The Weekly Goes to the Movies 

When writing about them really mattered

Wednesday, Dec 3 2008

Contributing writer 2003-2005
Film editor 2005-present

In my beginning is my end
—T.S. Eliot

I wish I could say that L.A. Weekly and I were born under the same sign. In fact, my own entry into this world, in April 1978, preceded the paper’s by nearly eight months to the day. And somehow, in the peculiar logic of time, this makes me “young” — or at least young enough to still be periodically referred to as a “young film critic” — and the Weekly old, which is to say old enough to have weathered multiple regime changes and seismic shifts in the culture at large, and to have amassed an illustrious history of “past” writers and bygone “good old days” spoken of (by some who were there and many who were not) with misty eyes and in hallowed tones. Yet as the two of us — the paper and I — enter our fourth decade, it is another 30 whose numeric significance hangs in the air like a thick mist. It is the “—30—” that holds a special meaning to those in the world of journalism, the one that once upon a time followed the last line of a writer’s unedited copy, the one that signifies the end.

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How strange it is to be writing about the legacy of a newspaper in general and its film criticism in particular at a moment when both things seem headed the way of the dinosaur, or at least the bald eagle. This is not exactly news: Since 2006, Sean P. Means of The Salt Lake Tribune has been keeping a running tally on (where else?) his blog of fellow print critics who have been “laid off, bought out, retired or reassigned.” He’s up to 33 as of this writing — a roster that includes Bob Ross of The Tampa Tribune, the first person I ever knew personally who made his living from writing about movies; Lance Goldenberg of Weekly Planet (née Creative Loafing), who hired me to write capsule reviews when I was still in high school; and my esteemed Village Voice Media colleagues Dennis Lim, Rob Nelson and Nathan Lee. Means has collectively dubbed them “the departed,” and the same could be said about an alarming number of entire news outfits that have either reduced their publication cycle, gone Web-only or shuttered entirely.

So I begin on a note of funereal obsolescence at what was surely meant to be a joyous celebration, and for this I apologize. For there is much to celebrate about the Weekly turning 30, even if most of it demands a feat of archaeological excavation that might leave Indiana Jones winded. In its present incarnation, our cyberspace avatar, laweekly.com, dates back only to 1998, leaving fully 20 years of Weekly musings and misgivings unaccounted for. To explore those, you must make a trip to the central branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, or spend several days ensconced in the small storage room in the Weekly offices, where the walls are lined with yellowing newsprint and the drawers spill over with reels of 35 mm microfilm. It’s there that many of the real goodies lie.

This would seem the sensible place to segue into a brief history of L.A. Weekly film reviewers, except that it’s already been done — by my partner in criticism Ella Taylor, who writes in this very issue about her own two decades of Weekly memories, and by my predecessor Manohla Dargis, who penned a thorough chronology for our 20th-anniversary edition (an article that, mercifully, does exist on the Web, and which I urge you to read). In it, Dargis says that, initially, she had considered writing only about the Weekly’s very first film editor and critic, Michael Ventura, whom she goes on to hail as “one of the great unknowns of American film criticism.” With that in mind, allow me to humbly pick up where Dargis left off.

It isn’t just that Ventura, who also co-founded the Weekly, was the best the paper has ever seen, though he arguably was; it’s that he also seems a representative figure — someone who, in his body of work, and often in a single article, epitomized everything that the Weekly film pages have ever aspired to. That is to say that Ventura — and his excellent co-critic and co-editor Ginger Varney — wrote with a passion, engagement and intelligence that even by the considerably higher standards of that era are bracing to behold. These are “reviews” less concerned with matters of plot, acting and direction (all generally cited circumspectly, if at all) than with the deeper truths movies can sometimes hold and the bold-faced lies they frequently peddle.

This is writing with the urgent force of the late Manny Farber — free of facile conclusions and snap judgments; writing in which every opinion seems to have been carefully considered before pen was ever set to paper, only to then be rethought, revised, refined as the sentences unfurled; writing that convinces you the movies under discussion really matter, in part because movies did matter more back then, and in part because writing like this helped make them matter. Simply put, and with due apologies to William Blake, if you were to see the world of Weekly film criticism in a grain of sand, that grain would be Michael Ventura.

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