Between the Frames
Film editor 1989-1991
Staff writer 1991-1993, 1995-present
In the summer of 1989, I took a one-year leave from my job teaching media sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle and drove the long route to Los Angeles to become film editor at L.A. Weekly. I had written television criticism and book reviews for alternative newspapers throughout my academic career, but coming from an environment where it took six months to write an article and another nine for it to moulder under peer review, I was comically underprepared for the pressures of weekly turnaround, and clueless about the process, argot and often chaotic chain of command in the alternative press. So much so that when the managing editor told me he needed my “hed” ASAP, I thought I’d been fired on my first day. Nor, at first, did I fully grasp the culture of irreverence that still ruled at papers like the Weekly nearly 20 years after the counterculture had ground to a halt. When John Powers brought in, on one of those giant floppy disks we used then, his well-deserved one-word take on a Child’s Play sequel — “Upchucky” — I solemnly asked him to go back and write me a proper review.
So addled and hyper-responsible was I in the discharge of my administrative duties (like many writers with tunnel vision, I panic when asked to multitask) that it took me a while to realize that I had some of the most brilliant talents in the country — I don’t say this frivolously — at my disposal in the film section. Powers, an extraordinarily lucid and fluent writer on just about any topic you could think of (he wrote a definitive essay on Pauline Kael when she died), had also jettisoned an academic career to become film editor at the Weekly, and by way of reassurance told me that, when he started out, he asked for an extra day to rewrite a 200-word capsule review. Michael Ventura, one of the paper’s founding members, was a rogue essayist, filmmaker (Echo Park) and both a local cult hero and a bête noir for his blend of populism, spiritualism and creative rage. Tom Carson had already published a punk novel and written television criticism for TheVillage Voice; he wrote one of the finest cover stories the Weekly has ever published, a delirious 12,000-word think piece on Disneyland. Along with R.J. Smith, who came from The Voice to be music editor, Carson’s young wife, Arion Berger, wrote music criticism while moonlighting in film, as did Greg Burk and John Payne. Helen Knode, who had stepped down as film editor before me and, by her own admission, grown bored silly with film, became a lippy voice for feminism before running off to marry James Ellroy and write a novel partly based on her experiences at the Weekly. Steve Erickson, already a published alterna-novelist several times over, unwillingly succeeded me as film editor when I finally threw in the towel, and wrote beautifully about everything.
None of this crew identified themselves exclusively as film critics; they wrote about the cultural and political temper of the times, and film’s place in it. You couldn’t find a more diverse, idiosyncratic, funnier, angrier, more knowledgeable set of voices — or, in some cases, more combustible, quarrelsome, competitive and bruisingly intolerant. “You don’t need to edit this,” one writer said, looming over my shoulder as I worked on his piece. “It’s perfect.”
Things fell apart spectacularly in 1993 when, after a simmering battle between editor in chief Kit Rachlis and publisher Mike Sigman (both have since admitted they’d do things differently today), Rachlis was fired and most of his hires, me included, walked out with him. We’ve had good and great writers since, but this was a cultural moment, and while it lasted, L.A. Weekly offered a playground for long-form intellectual journalism the likes of which, as the newspaper business writhes in the agony of head-to-toe overhaul, we may never see again. Rachlis had a gift for attracting and nurturing great writers. No editor changed so much as a comma without running it by the writer, and no article was ever finished until the writer had signed off on it. If Rachlis felt you’d been overdoing it, he’d send you off on the payroll for two weeks to read and think. Try that on now, and watch the pink slip flutter gently into your mailbox.
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