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
What made Ventura’s criticism extraordinary was his faith in his own perceptions. He went to the wall for great directors who would never be popular — John Cassavetes had no more eloquent champion — and had a knack for noticing things that forever changed your way of seeing. I never felt the same about Third World movies after Ventura discussed the way Hollywood pointedly lightens or darkens ethnic skin tones for dramatic effect. Even when I found him silly — he once described some starlet’s breasts as “numinous” — or shuddered at his fondness for the execrable Henry Jaglom, that didn’t change anything. Maileresque in its baroque pithiness, Ventura’s movie criticism was so profoundly personal — so unlike anybody else’s in style and ambition — that I never picked up one of his reviews without a sense of high drama. I expected to find something new, something I’d never thought of before.
The same was even truer of his column, “Letters at 3 AM,” which sounds all boozy and Sinatrafied but actually comes from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line, “In the dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.” Now, I know that some readers found the column bombastic — Ventura doesn’t really do understatement — yet occasional hectoring was actually a small price to pay for one of most audacious eight-year runs in American literary journalism. Filing fortnightly bulletins from the shadowy frontlines of the modern psyche, he tried to write his way through a darkness that he found both a prison and a liberation. His subject was, well, everything.
Knowing how to hook readers, he wrote brilliantly about his relationship to his dead, crazy mom (“Everyone has many mothers,” the column begins, “and they don’t all die at the same time”). He anatomized the first invasion of Iraq in a wrenching series of “Letters to the War.” He examined the jerky way white boys dance and he pondered the metaphysics of the erection. For the Weekly’s annual Health Issue – designed to rake in advertising bucks by cheerfully promoting various placebos and panaceas — he turned in a cover story titled, “You, in Particular, Are Going to Die: No Matter What You Eat, How You Exercise, or How Much Money You Have.” (These and other pieces can be found in his collections, Shadow Dancing in the USA and Letters at 3 AM: Reports on Endarkenment.)
Of course, it was always Ventura’s way to push things — his novel Night Time Losing Time contains an anal sex scene that beggars Ubershtuppenfuhrer Mailer — and his relationship to The Weekly was always volatile. Early in his career, he famously threw a chair during an editorial squabble. A few years later he quit in an argument with Levin over a matter of principle, which cost Ventura a good deal of money (he was right about the principle). Wooed back to the paper by new editor Kit Rachlis, he quit again when Rachlis was fired.
Several other writers quit, too, but leaving was certainly hardest on Ventura. He’d been at the paper longer than anyone else — it was part of his identity as a writer. But the bigger issue was that, in the years between 1978 and 1993, the culture had changed.
Put baldly, the very qualities, including sheer combative cussedness, that helped make him one of the country’s best writers began falling out of fashion, even in the so-called alternative press. It was replaced by a new official style that was bright, ironic, pseudo-hip, safely liberal (meaning essentially apolitical), and geared to consumption. Like many of my Weekly colleagues over the years, I’ve accommodated myself to the demands of this new reality. Ventura never has. A devoted student of The Wild Bunch, he remains all the things that most of today’s publishers, advertisers and editors can’t stand. He’s passionate, speculative, visceral, intellectual, reflexively radical, unafraid of embarrassment and sometimes just plain fucking weird. In a word, alternative.
Ventura was never one to say “Uncle,” and these days he writes “Letters at 3 AM” for The Austin Chronicle, where he just published a beautiful piece about good ways to die. I mean no disrespect to that admirable paper to suggest that the column deserves a bigger venue. If nothing else, he deserves a bigger payday. Michael is now in his 60s and though I haven’t seen him for several years, I fear he’s paying the price so often exacted of artists who keep their nerve and live on their own terms.
Then again, that’s the gig, as he liked to say.
I remember once bumping into my friend Anne, a scarily perceptive handwriting analyst, who was walking with a terrible limp.
What happened? I cried.
“I was reading Letters at 3 AM,” she said, “and it had this line that said, ‘Never exercise on anything that doesn’t take you somewhere.’ So I stopped riding my stationary bike and got on a real one.” She giggled. “I crashed.”
When I told this story to Ventura, he just grinned and told me to give her a message: “If something can’t hurt you, it probably isn’t worth doing.”