Sunday, February 8, 2015

Concerning Beginnings

The movie critic in me came to fruition in the fall of 1997, during a moment that now seems like the seed of a pivotal destiny. At the time, the industry was in the middle of a thriving creative thrust; scarcely a week was going by when something original was not opening at the local multiplex, and the influence of art-house cinema was just beginning to infiltrate the consciousness of casual moviegoers as local chains began adding them to the line-up of major first-run releases. Knowing this reality, and armed with it in a class of eager high school reporters waiting for assignments, my voice shot over in a room when the Editor asked: “who wants to write the movie review?” Writing was as natural to me as breathing well before the demands of school turned it into a prerequisite, but now it was more than just that: it would provide me a voice for opinions over storytelling, and the impulse inspired just as much fear as it did enthusiasm.

Events surrounding that moment now seem like whispers to a calling that always lurked in the shadows. Prior to that impulse, my exposure to the world of the elusive movie critics had been limited to what was readily available in print and on television – namely, “Siskel & Ebert” on weekend television, and the Friday edition of The Oregonian, where Shawn Levy offered biting critiques week after week about the latest releases. Having a fair amount of exposure to both print and broadcast facets of the business, I was at least fairly aware of what worked in discussing a film, and what didn’t; such knowledge was an essential tool in writing several early articles about the movies. When I did wind up writing that first review on “I Know What You Did Last Summer” – probably the most uninspired choice for any first-timer – there was a moment when I announced with unexpected precision that the movie played like “a bad dream you have after eating too much spicy food.” Prior to that, I had little faith that I possessed such scathing sarcasm, much less utilized it in any medium outside of conversation.

The lessons of the great teachers became the platforms on which I would build a sound box. With the exciting frontier of dial-up internet at my fingertips, the words of Ebert, Elvis Mitchell, Janet Maslin and Michael Wilmington provided additional lessons in technique (and word use). When you are an avid reader, of course, you learn a lot about the possibilities of descriptive prowess through the examples of writers who want to paint the most vivid portrait possible of a narrative. But film critics were of a much more different class of training in those days. They were smart, sassy, and sometimes scathingly cynical. But I never got the sense that they were saying the things they were out of depreciation for the cinema. They were smart because they had walked the long miles with many of the important filmmakers, and treasured what was possible rather than settling for mediocrity. And even in the context of a brain that admired the possibilities of action and special effects, I somehow knew exactly why they were saying what they did.

Over the next several months – both for the paper and for my own personal development – I wrote a series of additional reviews, many of them with a pencil on scratch paper as free-write exercises. Some were for movies I cherished wholeheartedly (including several Disney cartoons), while a good many others were for those pictures I detested (the hidden truth about film criticism: your skill evolves better within the extremes). Many of these initial articles no longer exist in any capacity, alas, because they were lost out of carelessness. The “Summer” review probably does still endure in some hidden file in the bowels of Reynolds High School’s archives, but it might take a psychic to pinpoint its whereabouts. Until that day comes, the contents of that inaugural piece are lost even to me.

Others were a little more fortunate. After that article was published, I followed it up with additional film reviews – “Titanic,” “Spice World,” “The Man in the Iron Mask” and “Lost in Space,” each of which were preserved for later use. The advisor of the paper, Marcia Luse, was the first champion of my new professional pitch, and after reading the first with spirited glee, there was never any doubt (at least in her mind) as to what I would continue doing with The Reveille. By the time we had reached the end of the second semester, my voice as the school critic (both for film as well as stage productions, ironically enough) was well-known, and the staff had come to expect more of the same when I came back to the paper for my Senior year.

Others were not so enthusiastic, and with good reason; because youth is often a cruel extreme, it made the early incarnations of David Keyes as the movie critic both unpleasant and uninformed, at least from the defense standpoint. When I wrote negatively about “Armageddon,” a film that was loved almost universally amongst my peers, it inspired looks of diminished respect that felt like a tarnish on a growing reputation. The alarm of such angered disagreement ultimately erupted in passive-aggressive verbal tirades towards others prodding for challenge, and there was even a moment when I suggested to group of female reporters that they only liked the film because it gave them a chance to lust after Ben Affleck’s crotch. The virtue, at least, was that I used the furor over such challenges to further my output much in the same way that the reviews of others did. Without that willingness to learn and evolve, I would have become as stagnant a movie critic as those vying for blurbs at press junkets.

All of these details and feelings seem like pieces of a distant lifetime that is no longer identifiable, but they have arrived at the forefront in the midst of the most reflective time of my adulthood: the time in which I am publishing not just one book, but four. Each subsequent endeavor has demanded a sense of reflection that conjures up memories of different times, different states of being. A fifth volume about all of these early adventures is still on the horizon, and part of me dreads the opportunity of revisiting it during the inevitable editing phase; my approach to life and writing has been altered so profusely from those youthful times that it’s almost foreign, in a way, to look back and analyze the work (or worse yet, critique it while remaining objective about the limited frame of aesthetic). Why did I bother going back at all, especially when I’m so insistent on what results exist in the present? I think it’s important for each of us to preserve some aspect of the past. It was because of my experiences in those years that I became such an adamant student of film. If anything, those first years –regardless of actual quality – contain some trace of purity in them that remains quite admirable. As I read my first review of “Excalibur” the other day (my favorite of my early film essays), I was bemused by the simplistic tone and yet in wonderment of the energetic kid who wrote it: a teenager who didn’t have anything to prove to anyone who simply, you know, enjoyed what he did without any other prospects besides inner happiness.

Today, that tranquility is felt in sporadic stretches. In these times, the written word is more comforting through the wilderness of depression or solitude, and it provides euphoria when the world seems like it is closing in like prison bars. In ways, it is more of a therapy than a creative outlet. And because I believe that the basis of all personal joy begins with sharing love and experience with others, writing about the movies on a blog – or in a book – is my own profound way of abiding by that sentiment.

Mere days away from the release of my third volume of essays (and a few more weeks from the fourth), my mind overflows with a plethora of sensations. Some are reflective in nature, others tinged with varying degrees of enthusiasm, joy, accomplishment and (yes) nervousness. In the end it never was a question to release these anthologies as some far-reaching attempt to find financial success with them. The market is not there for “movie yearbooks” anymore. But they exist now as a way of establishing my own imprint in this world. It means something to me to be able to say that I stuck with something until it came to a satisfactory end result. And now that the reality is upon me to continue on in the manner that I have been for the past two years, I discover new levels of drive slowly being uncorked from within. We live in a world where people are content to take a break when they are finished with a project. Me? I just spend all my waking time wondering what comes next.

Written by DAVID KEYES

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