The Big Sick
Finds that laughter-through-tears sweet spot, often in the unlikeliest of places.
I am standing in a small room attached to a large Quonset hut in an abandoned airfield some 15 miles east of San Bernardino. There are a few old movie posters on the walls, all of them tattered. There's also a desk, although it doesn't appear to have been used for desklike purposes for some time.
A man named Richard Johnson tosses a big ring of keys into the air. "Ready?" he asks.
I'm ready. He crosses to a large door set in the back wall of the room. He unlocks one, two, three locks. With some effort, he pushes the heavy door inward. Inside is nothing but blackness. Johnson reaches around and flips a switch. The lights go on sequentially, front to back, illuminating the big warehouse space. There is nothing in it but dust, pieces of cardboard and, incongruously, one plush office chair.
"You should have seen this a decade ago," said Johnson. "The noise of conversation was overwhelming. The flash of cliches, the rumble of half-remembered quotations, the roar of blurbs -- people had to wear earplugs. Those were the days." He rubs his chin.
I am inside what used to be the National Film Critics Training and Storage Facility (usually called NAFCRIT). Back when the demand for movie critics was high, NAFCRIT was turning them out by the score. Dozens of films a day were shown in each of 28 screening rooms arranged around the outside of the building. Entire classes were offered on when it was appropriate to say "loved his early work" or "a tense, taut thriller" or "Oscar material for sure."
"We took kids from the street and showed them "Potemkin" and "The Rules of the Game," said Johnson. "They grew up in a hurry."
I asked the obvious question. "It's easy to blame the Internet," said Johnson, "and to some extent, it's a fair explanation. Everybody has an opinion, after all, and now all opinions are equal. 'I really liked it' or 'I hated this piece of garbage' is considered valid criticism. But, you know, critics used to be big. Pauline Kael, James Agee, Gilbert Seldes, Otis Ferguson, Bosley Crowther ..."
"Crowther was an idiot," I said, snapping off my dialogue like a farmer breaking a chicken's neck.
"But he was a big idiot," Johnson retorted, his small eyes narrowing in anger.
There was a pause. "That was fun," I said.
Johnson sighed. "It was like that around here 24/7. But now - I mean, what need is there for critics? They're getting fired all over the place. David Ansen at Newsweek -- David Ansen! I'm not sure this is a world I want to live in. Oh, by the way, back there, you were supposed to say, 'The critics are still big; it's the pictures that got small.' "
"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." I said.
"Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy ... oh, forget it. Where was I?"
"Movie critics, reasons for the disappearance of."
"Way back when, there was an assumption that movies were a kind of art form. Many people thought they were a cheap and bastardized art form - and many didn't - but in general, it was believed that movies followed the rules of art forms. They were made, people saw them, some were immediate popular hits and some were not, some had staying power and some did not, some were prophetic and some were just stupid, but they were like novels or pieces of music or paintings.
"And critics were around to initiate the conversation. That assumed there would be a conversation and that it was important to be a part of the conversation. But now, the conversation is dominated by gossip, and what can you say about gossip? Can you review gossip, parse it, compare it with other gossip from other years? It's not a form that yields to critical thinking."
"But, surely ..."
"Don't call me Shirley."
"Point taken. But there are good movies being made. The conversation between filmmakers continues."
Johnson walked back to the big door, his shoulder slumped. "I'll miss this old place. I remember when Mick LaSalle was here, just a kid, burbling over about Norma Shearer. Norma Shearer! But he had that spark. You could see that spark."
Johnson turned out the lights and shut the door behind him. "Let's face it, there are no jobs in journalism anywhere anymore. Nobody's hiring, nobody's training, nobody's doing anything except waiting for the next idiot publisher to announce the next round of buyouts. If you're lucky, buyouts.
"Next month, all this is going to be a Wal-Mart. It's the march of time."
"Newsreel reference!" I shouted.
"Shut up," said Johnson.
This article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and on www.sfgate.com . It is reprinted with permission. © 2008 Hearst Communications Inc. Read more Jon Carroll at www.sfgate.com/columnists/carroll/archive/