Friday, December 10, 2010

Celebrating 10 years

I can't tell you the exact date I wrote my first review for the website that employs me as a freelancer. [Name omitted for purposes of misguided anonymity].

I should be able to. If I were starting the list of movies I've reviewed today, I'd also include the date I reviewed them, not just their sequence in a long and winding list.

But I can tell you it was exactly ten years ago this month.

I can also tell you that it was Michael Winterbottom's Go Now, and that I've since reviewed 1,110 other films for the site. Not to mention the fewer numbers of plot synopses, artist bios and feature pieces I've also written.

So I figured I'd pause for a moment to look back on the past decade, which has truly changed the trajectory of my life.

Ten years ago, I was living in New York, working as the senior editor (a much loftier title than the position deserved) of a magazine that specialized in the technical side of live theater. It was a very inexact match for what I wanted to be doing, but it had been close enough to get me in the door. But after working there for six months, I was anything but happy. I worked in a dungeon-like room whose only windows looked out on an interior courtyard of a skyscraper, meaning we received little natural light. It was always very quiet, even during the times there were four or five others working in the same room, though most of the time my editor and I were the only ones. I spent my days putting off writing stories about lighting equipment or interviewing the technical director of a theater in Minneapolis. But even the end of my workday didn't bring much relief, as I wasn't happy living in New York in general.

But in the fall of 2000, I connected up with a guy who had left a posting on the Columbia Journalism School jobs email. (In fact, I now joke that this was the most important thing I got out of attending journalism school -- but I'm not even sure how much of a joke it is.) He was looking for movie reviewers for a film database website, in which each film had a page of its own featuring one authoritative synopsis and one authoritative review. Many of the synopses had already been written, but many of the reviews had not. I wouldn't be getting in on the ground floor, exactly, but plenty of prominent films had yet to be reviewed, as you will see when I list some examples later on. The site's content would be syndicated on dozens of other websites whose business it was to sell VHS and DVDs. (Yes, I was reviewing movies back in the era of VHS.)

The guy liked my samples, so he sent me a list of a hundred or so titles that needed reviews on the site, as well as a booklet of style guidelines. My reviews were to be approximately 300 words in length, and they did not need to include much if any plot, because there was already an accompanying synopsis it was assumed the reader would read. I had already seen a number of the movies on the list, and used the list to guide me in what to see next. Many of the movies I'd seen were still fresh in my mind, so I didn't need to revisit them. I could just sit down and start writing.

I don't remember how it was that I chose Go Now from that list as my first movie to review. I suspect that I had not yet seen it -- I would have felt extra conscious about not blowing this golden opportunity that represented all my hopes for the future, and probably would have chosen the more "by the book" approach of watching something and then writing a review straightaway. And so it was that I picked up the movie from my local Blockbuster and did just that.

After Go Now I reviewed Joel Schumacher's 8MM and Mark Pellington's Arlington Road, followed by the first movie I reviewed that I truly loved: Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run. The rest, as they say, is history.

It's hard to underestimate the importance of the events of December 2000, because they played a key role in encouraging me to move to Los Angeles. Suddenly, freelance film criticism actually seemed like something I might be able to do full time -- a way out of the drudgery of a job that didn't seem to be going anywhere. And it was possibly also a way out of a city I didn't love, a city I might feel committed to making my home if I started really having success there. The great thing was that writing reviews was something I could do anywhere. And so what if they were only paying me $15 per review? (It's more now, but not a whole lot more.) If I played a big role in helping flesh out the site, those $15 would add up.

It was right around that time that I also made two trips to Los Angeles -- one for my birthday in October and one for New Year's. I had plenty of friends from when I lived there for three months in 1996, and had always vaguely planned to return. When I saw the comparative brilliance of life in Southern California, the wheels were truly in motion. I was going to make this happen -- I was going to leave the east coast and drive to California, where I would review movies, which was what I had always wanted to do.

The things I now call my life are all offshoots of that decision. In the end, I didn't end up supporting myself for more than a year on just reviewing movies. But when the money ran out, that's when I started temping in IT, and how I got on the path to my current career. Film criticism settled into a perfectly acceptable status as a second job -- a more realistic status for someone like me, someone who wasn't a Type A, who wasn't driven to pay my dues and climb the uncertain ladder to becoming one of the few people in this country who can earn a good living as a full-time critic. Reviewing films has played that satisfying secondary role in my life these past eight years, with basically only a year off in 2004 when the freelance budget at the company was temporarily slashed.

And of course, if I had never moved to Los Angeles, I would never have met my wife, and we would never have had our adorable son. Good stuff.

I realize this piece is all pretty self-serving -- hey, we're bloggers, we serve ourselves first and foremost. So thanks for sticking with me through some self-serving nostalgia and perspective. I guess we all have things in our lives we can point to, that bore a significant responsibility for making us who we are today. So I'm really thankful to Mike, who liked my stuff enough to give me a chance, ten years ago this month. He's given me a life I might otherwise never have had.

That's a good place to stop and I've certainly taken up enough of your time. But this wouldn't be one of my pieces without some kind of list. So I will end with a list only, no comments: My 25 favorite movies (listed alphabetically) I've gotten to review.

Thanks for reading, and for letting me have a moment.

The Cable Guy
Fantastic Planet
The Guru
Henry Poole Is Here
Hustle & Flow
The Iron Giant
Jacob's Ladder
Jesus Christ Superstar
The Lives of Others
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
My Cousin Vinny
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Return of the Jedi
Run Lola Run
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Three Kings
Toy Story
Toy Story 2
25th Hour
Vanilla Sky


simoncolumb said...

fantaztic read - i think its great to know that some people get paid for this because it really is something which i know i personally love doing! as someone who lives in london, at some point in my life, i hope to move to new york and then LA ... but one step at a time i guess!

Vancetastic said...

Thanks Simon! I hope for your sake you can make all of those things come true. However, I'd also hope that those opportunities existed for you in London. I mean, you're not talking about some little backwater hamlet, right?

For me, I think the biggest challenge to living abroad -- which may one day happen, since my wife grew up in Australia -- is not being on the American release schedule for new movies. I'd hear all the buzz about Oscar hopefuls, and then potentially not get them for another three to four to six months. Maybe by the time we move, all movies will be available online and we'll stop even going to the theater ...