A Half-Life at the Movies

In the Dark No More

It began in earnest around age 10 or so, when my parents dropped me off at the local YMCA so that I could swim, play Ping-Pong, and generally hang with my peers.

We were just average, middle-class boys who wanted to grow up to be solid citizens and enjoy the right and privilege of voting for the Christian Republican of our choice.

I entered through the front door, walked past the boys yelping combatively as they played Ping-Pong, past the basketball court, and past the swimming pool, where the smell of chlorine and mildew was almost dizzying. Out the back door I went, enormously relieved that none of the older counselors had stopped me for a chat or to recruit me for a friendly but (to me) terrifying game of basketball.

I proceeded swiftly and confidently down Columbus Avenue, across on 12th Street, and down again on Austin Avenue to the proud old movie palace called the Waco Theater. Using all of my allowance, I plopped down the child's admission fee of 25 cents. My heart was already thumping with thrilled anticipation. Can't remember which movie it was exactly, but I'm pretty sure it was The Tingler or 13 Ghosts by the inimitable William Castle.

The smells inside were strong and distinct, like those of the athletic parlors at the Y, but these were so, so much friendlier. The odors of musty carpet and fresh popcorn commingled in a sweet, intoxicating way, and now that I look back, I realize that the smell of those old movie palaces was probably as much or more sensually pleasurable than most of the movies that illuminated their interiors.

I couldn't have known it at the time, but a habit had been formed. It was a habit that could be interrupted only by school, summer camp, or piano lessons, and one that, sad to say, had to be kept secret from my parents. They believed most movies to be too racy, not suitable for a youngster. (If they could only know what you and I have been seeing lately!)

And trust me, what I really didn't know was that this habit would morph itself into a job and, eventually, something approximating a career.

People who go to movies almost every day become one of two things: poor, or film critics. (In many cases, both.) I became a film critic officially around 1971, when the Waco Tribune-Herald agreed to publish a couple of reviews of current films, Slaughterhouse Five and A Clockwork Orange. I will be the first to tell you that these reviews were published primarily and exclusively because my father was publisher of the paper. The reviews were beyond awful; they stunk out loud. I know, because the managing editor, a scrappy Irishman who did not fear my dad, told my mother.

Well, that was before I attended the National Critics Institute in 1972. This intense, five-week session for young critics, set in the stunning, seaside environs of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn., was a life-changing experience -- boot camp and renaissance all in one. After weeks of theater-going, reviewing and one-on-one tutorials, I emerged something like a writer.

With new skills and a swelled head, I applied for and got a job as an entertainment writer with the Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel. A year and a half later, a position opened at the Austin American-Statesman when John Bustin, an early and important mentor, vacated his post. I had really missed Texas and had always wanted to live in Austin. It was a great stroke of luck to get the job.

Film critiquing is nice work. You toil in air-conditioned comfort and there is no heavy lifting (apart from the occasional clunky metaphor). You see movies for free and then get to tell anyone who can read exactly what you think of them -- and get paid for it! The best part of film criticism, though, has nothing to do with the pleasure of journalistic pursuit or the immense ego gratification that attends self-expression through mass media. It is simply intellectual and emotional stimulation. A person who sees a lot of movies, especially those of our rising class of independent filmmakers, is constantly being challenged by some idea or issue, and must always be deciding the relevance and credibility of the people and situations presented. A person who sees films on a regular basis is someone whose thought processes cannot calcify.

Film reviewing is great, but daily newspapering is strenuous for all but the most gifted and facile writers. After 16 years at the Statesman I resigned in 1990 and almost immediately began a gratifying relationship with the Chronicle as film columnist.

Back in the late 1980s, Chris Walters profiled me in a Chronicle article headlined "Awake in the Dark." When I started this column I asked if we could use the headline for the title. I've always liked it, in part for the unintentional reference to a nasty insomnia problem that only recently has abated.

The last six years have been a hell of a ride. A film columnist, as opposed to a daily reviewer, has a thrilling and terrifying responsibility, which is to observe trends, find hidden agendas, reveal how individual films or types of films accommodate or stimulate us. So I couldn't "merely" review Mr. Holland's Opus; it had to be examined as the latest film that attempts to explain the wondrous hold of music on our lives. And rather than discussing the merits of John Woo's Broken Arrow in its own context, a columnist is compelled to explore, among other things, the considerable contrasts to the director's earlier action films.

Space for this column is almost entirely consumed, and by now you've probably guessed the real agenda. Yes, I have become another journalistic statistic -- the writer of a self-important farewell column. After six years of "Awake in the Dark," I'm turning on the light and heading for the open air. The reason: Personal and business interests are proving to be too distracting for the maintenance of a thoughtful film column. And the Chronicle and its readers deserve nothing less.

I can't recognize everyone for their help, feedback, encouragement and advice, but I simply must thank Louis Black and Nick Barbaro for the honor of this opportunity; and Marjorie Baumgarten for editorial perfection. The writer who has problems with Marge's gentle handling of copy is simply in the wrong business.

Of course, I must also thank my late father, the hard-nosed, hard-working businessman who gamely put up with a day-dreaming, sensualist son. He may have viewed my career choice with befuddlement, but he opened doors and never ceased to provide compliments and encouragement.

Here's looking at all of you. n

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