Monday, December 03, 2007


Portrait of the critic as a young man

By Edward Copeland
The first review I ever wrote was of a television show. In fourth grade, our "gifted and talented" class set out to make a newspaper (and a shitty one it was — everything was handwritten). Originally, I'd planned to do a movie review (of the original Superman), but obsessed with timeliness, I decided it would be too old by the time the mimeographed nightmare came out, so I figured a new TV show would be more timely, so I wrote about Taxi.

It also reminds me that over the course of my public education I benefited from having several very indulgent teachers. In third grade, I got my teacher to let the class stage silly little shows (one of which included a chum and I re-enacting Abbott and Costello's "Who's On First?" routine). My fourth-grade teacher let me stage a play I wrote, a blatant ripoff of Soap that I called "Suds." I even stole some gags from the show, but rehearsals went chaotic before it ever got on its feet. Still, pretty amazing that this teacher was prepared to let us act out a silly show involving adultery and murder in the fourth grade. (I think the all-time record for indulgence by a teacher belongs to one of my eighth-grade teachers, whom some friends and I convinced that taking part of classtime each day to play Risk was a good way to learn geography. That one didn't fall apart until kids started whining because they were losing.)

From my earliest days, I was movie crazy, reared on the classic Universal horror flicks of the 1930s and 1940s as well as Abbott and Costello and the Marx Brothers. By the time fourth grade arrived, I also was a certifiable Oscar nut (which is funny, since I don't think I ever watched an Oscarcast in those days that included many films that I'd seen). Of course, I was a Star Wars obsessive, but I was almost as strongly compulsive about Grease, as were most of the kids in my neighborhood. We'd even re-stage the dances from the film as we played the soundtrack.

One thing I do remember from moviegoing back in the 1970s were the frequency of long lines, which I don't see much anymore (except for free screenings). I remember standing in lines for ages for The Empire Strikes Back, Grease, even the 1976 King Kong. Advance ticketing truly can be a blessing. (By the time Return of the Jedi rolled out, my mom purchased our tickets early in the day for a showing that night.)

In fifth grade, we had one of those rote assignments to "look into our future." I had many delusions of grandeur: wanting to act, write and direct in movies and even to toss my hat into the political ring. (My plan involved being elected president and then resigning immediately so I could live off the pension.) The bitter clincher of that fifth-grade assignment when I re-visited it years later was its closing: "If all else fails, I'll become a movie critic."

As indulgent as some of my teachers were, I also had very indulgent parents. They wouldn't let me see Jaws when it originally came out, but I got to see the re-release a few years later. The real proof of how I ran the show is that I paid my dad to get me in to see the R-rated National Lampoon's Animal House. When I had a sixth-grade birthday/slumber party (and we happened to have an illegal Beta copy of Animal House), my parents had to call all the invitees to see if their parents gave them permission to watch. Almost across the board, the parents said it was OK because it was just sex and not violence. I bet that isn't the case these days.

As I said earlier, I already had a mild Oscar obsession. I remember in 1976 when we were living temporarily in an apartment with a single TV and my dad and I had huge fight because back then they'd televise the Oscars on the same night as the NCAA basketball championship. The Oscar madness didn't kick in completely until after sixth grade, when I spent two years in exile in another state. I stumbled upon an Oscar history book in the junior high library and, instead of thinking about copying parts of it, I thoroughly typed a copy of all the nominees and winners since the beginning (which is one of the main reasons I have such a good memory for Oscar stats). Unfortunately, the volume ended with 1979 and took me awhile to find the missing statistic (in fact for years, I searched in vain for the answer as to which 1980 best actor nominee I was missing).

As much as we all bitch and moan about the Oscars, it needs to be acknowledged that, at least in my life, shared love of Oscar trivia has proved to be the foundation of lasting friendships. This time period was also when I started going to see more serious films by choice: Reds was not made for a 12 year old and I hated it for years until I revisited it last year. Still, my critical faculties were forming.

I remember many an argument with school friends who disagreed with my assessment that Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom sucked. Flash forward to my sophomore year of high school, when I finally got on a school newspaper and discovered the joys of free movie passes. They were a wondrous new thing: Being able to see films before they opened and for free, but they usually came with a cost: Long lines of other people with free passes from radio promos. There seems to be a law that a movie audience will be obnoxious in direct proportion to the amount they spent on the ticket. Needless to say, the freeloaders weren't ideal for a reviewing experience.

Since the school paper only came out once a month, the reviews were hardly timely, but I got going. The first movie review I wrote and published was of 2010. I continued to review movies throughout the next three years. During those three years, I also got my first celebrity interview. Bruce Campbell came to town promoting Evil Dead II, so I got to meet him and do a story on him. In our senior year, we had a student teacher whose family was big in publishing in my area. As the year was drawing to a close, she asked if I'd be interested in a job reviewing for their weekly shopper. Needless to say, I leaped at it the summer before college, trying to see almost everything in the summer of 1987 and getting paid to boot (though the money really was for office work, not the movies, though I got reimbursed for tickets).

My first full-length review was of The Untouchables. I also found out about the magic of critics' screenings: morning showings where there were just a handful of people who knew how to behave. It was bliss. When I went to college in the fall, I continued to try to keep up as best I could. I also had a very odd coincidence with one of the screenings. In 1988, I went to a critics' screening of John Waters' Hairspray. When I left the theater, got into my car and turned on the radio, one of the first things the DJ said was that Divine had died. Eerie.

Eventually the shopper folded and after some downtime when I decided to be solely a college student, I spotted an ad in the college paper to apply for jobs for the spring semester, so I did. I started as assistant entertainment editor and was back in the land of free movies. I even got to experience my first pseudo-junket. It was a one-day event, exclusively for college students, where the studio flew us to Chicago and back to screen Blue Steel and have a news conference with Jamie Lee Curtis and director Kathryn Bigelow. The freebies didn't stop me from panning that awful movie.

Once ensconced at the college paper, I continued to do my best to review EVERYTHING. Along the way, I got to experience things such as having a small child vomit on me during Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I also had my first encounter with someone in a theater with a cell phone. It came when I went to see My Left Foot. I heard the strange sound of the ring, somewhat normal compared to the multiple ringtones now, and the idiot woman answered, saying, "Nothing. Just sitting here watching a movie." As you all know, it got worse from there.

I continued to do reviews even while moving to other jobs at the newspaper, including editor. Once I graduated, I even did a review of Jungle Fever, where I used the byline "Film Critic Emeritus." Of course, college ended eventually and I joined the ranks of jobseekers. Soon, I heard that the reviewer at the state's main newspaper had been removed, so I showed up and volunteered to do reviews for free to get clips. Soon, that turned into a part-time job in another area of the paper and I did more reviews. I even turned down a full-time copy editing job elsewhere, just because I wanted to feed my film addiction and also because they were going to allow me time off for a three-week tour of Europe by Eurail.

While in London, I got to see one of the showings of the London Film Festival (London Kills Me) and Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books, which had yet to open in the states. I went to Paris and took the requisite tour of the Pere Lachaise cemetery and saw the lunacy around Jim Morrison's grave. Other tombstones were vandalized with chalk leading you to Morrison's resting place (such as "This way to the Lizard King"), though one said something that made me laugh: "Why did they make the movie?"

I got to go to Cannes, albeit not when the festival was on, and saw the many handprints of film notables lining a walk. Soon after I returned to the states and the paper, I got to go on my first real junket (for the movie Rush, which included a press conference with Jason Patric who was in the middle of his fling with Julia Roberts at the time and had to be protected). The junket allowed my first visit to my beloved New York. I'd never been to Manhattan before but what I expected to happen did: I felt more relaxed than I ever had in my life as if that was where I was meant to be. Anti-New Yorkers think I'm insane when I say that.

After my return, the paper finally hired me, unfortunately not as a critic but as a night-time copy editor. Still, I had a full-time job and I still got to do reviews. My professional career really had begun.


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