Andrew Sarris once wrote of The Immortal Sergeant, a movie directed by a great Hollywood unknown named John M. Stahl: “This is the cinema of audacity to the point of madness, and yet always preferable to the relative sanity of discretion.” Substitute the word criticism for cinema and you get a pretty fair picture of the L.A. Weekly film section over the last 20 years — from audacity to madness and all that comes in between. I cite Sarris not only because it’s a terrific line — both a challenge and an invitation — but because he was, and for all I know still is, the favorite American film critic of the L.A. Weekly’s first film editor, Michael Ventura. And besides, Ventura was fond of starting his articles with quotations.
For a while, struggling to take measure of two decades of the film section, I seriously considered writing only about Ventura, one of the great unknowns of American film criticism. Passionate, political, learned, Ventura’s film writing at the Weekly exemplified a certain forcefully personal approach to American movie criticism, in the tradition of diverse outsider critics such as Otis Ferguson, James Agee (another Ventura favorite), Andrew Sarris and, of course, Pauline Kael. What separated these greats from their daily-paper and weekly-magazine brethren was an absolute refusal to not take movies seriously and to allow Hollywood to set the agenda. Simply put, they wrote about what the movies meant to them.
Ventura took movies seriously; I imagine he took just about everything else in life seriously, too. And as good as he was — and sometimes he was brilliant, astonishing really — he could also be sloppy, windy and an alarming overwriter. F.X. Feeney, who started writing for this paper soon after it was launched, jokingly and fondly compares Ventura to Law rence of Arabia, as a man who would “dynamite the train and dance on the wreck.” Given that image, it isn’t surprising that, as has often been the case in the alternative-publishing world, Ventura could also be solipsistic to the point of self-parody. But while he could stand at the edge, rarely did Ventura cross over, and certainly not in the film section. Save perhaps when he was singing the praises of Henry Jaglom or My Dinner With Andre.
The personal pronoun was much in evidence in the Weekly’s early days, which is why I’ve assumed the first person here. What other voice could I take? I came to the Weekly four-and-a-half years ago, and my knowledge of the paper isn’t much older. The first time I read it was when another critic thrust an issue into my hands, informing me that this writer named John Powers was pretty good. He was. Funny, fast and shot through with a fierce, take-no-prisoners intelligence, the first review I ever read in the paper included a reconsideration of the gangster picture Menace II Society in light of an attack on the film by conservative George Will. What I admired about Powers, beyond the felicitousness of the prose, was his admission that he too was made uneasy by the movie. He could admit ambivalence without denying what it was that had moved him about the film when he’d first seen it. Not long after I moved to Los Angeles, I went up to Powers and introduced myself; we’ve been friends since.
The critics in L.A. go to screenings. Whether it’s a semiprivate screening, with a half-dozen people in a small room, or a major screening at the 20th Century Fox Main Theater, the atmosphere is intentionally “special”: glossy hand-outs, guarded conversations, smooth introductions, contacts made. There is an air of special intelligence and, in its most exact sense, special interests.
These are not people out for a good time. They’re not out to be invigorated, soothed, tickled, inspired, lied to, or given a vision of truth. . . . They’re not paying their earned money for a part of life that work and home don’t give them. No, the screenings are their work, their world, their business. They are part of “the industry,” making money as part of the process by which the filmmakers will or will not make money.
As usual, Ventura knew exactly how to piss off his reader, in this case me. I came across these words while poring through past issues of the Weekly. They were published in a 1978 prototype of the paper used as an enticement for prospective advertisers, and could easily be considered Ventura’s mission statement, or a carny pitch, maybe a little of both. Certainly he was dead on about one thing: Critics’ screenings are “special,” held in mostly nice screen ing rooms with decent sightlines, better-than-usual projection and the occasional free lollipop. What he got wrong, though, was the idea that movie critics are necessarily part of the industry machinery, brokering deals and lubricating contacts. That, of course, was entirely beside Ventura’s point: He was throwing down the gauntlet, to the industry and readers both. The best critics here have been doing the same ever since. ä
No one could doubt where the Weekly’s film section was headed, even then. Ventura’s every word in that prototype issue was an insinuation of trouble to come, a volley aimed at the heart and nether regions of the American movie industry. In the nascent Film Calendar section, Ventura wrote of Opening Night, by the director he would write of time and again: “John Cassavetes, more than any other director, understands how Americans speak: He alone has the courage to present our awkward, painful pauses.” Of Star Wars: “Not great art, but a great artifact. A film that says much more than was ever intended.” Of First Love: “If there’s one person out there who had a first love remotely like this, will you please write in? We will print your letter as the review.” And, of You Light Up My Life: “But ever so dimly.”
Ventura was thrilling, exasperating, sui generis; he was a tough act to follow. Nearly every review seemed written to be stashed in a filing cabinet, or scribbled on madly, annotated with furious asides and urgent punctuation. During the paper’s first year, he was joined as film editor by Ginger Varney, who remained his partner in criticism for years. Varney, a former Air Force reservist and weather girl (tough of attitude and alert to atmospheric shifts, she was uniquely qualified for her new profession), had the benefit of a blunt, unadorned style and the sort of butch attitude shared by nearly every woman critic who’s written for the paper. In 1980, the Weekly put the great pulp poet of the American screen, Sam Fuller, on the cover. Varney wrote the story, in the process revealing not just the insistent watchability of a Fuller movie, but how some movies ineluctably shape our lives:
I saw my first Sam Fuller film in 1957. Who Sam Fuller was I neither knew nor cared. I was 15 years old, and 15-year-olds in Lubbock, Texas, didn’t read credits. The movie was The House of Bamboo (from 1955), the bottom half of a double bill at the drive-in. I don’t remember much about the movie, only that it was a love story of sorts, but its lovers seemed to be in constant danger. They may even have been under the threat of death. Whatever, I didn’t really like what I saw. There were no soft lights, no sweet music, and not a normal person in sight. Nothing but a bunch of ex-GIs who had become criminals in Japan. Definitely not nice people. Still, I watched it through to the end.
Together, Ventura and Varney, who even signed articles together, put out a film section that was direct, smart, and that brooked no nonsense — at least most of the time. They loved Andy, didn’t care for Pauline (they once called Kael Miss Marple), even though Ventura’s opulent, discursive style was closer to Kael’s than to Sarris’ in its fire, breadth and rhetorical stamina. Ventura peppered his writing with copious literary references; in his review of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, he seemed to match the film’s maker for literary pretension by incorporating references to Beckett, Rilke, Moliére, Aristophanes and Remy de Gourmont. Far more impressive was his description of Diane Keaton in the same review as “the Valium Goddess, foremost of the new wave of Valium Goddesses: Sissy Spacek, Shelley Duvall, Jill Clayburgh, among others — the first women in film history to become major stars with almost no aura of sex.” Literary pretension be damned — that is great criticism.
In cinema, as in all art, only those who risk the ridiculous have a real shot at the sublime.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the Weekly’s Film section had several regular women writers, including Ella Taylor, Helen Knode and its widely followed industry reporter, Anne Thompson, but the section — some say the paper as a whole — seemed dominated by men: John Powers, Steve Erickson and Tom Carson (one of the most scathingly funny critics I’ve had the pleasure to envy). Even with Varney, then Taylor, serving as film editor, the section was very male; every so often, it was a real boys’ free-for-all. It’s not altogether surprising, then, that the most memorable showdown wasn’t between a critic and a movie, but between two of the paper’s critics. In the August 16, 1985, issue Powers, the paper’s on-again, off-again film editor, wrote an unforgivably hilarious review of the new Michael Cimino freak-out. “The Year of the Dragon,” Powers fumed,
has the psychological rawness of pulp but none of the pleasures one gets in, say, Dirty Harry or Jim Thompson’s novels. Although scattered bits of meaning litter the screen . . . the whole thing is a mess of fragments, as if Cimino had simply smacked his head open like a piñata and filmed the things that fell out.
In the very next issue, F.X. Feeney, then the assistant film editor and in charge of the Calendar Film section, matched his own movie-mad Irish-Catholic prowess against that of Powers and made the Cimino movie Pick of the Week. “It is Cimino’s great achievement in The Year of the Dragon,” Feeney wrote,
that he creates such a lone genius at a street level and gives us the dramatic space to both hate and love him. What’s more, he creates the worthiest villain imaginable in the Chinese Mafia leader played by John Lone. He’s the only other idealist of [Mickey] Rourke’s mad caliber in the film, and their squaring off has a fatal American grandeur to it, like Ahab’s with the whale.
While I agree far more with Powers than with Feeney on matters Cimino, when it comes to unhinged grandiloquence, I call it a tie.
Admittedly, though, it wasn’t only the men who practiced this sort of grandiloquence. In 1991, the Weekly put Thelma & Louise on the cover, and in the bargain gave the finger to post-feminism and a few big American Lies. Wrote Helen Knode, jumping off the cliff much like her two heroines:
“Me, me, me!” I want to jump up and down and shout at The Road. “Take me. Let me act and do important things. Initiate me into the sublime American Mysteries. Change me. Enlighten me. Thrill me. Fuck me. Kill me.” Do whatever you have to, Road, just treat me like I’m a man, a woman and a person . . . I’d desperately love to be part of your mystique and your myth, Road, but don’t treat me like a thing with tits, a thing full of holes — vagina, mouth, tear ducts — motivated purely by emotion and the longing to settle down and reproduce. Treat women as if our actions and histories and deepest desires — our fates — counted for something on the mean surface streets and sweeping interstates of this country.
Although this wonderful outburst harkens back to the passions of Ventura and Varney, by 1991 there was a distinctly more intellectual tenor to the writing in the section. Both Powers, a former Georgetown literature professor, and Taylor, a former social scientist, have Ph.D.s, possibly the only time that the lead ä movie critics in any American newspaper have been thus distinguished. The novelist Steve Erickson became the film editor in 1992, bringing his own singular intelligence to bear on the section. Erickson, whose views on movies and on women were often equally insufferable, could at the same time be a magnificent watcher of movies, an exciting witness to how they dig into our heads. His review of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is one of the bravest pieces of film criticism I’ve read; certainly it’s one of the best works of criticism on Lynch, a filmmaker whose career began the year before the Weekly began to publish, and who has provided an important touchstone for this paper’s critics.
The Weekly didn’t make Lynch’s career; neither did it break it. Happily, movie critics don’t have that kind of power, especially those who write in what is still, coyly, known as the “alternative press.” What the paper did do with Lynch, and what it has done for the past 20 years, is open up a discussion about movies with its readers, both those in the industry and, more importantly, those outside. “It is my business to conduct one end of a conversation, as an amateur critic among amateur critics,” James Agee wrote in his first review for The Nation, a line happily cited by Varney and Ventura in the Weekly some 40 years later. Agee was being disingenuous about being an amateur; it was an instance of reverse snobbery from a writer, a critic on his way to becoming a novelist, who was taking on a subject — the movies — that no less than W.H. Auden, in a letter to The Nation, insisted was “rather unimportant.”
I don’t think for a minute that either Varney or Ventura would have agreed with Auden; their work and their legacy stands as its own best proof. In insisting on the importance of film, its essentialness to our lives, they allowed every Weekly film writer who came afterward the freedom to be every bit as passionate, demanding and annoying as they were. I won’t pretend that sometimes that passion has been as careless and unwanted as a drunk’s kiss, but even at its worst the L.A. Weekly’s Film section has rarely been blood less. Rarely has it been indifferent, apathetic, unresponsive; not once in these 20 years, has the section been without an opinion.
WRITER’S NOTE: The last four and a half years of the Weekly are missing from this account because that’s when I started working at the paper, and I’m not about to sing praises or place blame for this period. What I will do is take this space to thank the writers who’ve worked to create this section, in particular Hazel-Dawn Dumpert, F.X. Feeney, Ernest Hardy, Paul Malcolm, Ella Taylor, and my first editor, Elizabeth Pincus. It’s been a privilege to write alongside them; it’s been a greater privilege to know them.