You Should Start a Web Site ...
How the Creators of Juxtaposeur and File Thirteen Went From Filmgoers to Trendsetters
Take several years off old Roger Ebert, slim him down, paint him in goth, and what you end up with is a mysterious figure named Lodger. A self-described fan of everything "retro-alternative" and a regular in his eyeliner and black nail varnish at the Atomic Cafe, Lodger's taste may not appeal to the masses. But at the helm of his film review Web site File Thirteen (www.filethirteen.com), the single-named Lodger relies on his unconventional opinions to pull in over a million site visits per year -- and in the process, helps form the taste and the talk of Austin's venerable film polis.
"Funny, irreverent, and sometimes surreal," Lodger describes himself in the opening lines of File Thirteen (named after the slang term for a heap of trash). "Lodger lets you in on the goings on in Austin, the filmmaking industry, and (a few times too often) his own mind."
Somewhere else in town, a still-youngish lawyer named Brian Clark (and nothing goth about that) takes time off from his nine-to-five at a legal recruiting firm to update another one of Austin's more intriguing film sites, Juxtaposeur (www.juxtaposeur.com). Unlike Lodger, Clark does not review films for his Web site -- in fact, he usually hasn't even seen the films he's discussing. Instead, he assumes the identity of "The Juxtaposeur" and compiles countless reviews from around the country and the Internet in order to arrive at a thorough judgment of new movies: "Almost Famous is this year's American Beauty," judging from critics' reactions, he decides, while Coyote Ugly is all "pseudo-feminist empowerment and alcohol abuse." Somewhat menacingly, the site describes its mission as: "reviewing reviews and critiquing critics." How meta-fabulous, of course, but with Clark's wit, the site transcends the banal rubric of "clever."
Both Lodger and Clark represent the changing dynamics of power and process within communities throughout the world thanks to the Internet. At first glance, neither one of these two should have anything to say about films or the film community in Austin. Neither one has lived in town for longer than a couple of years. They aren't writers. They've never studied film. And Clark, in true poseur style, is really a lawyer! And though they claim to only answer to their man-on-the-streets tastes, both Web sites demonstrate how diverse the dialogue on arts becomes when just the right voices cut in.
"I think the democracy is great," Clark says of reviews on the Net.
But even in a democracy you have to get votes -- someone has to approve of what you're doing before you go right ahead and do it. Not so in the unfettered worlds of File Thirteen and Juxtaposeur. Neither Lodger nor Clark have editors to help shape their articles or keep them within the bounds of a clearly defined style. Lodger brazenly instructs his readers to "Trust Lodger not to knuckle under to the Hollywood bigwigs and independent insiders. He's gonna tell it like it is." That's not to say, of course, that Lodger and Clark prove that just any old poseur should be able to put up a site full of rants and expect the rest of the world to pay much attention. What makes a site like File Thirteen or Juxtaposeur distinct and noticeable in an already-crowded film site market is the style of the writer himself.
At File Thirteen, for instance, visitors don't come to the site just to read reviews, they come to listen to Lodger. He's gay and he's smart and he wants you to know it -- there's something you won't get from The New York Times. It may be the substance of the site that matters in the end, but it's the style that brings in the hits.
"It's all grown like weeds," Lodger says of his content. "There's some writing about my personal life -- what I do, where I go, who I see. Then there's movie reviews."
Be still the beating New Critic heart! Of course, such injection of the reviewer's personal life leads to some valid questions. Does the reader really need to know about Lodger's comings and goings ("She was sitting on my lap and forcing my hand under her shirt. I was pretty drunk, as we all were, and it was a pretty good laugh")? Is File Thirteen really a review site, in which the author's frankness helps explain how he came to reach his decision, or is it a sort of Web diary that bases itself on movies? It turns out that the venture is so centered around the reviewer himself, the problem becomes academic at best.
"I don't even think about the reader!" Lodger says with a laugh.
In person, he is even more elusive than his quixotic answers reveal. He demurs and crawls into himself with a smile when he is asked for his birth name. "I go by Lodger," he says. That's Lodger, as in the 1979 David Bowie album of the same name. While he hides his identity for reasons having to do with keeping his day job, it is obvious that the alias is far more than just a name. It's an alternate persona as well.
Whoever Lodger was in his days with two names, however, he most certainly came from Houston. It was there that he first got the proverbial bug for writing by flipping through the pages of the Houston Chronicle and the long-gone Post. At the same time, he was discovering his love for the movies. He remembers the long and silent tears during a screening of The Elephant Man ("the best movie ever made," he whispers). And the more he tuned in to the nature of film and its possibilities, the more he felt one true thing: The papers in Houston just sucked.
"One of the reviewers in Houston was really horrible," he says. "[My writing] just kind of grew in response to that. It became kind of a hobby."
Sometime around 1991, the budding critic got a computer and started compiling a collection of these hobby articles he would write for himself -- one-off reviews of movies he'd caught on Friday nights, for example. Somehow, it never occurred to him that he could try to write for a living. It wasn't until late in the decade that one of his friends read his reviews and came up with that very familiar -- and yet so very fateful -- declaration: "You should start a Web site."
Around the same time, Lodger came to Austin not for its love affair with everything tech but because -- you guessed it -- he wanted to make movies. Following Gregg Araki's lead, he came armed with a script that he describes as, "Really weird, really poetic. A group of teenagers in the post-apocalyptic future just hanging out, and they're all bisexual." His friend Chuck in Houston, however, kept pressing for the site. Soon the two had a deal: Lodger would provide the content for the new film site, and Chuck would do the technical stuff.
While Lodger hasn't gotten too far in producing his bisexual epic, the popularity of File Thirteen, which has registered over a million hits in its first year, has placed him very comfortably in the discourse of film in our city. He attends almost every major film function, he meets high-profile visitors (John Waters especially brings a smile to his face), and he has an audience when he renders his verdicts. In the past few weeks, he has chastised the Chronicle for using overtly sexual images in its coverage of the Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival and he has taken on the likes of the Austin Film Society and the Cinemaker Co-op before. Whoever he is, Lodger has come up with a platform that is entertaining, intelligent, and entirely unabated. As he explains, "There's nothing more interesting than a queenie gay guy talking about anything, really."
Now let's juxtapose. Brian Clark's Web site was born out of wordplay. The crafty commercial lawyer Brian Clark was thinking to himself one day and came up with a simple equation: "Juxtapose" plus "poseur" equals, well, you know the rest. From this simple beginning, Clark spun the idea so that it grew to be a concept about how to run a Web site that covers film as widely and thoroughly as possible. Clark, as the sole content provider for the site, is the material's singular voice and wit. He sees none of the movies at the time of review, however, and passes no subjective judgment of a film's merit himself -- hence the "poseur" part of the name. Instead, he pieces together bits of reviews from different critics to arrive at a general verdict. Therein lies the "juxtaposing." Though the site operates on one basic formula, it entertains without ever growing tiresome. The first few paragraphs of each review contain Clark's summary of the film's plot. Next comes the meat -- Clark's collection of notes from reviews he's read elsewhere. Follow that up with a clever one-liner to stick at the end, and you've got yourself the basic Juxtaposeur review. It may not be highbrow (nothing close to an academic explication, analysis, or historical background offered here), and it may not require a ton of original material from the Juxtaposeur himself, but Clark is quick to argue that it certainly works.
"There is no such thing as true film criticism, only reviews and opinion," Clark says, addressing the dearth of historical, learned film writing on his site and elsewhere. "Historical film perspective -- I think that the demand is not there for that, and that's why most reviewers don't offer true film criticism."
In one sense, the increasing number of page hits registered at sites like File Thirteen and Juxtaposeur do indicate that there is a substantial market for discussion about film that does not rely on expert critics. The fan of what Clark calls "true film criticism" should also hold fast in a belief that there is some form of natural selection that occurs among these independent Web sites. If a particular reviewer is so obviously tasteless or inarticulate, one expects that few people would visit his site more than once. The sites that survive are the ones that display an intelligence and a palatable voice, whether those qualities are nascent or were learned in a classroom.
Despite the debate it invites, the site is all fun when it comes to observing Clark slam critics and actors for their lapses in talent. In his coverage of reviews of The Next Best Thing, the Juxtaposeur asked Congress to pass legislation making it illegal for The Talented Ms. Ciccone to appear in any more films. He has also taken on respectable mainstream critics when he feels that they are operating below their potential. He recently took Roger Ebert to task for being unable to distinguish the 19-ish age of the characters in Loser from the new thirtysomethings of High Fidelity: "Umm, Rog ... getting hard to differentiate those 'young people'?" And though he has refrained from criticizing local reviewers on his Web site (he calls them the "hometown boys"), he does admit to itching a bit when he disagrees with their reviews. Even the much-loved Harry Knowles, who might well receive a fair amount of credit for bringing outside attention to Austin and the several film sites it has produced, gets the whip.
"I don't like his style, I don't like his punctuation, I don't like his improper use of the ellipses," he says, smiling ...
Clark not only distinguishes his site with his humor but with his lawyer's business sense as well. Though he launched the site in December 1999, he wisely decided to send subscribers new reviews every week via e-mail. In the months that have passed since then, his mail list has grown to include over 7,000 subscribers. Additionally, he boasts that subscribers can receive site updates on their Palm Pilots. Acting on his knowledge of Web marketing, he has seen the results grow increasingly in his favor. He has formed partnerships and links with other Web sites and is happy to announce that with ad revenue, Juxtaposeur pays for itself.
"I may have been off the mark for how popular Juxtaposeur would be on a mass market," Clark says. "But it's very popular among people who like it."
Like Lodger, Clark takes the site's success as a sort of validation of his film dreams. He, too, moved to Austin from another large and unforgiving Texas city (Dallas) with dreams of being a screenwriter. Unlike Lodger, however, he thought of writing as a way out of his legal work and toward a creative, but profitable, life. He has no movies under his belt as of yet, but in the months since launching his site, Clark's goals have changed as he's learned more about the Internet and film criticism.
"What I've really gotten over is needing to be paid to be creative. People who make a living being creative are the luckiest people in the world. I just have a need to do this," he says. "But I also have a need to make a living."
Recently, Clark shut down his law practice and took a job working for a legal recruiting firm. The constraints of his new schedule almost shut Juxtaposeur down, but Clark just smiles about what he calls his "crisis" when he talks about it. Still, the site has suffered some changes with Clark's shift in jobs. New reviews appear on a different schedule than they did before, for instance. It takes more effort for Clark to get all his work done and maintain the quality of his site. Plus, there are always ideas for new Web sites competing for attention in Clark's mind. When it comes down to it, though, the Juxtaposeur has a tender heart after all: "The site is like my baby," he says.
Neither Lodger nor Clark really knows what comes next for their babies. The Juxtaposeur has thought of expanding his site so that it covers reviews of music and books in addition to film. Doing so, however, would require him to bring in help from others. He also seems to know that when you have a baby, it's pretty hard to let go. Lodger figures that he'll be writing as long as he can, whether it's part of File Thirteen or not. He's started several screenplays since finishing the nihilist bisexual fantasia that inspired him to move to Austin.
"This city has so many things going on," he says. And he can add two more to the list.