Freeheld stumbles over too many hurdles to recommend it. The film’s heart is in the right place, but its focus is not.
What you are about to read may shock you. It's all true, and it happened to me. It involves censorship and the movies and one man's loathing of strong contemporary women.
I love motion pictures, and I love writing about them. I have been a movie critic in Buffalo, New York for a number of years. Reviewing films rose out of my passion for both journalism and cinema, the perfect combination.
In preparing this column, I thought about various headlines for it. Something like: The Perils Of Movie Reviewing. Or perhaps: What's Happening To Freedom Of The Press? Or maybe this one: There Truly Are Reactionary Men Who Fear And Hate Strong Women.
Through nearly two decades of writing and talking about movies, I have always had complete freedom of content. I could say and write what I wanted. It was a permanent hallmark. No publisher, no editor, no news director, no show host, no anchorperson ever dictated the terms of my stories to me. They were confident in my knowledge of the subject matter, and they respected my professionalism and expertise. I was always grateful for the experience and their hands-off attitude.
From the flush years of hundreds of screenings and junkets and interviews and a general sense that the world of film was a wonderfully creative realm and that reviewing movies is one of the great gigs, to the present-day with a little less access, fewer screenings (more and more markets are being denied press preview screenings), and a sense that movies are a commodity, I had never once--not once--been told what to write, or about whom to write. Not at the television station where I worked for most of the go-go 1990s, not through 15 years of reviewing on radio, which I still do; not at the local Buffalo weeklies for which I covered the motion picture industry and reviewed films, and not for the quirky website to which I contribute an occasional piece. Never has anyone dictated the terms of the content of my columns to me. Until now.
I am stressing the importance of this freedom because it is fundamental to why I was compelled to stop writing for a weekly newspaper in my area.
This story, with its villainous treatment of strong women, is so appalling, that it borders on being unbelievable. It isn't. It deserves to be told and really does require a detailed explanation. Many writers will recognize the trail of experience I have traveled. But I wonder if any writer has faced what I ultimately faced.
In addition to reviewing on television and radio in Buffalo, and once in a while specifically on the web, I have always written for a print outlet, and always for one of those scrappy little weeklies found in every American city.
Until recently, I was writing movie reviews for the Niagara Falls Reporter, a weekly newspaper with a circulation of 22,000, which is available in Niagara Falls and Buffalo in Western New York state, a metro area of 1.2-million people.
The weekly Reporter was founded many years ago by a group of people, especially writers, who worked for the daily Niagara Falls Gazette. They were unhappy with the direction the Gazette was taking.
The Reporter's key impetus was a true iconoclast, a guy who is in the Charles Bukowski mold. His name is Mike Hudson and he is famous for being a local legend, a fast-talking raconteur, an author, a poet, a two-fisted guy (if you know what I mean), and an important member of the seminal punk band, The Pagans. I liked Mike.
Under founder Hudson, writers had complete freedom of expression at The Reporter. The newspaper was a stark contrast to the staid and traditional Gazette. The Reporter was also wildly popular.
As often happens in life, things change. Editor Hudson, a mercurial guy in his mid-fifties, wanted something different. His wife was the managing editor of the Reporter, and he had a loyal staff of talented writers, including a couple of Pulitzer Prize winners he knew, who contributed the occasional column. But Hudson was discontent. He had created a weekly newspaper that shook the status quo. The team at the Gazette wasn't happy with Hudson and the Reporter. The citizens of Niagara Falls were so enamored with Hudson's paper that its power grew. The city's government often printed many legally required public notices in the Reporter. If you are unaware, legal notices are a huge source of income for newspapers. The feisty little weekly was, for many, the heart and soul of communications in Niagara Falls. The newspaper's fans in Buffalo were equally enamored.
Soon Niagara Falls would have its heart broken.
In late 2011 and early 2012, Hudson took a sabbatical and went to Los Angeles to recharge his creative juices. This being the era of long-distance editing by computer, he continued to oversee the newspaper's content, ably assisted by his wife and other members of the Reporter's team.
Los Angeles wove its spell over Hudson. Yes, it's the old story about pastures being greener on the other side of the fence. Hudson fell in love with the southern California lifestyle. He decided to stay. His wife was in Niagara Falls putting out the paper with the rest of the staff. As time passed, his marriage fragmented, and he sold the Reporter to a new owner whose journalistic experience could fit into a peanut shell. As a prospective publisher, the new guy's only genuine association with professional journalism was that he read newspapers.
But, this new man was a political and sociological firebrand with a point-of-view all his own. And a rather charged point-of-view at that. Over a short period of time, the pages of the Niagara Falls Reporter went from being an avenue for a variety of expressions and a fact-based gadfly to City Hall--to its being a nasty, mean-spirited, hyperactive assault on sensible interaction with city government.
Suddenly the pages of the Niagara Falls Reporter, once a well-respected weekly that people sought out and generally enjoyed reading, were filled with sexism, racism, the mockery of immigrants, the condemnation of gay men and lesbian women, crude demeaning political tirades, and poorly-written, loopy cultural points-of-view that drew attention, but lacked depth and a coherent understanding of the history and progression of the cultural touchstones being discussed.
In April and May of this year, I was in Paris enjoying that city's culture, seeing movies with a good Parisian friend in that movie-mad place, enjoying that friend's hospitality with his family in their hometown in the south of France, and also taking my nephew around Paris when he arrived to visit his college friend who was studying in the French capital for a semester. It was an idyll of wonderful delights.
Meanwhile, a dark cloud was descending.
The joys of writing for the Reporter were slowly dissipating. Things began to change. I was contributing reviews to the newspaper from Paris, and I was also doing my regular Friday report about new movies on the radio. There was something surreal about hearing the radio host in Buffalo say: "Live From Paris" when introducing me.
The transition from the Reporter being a good newspaper to its being a genuinely uninteresting, badly-edited rag was slow, but steady. In fact, I had communicated with the new publisher over the telephone and except for his request that I put in my column the names of the theaters where specific movies I was reviewing were playing, things for me seemed calm. All transitions are a waiting period, but nothing specific was said to me about my freedom to write about what I wanted to review.
Little did I know that the hammer was about to fall.
Anyone who participates in today's world of media and communication knows that there is downsizing and that there will always be changes of ownership. The internet notwithstanding, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for journalists at newspapers, magazines, and television and radio stations. Of course, if you're fresh out of college and willing to slave away for $15,000 a year, there are some opportunities, but when content borne out of experience is no longer the prime motivator, communities suffer.
However, I wonder how many of those who participate in today's world of media and communication, which is more often than not an open-minded world, were faced with the loss of a good job because their editor or supervisor or team leader or curmudgeonly old boss thrived on censorship, saw movies as an enemy to be battled, and feared and hated strong women.
I continued to write for the Reporter, which under its new owner was slowly altering its content. Perhaps he was feeling his wings, or perhaps he had the complexities of running a new business to occupy his mind, but I was still in print. I soon noticed something disconcerting. The Reporter's two important female staffers, the managing editor (the wife of the founder/editor) and the senior editor no longer had their names on the masthead.
I was communicating with other members of the Reporter by email and no one seemed to know much about the future of the paper. Both women refused to go into detail about what was going on. They said they didn't know things. Soon other familiar names on the masthead were disappearing. Not only were the women gone, but some talented men were gone, too. Then, new names began to appear on the masthead. The newspaper's stories were poorly-edited as typographical errors and grammatical mistakes became commonplace. The tone of the content was changing. I can't write that the content was evolving because "evolving" hints at positive development.
My movie reviews, which ran every week for seven years, began to appear sporadically. I was sending in my regular copy, but the reviews soon stopped appearing in the print edition, although they were on the website. Fortunately, I still reviewed on the radio every Friday morning and had the quirky Buffalo Alternative Press website to slot stories.
I sent emails to the Reporter's new editor-publisher asking what was going on. We even talked to each other on the telephone when I was in Paris. It was one of the strangest phone calls I've ever had. Over the course of a truly bizarre hour, I listened to the new owner as he philosophized about the Bible, the sadomasochism of the Greeks, the decline of the Romans, the secrets of the United States of America's Founding Fathers, threats to the Western world, the role women played in the history of the planet, and the role they should play in the future of a cohesive society.
It didn't take a ton of bricks to fall on me to realize that the new owner had a female problem. He did not like what women were becoming. He did not like the modern world as it applied to the feminine mystique and the power of females. Hell, it didn't take one brick to fall on me.
Few people are truly naive, least of all myself. I sensed immediately that my future writing for the Reporter, a wonderful experience up to this point, was in jeopardy. My values were not the values of the owner. However, at every responsible and smart newspaper (daily or weekly) news is news (facts come first), features are more fluid and creative, reviews of movies, theater, and music are expected to be fresh and iconoclastic, and the opinions of the owner stay on the editorial page. I thought, well, if he keeps his odd and retrograde meanderings on that editorial page, the rest of the paper could still be viable.
And then, as if it were cascading like the mighty Niagara Falls, the newspaper I really enjoyed being a part of veered so far off the cliff that it collided with itself. The lunacy of its content completed a full circle. My reviews disappeared from both the print and web editions. But then, they would appear on the web again. What the heck was going on?
Except for Hudson, whose name stayed associated with the Reporter as some sort of hovering specter, mine was the only familiar staff name on the masthead from the newspaper's better days. But the single most important thing to me was writing my movie reviews. I believed that I was being censored, and I needed to know why.
I emailed the owner again asking for guidance. Why were some reviews making it onto the web and not others? I got my answer in the form of an email that is so shocking, it seems to come from another galaxy, an evil one. What dark void produced what you are about to read is anyone's guess. What causes a male human being to so rigidly hate the opposite sex that he fears not only the power of women, but also the power of movies.
The new editor-publisher wanted to approve the movies I reviewed, which had never happened before. Worse, there would be a litmus test. If the movie featured strong or empowered women, I would not be allowed to write about that film. I checked my calendar. No, I hadn't traveled back in time. It wasn't the tenth century, it was still 2012. Relieved about the date, I asked him if he was serious. He was.
My relationship with the Niagara Falls Reporter, which was slowly limping into oblivion, ended. It didn't end because I didn't do my job. It didn't end because I missed the weekly deadline, which never happened once over seven years. It ended because a guy who has no professional journalistic experience, and a warped view of humanity, does not like strong women.
Fortunately, he put his thoughts in an email for all the world to read. On a secondary sad note, almost all of my writing for the Niagara Falls Reporter is missing from the newspaper's web Archives. Years of it.
The email I received from the new owner perfectly coincides with the darkness that occasionally descends on the American electoral process. What draws some men to the flames of a hatred for women? Why do they fear the importance and power of women? I'll let you be the judge.
Below is the email I received, exactly as written. It came after a series of phone calls and emails in which I was seeking answers. The initial email in this series was sent by me with the subject line: "Actually, I need direction for Saturday." The spelling and spacing and punctuation are exactly as written to me by the publisher. In his email, he references the films "Snow White and the Huntsman" and "Headhunters," which he calls "Headhunter." Here's the email:
Is it really necessary for me to state that the publisher had not seen either "Snow White and the Huntsman" or "Headhunters?" One of my biggest pet peeves is people who comment on or write about movies they haven't seen. But, honestly, I guess that's the least of the issues at play here.
So, after seven good and enjoyable years of writing for the Niagara Falls Reporter, a chapter ended. And yes, founding editor Hudson paid his writers, including me. Guess who didn't.
If Hudson had been an adult in the 1950s, I have no doubt that he would have been a member of the Beat Generation, a friend of Kerouac and Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti. I enjoy Los Angeles as well. I have visited it too many times to count, both on movie junkets and just to see friends. Does L.A. share a tiny bit of the blame for the demise of the Reporter? Well, maybe just a little. But I still enjoy the city.
I have moved on to a new outlet, a popular website that covers news and culture in Buffalo called WNYMedia.net. Thankfully I've been reviewing on the radio and for the off-beat Buffalo Alternative Press website. It will be good to have a regular place to write my reviews. I relish the comfort of knowing this fact. My first piece will appear soon.
Michael; I know you are committed to writing your reviews, and put a lot of effort into them. it is important for you to have the right publisher. i may not be it. i have a deep moral objection to publishing reviews of films that offend me. snow white and the huntsman is such a film. when my boys were young i would never have allowed them to go to such a film for i believe it would injure their developing manhood. if i would not let my own sons see it, why would i want to publish anything about it?
snow white and the huntsman is trash. moral garbage. a lot of fuzzy feminist thinking and pandering to creepy hollywood mores produced by metrosexual imbeciles. I don't want to publish reviews of films where women are alpha and men are beta.
where women are heroes and villains and men are just lesser versions or shadows of females. i believe in manliness. not even on the web would i want to attach my name to snow white and the huntsman except to deconstruct its moral rot and its appeal to unmanly perfidious creeps. i'm not sure what headhunter has to offer either but of what I read about it it sounds kind of creepy and morally repugnant. with all the publications in the world who glorify what i find offensive, it should not be hard for you to publish your reviews with any number of these. they seem to like critiques from an artistic standpoint without a word about the moral turpitude seeping into the consciousness of young people who go to watch such things as snow white and get indoctrinated to the hollywood agenda of glorifying degenerate power women and promoting as natural the weakling, hyena -like men, cum eunuchs. the male as lesser in courage strength and power than the female. it may be ok for some but it is not my kind of manliness. If you care to write reviews where men act like good strong men and have a heroic inspiring influence on young people to build up their character (if there are such movies being made) i will be glad to publish these. i am not interested in supporting the reversing of traditional gender roles. i don't want to associate the Niagara Falls Reporter with the trash of Hollywood and their ilk. it is my opinion that hollywood has robbed america of its manliness and made us a nation of eunuchs who lacking all manliness welcome in the coming police state. now i realize that you have a relationship with the studios etc. and i would have been glad to have discussed this in person with you to help you segue into another relationship with a publication but inasmuch as we spent 50 minutes on the phone from paris i did not want to take up more of your time. In short i don't care to publish reviews of films that offend me. if you care to condemn the filmmakers as the pandering weasels that they are.... true hyenas.
i would be interested in that....
Michael Calleri is a free-lance writer based in Buffalo. His work will soon appear on the WNYMedia.net website. He also reviews movies every Friday morning at approximately 8:48 a.m. on WECK Radio (simulcast on 1230 AM and 102.9 FM) on the "Morning Breeze With Tom Donahue" program, with Live streaming at BreezeBuffalo.com. He writes occasionally for the Buffalo Alternative Press website (ALTpressonline.com). His own website, MichaelAtTheMovies.com, has been registered and will be up and running soon.
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