James Agee (another Ventura favorite), Andrew Sarris and, of course, Pauline Kael. What separated these greats from their daily-paper and weekly-magazine brethren was an absolute refusal to not take movies seriously and to allow Hollywood to set the agenda. Simply put, they wrote about what the movies meant to them.
Ventura took movies seriously; I imagine he took just about everything else in life seriously, too. And as good as he was — and sometimes he was brilliant, astonishing really — he could also be sloppy, windy and an alarming overwriter. F.X. Feeney, who started writing for this paper soon after it was launched, jokingly and fondly compares Ventura to Law rence of Arabia, as a man who would "dynamite the train and dance on the wreck." Given that image, it isn’t surprising that, as has often been the case in the alternative-publishing world, Ventura could also be solipsistic to the point of self-parody. But while he could stand at the edge, rarely did Ventura cross over, and certainly not in the film section. Save perhaps when he was singing the praises of Henry Jaglom or My Dinner With Andre.
The personal pronoun was much in evidence in the Weekly’s early days, which is why I’ve assumed the first person here. What other voice could I take? I came to the Weekly four-and-a-half years ago, and my knowledge of the paper isn’t much older. The first time I read it was when another critic thrust an issue into my hands, informing me that this writer named John Powers was pretty good. He was. Funny, fast and shot through with a fierce, take-no-prisoners intelligence, the first review I ever read in the paper included a reconsideration of the gangster picture Menace II Society in light of an attack on the film by conservative George Will. What I admired about Powers, beyond the felicitousness of the prose, was his admission that he too was made uneasy by the movie. He could admit ambivalence without denying what it was that had moved him about the film when he’d first seen it. Not long after I moved to Los Angeles, I went up to Powers and introduced myself; we’ve been friends since.
The critics in L.A. go to screenings. Whether it’s a semiprivate screening, with a half-dozen people in a small room, or a major screening at the 20th Century Fox Main Theater, the atmosphere is intentionally "special": glossy hand-outs, guarded conversations, smooth introductions, contacts made. There is an air of special intelligence and, in its most exact sense, special interests.
These are not people out for a good time. They’re not out to be invigorated, soothed, tickled, inspired, lied to, or given a vision of truth. . . . They’re not paying their earned money for a part of life that work and home don’t give them. No, the screenings aretheir work, their world, their business. They are part of "the industry," making money as part of the process by which the filmmakers will or will not make money.
As usual, Ventura knew exactly how to piss off his reader, in this case me. I came across these words while poring through past issues of the Weekly. They were published in a 1978 prototype of the paper used as an enticement for prospective advertisers, and could easily be considered Ventura’s mission statement, or a carny pitch, maybe a little of both. Certainly he was dead on about one thing: Critics’ screenings are "special," held in mostly nice screen ing rooms with decent sightlines, better-than-usual projection and the occasional free lollipop. What he got wrong, though, was the idea that movie critics are necessarily part of the industry machinery, brokering deals and lubricating contacts. That, of course, was entirely beside Ventura’s point: He was throwing down the gauntlet, to the industry and readers both. The best critics here have been doing the same ever since. ä