Tuesday, August 5, 2008

So it goes like it goes... a decade of film criticism

How’s this for an eye-opener?

Out of sheer coincidence, I reflected late last week on the amount of time and energy I have spent reviewing film on the internet, and much to my surprise, it dawned on me, rather suddenly, that the following Tuesday was to be the tenth – yes, TENTH – anniversary of my first time being published online. The review was for “The Black Cauldron,” and Buena Vista Home Video had just released the Disney cartoon for the first time ever on VHS.

I remember it so vividly. Prior to that day, I had been making frequent visits to a home page set up on AOL throughout the spring and summer, while news of an impending home video release of the Mouse House’s bastard child of an animated film approached (at that point, it was the only PG-rated cartoon in the Disney catalog). With the support of countless signees that consisted, no less, of the film’s own executive producer Joe Hale, the online petition that said site managed for well over two years felt like it had made a difference. It was an exciting time to be on the internet, the age when it was easy to believe that your presence – and your signature – carried weight with the outside world.

I had not seen “The Black Cauldron” when I signed that petition in the spring of 1998, but the movie intrigued me for many years. The Disney feature animated films were all lined on my bookshelf, pieces of an extensive collection that always felt incomplete unless gaps between pictures had been successfully filled. That the studio’s 25th animated film skirted release schedules for nearly a decade after its failed theatrical run only made the desire to see and own it greater. What was the secret that it held? Was the movie as much a disaster as its box office run had indicated? In any great discussion of the Disney cartoons, very few would ever recall this particular film, either because it simply came and went under everyone’s noses, or because it truly represented something so off-beat for the studio that it was simply more convenient to forget it even came out.

Did I like the picture? Immensely. It was grown-up fantasy in the vein of the classic Disney fairy tales, limited on deep storytelling and probing dialogue but rich in characterizations. And for a Disney movie that was essentially thrown together for no other purpose than to lure in teenage audiences, it was an accomplishment with more than enough going for it to keep it afloat.

It was not my first film review, mind you, but it was the first that I felt was good enough to share with an audience outside my immediate sphere of living. The rush of adrenaline that came from having seen it posted online – yes, in those days, being published online felt like a genuine accomplishment! – was incredible. I distinctly recall visiting the site five or six different times that day just to see it again with my own two eyes, to know that it was there and that I had not just dreamed it.

The very next day, Geocities beckoned with a free web hosting service plan, and thus the early incarnation of what is now Cinemaphile.org was born.

Ten years have passed. 3658 days flew off the calendar. Home video has been replaced by DVD, and the movie industry has been caught in the onslaught of a wave of new and exciting high definition technology. The movie-viewing experience is now much different than it was a decade ago.

So, too, is the opportunity to view and write about the movies. For a kid still in high school, the movie reviewing field is an aspiration with great potential, a dream that you hold dearly in your grasp because it combines two of your greatest loves – film and writing – and then gives them a sense of professional aspiration. But alas, while the internet became a convenient medium to test those waters, so too did it undermine the goals of many of us who thought it could lead to something genuine as a career. Some have found the way, luckily, but many others have not. The “blogging” age, as it is known, now gives the voice of movie judgment to anyone with a space on the internet, and the thoughtful, probing concept of film criticism has lost its momentum.

I did not give in, mainly because I love writing even when the subjects I am writing about have been less than inspiring, but the realization that it could all be nothing more than just a big hobby definitely had an impact on the amount of time I dedicate to it. I do not review movies in the volume that I used to. In 1999, I averaged almost 160 new movie-related articles a year – now, I am lucky if I average half of that.

While the internet age has been instrumental in deteriorating the concept of movie journalism in print, it cannot be blamed entirely for my own subdued enthusiasm for it as of late, either. In addition to being a busy person with multitudes of other ventures to keep me financially geared in life, I’ve also found with time that the newest movies aren’t anywhere near as interesting as they were when I first starting critiquing them. Is that a fault of mine or of Hollywood’s? I would like to think the latter. In essence, the movie industry is rather bi-polar in its endeavors; while a slew of great, inspired and liberating cinematic endeavors rushed their way onto screen in the early 00s, they were quickly matched by an equal number of uninspired adaptations, remakes, retellings and sequels in the years to follow. And none of it was all that interesting to write about, much less view.

But the interest does, in fact, remain. And more than anything, that has to do with the fact that I love seeing movies, still love writing about them, and have had a good enough experience with it these past ten years that I feel fully energized by continuing to do so. There is no doubt in my mind that a similar article will be written to celebrate the 20th year of this site in the years to come, even if the volume never reaches that of the more professional online writers.

What are my fondest memories from all that time? I have many. I remember seeing the brilliant “Dark City” for the first time on video the day after my first Geocities page went live. I remember applying for the Online Film Critics Society, and being politely refused by their admissions director because of lack of care in grammar and spelling. I remember sprucing up my initial crop of film essays and sneaking through onto their roster just right before awards season. I remember receiving my first VHS screeners from Miramax (“Shakespeare in Love” and “Life is Beautiful”). I remember seeing “Elizabeth” and thinking it was the first masterpiece I had seen in that “on-the-job” attitude. I remember submitting my first review – that of “The Matrix” -- to the Youth Voices section in The Oregonian and having it published. I remember being invited to my first press-only screening in early 2000 for “Angela’s Ashes,” and the rush that came over me while sitting in that theater with all those high-profile local writers, including Rob Oster from The Outlook and David Walker from Willamette Week. I remember very fondly making the acquaintance of Bonnie Crawford, radio critic and fellow film enthusiast, at the screening of “Reign of Fire” in the summer of 2002. I remember meeting my first fellow OFCSers, Erik Snider and Dawn Taylor, at a preview of “Sin City” in the spring of 2005. And I remember how hard I made Gary Wolcott of The Tri-City Herald laugh when I exited a press screening of “Solaris” and announced, rather dismally, “I need a nap!”

I remember writing my first great review for “Excalibur,” and I remember how exhausted I was when I finished the fifth draft of it before I finally thought it was quality enough to post on the internet. I also remember thinking that “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” was perhaps the best movie I had ever seen as a movie critic the moment I walked out of it, and I knew that it would continue to be my favorite even to this day. I remember being so marveled and inspired by “From Hell” that I spent days writing and tweaking a review for it (and as luck would have it, that review won me an award at the ONPA conference – Best Writing for a college in the state of Oregon, actually). I remember sitting in the movie theater with my mother while watching Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator,” when she leaned over to me during Cate Blanchett’s big scene on a golf course and said, “That’s my Kate!”

These are endearing, special and precious memories, and they are as such because of the support from many people whom have played important enough a role over the years to bring me to this point. I would like to take this opportunity to thank those individuals:

To A.J. Harding for being my first – and greatest – writing critic; to my mother Sharon, for being a willing and objective moviegoer, and for being an equally-great discussion enthusiast afterwards; to Marcia Luse for hours of professional encouragement at a time when I was uncertain about my own self; to Bob Watkins for his concern, attention to detail, and his ability to encourage his peers to go the extra mile; to Toni Kelich for many great lessons in life, and for her unconditional concern; to Harvey Karten for seeing enough merit in my writing to open up all sorts of doors; to Phil Hall for being understanding and seeing the value of my dedication to the Online Film Critics Society; to Eugene Novikov for being a great discussion buddy early on during the days when I loved arguing movies on internet message boards; to Sandra Conley for being interested when I felt like few were; to Nick Sabatasso for exposing me to certain elements of the cinema that might have completely escaped my notice otherwise; to my sister Anya for having the instinct to challenge and provoke in order to get me to look at important things from different angles; and to Lance Nippert, a fellow writer and movie buff, whose encouragement is inspiring and thoughtful enough to keep me off of the fence.

Also, thank you to all the people at Terry Hines & Associates, Allied McDonald Entertainment and Janet Wainwright Publicity & Promotion for their continued graciousness in keeping me up-to-date and informed on local press opportunities, and for being so patient during difficult and slow times.

And thank you, to you, the readers of this site, and for all the time we’ve shared discussion of the cinema. I look forward to seeing you all at the movies again really soon.

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