Friday, August 4, 2023

THE TALKATIVE KID, THE THOUGHTFUL ADULT – 25 Years as an Online Film Writer

25 years ago today, a young inexperienced journalist with a passion for gabbing about film took to the Internet on a journey to add his voice to the growing throng of web-based personalities, and yet another new amateur movie blogger was born. Eventually branding himself a “Cinemaphile” – that is, someone who prefers the experience of watching films in theaters instead of at home – he became tirelessly motivated by the panache of more experienced critics while he was formulating his own distinct voice, one that sought to add a little flair and wit to the mix while mirroring the values of an eccentric juvenile. Sometimes that aroused anger in readers, other times surprise and dismay. But it was all part of being in a fun and exciting new frontier, back when cyberspace was mostly in the grasp of computer nerds and the clap-backs came from genuine, hardcore film buffs. They didn’t just argue or dismiss a review, either. Some of them added enlightening contexts that were previously lacking, or at least had the patience to educate their target instead of just cutting him or her down to size. Those exchanges reflected the unspoken importance of criticism in a time when the validity of it was coming into doubt, just as the online world was allowing an entire generation of spectators to plug in and add their voice to a crowd of millions.

It was a time of discovery, an age of innocence and the precipice of a shifting tone in the cultural zeitgeist. We were eager, passionate, optimistic about the future without realizing the darkness that lay ahead. In that narrow space between adolescence and adulthood when we felt our minds moved by the prospect of knowledge, no challenge was too great to conquer. The written word became a weapon we could wield against the offenses of marginal minds, or a shield to conceal our own insecurities. On rarer occasions, the words sought to gratify the achievements of filmmakers who would probably never read them. But that was never the point. A movie blog is a personal diary of your feelings of the moment, a document about what you experience and how your life is shaped by all the images you absorb and contemplate. If you feel strongly about something, as I did with, say, the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, you hope to look back at it and gleam the experience from the words preserved in the essay. That can be more theoretical than literal when you are a young novice, but sometimes you can only learn in the moment, dust off your errors, and try again.

I’ve followed that technique for the entirety of my life online, and I’d argue that it has made me a fairly competent voice in any serious discussion about the cinema. Practice, alas, trickles to a slow crawl in these times while the focus of the industry has shifted beyond my understanding. I don’t talk or write about the movies nearly as much as I used to – partially due to a prominent lack of desire. The movies, for better or worse, have become a practice of mass appeal, catering to the needs of audiences who see the world from a more literal lens than an ironic or nuanced one. In the days of my earliest outings as a film critic, serious pictures were made with a mind to highlight the dichotomy of the human existence. They recognized life as a balancing act between joy and sorrow, hero and villain, tragedy and triumph, justice and prejudice. Today’s mainstream offerings, unfortunately, have by and large replaced nuance with simplified precision, existing so that every detail and attribute is explained instead of allowing moviegoers to think and decide for themselves. There are exceptions, of course – notably with filmmakers who are veterans of the craft – but the prison of big studios have usually relegated their work to the margins. In those days the margins belonged to indie art-house theaters. These days most of them skip theaters altogether and go straight to streaming services, where they are usually buried beneath the muck of countless new bad movies that flood the digital cloud.

Is that my old age showing? Absolutely. But I have no major hang-ups about the trajectory, either. Just as film has changed, so too has the voice of the critic. It requires more youthful, present energy than I am able to give. Younger filmgoers are the primary target for what Disney or Marvel have to offer. Their stories mean more to a generation that has more practice at implementing their values. The mainstream is very much about acceptance, diversity and inclusion. They are the most important measures in the eyes of the young – perhaps far more important than art, technique, style or tone. There is where the divide has been made, and while I fully support their journey, my heart moves towards another: writing and releasing my own fiction based on the great lessons I learned from capable screenwriters.

Yet my film blog is still being visited and absorbed – perhaps now more than it had been when it was at the peak of its activity. Before my output began to dwindle in 2019, I averaged between 1 to 5000 hits a day. A year later, that number swelled to 30 thousand, most of it involving essays about independent films or documentaries. As of this writing and only six reviews into the calendar year, the Cinemaphile Blog is still being visited at a higher rate than it was when I averaged over 100 new articles over twelve months. That is both a bittersweet and an enlightening pill to swallow: it means my contributions to the fold remain somewhat of a necessity, even if the point of them doesn’t always correlate well to the reaction they cause. Consider, for example, the article I wrote two years ago about an indie found footage horror film called “The Miranda Murders,” which attempts – unsuccessfully, in my opinion – to reconstruct the video footage shot by Leonard Lake and Charles Ng, who imprisoned and murdered dozens of victims in California throughout the mid-80s. Many readers didn’t respond so favorably to my takedown of the material, although its own director, Matthew Rosvally, left me a cogent rebuttal in the comments section a few months after it was published. That gesture meant a great deal to a lowly online writer who could never be certain if there was room at the discussion table for his views. Rosvally’s film is still not one I can favor, but there’s no question that he sought to make a good film – and will no doubt make one in the future that I have a much more favorable reaction to.

If his words eased the tension brought on by less cordial (and even vicious) replies, it at least came after I developed some thicker skin. I have become used to the mob of angry outcriers, and there is no shortage of memories that come to mind whenever I’m asked about heated discussions with readers regarding my opinions on a film. I’ve been called every name in the book, ranging from intellectual insults to homophobic slurs and every expletive in between. Some have demanded my resignation after I’ve trashed something they love so dearly. Others still wished for pain and suffering. Not all my rebuttals have been civil, but I’m more forgiving of my younger self that way; when you are a teenager convinced that you belong where you’ve placed yourself, it’s easy to be swallowed up in the vitriol instead of distancing yourself from it.

These days, just a couple years into my 40s, I’ve let go of a lot of the hangups and raw emotions that have unfairly attached themselves to the work as it was written. All that is left are the reviews. Some are better than others, but all of them stand by you. They are records of moments in time, ones that you have willingly shared with the world in hopes that they might entertain, inspire or even enlighten. Some days, I’m compelled to write more. When that occasion comes, I hope to still find you all here, ready to listen, to react and even challenge when the need calls for it. That’s all part of what makes this venture so dynamic. And if I am able to learn from my readers as much as I have offered up here in my little corner of the internet, that makes the entire process all the more enriching.

I’ll see you at the movies. Perhaps even sooner than you think.

Written by DAVID KEYES

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