xml:space="preserve">

When the summer ends this year, so will my 42-year stint of writing regularly about current movies. I'll be wrapping up "Mike Sragow Gets Reel" on Friday: a change of assignments will not include this blog. I'd like to spend this week sharing experiences I've had working on both coasts and in every format -- from alternative weeklies to Rolling Stone, The San Francisco Examiner, salon.com and The New Yorker.

Summer's close turns out to be an apt time to say farewell to -- or at least take a pause from -- this part of my career. These days I complain about the way special-effects blockbusters suck the oxygen out of warm-weather moviegoing. But for the first 12 years of my life as a critic, summer was the most exciting season.

Advertisement

Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" -- still my favorite movie -- opened in the summer of 1969. I wrote a passionate defense of this controversial movie – I was really just trying to persuade a friend that it was not merely a bloody Western, but a great American work of art. When I skipped my senior year of high school and entered NYU film school in the fall, I brought my essay to the basement of a Greenwich Village revival house, the Bleecker Street Cinema, which contained the offices of a magazine, Film Society Review. The editors accepted it -- and I was hooked on writing about movies.

In those anti-corporate and nonconformist times, arguing about movies -- taking individual stands -- was part of what made going to the movies enjoyable. It wasn't about slamming anyone who disagreed with you or adding your name to a virtual chorus so a film could be certified "Rotten" or "Fresh." It was about figuring out how you felt about a film, and why. And if you loved a film, it was about championing the artist against the system.

American directors were creating films worth arguing about. My career commenced with the first stirrings of the American Movie Renaissance, as masters like Peckinpah and Kubrick and young mavericks like Philip Kaufman and Brian De Palma and Francis Coppola were breathing unruly life into genres like Westerns and thrillers and sci-fi films. So along with the arguments came adventure and discovery. The next summer, back home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey (I would transfer to Harvard that fall), nothing was more exciting than piling into a car with my older brother and a couple of pals to find the one theater in the area – out in a Pennsylvania suburb – that was playing Peckinpah's "The Ballad of Cable Hogue," a marvelous movie that the studio had dumped. In the days before home video, you had to catch movies when you could.

At Harvard I studied History and Literature, but I spent just as much time at the daily paper, the Crimson, where I became the film critic. It was at Harvard that I met Pauline Kael, when she was the guest speaker at the literary society's annual spring fete – and I introduced her, starting a 32-year friendship that I'll write about later this week.

My senior year, I bought a used 16mm projector and spent months watching and re-watching the films of John Huston -- especially "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" -- for my undergraduate honors thesis, the first to be written at Harvard about a film director. But if I hadn't been working on a schedule I could probably have seen all the Huston films I wanted or needed to at Boston's and Cambridge's revival theaters. I graduated in 1973, went back to work at Film Society Review (now called Film Critic) for a spell, and then returned to Boston.

In May, 1974, at the legendary Orson Welles Cinemas, I went to see Peter Bogdanovich and his star, Cybill Shepherd, present the world premiere of his Henry James adaptation, "Daisy Miller." I freelanced a pan of it to The Sunday New York Times Arts & Leisure section. The movie and the entire evening had rubbed me the wrong way – I saw it as "Bogdanovich's attempt to break into the cultural big leagues" and considered his opening remarks ("Henry James wrote his book for Cybill Shepherd") to be "arrogant and self-serving." If you want to know how big and generous movie people can be: when my book, "Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master," came out in December, 2008, the first review it received appeared in The Wall Street Journal -- a rave by Peter Bogdanovich. He called it "among the best film-director biographies ever published."

The "Daisy Miller" piece caught the eye of a New York Magazine editor, who invited me to become a summer replacement for his vacationing star-critic, Judith Crist. Again, a summer of excitement: I was able to write about Robert Towne's struggles with Roman Polanski over Towne's script for "Chinatown," which led to a career-long conversation with the great American screenwriter. Robert Altman won me over with "California Split." Peckinpah let me down with "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" – but he felt I let him down. He wrote me a letter care of New York Magazine's circulation office in Boulder, Colorado. He told me that I was "doing a swell job filling Judith Christ's [sic] boots." He said the only good line in the review was something I wrote about "Straw Dogs," and asked, "Where did you read it?" I sent him my reviews of "The Wild Bunch" and "The Ballad of Cable Hogue" with the note: "When you make good movies I back them." He immediately shot back a note that showed his tender and self-lacerating sides. "If I don't reach, how can I learn?" he asked. "I'll try to do better; I don't know if I can." (More on Peckinpah and "Straw Dogs" Friday, when the remake opens.)

I parlayed that New York gig into a job at Boston Magazine, where in addition to writing a movie column I occasionally got to edit an opinion column by George V. Higgins (author of "The Friends of Eddie Coyle") and a restaurant column by Robert B. Parker (author of the Spenser private-eye series). I saw "Jaws" in the summer of '75 while vacationing on Cape Cod. Now that was a 3-D experience.

Then came one more summer break: after an editorial changeover at the magazine, I started writing on books, TV and movies for the thriving alternative weeklies (first The Real Paper in Cambridge, then The Boston Phoenix). In the summer of 1976, Joe Morgenstern, now the Pulitzer-prize-winning film critic for the Wall Street Journal, was in Boston with his then-wife, Piper Laurie, who was acting in a film about Margaret Sanger for PBS' "Nova." Unbeknownst to me, Joe started reading my stuff. When, nearly two years later, editor Jim Bellows offered him the movie critic slot at The Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Morgenstern didn't want it himself – but he thought this guy he'd read in Boston just might. I flew to L.A. and I got the job.

In the summer of 1980, I reviewed Irvin Kershner's "The Empire Strikes Back," Walter Hill's "The Long Riders," Brian De Palma's "Dressed to Kill," Richard Rush's "The Stunt Man," Jonathan Demme's "Melvin and Howard," and Fred Schepisi's "The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith." Oh, yes -- and the ZAZ team's "Airplane!" (And just a few weeks later would come Michael Ritchie's "Divine Madness," David Lynch's "The Elephant Man," and then, a couple of months later, Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull.") If you're a critic, and you get the chance to write up a lineup like that – well, you've got to consider yourself lucky.

All in all – and not just because of the movies themselves -- my three years at the Herald Examiner were the liveliest in my career. I'll explain why tomorrow. And, among other things, why I left the Her-Ex for Rolling Stone.

Advertisement

Undated photo of Sam Peckinpah; some colleagues thought he wore the mirrored sunglasses partly so that no one could see him cry.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement