By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
It seems almost karmic that the first movie ever reviewed in the Weekly turns out to have been Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter. Here, after all, was a big American movie on a big American subject (the Vietnam War), coming along at a moment — post–Star Wars and Jaws, but just barely — when the serious, artistic New American Cinema birthed in the whirlwind of the late 1960s was still in its spasmodic death throes, the anodyne ’80s blockbuster looming (like Ronald Reagan’s American morning) just over the horizon. And here was Ventura coming to terms with his own complex reaction to Cimino’s film, at once exalting it for its aesthetic triumphs and deriding it for its moral shortcomings. “When I walked out of the theater, I was so swept away with the excellence of this movie that it took me a day to start getting angry at how I’d been lied to,” he writes, before concluding (a couple of thousand words later) that “the infuriating trait of American movies — from D.W. Griffith to John Ford, from Rebel Without a Cause to The Deer Hunter — is that you find greatness nearly always side by side with what’s shamelessly self-serving. But then, that is also the infuriating trait of America.”
Where to begin? Perhaps with the notion that it took Ventura a whole day to start figuring out how he really felt about the movie, which must sound awfully fusty in this age, when so many bloggers post immediate reactions mere hours after seeing a movie — or, in at least one widely publicized case from earlier this year, while the movie is still unfolding on the screen. But who gives a damn about little things like contemplation and reflection in the all-important race to the finish (an attitude that pervades not only the corridors of film criticism, but of national power)? Which is to say nothing of Ventura’s conclusion about the “infuriating trait” of both American movies and America itself. That’s the sort of statement that, today, would promptly result in a stream of virulent missives from the America First crowd posted to the “comments” section of laweekly.com, predictably admonishing the critic in question for allowing his political allegiances to interfere with what ought to be “just a review of the movie.” And maybe some people felt that way back in 1978 too, except instead of instantaneously pointing and clicking, they would have had to hand-write or type out a letter, stuff it in an envelope and mail it to the Weekly’s physical address, during which time the full meaning of Ventura’s provocation would have continued to weigh on their minds, demanded to be grappled with, refused to so quickly and easily be dismissed.
Believe it or not, Ventura was just getting ramped up: Three months later, when The Deer Hunter went into wide release, he published another piece of nearly equal length, further considering the film’s cultural implications and what it might say about the inevitable next act of America’s steady war-making drama. But as Ventura himself was fond of saying, there isn’t enough space for that. So, instead, this briefest of samplers:
On Apocalypse Now:
“The greatest film about Viet Nam will never leave the confines of a typical residential neighborhood in America, but I don’t seriously expect that film ever to be made.”
On the death of John Wayne:
“His acting was most effective out-of-doors, or in small adobe rooms with the sense of the out-of-doors imminent. He played terribly in modern clothes, in living-rooms — heroes are not very interesting in living-rooms. Achilles would have seemed more of a fool than ever in a suit.”
On The Man Who Fell to Earth:
“In the ’50s, science-fiction happened outside of us. The worst it could do (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, It Came From Outer Space, War of the Worlds) was invade us. But for Nicolas Roeg, we’re the science fictions — science-fiction is happening inside us. We invade each other. And worse, within us a part of the psyche can invade another part of the psyche; the worst parts of ourselves can suddenly materialize where we never wanted them to be ... our breakdowns can mean an apocalypse to someone else’s world.”
And that is from the first 12 months of the paper alone. Here is a career that begs anthologizing!
Believe me when I say that I have only begun to scratch the surface. A more thorough survey would mention that few of Ventura’s essays (indeed, he was billed as “poet and film essayist” in the Weekly’s first prototype issue) were complete without at least a couple of the lengthy literary quotations — Rainer Maria Rilke was a particular favorite — and that few critics have written more eloquently on the subject of John Cassavetes (about whom he also made a documentary), arguably the most important American filmmaker to have been active during Ventura’s tenure at the Weekly. In addition, there are novels, poetry collections, and a column, “Letters at 3 AM,” which began in these pages and continues to this day at the Austin Chronicle, where Ventura recently wrote of the gunfighter turned sports reporter Bat Masterson: “He died at his desk in 1921, making a deadline in the wee hours, having just typed a pretty good sentence. What better way for a writer to go?”
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