It had to end sometime. Now’s as bad a time as any. After thirty-eight years of them — commencing with a typo-marred encomium on Hickey and Boggs dated November 2, 1972 — this is to be my final column in these pages. (Brief pause for gasps of disbelief, yelps of jubilation, to die down....) There is, by way of explanation, by way of analogy, an Alain Resnais film called Love unto Death, one of the several unopened locally to which I alluded when addressing his Wild Grass earlier this year, wherein the protagonist drops dead at the outset and then spontaneously, miraculously, comes back to life. For the rest of the film till death reclaims him, however, he feels drawn to the Other Side and never all the way back into the swim. It’s a bit like that with me and my sabbatical of four summers ago. I’m not sure I ever fully recovered from my little taste of freedom and free will, not only my attendance at movies without notepaper and pen in my lap, or my trial membership in Netflix and my guidance by personal preference instead of professional obligation, but even more my increased reading time to make a reacquaintance with Thomas Love Peacock, to make further headway in Henry James, to make a start on Arnold Bennett. It was just a taste, in sober knowledge of the sabbatical’s limits and of the necessity to stay abreast of current releases (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Ocean’s Thirteen, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Live Free or Die Hard — that summer), but it was a taste that tantalized.
Any adequate account of my widening alienation would have to go back farther, spending a long time, too long a time, on the birth and growth of the paper’s website, whenever that transpired. It was one thing to work for a weekly periodical, to go into the office every Tuesday to proof the stuff on the page, to hold the newsprint in hand on Thursday, to walk in the footsteps of Mencken and Nathan, Agee and Farber. It was something very different to stand at this new frontier in cyberspace, to have to learn words and concepts such as “bloggers” and “posters,” to observe from afar the fraternity of critics herded into a site under the banner of Rotten Tomatoes and melted down into a consensus score on its Tomatometer, to witness the dilution of the fraternity in the “democratic” forum of the Internet. Something different for certain. What was it, exactly?
A brave new universe for some, maybe. In my little corner of it, the new frontier was a frontier undefended. Out of self-preservation, I was loath to tread there at all, and out of the same impulse, I was compelled. It took me years to do something about the ridiculous foot-wide lines of the capsule reviews online, ribbonlike blocks of type. I never could do anything about the unaccountable gap between paragraphs in the full-length reviews. (Was there ever a designer for this layout?) Printing codes that would be correctly translated on the page into diacritical marks, italics, whatnot, would at times — an untold number — show up in the text on the website as senseless clusters of letters and symbols, looking much like what passed for cusswords in the comic books of my youth. The subscription service that provides theater showtimes to the paper also provides, as an inextricable part of the deal, promotional capsules — papsules, let’s call them — on every new film, needing individually to be stopped from appearing online ahead of my own capsule or else overriding my own, an unsubsiding tide, as it were, of alien invaders, turned back by a vigilant but overtaxed gatekeeper. A year ago an “update” of the entire system managed as a side effect to wipe out four months’ worth of capsules. And only recently came a push from within (I dug in my heels) to make online headlines different from in‑paper headlines so they’d be more “searchable” on Google, an objective beyond my ken. Then too, my Firefox browser, or engine, or whatever the hell it is, sees the site quite unlike my Safari (among other things transmuting every black-spot rating into a one-star, making no distinction). I know, for my sanity, to use the latter, but what are other people out there doing and seeing? This was never a battlefront on which I chose to fight. It divided and drained my resources and energies. It ate at me. The website shaped up as a separate and variant publication, unauthorized. Admitting that that’s the way of the future, better to get out while the paper is still a paper.
With total awareness that my personal myth, as the couch doctors might call it, is “The Princess and the Pea” (doubtless a common one for the professional faultfinder), I have come to regard SDReader.com as a pea the size of a pumpkin. I make enough flubs of my own without taking on others outside my control. If, mindful of all those, there remains any measure by which my lengthy tenure may be termed a success, it would simply be the incontestable fact that I have gotten to the end of it without literally having died of embarrassment. That, and perhaps the minor point of pride in my scrupulous avoidance, no more contestably, of the critical buzzword “pitch-perfect.” As points of pride go, that belongs right up there with my unblemished lifetime record at tic-tac-toe, 2‑0‑648.
To be sure, a more thorough account of my alienation would have to spend some time, besides, on the emergent parallel world of videos and DVDs, the replacement of the movie palace with the boxy multiplex, the spread of computer graphics, the epidemic of cosmetic surgery, four disparate phenomena that can be yoked together in their unintended consequence of devaluing, deglamorizing, demystifying the movies. But it is not necessary now to chart all the forces at work. In some haphazard fashion, that’s what I’ve been doing for close to four decades. Movies have changed. Periodicals have changed. Critics change, too. The battle, the thirty-eight-year war, was never imagined to be winnable.