I don’t remember when I began writing for CHUD. It was six years ago or so; sadly most of our archives are – at the moment – inaccessible. I do know that when I began writing for the site I would send in news stories to Nick or Dave and they would write little intros and then run my pieces – always repurposed stories from Variety or Hollywood Reporter – as quotes. I was working a day job at the time, at the New York Public Interest Research Group, where I was the Publications guy. That meant I wrote all the newsletters and worked with the staff on creating online content. It was pretty laid back, so I had lots of time to indulge my movie love on the CHUD boards and as a semi-frequent contributor.
Things started changing when Nick asked me to cover a junket in New York City. As if that wasn’t exciting enough, it would be a Woody Allen junket; even though the movie, Hollywood Ending, was a stinker*, I got to sit at a table with Woody Allen. Amazing. And I got to meet people who did this kind of a thing for a living. I was a serious newbie, didn’t know the etiquette or the rules, and a number of these people were kind enough to help me out.**
Over the years writing for CHUD became a bigger part of my day, and my identity. And slowly the way I related to movies began to change. I began to see things from a more behind the curtain perspective; I began to see filmmakers in candid situations where they didn’t exactly meet my expectations. I also began to get off the record stories about people that would sometimes break my heart.
The web is amazing – if it wasn’t for the internet, a college dropout like myself wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today, that’s for sure. And it’s allowed people all over the world to indulge their love of movies with others in ways no one could have imagined twenty years ago. But there’s also a poison to it. The speed of the web means that scoop-driven reporting becomes cutthroat and nasty. I believe there are people who run popular movie news sites today who don’t have much of a real love for film; if they had ended up in a position to be getting scoops about next year’s Chryslers, they’d be running a car site. These people like being in the know, being first. Dealing with that can disillusion you.
But there’s also something about the web that I never anticipated, and it’s the way that it began to sort of make me sick of the things I like. To be fair, I’ve always carried a bit of that Ghost World philosophy: ‘I hate my interests,’ but the sheer volume of noise about certain topics online will burn anyone out. I wonder what my feelings about Star Wars, even post-prequels, would be today if I hadn’t lived through the internet version of the War Between The States from 1999 to 2005.
By the time CHUD became a full-time gig earlier this year, I was feeling the burn out approaching. I could recognize it in how I would lose interest in seeing a movie if I couldn’t see it very early – I was succumbing to the glamor of ‘being first is being best.’ I was also at a place where I wasn’t watching movies for fun anymore; my DVD collection is filled with discs that have never been opened***, and on top of that stack are screeners that have to be watched. For work. All of a sudden it was all for work.
Look, this is a lame complaint, I know, that what you love becomes what you do and that your hobby becomes your job. But it can be one of those ‘Be careful what you ask for’ situations – all of a sudden you’ve lost touch with why you loved movies in the first place. All of a sudden that feeling of basking in the glow of a great film is replaced by trying to get that interview, or nab the scoop or, most crippling for me, wondering how you’ll write a review that is funny and informative and interesting and actually appears on time. It’s easier for me to write reviews in the first half of the year, when most of the movies are garbage, then it is in the second half, especially in a year like this, chock full of masterpieces.
So I moved to Los Angeles and wondered if the burn out would get worse. Would being in the black heart of the industry really corrupt me? The good news was that I didn’t move into an area where everyone is an actor or has a script; I live in a pretty working class section of town filled with Mexicans and Armenian immigrants. Don’t get me wrong, I still run into plenty of people who are in LA to get into The Industry, but I’m not living and breathing that noxious air. No, my LA burnout was at the same pace as my New York burnout, except that in LA it’s harder for me to get to movie screenings, so I’ve actually seen less movies this year than any other since I started writing for this site. I just didn’t feel the drive to get out and fight my way across town to see a movie because that movie needed to be seen. That fire was gone.
Enter Edgar Wright.
Edgar put together The Wright Stuff, a film festival at the New Beverly Cinema here in LA. It was two weeks of double features and special guests, and Edgar was talking it up to me well in advance of the actual festival. I felt like I had to go, but at first I didn’t have a lot of enthusiasm for it just because I’m lazy and my connection to the movies felt tenuous at best, possibly severed. The special guests would be fun, and it’s always nice to see Edgar, but I began to think that I might sneak out of the theater during the movies and go to a bar or something.
All of that changed very quickly. Sitting down in the New Beverly that first night as Bugsy and Phantom of the Paradise unspooled I felt like an apostate who had wandered into church and remembered the touch of God. That’s heavy and maybe pretentious, but it’s also true. Especially of Phantom; Bugsy was nice fun, but Phantom of the Paradise blew those scales from my eyes. I watched it just to watch it; I wasn’t making mental notes of questions to ask in an interview or pithy lines to use in a review, I was just there enjoying the shit out of this amazing movie. I sat in those uncomfortable seats and bathed in pure movie love.
And I felt it coming from all around me. The audience at the New Beverly was almost always fantastic****, and they unconditionally opened themselves to these movies. The atmosphere at press screenings is almost always weird or reserved – critics seem to feel more comfortable expressing disinterest or disdain in a press screening than showing their love for what’s onscreen. You hardly have people walking out of press screenings truly buzzing about a film – no one wants to give away their own deep thoughts and bon mots or be corrupted by someone else’s view. And forget about the horrors of watching a normal movie with a normal audience, people who respect the filmgoing experience about as much as they respect the commercials during So You Think You Can Dance. But the audience at the New Beverly, these were people as enraptured as I was, and we reacted to the films as a single organism.
At the start of the Wright Stuff I imagined I would definitely skip the last night, when Edgar would be showing Raising Arizona and Evil Dead II, movies I have seen quite enough. Especially Evil Dead II, which has become not just a perennial DVD release but also feels like it’s slipped into the Hot Topic culture. I’m big on cultism, and where Evil Dead II was once a cult item, where saying ‘Swallow your soul!’ was like a secret handshake that proved you were in, down, with it, aware, it’s lost that cachet. The movie couldn’t be much less underground unless TBS began showing it 24 hours a day for Halloween. Familiarity breeds contempt, and Evil Dead II had become very, very familiar.
I’m an agnostic, and while I’ve had spiritual experiences (both on and off drugs), I’ve never understood the concept of being born again. Until Sunday night when I was born again in the second row of the New Beverly, drinking beers we had smuggled in. Seeing Evil Dead II that night wasn’t like seeing it for the first time, but it was like experiencing it for the first time. I know that I’ve been dancing on the edge of some hippie dippie queerness this whole article, but the fact is that the energy in that packed theater was palpable. It wasn’t like the energy seeing a midnight show of The Phantom Menace, which was all about anticipation and excitement. And it wasn’t like the energy of a Rocky Horror Picture Show screening, which is more like a party and less like a moviegoing experience. This energy was love, this energy was acceptance. This energy was about complete submission to and submersion in Sam Raimi’s twisted, low budget vision. Evil Dead II at times approaches a state of pure cinema – I think it could work as a silent film with minimal changes – and it was the perfect movie to complete my cinematic rebirth. After that Edgar showed Ricki-Oh: The Story of Ricki, which was sort of like the bloody afterbirth.
All of this reminded me of a simple truth about the movies: great films are experienced, not seen. The importance of a big screen isn’t the detail of the picture, it’s the way that the picture takes up as much of your field of vision as possible. You need to be in the movie to have it work. And you need to be in there with other people – a hundred or more, if possible – to really, really get everything you need from it.
And here’s what all of this crystallized for me: someone needs to save the rep house. Somebody needs to make sure that there are theaters that show movies that are beloved and that are proven to work with crowds. Movies have to be rescued from our flat screen home theaters and our portable video devices. Sure, those are great but the natural habitat of the movie is the movie theater. If you are lucky enough to live in a town with a rep house, go to it. Go as often as you can. Here in LA the New Beverly shows a double bill every night for seven bucks. I’ve bought more expensive drinks than that.
If you don’t have a rep theater where you live… start one. Rent out an auditorium and project DVDs; sure, it’s better to get film prints, but one step at a time. There are people who can help you track down film prints – get in touch with me and I’ll help you get in touch with them. Remind the people who live in your town why moviegoing is a communal experience. If you’re a student get involved with – or start – a film society on campus. If all of that fails, move. You probably live in a crummy town anyway.
I don’t know that I’ll never get burned out again. It was nice to be reminded of what it’s like to want to write about a movie as opposed to having to write about a movie, but I’m a realist and I know that the grind of what I do will wear me down again. Which is why you’ll see me at the New Beverly on a regular basis. And not just for the special events – although a couple of awesome filmmakers are lining up their own mini-festivals there in the months to come – but just to be there and enjoy the vibe. I know that non-special event screenings will have a lower turn out than one with famous guests and all that, but I hope that those of you in LA or who are visiting LA will make a trip down to the theater every now and again. Say hi if you see me.
* I think I gave it a positive review at the time.
** For those really keeping track, this was not my first movie journalist experience. The year before Carl Cunningham had assigned me to cover the Godfather Collection DVD release street party in Brooklyn for DVD Sewer. I got shitfaced on Francis Ford Coppola’s wine, which pretty much presaged all of my future press event hijinks.
*** I have actually almost completely stopped buying DVDs over the course of the last year.
**** Especially the CHUD readers I met. So many people came up to me and introduced themselves – one guy even wanted a picture with me! – and all of them were incredibly flattering and unbelievably kind.