Thursday, October 27, 2011

I Don't Miss It, But I'm Grateful for It

I was 5 years old when I saw my first movies: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Jetsons: The Movie. It was 1990.

I was 7 years old when, for some inexplicable reason, I copied onto a sheet of white posterboard by hand a review of the animated movie Bebe's Kids from the Orlando Sentinel. It was 1992.

It was 1999 when I began actually writing movie reviews, for the Teentime pages of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel's weekend Showtime section. I was nearing the end of 8th grade, and I had found a call for writers in those pages. I wrote two test reviews for the editor, Oline Cogdill (One review was of Analyze This, which I had seen at a sneak preview), and was deemed good enough to write regularly for the section. During my three years, I won, at the high school journalism awards that the Sun-Sentinel held every year at the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art, 2000 Teentime Movie Reviewer of the Year, 2001 Teentime Movie Reviewer of the Year, and 2002 Teentime Reviewer of the Year. I still think that those awards were for sheer quantity, because I wrote a lot, and there were weeks when I didn't think my reviews were any good. Sure I wrote them, but I didn't feel so vested in them. Step one: Pour out opinion of movie into Word file. Step two: Send review to Oline. Step three: Repeat steps one and two.

No matter those occasional dry, dull weeks, I appreciate the experience because it taught me to write regularly. It gave me a routine about it. It began the process that led to where I am today, undaunted in the face of potentially massive writing projects. Don't mistake that for arrogance. I'm comfortable with the tasks, but it still entails a hell of a lot of work.

In 2002, my time with Teentime had ended because I had graduated high school. And one day, in February 2003, while attending classes at Broward Community College on the smallest campus they had (Which was diagonal from the Southwest Regional library in Pembroke Pines, part of the Broward County library system), I was in the computer lab at the Southwest Regional library and had come upon a website called Film Threat, which was looking for writers. I e-mailed the editor, Eric Campos, asked what was needed, and I sent along many sample reviews, silently praying that they would be good enough as I sent each one. And they were. And until 2009, I wrote countless reviews for the site.

In 2004, I applied for membership to the Online Film Critics Society, which Phil Hall, a fellow writer, had suggested. He was also a member of the Governing Committee of the OFCS. I was rejected because, as Phil had said, my reviews contained too much plot summary and not enough opinion. I made necessary adjustments to my reviews, and I was accepted the next year.

Then, in 2006, I decided to run for a slot on the Governing Committee and was elected. Phil was with me, and it was nice to be at the top. And I had also been impressed that at the end of the year, when Hollywood was pushing so many movies for Oscar consideration, we got screeners too since we had our own awards. Sometimes, movies that I wanted to see arrived this way. And then the entire membership sent ballots of what should be nominated, and a few weeks later, we voted on what should win our awards. In 2006 and 2007, I loved it. In 2008 and 2009, I was tired of it and it was partly why I was glad to eventually leave the OFCS.

It began to feel like a hamster wheel. The screeners were wonderful to have, but it felt like there was an obligation to watch these movies, to see if there were any performances, cinematography, editing, etc. that was remarkable enough to garner a nomination, and then the voting, and that was it for the year. Then it began at the same time the next year. I didn't mind the requirement that you had to have written at least 50 reviews for the year in order to retain membership. It was just this aspect that I slowly began to loathe.

At the same time I became a member of the Governing Committee, Jim Judy, the owner of Screen It ( posted a message on the private OFCS board looking for writers for his site. It was vastly different from other movie review sites, being that these reviews were geared toward giving parents the most information possible about a movie. Everything from alcohol and drugs to sex to violence and profanity was documented in each review.

I e-mailed Jim, very interested, because unlike Film Threat, Screen It paid per review. Jim e-mailed me back, assigning me two test reviews, one for Bad Boys II and another for Something's Gotta Give. Both were easy to get since I had a 3-DVDs-at-a-time account with Netflix at the time.

Bad Boys II, with the violence, explosions, and profanity was a nightmare. I quickly learned what was involved in documenting an "R"-rated movie and had worked so diligently on all of that, and it took so many hours, that I'd forgotten that a regular movie review had to be written in the "Our Take" section. By the time I was done inserting everything I had written down into the template Jim had provided, I didn't even want to think about what I had thought about the movie.

Jim e-mailed both files with corrections, pointing out what needed to be expanded in my descriptions, what wasn't necessary, and hired me. He wanted reviewers for pre-1996 movies (Screen It began in 1996), so it was a godsend for me since I didn't have to go out to the movie theater and try to get everything down without a pause button. I reviewed Ghostbusters, The Godfather, and Beverly Hills Cop, among others. Some reviews took a week because I was so thorough. Mom thought I was being too thorough, but I felt this obligation to get it all exact, no matter how many hours it took.

In early 2009, my final review for Screen It was Goodfellas, and I couldn't take it anymore. I wanted to write other things. Not only was it not possible for me to be a full-time film critic for a newspaper or a magazine, as I once thought I might be, I didn't want to be that anymore, and I also didn't enjoy movies anymore. I wasn't as enthusiastic about them as I was as a writer for Teentime.

It was in the same year that Phil and I lost re-election to the Governing Committee. After the results were known, he asked me if I wanted to join him in co-writing a book called What If They Lived?, about what actors like James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland and John Belushi might have done in their careers had they not died. It was the second book in his two-book contract with BearManor Media, which specializes in Hollywood history and other books about movies and television and radio. It was going to be published.

I didn't want to do it. It felt like too much work. So many books to read, notes to take, and I also had to find other sources, such as newspaper articles, and people to interview, to speculate about what these actors might have done.

Mom told me I had to do it. I would not get this opportunity again. This book was being handed to me. It was a gift other writers would kill for. I understood, and I told Phil I would join him.

Some of the research was very tedious. I especially remember the evening of July 4th in 2009, sitting at the dining room table while fireworks were shown on CBS, reading a 600-page biography about Judy Garland. Fortunately, I had been reading since I was 2, so I was a pro at speed reading, but having to take notes while reading slowed things down considerably, particularly because the first half of each essay was a straight-out biography about each actor, and I had to choose what I wanted to include about Garland.

The fun part was contacting people to interview about these actors. There was a publicist named Gilda N. Squire who had worked with Aaliyah, who graciously speculated about what her career might have been, believing that she would have become what Beyonce is. Considering what I had read, I believe it, because Beyonce is taking the same path with acting as Aaliyah was planning, and had already begun with Romeo Must Die and Queen of the Damned. The Matrix sequels would have been next for her, in the role that Nona Gaye played. And then she wanted the remake of Sparkle, and Some Kind of Blue, with her playing a woman dating a white jazz musician in a time when that was extremely taboo.

I appreciated that people like Squire gave time to talk about these actors. To talk movies with them was most welcome to me because as a writer, you do spend a lot of time alone, in front of a computer screen, trying to figure out how to make your writing work. To talk to others is always welcome, especially in the thick of a writing project.

After I finished writing and editing my share of the book, and sent what I had to Phil to be put together with his essays, I decided I was done with movie reviews. I would be much happier as a former film critic. I wanted to love movies again. I wanted to only know what was coming out by way of the commercials on TV and the trailers I saw online. I didn't want to request DVDs from publicists anymore, I didn't want to receive press release after press release; I just wanted movies to be one part of my life, not the dominant part anymore.

I don't miss movie reviews. I don't miss the wind-tunnel hype machine of awards season. I don't miss the sniping that went on during Governing Committee election campaigns within the OFCS. I don't miss my encounters with publicists after screenings when I wrote for the Teentime section. They were nice enough people, but you could never be sure if it was truly them or just their PR personality.

However, all these years taught me to write regularly and the book taught me how to do research, what was available to me, and it was the first time I wrote anything over 1,500 words. My reviews, save for Screen It, never went above that, and here I was, writing 8 pages about James Dean. It's difficult to do, but if you've got enough research material, it's bearable.

Without all that, I wouldn't be here as I am right now. Without Phil, I would not be so eager to begin writing books. And now I'm facing choices over what I want my second book to be about. I don't have a publisher this time. I'm going to have to become a salesman in addition to being an author. But now I have some of the confidence necessary to pitch myself because of those years of writing movie reviews, because of What If They Lived?. The rest of the confidence will come once I have a book I want to present to the world.

Here I go.

Feeling Like It Can Be Done

I don't know how many books I'm going to pore through this time for either that 1930s Hollywood history writing project or one of my presidential writing projects. I don't know how many newspapers I'm going to root through online, nor what libraries I'll need to get in touch with for records I seek, or, if it is one of those presidential writing projects, presidential libraries too.

I do know that I'm ready. I want to do this. It's going to be a lot of fun, whichever one it will be. But I have to get to work on it. After What If They Lived? was published, I vowed to be published again by the time I turned 30. I'm 27, and I'm going to be 28 in March. Two years left by then, so I still have some cushioning in these final months of 2011.

I finished reading The Men Who Would Be King early this evening, and instead of beginning The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (The switch from nonfiction to fiction and back and forth), I began The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House by Bob Woodward, documenting the first year of the Clinton administration's economic policy. I have three tall stacks of presidential books in the living room, and this one has been prodding me over the past week, even though I've had it since December 2009 ( Every book in time, I guess. As with The Men Who Would Be King, I'm reading this one to see what my enthusiasm is for those presidential writing projects. Is it higher than the Hollywood project? Or should I set it aside until I'm done with that one?

I love all these ideas, but I still have to pick one because it's the only way anything's going to be written. I don't think I could work on simultaneous projects. One book and then another. I'm not Danielle Steel.