One of the things I appreciated most from the very beginning with Spectrum Culture was the site’s editorial mandate to reserve five-star reviews–the top of our rating system–for only the very best of the best. There was even a process the editors went through to verify that five-star reviews of new music were acceptable, though I don’t recall it ever happening while I was editing for the site. So in my time there, writing hundreds of reviews, I only offered up two five-star reviews. The first was for a Miles Davis live box set, part of the legacy offerings that Columbia Records have been dispensing in wisely patient doses since the jazz genius’s death. That was an easy, safe release to bestow with five stars. The other five-star review was for a new work: Chris Ware’s Building Stories. Again, I wasn’t exactly offering a risky appraisal (it had topped all sorts of year-end lists by the time my review ran), but it was still daunting to try and convey why I felt this particular work of art deserved an unreserved rave.
On another tack, hands down my favorite recurring feature on the site to write for was the “Oeuvre” series, which tracked through the career of an esteemed director film by film. During my tenure, I got a chance to participate with four different directors:
–François Truffaut: This may have been the most daunting of the filmmakers for me, given his exalted place in French New Wave cinema and helping to popularize the very theory the feature drew its name for. Of the pieces I wrote on Truffaut’s films, the strongest was probably the first, an appraisal of a early short film he co-directed with Jean-Luc Godard, A Story of Water.
–Samuel Fuller: I’m not entirely sure I’d seen a single Fuller film before we started in on his filmography, but I surely knew his reputation. Luckily, he was colorful enough that there was a wealth of background material to draw upon. I’m especially fond, for example, of the story I used to kick off my review of Fixed Bayonets. I’m pleased with that piece, but also my review of Shark!, a weird thriller starring Burt Reynolds early in his career. That combination–sharks and Reynolds–was enough to make me eager to snap that title up when we writers submitted our requests for the series. It’s a terrible movie, but it was fun to write about.
–Spike Lee: The subjects of the “Oeuvre” series were drawn from suggestions from the staff, and I was the one who pitched the idea of Lee. I deliberately angled for films of his that I hadn’t yet seen (and one, Clockers, that I wanted an excuse to rewatch). That helped land me 4 Little Girls, Lee’s Oscar-nominated documentary that I’ve long felt guilty about not getting around to viewing. It’s a very strong effort from the director, and I’m pleased with how the review turned out.
–Brian De Palma: I knew we’d get around to De Palma, given his elevation by Pauline Kael and her many acolytes to a level of inexplicable primacy among American directors of his generation. There are some who consider him the quintessential American auteur, which is baffling to me. With a few notable exceptions, I think he often makes quite bad movies. I certainly drew more than my fair share of stinkers while his “Oeuvre” ran, including his possible nadir: 1990’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. This came out during my first year doing a weekly movie review show at my college radio station, but while I was tagging along on a family vacation to Hawaii. By the time I got back to the mainland, the bomb was nowhere to be seen. Watching it felt like filling in a crucial gap in my experience with the worst of nineties cinema. Interestingly enough, this review was one of two pieces that got kicked back to me for a rewrite during my time there, an editor and writer who I deeply respect pushing me to make it better. I’m deeply grateful to her critical eye. She was right, and the revised piece is consequently one of my stronger efforts.
–Vincente Minnelli: Finally, the director who my former cohorts are still wrestling with. The writers usually submit lists of the films they’d like to cover from the filmmakers, the editor-in-chief doing his best to parcel them out fairly from there. After I’d already informed him I was leaving, I went ahead and told him to give me whichever Minnelli titles he wanted for my waning weeks. He gifted me with Gigi, the film that earned Minnelli his sole Best Director Oscar. Knowing it would be my last oeuvre piece, I did my best to write the hell out of it.
Okay, we’re almost at the end of this long goodbye. There will be just one more Saturday spent reminiscing. Next week, I’ll track through all the different instances in which I dragged my long-term cultural obsessions out to foist them on a larger audience.