Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Boston Phoenix Remembered

The Boston Phoenix folded four and a half months ago, not quite half a century after it began as two separate publications, The Phoenix and Boston After Dark. (They merged in 1972.) It was one of the few remnants of the age into which it had been born, when arts criticism was completely separate from celebrity journalism – when most critics would have been insulted by the comparison – and young reviewers, working for meager paychecks, were struggling to find ways to talk about the exciting new developments in the arts, especially movies and the newest kid on the block, rock ‘n’ roll. Significantly, the Phoenix went into publication around the same time as Rolling Stone, and many of the early writers published simultaneously in both venues.

The Phoenix was a resolutely left-wing paper back then and never less than liberal even in its final years. My focus here on what it meant for the arts comes out of my own association with it. When Janet Maslin (who also wrote about music for Rolling Stone and was married at that time to one of its most famous staffers, Jon Landau) held the position of first-string movie critic for The Phoenix I was one of her free-lancers for a year after I graduated from Brandeis University in 1972, and I contributed the occasional film essay from Toronto when I left the Boston area in 1973. In 1986, after I’d moved back to take a teaching job at College of the Holy Cross, I became a regular Phoenix freelancer, reviewing movies under Owen Gleiberman and theatre under Carolyn Clay. When Owen moved on to Entertainment Weekly three years later and Peter Keough took over as first-string movie critic, I continued to write for the publication for several years, though as space became scarcer and the paper’s latitude for arts coverage shrank year by year, my contributions became less frequent, and over the last half-decade or so my byline appeared perhaps eight or ten times a year. (In addition, I was the theatre critic for almost the entire life of The Worcester Phoenix, one of the paper’s appendages, between 1994 and 2001.) All told my professional life was linked to The Phoenix for nearly thirty years. So though I was hardly surprised when the paper closed down – it had seemed to be a seat-of-the-pants financial venture long before newspapers began their noble struggle against the encroachment of the Internet – certainly I was saddened. Shocked, too, since it’s always possible to be shocked by the inevitable.

The paper was a free-wheeling organization when I came to it straight out of college, where Boston After Dark, which was distributed free on campus, had been a major cultural touchstone for my friends and me. The offices on Commonwealth Avenue, in the western downtown neighborhood that still houses Symphony Hall and the major Boston music conservatories, had the cheerful look of an off-campus grad-student apartment, with second-hand sofas everywhere. I was too shy at twenty-one to get into conversations with most of the writers; I slipped in surreptitiously every week with my copy and tried to look as if I belonged. My pay was fifteen dollars a review, and every couple of weeks I cadged an extra five bucks for attending publicity lunches at the Ritz for second-tier actors and filmmakers and delivering a line or two of movie news for a weekly composite column. Janet went to the first-rank lunches herself; I took her decision to send me to the others as an act of generosity, since I didn’t have a regular job. To give you a sense of the kind of space available for writing about the movies, I was the fourth-stringer. The paper covered every movie that opened in Boston, and generally speaking I handled the bottom of the barrel: I remember writing about a fifth-rate Godfather retread called Family Honor (to which I dragged my horrified girlfriend, who tended to look away during violent scenes) and for a while I had the blaxploitation beat, until I wrote something so scathing about a picture called Black Caesar that Janet took me off it. Very occasionally I scored a gem – my status as a Canadian gave me first dibs on Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine, and Janet had so little interest in Martin Ritt’s beautiful coming-of-age story Sounder that she tossed it to me. Like most of the Phoenix’s writers, she had impeccable left-wing credentials and assumed that any movie about a black family that came out of mainstream Hollywood – and from the camera of a white director – must be phony liberal horseshit. (The blaxploitation movies were generally assumed to be some authentic expression of black identity, though they were churned out by cynical white producers to take commercial advantage of the Black Panther-era African-American audience.) Janet didn’t go to see the movie herself, and when I wrote a rave review, I think she was embarrassed. The capsule version that ran in the back pages of the paper as long as the movie was still in theatres was vague about its merits and focused mainly on Taj Mahal’s score; it certainly wasn’t a prĂ©cis of what I had written.

By the time I returned to the paper in the middle of the next decade, a raft of impressive arts critics had passed through, but it was still proudly known as a writers’ paper and it was still indisputably in its heyday. Michael Sragow, my choice for the best living American movie critic, had just moved on to The San Francisco Examiner, and it was through his good offices that Owen Gleiberman, recently promoted to his position, called me to ask me to write for him, at first only for the summer and then year-round. Besides Owen and Carolyn Clay, whom I was damn lucky to have as my first editors, the arts staff was a treasure trove during the late eighties. Among others, Joyce Millman wrote about television, David Bonetti about art, Mark Moses and Tim Riley, Milo Miles and Stephanie Zacharek about rock ‘n’ roll, Scott Rosenberg about theatre, my dear friend Charles Taylor about movies and books. It took hours to read everything worthwhile that cropped up in those pages – the way I remember reading the Arts and Leisure section of the Sunday New York Times when I was in college. The paper still paid a pittance ($100 a piece in 1986 and eventually $125) but it recognized talented writers and gave them the space to make their cases. One of the first reviews I wrote was a “Second Sight,” as they were then called, on John Huston’s The Misfits. After Owen had read my draft, he sent me back to add another paragraph because he felt (justifiably) that though I’d discussed Marilyn Monroe’s and Montgomery Clift’s performances at sufficient length, I’d given short shrift to Clark Gable. I sent off a jocular note to a former editor at my previous gig, The Stanford Daily (I came to Holy Cross straight out of grad school), who’d once quipped that my review of Warren Beatty’s three-and-a-half-hour Reds was heftier than the movie, boasting that my current editor wanted me to write longer. When I got my first arts-obit assignments in 1987, on Fred Astaire, Bob Fosse and John Huston, I handed in between 1600 and 2000 words on each and they ran uncut. Eulogizing recently deceased actors and filmmakers was my favorite beat at the Phoenix until the early nineties, when the paper began to be subjected a series of space-tightening regimens in an ongoing effort to make it more palatable to college and just-post-college readers while squeezing in more ads. In that brief period, which turned out to be the end of a great journalistic era, I had the opportunity to take the measure of the careers of Laurence Olivier, Bette Davis, Greta Garbo and other artists in the kind of space that did honor to their memory.

When you’re on board, to whatever extent, for the decline of a significant cultural institution like The Boston Phoenix, it’s dispiriting – and exhausting – to rehearse the list of influences that brought it and other publications like it down. The demise of the paper didn’t put me in the mood to write a screed back in March, and I’m still not in one. But like others who were attached to the Phoenix at one time or another, I’ve felt the need to find words to note its passing. In my film and theatre classes at Holy Cross I continue to try to turn my students into believers in the kind of complex, allusive reflection I fell in love with as a teenager, when I discovered the joys of working out how to give voice to my responses to the cluster of stimuli that is a play or a movie. The Boston Phoenix in its golden age was a haven for people like me, who don’t think that 400 words are enough to talk about Life of Pi or Caesar Must Die. First as a reader and then as a writer, I was grateful – and I still am - for the Phoenix and for the critical impulse that, when it was at its best, it nurtured and embodied.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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