By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Film Editor 1985-1989, Editor at Large 1990-1993, Deputy Editor 2001-2004, Editor at Large 2004-2007
In 1985, I drove to Los Angeles from Washington, D.C., to become film critic for the L.A. Weekly. The first thing I did when I hit town was stop by the paper’s old offices on Hyperion Avenue. Because the man who hired me, founding editor Jay Levin, was away, I was led to the managing editor, a superannuated Yippie named Mayer Vishner.
“You’re here!” he cried affably, then moments later, added a bit ominously, “you better meet Ventura.”
“Okay,” I said, not exactly sure why I needed to do that.
“I should warn you, though,” Mayer said with the sly aggressiveness that often knifed through his air of headshop benevolence, “he thought we shouldn’t hire you.”
Turned out that this Michael Ventura hadn’t liked my sample review — a pan of Blood Simple that I still stand by — and mistrusted the fact that I’d been teaching at Georgetown. A self-educated man, he evidently thought I was some effete East Coast egghead.
Given that I’d just moved my whole life to L.A., I approached meeting my new nemesis with no little dread. This feeling didn’t diminish when Ventura stepped through the door with the quiet cockiness of Bogart making his first appearance in a movie. He was dressed in what I later discovered was his uniform: ponytail, jeans, a long-sleeved shirt open over a T, and cowboy boots that were so inviolate a part of his essence that he even wore them on the beach in Malibu.
He looked me over — I, too, was wearing a T-shirt and jeans, plus long curly hair that now strikes me as comical. Perhaps relieved that I wasn’t wearing a tweed jacket and smoking a pipe, he said simply, “I think you’re going to be all right.”
Both amused and irritated by this odd benediction, I kept asking myself, “Who the hell does this guy think he is?”
It didn’t take me long to learn the answer. Ventura was, and is, the single most important writer in the history of this newspaper. If I don’t say he was the best writer, that’s because only idiots think there’s such a thing as a “best writer.” What I can say is that, from the beginning of the paper until he left 15 years later, Ventura was the writer who dominated the Weekly.
His work came closer than anyone’s to realizing the vast promise of a paper whose cover slogan proclaimed it “The Publication of News, People, Entertainment, Art and Imagination in Los Angeles.” Whether talking about Ronald Reagan or his personal altar, his schizophrenic brother or the personality of different freeways, Ventura did what papers like this ought to do: Unite the personal and the political, the material and the spiritual, the social and the psychological, the historical and the mythic — and do it all in a voice so distinctive that you can hear it in your head years later.
I first grasped the reach of that voice shortly after I started at the paper. I was checking my mailbox — a couple of postcards from readers calling me a dope — and saw that Ventura’s was stacked high with thick, handwritten letters clearly written by people in a state of high emotion. There were missives from radicals, blues fans, devotees of Carlos Castaneda. And this wasn’t a freak occurrence. Because he made people feel he was writing directly to them, that mailbox remained stuffed week after week for the seven years we worked together.
If that wasn’t enough to make me gnaw my gizzard with envy, the same thing kept happening out in the world. One night I was buying some books at Midnight Special in Santa Monica, when a lovely Asian cashier swathed in a J-horror hairdo, said, “Are you the John Powers who writes for the Weekly?”
“Why, yes,” I replied, delighted at the attention.
Her eyes glittered. “Do you know Michael Ventura?”
When I told him this story, Ventura howled happily. “I think I know the girl you mean.” His expression turned dead serious. “You know, you locked her and me up in a bedroom together, only one of us would come out alive.”
I kept waiting for him to laugh, but he didn’t: Ventura always had a sweet tooth for apocalyptic pronouncements. Indeed, one night after a few glasses of Bushmills, he leaned forward and said, “Did I ever tell you that ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ saved my life?”
While I always found his hyperbole hilarious, it was precisely this passion that, in the years before I arrived at the Weekly, made Ventura the most original film critic of my generation. (Predictably, nobody in New York noticed.) It wasn’t simply that his 1979 obituary of John Wayne dwarfed all the others in its grasp of The Duke’s mythic importance, or that he clobbered One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest when its producer, Michael Douglas, was one of the paper’s owners, or even that his essay on “Steven Spielberg’s dwindling imagination” (provoked by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) actually won him, I’m told, a letter from the great director himself.