Contributing writer 2003-2005
Film editor 2005-present
In my beginning is my end
I wish I could say that L.A. Weekly and I were born under the same sign. In fact, my own entry into this world, in April 1978, preceded the paper’s by nearly eight months to the day. And somehow, in the peculiar logic of time, this makes me “young” — or at least young enough to still be periodically referred to as a “young film critic” — and the Weekly old, which is to say old enough to have weathered multiple regime changes and seismic shifts in the culture at large, and to have amassed an illustrious history of “past” writers and bygone “good old days” spoken of (by some who were there and many who were not) with misty eyes and in hallowed tones. Yet as the two of us — the paper and I — enter our fourth decade, it is another 30 whose numeric significance hangs in the air like a thick mist. It is the “—30—” that holds a special meaning to those in the world of journalism, the one that once upon a time followed the last line of a writer’s unedited copy, the one that signifies the end.
How strange it is to be writing about the legacy of a newspaper in general and its film criticism in particular at a moment when both things seem headed the way of the dinosaur, or at least the bald eagle. This is not exactly news: Since 2006, Sean P. Means of The Salt Lake Tribune has been keeping a running tally on (where else?) his blog of fellow print critics who have been “laid off, bought out, retired or reassigned.” He’s up to 33 as of this writing — a roster that includes Bob Ross of The Tampa Tribune, the first person I ever knew personally who made his living from writing about movies; Lance Goldenberg of Weekly Planet (née Creative Loafing), who hired me to write capsule reviews when I was still in high school; and my esteemed Village Voice Media colleagues Dennis Lim, Rob Nelson and Nathan Lee. Means has collectively dubbed them “the departed,” and the same could be said about an alarming number of entire news outfits that have either reduced their publication cycle, gone Web-only or shuttered entirely.
So I begin on a note of funereal obsolescence at what was surely meant to be a joyous celebration, and for this I apologize. For there is much to celebrate about the Weekly turning 30, even if most of it demands a feat of archaeological excavation that might leave Indiana Jones winded. In its present incarnation, our cyberspace avatar, laweekly.com, dates back only to 1998, leaving fully 20 years of Weekly musings and misgivings unaccounted for. To explore those, you must make a trip to the central branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, or spend several days ensconced in the small storage room in the Weekly offices, where the walls are lined with yellowing newsprint and the drawers spill over with reels of 35 mm microfilm. It’s there that many of the real goodies lie.
This would seem the sensible place to segue into a brief history of L.A. Weekly film reviewers, except that it’s already been done — by my partner in criticism Ella Taylor, who writes in this very issue about her own two decades of Weekly memories, and by my predecessor Manohla Dargis, who penned a thorough chronology for our 20th-anniversary edition (an article that, mercifully, does exist on the Web, and which I urge you to read). In it, Dargis says that, initially, she had considered writing only about the Weekly’s very first film editor and critic, Michael Ventura, whom she goes on to hail as “one of the great unknowns of American film criticism.” With that in mind, allow me to humbly pick up where Dargis left off.
It isn’t just that Ventura, who also co-founded the Weekly, was the best the paper has ever seen, though he arguably was; it’s that he also seems a representative figure — someone who, in his body of work, and often in a single article, epitomized everything that the Weekly film pages have ever aspired to. That is to say that Ventura — and his excellent co-critic and co-editor Ginger Varney — wrote with a passion, engagement and intelligence that even by the considerably higher standards of that era are bracing to behold. These are “reviews” less concerned with matters of plot, acting and direction (all generally cited circumspectly, if at all) than with the deeper truths movies can sometimes hold and the bold-faced lies they frequently peddle.
This is writing with the urgent force of the late Manny Farber — free of facile conclusions and snap judgments; writing in which every opinion seems to have been carefully considered before pen was ever set to paper, only to then be rethought, revised, refined as the sentences unfurled; writing that convinces you the movies under discussion really matter, in part because movies did matter more back then, and in part because writing like this helped make them matter. Simply put, and with due apologies to William Blake, if you were to see the world of Weekly film criticism in a grain of sand, that grain would be Michael Ventura.
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?”
In singling out Ventura, I mean no slight to the many Weekly critics who wrote alongside him and afterward, and who proved more than worthy of his example. They include John Powers, my own first editor, whose 1986 review of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is as fine a piece of criticism as this paper has published — and which clocks in at nearly 1,000 words longer than Ventura’s Deer Hunter review (I know, because I once hand-typed it into our Web site). And Steve Erickson, whose 1992 review of Unforgiven may be the most astute of the Weekly’s many thoughtful reckonings of the career of Clint Eastwood (beginning with, of all things, a Ventura rave of the orangutan comedy Every Which Way But Loose). And Manohla Dargis, whose 1998 review of The Thin Red Line offers a definitive assessment of both the film and the troublesome career of its director, Terrence Malick, while also seeming to provide the second end of a conversation about men in war (and the movies about them) started by Ventura two decades earlier:
“In Malick’s universe,” wrote Dargis, “the Japanese soldiers, an American private who pries gold teeth from his victims, the monomaniacal Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte, all sputter and agitated neck cords), even the enraged American soldier who kills two Japanese prisoners in cold blood — are all the same. They’re men who are not bad themselves, but are forced to do bad things, men who invariably weep and keen over their horrendous actions. … [James] Jones might agree, except he’d say the men are all the same because they’re meat. For Malick, they’re the same because they are part of an unbroken universe in which a blue butterfly flutters through the black haze of battle, a pink orchid is swallowed up in a fireball as a bamboo wind chime peals one last time. In this world, in which love conquers all and war is a sad but totally natural occurrence, no one is to blame, no one is guilty, no one is responsible. Of all the remarkable things about The Thin Red Line, a film at once beautiful and utterly repulsive, the most remarkable is that Terrence Malick has made an amoral movie about one of the most deeply moral moments in modern history.”
All of those are examples of a kind of writing about movies that one finds today in ever shorter supply, even in publications that were once bastions of it, where it has reliably been displaced by reams of reportage about the weekend box-office results, next year’s likely Oscar nominees and what teenage girls really think about Zac Efron. “Why do we need critics anyway?” the question is now frequently asked (most recently by Roger Ebert, in a blog entry titled “Death to film critics! Hail to the CelebCult!”) — and “why” indeed, when technology has empowered every dolt who thinks he has an opinion with the ability to broadcast it across the information superhighway?
Because I have been accused in some quarters of being “antiblog” or “anti-Internet,” I hasten to add that some of the best film criticism being published at the moment is exclusive to the Web, and that there is sure to be more of it as the legions of displaced print critics initiate their own blogs or find homes at extant Web outfits. Rather, what I am talking about is a cultural phenomenon — go ahead, call it a decline — in which the supremacy of the Internet is more a symptom than a cause. I am talking about a moment in which we seem more inclined to disseminate information than to receive it (and, when we do receive it, to rarely question the validity of the source), in which video games are considered (not by everyone, but by far too many) a valid substitute for books, in which seriousness is routinely sacrificed at the altar of the superficial, and in which perfectly rational, intelligent people accept all of this as inevitable signs of the times, as “just the way things are.” So we are less inclined to look at movies and think about them for days afterward, pondering what is true and what is false. So we no longer demand that our film critics should also be poets. And perhaps this, to answer Ebert’s rhetorical question, is the very reason why we need critics now more than ever, lest future generations come to take as gospel that Forrest Gump and The Shawshank Redemption are among the best films ever made in this country, when in fact they are not even among the best films of 1994; when in fact they are not actually very good.
Whither the Weekly in all of this? Just in the five years since my own byline first appeared, the developments have been nothing less than dramatic: first one redesign and now another; a corporate merger; a relocation of offices; the incredibly shrinking size of the physical paper, in more or less direct proportion to the size of the staff; and the real biggie, syndication — a model that demands film reviews in the hundreds of words rather than the thousands, and which has scarce interest in poetry. And yet … and yet … and yet … I like to think — and perhaps this is merely a grand delusion — that we have done our best in these difficult times to uphold the tradition that was established three decades ago by a titan of the profession. “For a film isn’t just up there on the screen,” Ventura wrote in a short think-piece cum mission statement published in the Weekly’s 1978 prototype issue. “It’s out here, in our changing, fluid, often frightening culture … and it leaves our culture not quite the same. To try both to judge the film and to divine the change — that’s what we’ll be up to, and it will give these film pages a life and an immediacy not found anywhere else in town.”
On our best weeks, I hope the same can still be said, owing less to my own contributions than to those of our rich pool of freelancers (some of them now quite a bit younger than myself), and to the indefatigable Ella Taylor, who is forever looking out there and reporting back on her finds. Will the Weekly and its film section still be around at 40? If so, I’d wager that they will no longer be things you hold in your hand (unless you happen to be holding your iPhone or BlackBerry). But with any luck, at some distant star date, when print media seems as far from our collective experience as cave paintings do to us now, some intrepid editor of the version of this paper that you download directly into your brain, faced with yet another daunting anniversary project, will delve into some considerably less dusty archive and exclaim: “The L.A. Weekly at the dawn of the 21st century — wasn’t that a time!”