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.
Annual resolutions to be more accepting, more broad-minded, more in-touch, proved impossible to keep in the face of an entity like The Book of Eli, first film of the new year. And calculating the difference between The A‑Team and The Expendables, let alone between Iron Man and Iron Man 2, seems tantamount to calculating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. What difference is the difference? Things have pretty well settled into a pattern in the past thirty years, no relief in sight. Star Wars, Superman, Halloween, Animal House, and away we went. Same old same old. To shuffle in some high-def video here, some 3‑D there, some computer animation elsewhere, looks unlikely to usher in a renaissance.
Wait’s over. My feeling at the movies of late has reminded me often of my feeling at Tower Records (but how I miss it now it’s gone!) when I would be trying to browse the DVDs, maybe buy some Brahms, and the speakers would be blasting some ghastly shrieking metal racket that would say to me: We don’t want you here, Pops. Bug off. Old Hollywood, it would not be mere nostalgia to recall, always strove to be inclusive. Not with every movie, but with the aggregate. These days I find myself asking after a movie — a gestating new critical criterion now aborted before its public debut — whether, if I were not a critic, I’d have gone to it, and whether, having gone, I was glad I went. The declining percentage of affirmative answers translates into a declining percentage of hope. So I find myself, behind the wheel in the well-worn groove to the AMC Mission Valley 20 to see the likes of Hot Tub Time Machine, feeling an awful fool. The foot wants to ease up on the gas pedal.
With the flow of foreign films down to a dribble, the legion of independent filmmakers keen to sell out, digital talking-heads documentaries a dime a dozen, I’m more and more inclined, induced, inspired, to pursue some solitary line of inquiry such as why Jason Robards in the role of Doc Holliday doesn’t in my eyes damage or diminish Hour of the Gun, doesn’t dislodge it as my preferred version of the Wyatt Earp legend despite the better Hollidays in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and Tombstone. Why (or when) is it that such an apparent weakness doesn’t weaken? I could churn out a few hundred words on the topic, but not without consciousness of slipping into a state of solipsism.
Attractive alternatives are fewer and farther between. Appaloosa, a thickly disguised reworking of the Earp-Holliday tale, was a chewable bone thrown to us Western bitter-enders two years ago, but we would have to dig back five more years for another such bone, Open Range. A healthy movie industry ought to be hatching five of those every year, not one of those every five. It goes against my sense of the fitness of things. Could Hickey and Boggs or its equivalent come out today, a pair of marginal L.A. private eyes on a case that embodies E.M. Forster’s slogan of “only connect,” it would be by a mile the year’s peak pleasure. An inconceivability. The long and short of it is that what seems nowadays to fire up other people (3‑D, CGI, comic books, video games, Brangelina, the weekend box-office) seems unable to fire up me. That was always true to some extent, given the disparity between a casual interest and a vocational one. But the extent has yawningly widened.
No leave-taking would be quite proper without some paltry expression of gratitude to an understanding and uninterfering publisher who for reasons of his own, reasons unknown, left me pretty much unsupervised for pretty near the whole of my working life. I couldn’t have asked for less. Another such expression should go to any reader who ever sent back an encouraging word. It seems almost as if there were not so many of them that I couldn’t thank each of them by name. Almost. One encouraging word weighed more than a thousand discouraging, and went far to alleviate any feeling of futility and absurdity. I appreciated them all, and, self-motivated though I am or was, I needed them. I suppose in some way I needed the discouraging as well — the way the Red Sox need the Yankees — although I concede they were seldom so appreciated.
The timing is such that Harry Potter and the Twilight people will have to finish their respective courses without me. But that’s one of the benefits. I won’t be standing in line to find out how it all turns out. This is, for me, virgin territory. Up to now, and for a lot longer than thirty-eight years, my goal has been to go to as many movies as possible. First it was a habit, then a job, finally a slog. All of a sudden the goal requires adjustment. My romance with movies, if that’s what it was, has cooled. Hasn’t, heaven forbid, ended. And it will be interesting indeed to discover how often I am willing to fork over the price of a ticket, brave the cellphones and the iPods, endure the preludial advertisements, attempt to blend in with the crowds of kids, etc. We shall see. Correction: I shall see. Franchisewise, it is with somewhat greater regret that I’ll miss out on writing about the forthcoming chapter in The Chronicles of Narnia, but I’ll not miss out on seeing it (in 2‑D if given a choice). There will always be, would always have been, something.
More agonizingly, I won’t be sharing any thoughts on the new treatment of True Grit come Christmastime. It’s the Coen brothers. It’s a Western. How could I resist? Oh, I can resist, even if this would have at least afforded me an opportunity to voice my dismay at an edit in the Henry Hathaway original, which I not long ago watched again on TCM. When Rooster has recounted the anecdote of how he once chased off the remnants of a posse on his tail by rounding on them with his reins in his teeth and a gun in each hand, Little Mattie ought to respond, “That’s a big story,” meaning a bunch of hooey, and Rooster in turn ought to toss back words to the effect that, well, she can believe it or not, but that’s how it happened. A crucial exchange — missing from the Turner print (the official DVD also?) — to set up one of the glorious moments in John Wayne’s career, when right before Mattie’s bugging eyes the “one-eyed fat man” hauls out the same tactic against Lucky Ned Pepper and three confederates in the mountain meadow. But there. I’ve already taken the opportunity, and I’m highly dubious about any re‑do of True Grit (though it won’t be too hard for Matt Damon to improve on Glen Campbell), and the year-end glut never allows time to do justice to any movie anyway. And what I’d really rather do is to step into a time machine and re-see the original at the Orpheum theater in downtown Minneapolis in the summer of ’69. How did Tennyson put it? “So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more.”
Enough said. ■