Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Today I became a film critic

I've always been the kind of film critic who says "I'm a film critic, but ..."

But what?

But I'll tell you:

1) "... but it's not my full-time job."

2) "... but most of the films I review are not new releases."

3) " ... but most of the time I have to get to the movies myself, or rent them, though I do write them off on my taxes."

4) "... but they only pay me $20 per review."

But then there are days like today, which make me realize I really am part of this club.

I was originally scheduled to have last Friday off, but I'm really glad my boss switched me to today. It meant I was able to oblige when my editor sent me an email late last week asking if I could make an 11 a.m. screening of Soul Power today on Sunset Blvd. Soul Power is a documentary 35 years in the making, focusing on the three-day 1974 concert in Kinshasa, Zaire that was supposed to accompany the "Rumble in the Jungle" boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Except Foreman cut his lip -- which I suppose is a serious vulnerability when you're a boxer -- and postponed the fight by six weeks. The concert -- featuring such luminaries as James Brown, B.B. King, Bill Withers, and dozens of amazing African artists -- had too many moving parts to postpone, so went ahead as planned.

I attended my first three critics' screenings earlier this year, all within the space of about six weeks in the early spring. But I hadn't gotten the call again until this last week. Not only did they offer me Soul Power, but I'm also seeing a movie called Death in Love tomorrow night. Nice to be back in the saddle.

Under ordinary circumstances, 11 o'clock on a Monday would be right out for me. But this is what real critics do -- attend screenings in the middle of the workday. So the planets aligned for me, and by 10:15 I was on the road up to the screening room. I'm glad I made it on time -- I forgot I needed to gas up, plus I had some dodgy moments at the intersection of La Cienega and Sunset. Anyone who drives standard needs an assist from the hand brake while making that left turn from the traffic light at the top of the hill, else they'll slide back into the car behind them while putting the car in gear. I usually try to avoid that intersection because of the stress it inspires. Today I forgot.

A few squealed wheels later, my car arrived no worse for the wear at the garage below the building with the screening room.

It was a smaller screening room than usual, seating no more than 16. And less than half of those would be used today, as there were about six people total in attendance. I checked in with the guy and passed through a couple people milling about in what passed for a lobby. I selected a leather comfy chair in the middle of the three rows, then saw how small the screen was and decided to move up front. I ended up being the only one in the row.

I was calculating whether I'd have enough time to go to the bathroom when I heard a familiar voice outside. An unmistakable voice, actually -- a voice I hear every Friday on the radio, or more realistically, via podcasts automatically downloaded to my ipod every time I synch up.

That's right, of the six people at this screening, one of them was me, and one of them was Joe Morgenstern.

Joe who?

Joe Morgenstern is the film critic for The Wall Street Journal, but that's not how I consume any of his work. Rather, I hear him on KCRW, the local NPR station, where he reviews films every Friday afternoon.

If the voice I'd heard in the other room had been Bob Mondelo, Elvis Mitchell, or any of the other personalities who occasionally cover film on KCRW, I would not have been nearly as geeked. But in the last three or four years, Morgenstern has come to influence me like no other critic. "Influence" is probably the wrong word -- I don't know how I could begin to approximate the brilliance he produces on such a regular occasion. But he's the current critic who most drives me to be better.

There was no doubting who it was, but I peeked my head out anyway. Yup, it was him -- I'd entered his name in google images only recently, just to see what he looked like. Same affable-looking, white-haired seventysomething I'd seen online.

I quickly found out we were starting on time -- a rarity at these things -- so there was nothing I could do at the moment. Except text my wife: "Joe Morgenstern is at my screening!!!" We aren't much for exclamation points, so that tells you how excited I was.

He took a seat in the back row along with his guest (possibly his wife -- to give you some idea of his star wattage, he was once married to actress Piper Laurie). Then the guy we checked in with, who was in a lively mood, came in and asked us if we were all alert. Morgenstern (can I call him "Joe"?) responded in the affirmative, and re-addressed the question to the rest of the room. I turned around with a smile on my face and answered him directly: "Yep, I am!"

As the movie started, I was distracted with the inevitable thoughts of approaching him afterward. I've lived in Los Angeles long enough that I hate bothering famous people, and only do it on extremely rare occasions. (In fact, I can't even remember the last one.) But this was different ... this guy was an actual, dare I say it, colleague. Right? Wait, does a colleague mean you already know someone, or just that you're in the same field? And I'm not sure how famous he really is, despite the Piper Laurie connection. At least not someone most people could identify if he weren't actually speaking.

But I still went back and forth throughout the movie, and it took about 15 minutes for me to really settle down enough to lose myself in the picture. (Which was wonderful). As the running time drew to a close, I felt myself getting a little nervous -- knowing that I should talk to him, but fearing making a fool of myself, or worse, annoying him. I suspected he was a nice man, but who knows?

Then there was another issue at hand, one that made seeing him even more funny. I had just finished reviewing, less than a week earlier, the movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble -- you know, the TV movie (some would say after-school special) about the kid with no immunities, released in 1976 and starring a young John Travolta. (See what I said above about not usually reviewing current releases).

The reason it's funny is that this happens to be the only produced movie, television or otherwise, that Morgenstern (Joe) has been credited with writing. In fact, I even mentioned this in my review.

But I decided that if just introducing myself to him didn't freak him out, my complicated explanation about why I was just now reviewing a TV movie that came out in 1976 certainly would. I've learned my lesson from the time I met Jennifer Love Hewitt (for the second time), and launched into the stumbling, awkward recollection of how I'd met her some seven years earlier, most of which involved trying to explain to her which elevator it was in which building on Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood. My friends still give me crap about that one.

As the lights came up, I looked back to see him with a wide grin on his face, aglow from the joy of the movie. Okay, he was in a good mood. It was decided.

I stood around nervously outside -- no more than 30 seconds, but still -- and waited for an opening to approach him. "I hate to bother you," I started, "But I'm [my name], and I write for [the website I write for]. I just wanted to let you know that I'm a huge fan of your work. The mellifluous (bad choice -- I stumbled on it) way your words flow is incredible. Your work makes me strive to reach your level."

This is a paraphrase, and I think he inserted some friendly encouragers in there. But this is what stuck with me: "Why thank you, I'm truly touched."

Is it possible that I made Joe Morgenstern's day? Even though I later wondered if my hands were too clammy to make a pleasant handshake, or my use of the word "mellifluous" turned me into a stuttering fool?

Well, at least I know he made mine.

I like this club. I wonder who I might see tomorrow?

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