One of the (many) inspirations for Least Worst Option were the written works of Portland, Oregon-based author David DeMoss. Not so much that there were any overlapping interests, beyond the obvious - but mainly the idea that media criticism is open to anybody who's willing to spar and defend his/her opinion. Coincidentally, David was also one of the earliest supporters of Least Worst Option. As a thank-you for his early support (and some tips and pointers along the way) I decided to give him a moment in the spotlight. Least Worst Option talked to one of its personal heroes, the result of this exchange can you read below.
Tell us a bit about yourself. Who you are, where you grew up, etc.
I'm a writer currently making his practice in Portland, Oregon, USA, where I've spent the last ten years. I spent the previous eighteen growing up amidst the woods and limestone of southwestern Missouri, about four hours south of Kansas City, where my parents settled in the early 70s. It was something of a cultural Dead Zone, but my parents did their best to make up for that. They were both school teachers. Mom taught English and dad taught History until he discovered how much more money he could get programming computers. Both enjoyed a good story more than anything: telling 'em, hearing 'em, watching 'em, and especially reading 'em. They stressed the importance of reading at an early age, despite my best efforts to ignore them and watch Loony Tunes or Tex Avery cartoons. Or those first two Superman movies. One of my earliest memories is of my mom reading Grimm's fairy tales to me, inoculating me against the Disney “Renaissance” neither one of us knew was right around the corner at the time.
Mom passed on to me a love of classics – the Old, Dead White Guy Classics everyone used to have to read before “polite society” would consider you literate - and more esoteric stuff. Primarily South America, primarily Borges and his padawans. Dad passed on a love of history, technical fiddling, and classic sci-fi: Wells, Verne, Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein, Orwell, Huxley.
When did you discover that writing was your thing, creatively?
My parent's educational efforts all paid off when I turned six and Tim Burton's first “Batman” movie changed the world. Impatient for the next film (and, oddly enough, already expecting a “next film” at age six – they got us while we were young), I turned to Batman comic books, beginning a life-long abusive relationship with superhero comics in general and DC Comics in particular.
By the time “Batman Returns” came out in Summer, 1992, I was begging my parents for Bat-books every time we passed the spinner rack in our grocery store (the only source of comics within fifty miles of Stately DeMoss Manor). But the Death of Superman story arc, starting in fall, 1992, was the first thing that made me look up from Gotham's alleyways and see the awe and mystery, the vastness and intricacy, of a comic book superhero universe. Everyone who was anyone showed up to Superman's funeral and I didn't know even half their names. But I wanted to, because I was instantly fascinated by the notion that someone, somewhere, had come up with each and every one of these characters.
Every Superman comic (after a certain publication date) carries the credit “created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster” but most creators aren't so lucky. It consciously occurred to me then (after no doubt rattling around in my head for quite some time) that all those people named on the credits page were getting paid to do what they do. Comics or no, the very idea that writing this WAS A JOB people ACTUALLY DID in the so-called “REAL” WORLD for ACTUAL MONEY broke my ten-year-old's brain. I can remember wondering why anyone would possibly want any other job. I still do.
Regardless, that was when I began purchasing things based on the names of creators rather than the name in the titles. I consider that the first decision I made based on (half-baked and near-unconscous thought through it was) critical analysis.
You have posted short stories on your website. How successful have your writings been so far?
Depends on what you mean by “successful.” There's two kinds of “successful” writing: creative stuff and the stuff you'll actually get paid for. The stuff you'll get paid for, what job websites tend to call “technical writing,” is a success when it can keep a roof over your head and allows you the free time for to work on the creative stuff. Creative writing is a success when it's finished. The trick lies in figuring out when to stop fucking around with something and let yourself BE finished. Then you can start worrying about money.
Actually, no. These days, first you'll have to worry about how much of a shameless self-promoter you really are, and how much of one you're willing to become. Even if you want to wait the minimum two-years it usually takes for a traditional publisher to get your book onto store shelves, you'll still have to sell it (and yourself) to the rest of the human race via Social Media. And no one (especially not the hucksters who call themselves “experts”) knows the hell to do Social Media Marketing...except for people who're already marketers. Personally, I'm horrible at it, and consider it the least-interesting part of this otherwise awesome job I've given myself.
On that note, my first novel, “Stygian” is available through Amazon Kindle for the low-low price of $3.99. (http://www.amazon.com/Stygian-ebook/dp/B008MHWI7G/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1346034643&sr=1-2&keywords=stygian) It's a “big, ol' haunted town” horror novel set in (a fictionalized version of) where I grew up. See what I did there?
How did you stumble into reviewing movies?
I didn't “stumble” - I consciously chose to participate in this madness. The thing about writers is, we write. Self-evident, yes? Yet there are many “writers” wandering around out there who let years go by without writing anything longer than a text-message. They'll tell you they're waiting for “the muse” to “inspire” them – bullshit. They're waiting for their own reproductive organs to fully develop.
To counter this laziness, young writers are encouraged to practice, practice, practice. Having a subject at hand effectively neuters the “muse excuse”. This was a pre-No Child Left Behind Act world, when English Composition courses still taught you how to compose shit, like critical analysis. As with most initially-onerous tasks, the more I did it, the more I started to actually LIKE it. Then, starting in the late 90s, I discovered the vast and ominous world of the internet. Meaning I also discovered I was not alone in my likes. Other people did this stuff too – people who weren't Gene Siskel or Roger Ebert. There actually was a diversity of opinion out there to explore, and people who had the kinds of esoteric conversation I'd only heard around my own dinner table. After that, there was no turning back. I was hooked.
Does your love for cinema come from your love of comic books?
No, that I must (once again) blame on my parents. As I said, they were great lovers of good stories. Especially films that the self-conscious pearl-clutchers of my home country would consider “inappropriate” for a “child” as young as I was when they let me watch them. I have a fond memory of being ten and sitting down on the couch with my folks to watch “Aliens” and/or the “Dollars” trilogy. I have an even fonder memory of piling into the pick-up truck so we could all watch "Terminator 2" at the drive-in theater the summer it premiered.
Being an English teacher with as liberal a Liberal Arts education as you can get. My mother never missed an opportunity to pause the film and point out something worthy of discussion. Dad was less serious-minded about it, but when it came to snarky one-liners or full-on angry rants at obvious cinematic stupidity -- the man was a self-taught master who could've gone toe-to-toe with the Best Brains on their best day. I didn't realize it at the time, but these discussions amounted to a Masters Class in the form of cultural commentary that's basically default these days... at least on the internet, where smart people go to live.
When and how did the concept for "…And You Thought It Was Safe?" come to you?
Confession time: I was a teenage troll. I got a stable home-based internet connection in 1999, the year I turned sixteen and immediately became a stereotype: that jumped-up, pretentious, message-board-threat-ruining punk who didn't even know how colossally ignorant he was, or how awful he was being to other people, for no good reason at all. After about a year of doing that on a near-daily basis, once I noticed my soul was slowly but steadily draining out of my body. I made the conscious decision to create my own space – a place to store my bilious discharges and keep them from spilling onto everyone else. Also, I was in the midst of a long-standing, passive aggressive feud with Roger Ebert's opinions.
That's all AYTIWS really was when it started, back in the long-long ago. I got the then-standard four megabytes of space from the free-hosting service Geocities (before Yahoo! bought them out) and kept practicing, vaguely hoping my error-laden and largely inarticulate rants would inspire the occasional chuckle. Wonder of wonders, they did, and I began to correspond with a small-but-incredibly-smart bunch of people. Despite the stereotypical view of internet commenters (commentators?) as hateful monsters who'll strike you down soon as look at you. The vast majority of my correspondence was overwhelmingly positive, and that holds true up to this day. As does my gratitude to everyone who put up with the bad grammar, long dry-spells, and ill-conceived half-thoughts that characterized AYTIWS from... Let's say the first ten years of its “operation.” Though the hosting situation improved mightily once I migrated over to servers provided by horror-story author, critic, and webmaster extraordinaire Nathan (Cold Fusion Video) Shumate. Salude, Brother Nathan.
I'm somewhat of a movie buff myself. Was it difficult narrowing down exactly which genres you wanted to cover? I ask this, cos there a tons of b-cinema reviews sites, and it is hard to stand out.
Indeed there are. And, in the beginning I didn't even try to stand out. My interests aligned quite nicely with most “b-cinema review sites.” That was part of the appeal in the first place: in real life, I'm the freak who actually reads a movie's credits (never mind – gasp, shock – subtitles) and prefers “plot-driven, high concept” stories to individual actors. On the internet, my preferences and tastes are downright mainstream and I don't even mean that as a pejorative in this context.
Also, I could explore critical viewpoints from somewhere other than the two major daily newspapers of Chicago. That's how I discovered incredibly cool pool like Christopher Holland and Scott Hamilton (whose powers combine to form Stomp Tokyo), Freeman (The Bad Movie Report) Williams, Ken (Jabootu) Begg, and Liz (And You Call Yourself a Scientist) Kingsley, a true Wonder Woman amongst boys. I would not be what I am without the fine writings of these fine folks, along with a ton of others I'm forgetting, all of whom taught me how to do this better by their examples.
Read enough and you start to notice key themes creeping up, over and above the genre cliches that are really just storytelling shorthand. Because of this, I've grown distrustful of the very concept of genres. Their existence is so often used as a crutch by both sides of the audience/creator divide. An excuse people give themselves so they don't have to “waste time” thinking about things that “don't deserve” the attention. This leads to the Groupthink and stagnation that all academic disciplines suffer from to some extent. Movie criticism's no different – save that it escaped the Ivory Towers in the 60s, thanks to Pauline Kael and her padawan, Roger. If there's one thing I still hope to do, even now, long past the point where I've abandoned all others, I hope to counter the drive towards the lowest common denominator, cheap-jack analysis that I once spearheaded myself as an adolescent: “That piece of rocked/sucked, circle only one, and those are your only choices.”
Instead of that, I hope to encourage thought by providing proper context for the art I evaluate. If I've done my job right, my correspondents will be able to see how I arrived at an opinion, and we can start a discussion that goes a little deeper than “This is the worst movie ever made, Y/N?” So, to sum myself up as arrogantly as possible: No – it wasn't difficult to pick a genre, because I decided to go Alexander the Great's route and just cut the damn knot in half – it was in my army's way.
Where did you get the moniker "…And You Thought It Was Safe?" from? Was it a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing, or was considerable thought put into the site's name?
The title comes from a tagline on the back of an old VHS copy of the first Godzilla film I ever saw, “Godzilla: 1985.” In full, it read “And you thought it was safe to return to Tokyo?” That film got me into Godzilla movies, which got me into the process of special effects work (suitmation and otherwise), which got me into the process of movie making in general, which got me here. It seemed like the only thing to do at the time, and I put no thought into it whatsoever.
That's the real origin story. But one of my correspondents, Conan the Duke, recently asked if I got the title from the interrogation scene in "Marathon Man". I loved that idea, because I love "Marathon Man", and almost wish it were true. There have been times, which particularly bad films, when I've felt exactly like Dustin Hoffman's character feels in that scene. I love Godzilla even more.
Initially you started out with lengthy text reviews, but you started to do video reviews a while ago as well. Which format do your prefer personally?
Depends on the subject. Specifically, on how the medium lines up with the message (because fuck Marshall McLuhan - he was wrong, and his ideas have blinded us). To answer by example, let's take “Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox” - the WB's latest straight-to-DVD animated superhero feature. I've managed to churn out a 4300 words on the damned thing and I think it's just about finished. It's that long because I felt compelled to educate non-readers on recent DC Comics history – particularly the Rise of Designated Superstar Writer Geoff Johns, one of my least-favorite living comic book writers. “Flashpoint Paradox” is based on, and slavishly faithful to, his work, and as such contains all the elements that make his work so disappointing. It's my contention (has been for awhile now) that these elements are what keep people from reading superhero comic books and constantly piss-off the few hundred thousand of us who still bother. If I want to identify all those elements for the lay people, and put them in a singular, obvious place where they can be easily found again and referenced, it's best to do that in text. Text isn't depended on Adobe software updates, or whether adblock's installed, and it won't get mistake for porn by the content-blocking software on people's work computers. (Sidenote: most non-political blogs live and die by what I call “the coveted screwing-off-at-work demographic.” Learn to love these people. They are your bread and butter.) Besides, without that context, “Flashpoint” makes even less sense than it already does.
On the other hand, you have “Kick-Ass 2,” which I'm writing up in another window as I'm writing this. A sequel to a three-year-old movie that's incredibly unfaithful to its source comic, but incredibly faithful to its predecessor, despite a very noticeable writer/director switch-up. That's going to be a relatively simple compare/contrast study and I've found video's best for that, in the same way text is best for the historical/contextual stuff. It all comes down to what points I want to illustrate, and whether those points require visual aids that move under their own power.
There are “producers” (as some of us call ourselves) who can do both historical contextualization and cogent analysis at the same time while making it compelling as all hell, but they are (quite obviously) better than I am at this. Dan (Folding Ideas) Olsen is one, despite our completely disagreement on almost every aspect of modern superhero film. Kyle (Brows Held High) Kallgren is another, but he's taking the avant-garde to the streets, and he's taking it out a whole new door.
One of the strong points of your website is that you focus on recognizable properties, and aren't so much of the "obscure" or "hard to find" type movie reviewer. Was this is a conscious decision on your part, to make it easier to produce regular content?
“Produce regular traffic” is more like it. Unless you've hitched your star to a more successful “reviewer” (and I hate that term, just so you know – everybody's a critic and so are we) or want to have a running fight with YouTube's copyright robots (and I don't), you're stuck garnering traffic through plain ol', ordinary search engines. Better make sure your website is optimized for them, and the best way to do that is with recognizable keywords. My Top Ten unencrypted Search Terms for 2013 (as of August 17th) are all movie titles, and the same's true for previous years. Individual titles vary with the seasons (I expect the “New Classic” Slashers of the '80s to get a lot more play as we approach Halloween) but that remains my number one source of new readers – random people, randomly typing random titles into Google. I have a friend who's constantly bemoaning the fact his #1 search term is “Cannibal Holocaust,” but that's the game. You play as best you can. Though it gets easier once you realize we're all making this up as we go along. Kinda like parenting.
Lots of video reviewers create a persona for their shows. People like the Nostalgia Critic, or The Nostalgia Chick all have their traits to sell the character. How much of the true David do we see on screen during your average movie video review?
All of him. “All of me,” I should say, because I don't like hiding behind such a formal identity split. Did that for awhile, as a teenager, and the results were... unpleasant, as mentioned above. Now I only do it when I need a strawman antagonist and, since I'm a one-dude show, that's as simple as a costume change. Every erg of mental energy I spend wondering, “Would Reviewer David say this?” is one less I can't spend on actual analysis – presumably, the thing people come to me for, since I have no pretensions of being a “comedian” or an “entertainer.” With any luck, I'll attract an audience that's “entertained” by the exercise of thought.
If I can follow Don O'Connor's advice and “make 'em laugh,” that's just gravy on the train.
Check out David's cinema critique website at http://aytiws.com - just remember to return here afterwards!