Forty for Forty – #31. Film Flam

On May 22, 1994 – on a beautiful Spring morning in the bucolic Happy Valley that houses the University of Massachusetts, Amherst – I marched through a gauntlet of countless peers standing in the same boat and grabbed hold of my Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism. It marked the crowing achievement on four years of study, writing and late-night Blue Wall ‘cookie runs’ – with a three-year stint at our college newspaper contributing mightily towards that ceremonial last day. It’s also the last time I did anything of merit with that degree. In the years that followed, I found myself taking a job at a financial services company where although I promised myself one year before I got back to writing – or pursued teaching – or actually sought out something that would utilize my primary collegiate discipline – all of that faded into the ether as my life hit the slipstream and the years stretched to a decade-plus before I knew it. Those blissful college days fade quickly when spied in the rear view.

When I first got to college, that was never my intent. But that’s life. It ducks and dodges and I firmly believe you can’t begrudge any path you choose so long as it leads you to a full, happy life. Me – I can’t complain. After all, I am still writing all these years later. This Blog and my forthcoming play prove that out. So long as you entertain that passion, your life is worth discovering wherever the road leads.

That said, the closest I’ve come to exercising my inner Ebert was that stint as Staff Writer for the Arts & Entertainment section of the Daily Collegian – our daily college newspaper at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. This was during my run from sophomore to senior (1991 – 1994).

First – a little bit about the paper. The Collegian, at the time, was the largest daily college newspaper in the United States. That may have changed over the years. Who knows what heights the Barbizon Bugle has reached by this point? – “Why be a model when you could just look like one and tell all about it.” Another life… another path. Hmmmmm, who needs that seven-figure payday when you can just sit around stopping traffic all day while posing outside Jiffy Lube?!?!? Ahhhh, the life of the Barbizon-bred super model. One man’s Gisele is another’s Gigli.

Like all great newspaper origin stories, my path was paved with broken glass. Gaining access to the upper echelon of the publication was no easy task. Sure, I could have just waltzed down to the paper, mentioned I was interested in writing, and been sent off with my first assignment to cover ‘hell week’ at I Eta Pi – but I had greater aspirations. Cool Runnings was releasing that Friday and I’d be dead in my dorm room if I was gonna’ pony up any more of my hard earned scratch to catch the Candy man in action (You can thank Uncle Buck for that hard-and-fast policy).

Anyway, I wanted only one job on the paper and that was to review movies. The problem is, the paper already had a film critic on the payroll and there was nary room for one more. But, the secret to my success is I had ambition – or at the very least had seen Just One of the Guys way too many times in High School. (I was 15!!! I blame the boobies). Fortunately for my fellow campus mates, my personal funds had been depleted after purchasing a quarter-keg of Natty Light and thus, I hadn’t the money to go in drag and try out for the Women’s Studies desk. But, the head Arts Editor made one critical mistake – leaving the door open slightly enough for me to bust on through. He skipped town the day I slipped in.

Before Al Gore birthed the Internet by connecting two Commodore VIC-20’s with a yard of fishing line, film companies used to rely on grass-roots campaigns to get the buzz out on their less-than-blockbuster fare. It was a simpler time then – almost two decades before the vaunted Big Fat Geek Chorus at Ain’t It Cool would sing the faint praises of Green Lantern. Back then, the studios leaned heavily on press junkets where they would fly members of the press into New York City or Los Angeles, ply them with booze and rophynol, screen their latest quickie cash grab, and then send the scribes off to jot down a thousand glowing words in their publications, where each critic could then compete to get their blurb on the top of that flick’s ad campaign when it finally launched. As most major film critics (think Pauline Kael, David Denby, Joe Bob Briggs) felt this practice was akin to pimpin’ the quote whores, the invites also found their way into the hands of the collegiate press.

So on the weekend that our resident film critic found himself holding court with Samuel L. Jackson and Nicholas Cage at Amos & Andrew, I descended into the bowels of the Campus Center, approached the Associate Editor working the Collegian Arts desk and convinced her to let me seize the day and review National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon I. “I was born for this, missy“, I boasted. You’ll have to excuse the rampant sexism. It was a different time – the early Nineties – and we Newsies were all a dapper Draper beneath that worn flannel.

In hindsight, had she told me to “Take a hike kid, we’ve already got us a Shalit!“, I’d have two extra hours in my life that I could have used to put Homer and Bart through their paces in that great Simpsons video game that stole so much of my laundry and Mad Dog 20-20 money in the Campus Center arcade.

But that’s not what she did. No doubt, she knew my future partner had NO DESIRE to see any film with Denis Leary, Kathy Ireland AND Larry Wilcox in the supporting cast so she did him a solid and sent me off for two hours of suck. On my dime, no less.

So, she relented and a few hours later, I was justifying the existence of that poor man’s Charlie Sheen – Emilio Estevez. Who knew we’d live to see a world where Emilio is the sane Sheen? Now who’s WINNING?!?!?!?

Finally, our resident Ebert returned from his sojourn to the Big Apple to find he’d grown a Siskel. The first thing he did was change the locks to the public office and buy up the remaining aisle seats for the next six semesters. Then he called my dorm room and left the following message with my roommate Rich: “Tell your buddy Ed, there’s only so many movies that release a week, and I’ll be a Smith College co-ed before I let that chump lay into Highlander II: The Quickening.” I may be paraphrasing. Fortunately for me, Rich was knee-deep in a mid-semester bender and the message came out “The Collegian called. They like your stuff. Oh – AND – I sold all your books for scrap!”

All right, so maybe that last part is a bit of wish fulfillment. Tis true, if he was Jeffrey Lyons – I was officially… Ben. As fate would have it, there was a dame (remember – different time!!!) working for the paper who I had gone to high school with. I called up Tracy and clued her in to the despotic nature of the Arts & Living page. Together we conspired to get all Che Guevera on the Collegian and shred this daily paper.

The revolution was put on hold when I received a call a few moments later from Jon (and finally – the last minute reveal of his true name). He offered me the position of Collegian Film Critic (and then in small print – “of the films playing on the local cable access campus movie station“.) Capsule reviews of Cabin Boy? FINALLY – my big break!!! Starting salary – quadruple what I was making now. Let’s see – Four Times Zero Equals… GAHHH… Math is Hard!!!

Before we continue, it’s high time I break the fourth wall. Like so many adaptations, this tale is maybe 85% totally above board – with 15% exaggeration. My former fellow critic is today – a good Facebook friend – and honestly, while I may have slid through the door when he was away, we quickly bonded almost immediately. My times working alongside Jon on the paper were awesome and I really do look back at that time as the formative years in my life. They helped hone my voice. Jon was then – and is now – a good friend and I couldn’t be happier that these days, whenever I post something about a movie I’ve seen – I get a real charge when he weighs in with his feedback. One of the little pleasures in life is finding people who share interests – whose observations and reactions help challenge, color or confirm our own. I loved talking movies with Jon way back when. I’m thrilled that almost two decades later, we can pick up the conversation while adding in so many real-life details of our lives. And it’s cool to see him with his new son – enjoying major milestones that as a Dad to two young children, still loom large and fresh in my mind.

As much as this series is a testament to the big moments in my life – it stands tall as tribute to the great people I’ve had the good fortunate of folding into my life’s narrative. In movie parlance, Jon Lupo is one of the good guys.

Back to the story…

So, for the next few months, I toiled away – writing short 30-word blurbs on everything from North (which I also hate, hate, hated every hateful moment of) to Body of Evidence (a Basic Instinct clone featuring Willem Dafoe and Madonna – so confusing, Which one’s the creepy villain?). By semester’s end, Jon had decided that I had chops and promoted me to co-film critic. In truth, I think his cerebral taste buds had finally recovered from the numbing Amos & Andrew delivered earlier and he needed some chump to deal with Demolition Man. Regardless, I was finally riding shotgun and that’s the way it would be through the end of my college career. And in time, I finally got my share of the A-list pics. Thanks to the Collegian, I didn’t have to pay to see Bram Stoker’s Dracula. DAMN YOU COLLEGIAN – DAMN YOU TO HELL!!!

And now, we come to the final act. Before closing curtain, I wanted to drop a few anecdotes (think of it like those credit “cookies” featuring the cast of Smokey and the Bandit 5 – Smokey is the Bandit cracking up over filmed flubs and follies). Somewhere, Dom Deluise is rolling over in his own… flour. (BLECHHH – Thanks for that visual.)

One week, I was tasked to cover Boxing Helena, a flick directed by David Lynch’s daughter which is also notable for a much publicized exit by Kim Basinger that led to a marathon breach of contract suit. Opening night, I arrived at the theater to find a throng (read: 4 bored Amherst soccer moms) assembled en masse outside the theater, protesting the film’s supposed misogynistic attitude towards women. Helena told the tale of a disturbed surgeon who rescues a bitchy actress from a fiery crash and proceeds to keep her hostage in his home as he slowly amputates her, keeping her alive and in a box as his show piece. O.K. So maybe the subject matter is a bit dicey – but what reads as shocking on the page, plays as ridiculous on screen. Plus, didn’t Gaga wear that to last year’s Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards? The biggest insult of all – the film employs the “it was all a dream” ending. I saw this film on opening night, with just my brave compadres Justin, Joe and Rich by my side. We were the only ones in the theater. There were more protesters than audience members. Perhaps the protesters felt that they did their job. Either that or a widely panned shlock thriller starring Sherilyn Fenn and Julian Sands playing in the “Dead Mall” doesn’t have the drawing power it once did.

In the following Fall semester, I gave Mrs. Doubtfire a C-, calling it “sitcomesque.” Within hours of publication, I received an angry call from some fired up woman who couldn’t believe that I didn’t like Mrs. Doubtfire (this review coming a full eight years before I would issue a Fatah on the infidel Patch Adams). So naturally, I figured this was a joke from one of my friends and proceeded to go along with it – asking the girl the normal questions one asks when they get a random booty call in the middle of the night – “So, ahhhh, you like movies about guys that dress up like chicks? You know what I like? Movies about girls that undress like chicks!” Yup, I was a smooth operator. Anyway, she was going berserk so I decided to look up her alias in the student directory and expose this masquerade once and for all and… Oh ,what do you know. There is a Stephanie Calipari in JQA dormitory?!?!?!? Oh, and lookey here. Her papa just happens to have a legion of NCAA Final Four-bound warriors at his command. So of course, I did an about-face, printed a retraction the following day, branded the film an A and downgraded Schindler’s List to a D plus to restore balance to the force.

There’s a billion and one stories like this in the Collegian basement. That’s just a handful of them. And I wouldn’t be here to share the news if I didn’t find fame and glory the old-fashioned way. By pulling a Goldilocks and finding the desk that was just right for me when everyone else was far, far away.

And for that – I no longer have hair.

But I do have a nice flashback.