Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘San Francisco Bay Guardian

Goodbye to the Bay Guardian

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The San Francisco Bay Guardian

Kevin Smith once observed that the San Francisco Bay Guardian was “the Village Voice of the West Coast.” I know this, because he said it to me. At the time, I was twenty-one and working for the summer as the Bay Guardian’s film intern, writing up short capsule reviews and occasional longer pieces for its arts section. Smith was in town to promote Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, which was how I ended up seated across from him in his hotel room with a tape recorder and notebook, trying very hard not to embarrass myself. Even at the time, though, I knew that I was lucky to be there. Years before, in high school, I’d often pick up a thick copy of the alternative weekly in the lobby of the UC Theater in Berkeley and leaf through those very same reviews while waiting for a double feature to start, and I was tickled by the prospect of writing a few of them myself. And now that word comes that the Bay Guardian has published its last issue, silencing an enormously important progressive voice at a critical time for San Francisco, I feel as if I’ve lost a tiny part of myself, just as I did over a decade ago when I heard that the UC Theater had been shuttered.

In fact, it was in my job interview over the phone with Cheryl Eddy, who was then the paper’s calendar editor, that I first learned that the theater had closed. I’d contacted the Bay Guardian about their intern program toward the close of my junior year in college, when I suddenly realized that most of my friends were acquiring internships of their own and that my own summer plans of hanging out to tinker with a novel didn’t seem especially productive. By then, I’d been writing online movie reviews for a couple of years for a startup that had gone out of business long before it was fashionable, and when I was offered the film intern position, I knew I’d hit the jackpot. Early on, I realized that most of the other interns would be lucky to get in the paper at all before the summer was over, but I had a byline or two in every issue, as I attended preview screenings throughout the city and wrote up a hundred words or so for each. It wasn’t a great year for cinema—Jurassic Park III was probably the high point—and I mostly ended up with the quirky indie films that the staff critics didn’t feel like covering. But I did what I could with what I had, and I even saw a few quotes from my reviews taken out of context in the ads that ran the following week.

The San Francisco Bay Guardian

The offices of the Bay Guardian sat in the middle of nowhere off the Montgomery Street stop on the BART train, and the interns were relegated to a corner of the newsroom with a handful of computers that were antiquated even by the standards of that era. We spent most mornings sorting the stacks of spam faxes that the paper received every day, which is a time capsule in itself, sifting through the event notices and concert announcements and filing them away to be read and, usually, discarded by the relevant reporters. The interns came from a range of ages and backgrounds, but most of them looked a lot like me, young, liberal, and hoping somehow to carve out careers as writers. As endearingly shabby as the Bay Guardian’s offices may have been, they looked a lot like the lives we wanted for ourselves, and although I haven’t kept in touch with any of the other interns in my cohort, I sometimes find myself wondering where they are now. (One intern I do remember is Annalee Newitz, whose name came right after mine on the masthead. I’m not sure if we ever met, because we came in on different days, but I remember being impressed when I saw her surface again as the editor of io9.)

As it turns out, I went back to the Bay Guardian only once after graduation, to ask if they’d be willing to serve as a reference as I headed out to New York. I’d like to think that if I’d wanted to work there, they would have given me a shot, and of all my many roads not traveled, this is one of the more intriguing. In the end, the call of New York was too great, and although I don’t regret the choice, I do sometimes wonder what that other life would have been like. Thanks to my wife, I’ve been a secondhand witness to many of the recent upheavals in the newspaper industry, and judging from the fact that the Bay Guardian had been struggling financially for years, the atmosphere in the newsroom wouldn’t always have been a happy one. After decades of independent ownership, the paper was acquired two years ago by the media conglomerate that publishes the Examiner and longtime rival SF Weekly, and after what seems to have been a hard transition, it’s finally closing down. I hope it will survive in some other form, but the conditions that allowed it and other independent weeklies to exist in cities across the country have already changed. However you spin it, it’s a tremendous loss. The Bay Guardian touched my life and those of many writers and readers, and I don’t think we’ll ever see its like again.

Written by nevalalee

October 15, 2014 at 9:36 am

My life as a movie critic

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Critics, like the rich, aren’t like you and me. You can’t be a professional film critic, which generally means seeing something like two hundred movies a year, without undergoing a transformation into a different state of being. The job changes you. I should know, because I used to be one. I didn’t quite experience the full metamorphosis—I reviewed maybe eighty movies for a college website in the years 1999 and 2000, followed by two dozen more the following summer at the San Francisco Bay Guardian—but it gave me a fair amount of insight into the curious life of a film critic. Once or twice a week, I’d take the train out to the Copley Place movie theater in Boston, sit in a darkened room with a handful of strangers, mostly men, and scribble illegible notes about movies like Autumn in New York or Mission to Mars—both of which, incidentally, I liked. And in the end, I emerged with the sense that while it wasn’t a bad way to make a living, I was also lucky to get out of there alive.

The first thing I discovered was that there are a lot of bad movies out there. When you’re an ordinary moviegoer, you have the luxury of seeing only what you think you might like, and over time, you develop a decent sense of what you’re going to enjoy—I’ve very rarely paid to see a movie that I absolutely hated. A working critic, on the other hand, is obliged to see everything: action, mumblecore, erotic thrillers, and dramas with Madonna and Rupert Everett. Seeing a large random sample of a given year’s movies inevitably alters your perspective on the culture: there’s just so much out there, unseen by even the most diligent amateur moviegoer, that you start questioning whether anybody besides you can really understand it. Among other things, it occurs to you that many of your friends have never really seen a bad movie. Hearing from people who complain about having been bored by the likes of Haywire, you shake your head and think, “If they only knew…”

Another thing I learned is that mediocrity is often more unbearable than awfulness. I gave a negative review to Fight Club, for instance, and yet I still remember it years later, and there’s no denying that it had some kind of vision, as misguided as it might be. Yet I can’t remember a thing about, say, the Heather Graham comedy Committed, despite having met the director in person and interviewed the cast over the phone. Looking at the list of movies released over the years I was working as a critic, I’m amazed at how many I saw, wrote up, and then promptly forgot: Instinct, Gossip, Crazy in Alabama.  Faced with such a schedule, you find yourself hoping for a monstrosity like The Beach, so that at least you won’t be faced with two hours devoid of any interest whatsoever. (One of my first investments as a critic was a watch with a luminous dial, so I could see how much longer I had to sit through Anywhere But Here Where the Heart Is.)

This, I imagine, is why some critics end up becoming caricatures of themselves. Faced with the prospect of cranking out five hundred words on Big Momma’s House, it isn’t surprising that many critics spend so much ammunition attacking otherwise unobjectionable movies, to the point where that’s the only mode of criticism they understand. It’s also easy to see why a critic can fall all over himself praising a movie that didn’t bore him for two hours, or takes a contrarian position to maintain his own interest, or sanity. It may not be fair, but it’s understandable. Which is why I’m so impressed by critics who manage to remain generous and empathetic year after year, and who can stay open to the possibility of being surprised by greatness. Because that’s the thing: every once in a while, you’re blindsided by something you love, as I was that year with Three Kings or All About My Mother. And sometimes that’s all you need.

Written by nevalalee

January 26, 2012 at 10:46 am

Posted in Movies

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