I met last weekend with the last living daily film critic in North Carolina. It was in the Landmark Tavern on Hargett Street in Raleigh. I was prepared to conduct an inquest.
The previous Monday, The News & Observer had, in its latest round of McClatchy-mandated self-amputation, finally cut loose Craig Lindsey, its rogue limb, its unruly, cranky and sometimes merciless opinionmonger on movies, television, music and Christina Hendricks.
Lindsey wasn't the only one to go in this latest round; 19 others received their walking papers, too. But for me, the decision to "voluntarily" buy out Lindsey was particularly unsettling. What good is a newspaper without a movie critic?
On Sunday, the 34-year-old Lindsey wasn't in the mood for tears. As the Packers were beating the Bears on television, we sat down in the back and chatted about a book-length study of Bond girls that he was reading. Then I ask him something I've long wanted to know: "What is it with you and Helen Mirren? You're quite a fan—you remember her birthday every year on your blog, on Facebook."
I'm not quite prepared for his disarming response as his smile reveals a hint of bashfulness. He lifts his snifter of Courvoisier.
"Here's my thing: I just enjoy watching adults. I can't handle young people anymore."
Older actors, he says, are less busy in their scenes, more apt to be interesting even when they're not speaking. He cites a younger "older" actor: Ryan Gosling, whose new film, Blue Valentine, opens this week.
"He's one of the best 'eye' actors around. Blue Valentine is crazy," he says before adding, "But don't take a date—just go see it by your damn self. It's an un-date movie."
Lindsey, a Texas native, has always had a fatalistic sense of his position.
"I always knew—going back to the late '90s ... when I worked for the Houston Press, the owner, New Times, decided to get rid of local critics and have all reviews come out of its LA paper," he says. "So even then, I realized that you can get film reviews anywhere. I always knew that there was a good chance I wouldn't do this much longer."
We discuss a culture in which a movie's critical reception is merely crowd-sourced. A movie gets a 94 percent "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, for example, so people decide to see it.
"When I was a kid," he says, "I realized that I liked reading the writer more than what they were necessarily writing about. People like to have someone they know, that they can rely on. There is something to that, that the reader knows they can rely on you."
Even if only to disagree, I offer.
"Yes ... It took me a while to realize they were saying, 'I respect you even when I don't agree.'"
For Lindsey, the devaluing of film criticism goes hand in hand with Hollywood devaluing its own product.
"Most of the year, watching movies is time-wasting," he begins slowly. "They just release movies for the sake of releasing movies. It's all about the opening weekend gross; it's never about making a movie that could stay for a long time.
"They were making a big deal last summer about how people weren't seeing movies as much anymore," he continues. "But why would anyone want to see a bad movie, to spend $10 or $20 when they can stay home and watch TV? Why the hell do you want to watch a crappy movie when there's True Blood, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, all these great shows that don't insult the audience's intelligence? Movies aren't made to be durable. Take The Green Hornet, for example. You're not going to walk out of there and say, 'That movie changed my life.'"
Lindsey chuckles. We both do, really. We've witnessed the erosion of movie culture to the point that multiplexes are holding pens featuring ever-noisier, needlessly special-effects-laden fare to pacify unruly teenagers. Meanwhile, art houses in poor states of repair spend the year waiting for December movies like True Grit and Black Swan to pay the bills, while edgier, more obscure and often foreign fare increasingly goes straight to video and on-demand viewing.
Those movies have found a way to survive, but how will Lindsey, the film critic, continue to work in an environment where there are fewer reviewing jobs for a dwindling supply of good theatrical releases? He says that friends and colleagues—including some at national media outlets—have been generous in reaching out to him. He also spreads goodwill to The News & Observer—in particular, reporter and one-time assistant managing editor Thomas Goldsmith for his role in hiring him. He's not sure what he'll do next, but like his interviewer, journalism is what he knows how to do.
Lindsey's not unsavvy about new media. He developed a following with his Andy Kaufman-esque Twitter feed (@unclecrizzle), which occasionally got him into hot water.
"I wasn't trying to subvert my position or rock the boat at The News & Observer," he says. 'Really, I was just using Twitter to let off steam and be more myself, which I found out I couldn't really do.
"The thing about me is that I've always been a print animal. I didn't discover the Internet until September of 1995. From a young age, I had the sense that the printed word was the thing. I was kind of a bad blogger."
We wrap up our conversation with the discovery of a shared early enthusiasm: The Village Voice.
"It's a sign of my nerdiness that when I was in high school, and a reporter at the Three Penny Press, my high school paper, that I thought writing for The Village Voice was cool," Lindsey says. He fondly rattles off stalwart names from the old masthead of the Voice, names familiar to both of us: "Jules Feiffer, Nat Hentoff, Cynthia Heimel (who just became my Facebook friend), Nelson George's "Notes of a Native Son," Colson Whitehead, James Ridgeway—as well as the film critics J. Hoberman and Michael Atkinson.
"Reading them in the Voice, having it in your possession, it was like having awesomeness in your hand."
Correction (Jan. 26, 2011): Craig Lindsey was a reporter, not the editor, at his high school newspaper. See also first comment below.