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A Letter at 3 PM

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.

 

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.”


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