April 30, 2017

Behind the Scenes at the New York Press, Part 1


Note: I was recently hired to write the introduction for a massive new anthology which gathered together all the film reviews Godfrey Cheshire, Matt Zoller Seitz and Armond White had written for the NY Press from 1991 until the paper folded. I’d always had an inkling that one day I wanted to write a book about the paper, so considering this would likely be the closest I came, I went a little nuts. In the end my intro was chopped in half and extensively rewritten, so I thought I’d run the original long version over the next four weeks, if you don’t mind. JMK

Indulge me here a second while I dig open an old scab.

            In the spring of 1992 I was destitute, living in Brooklyn, writing for The Welcomat, an alternative weekly in Philadelphia, and angling to weasel my way into the pages of the New York Press. In the early Nineties the offerings across New York’s alternative newspaper landscape ranged from the venerable Village Voice to a slew of tiny neighborhood-specific penny savers. Founded in 1988 by a trio of refugees from Baltimore, the Press was still the new gimpy kid on the scene, and being the new kid had something to prove. As outsiders, the immediate challenge facing the editors was out-New Yorking the existing New York papers. In contrast to the stuffy and predictably doctrinaire Old Left wheeze of the Voice, the Press was raucous, drunken, snotty and punk rock. Despite having a staunch Republican owner and editor-in-chief in the form of Russ Smith, the paper had no discernible political agenda, or any agenda at all apart from good writing and a clear desire to rile up the masses. It was confrontational, hep, funny, smartass and unpredictable. Cover stories might concern the city’s shadowy cockfighting scene, an interview with a porn star, a celebration of New York City’s growing pot delivery industry, or a first-person account of a colonoscopy.

            Russ Smith usually offered some conservative media criticism or an update on his latest dose of oyster-related food poisoning. Senior editor John Strausbaugh, the architect who forged the paper’s shape and attitude, covered indie and underground publishing. Spike Vrusho’s stream-of-consciousness sports reporting might have seemed incoherent at first, until you realized it made perfect sense if you read it in William Burroughs’ voice. Godfrey Cheshire wrote wise, clear-eyed and eloquent highbrow film reviews, Paul Lukas wrote obsessively about unlikely and unheralded consumer products, Howard Kaplan somehow made the dull banalities of his daily life strangely compelling, and the menagerie of off-kilter geeky music critics covering the East Village scene was headed up by J.R. Taylor, an ultraconservative Christian who loved rock’n’roll, trashy movies, and porn. Each issue also included a smattering of one-off first person pieces about bad dates, worse jobs, bizarre sexual encounters, drug experiences, crimes and assorted mental and physical traumas. To top it all off, the Press boasted some of the best illustrators and comic strips in the city, including work by underground luminaries Tony Millionaire, Kaz, Ben Katchor and Danny Hellman. The core of every issue was always the lengthy letters section, where shut-ins, the feeble-minded, the easily offended, and the simply deranged wrote frothing, paranoid, obscenity-laced diatribes against something that had appeared in the previous week’s issue. The letters section was always a hoot.

            To outsiders who rarely bothered picking it up, the Press was generally dismissed as either a Right Wing version of the Voice (it most certainly was not) or an incoherent, foul-mouthed, third-rate penny saver. Those who read it religiously back then knew better. The Press was an ongoing streetwise barometer, and one that was usually five or six steps ahead of everyone else when it came to documenting shifting cultural trends.

            Being a young, snotty, drunken punk rock kid with no clear agenda of my own, I figured the Press was where I needed to be. Try as I might, though, I wasn’t having a whiff of success. For all the stories and pitches I’d submitted, the fucking editors seemed bound and determined to ignore me, simply out of spite.

            Then one week in that spring of ’92 they ran an ad announcing they were looking for a second film critic. Godfrey was excellent, one of the smartest and most respected critics in the business, though he tended to champion obscure art films and unknown Iranian directors. Way I interpreted it, they were looking for some kind of populist to provide a little counterpoint by skewering the big Hollywood releases.

            I was no populist, and had only run a few scattered movie reviews at the Philly paper, but considering I was a life-long insufferable movie geek, it seemed a given. This was my clear ticket into the paper. Those smug bastards wouldn’t be able to ignore me any more. The ad instructed would-be applicants to write two full-length reviews and send them into Strausbaugh for his considered judgment, so that’s what I set about doing.

            The next morning I caught an early matinee of Paul Verhoeven’s overhyped and supposedly controversial soft-core thriller Basic Instinct, which had just opened. By three that afternoon I’d written what I was sure was a profound and razor-sharp review (if I’m not mistaken I cleverly entitled it “Basically Stinky”). Then to illustrate my vast range, I wrote a glowing review of the 1975 all-star Satanic wonderment The Devil’s Rain, in which Ernest Borgnine played Satan. I printed out both reviews (these were pre-Internet days, remember), slipped them into an envelope, and sent the sure-fire package off to Mr. Strausbaugh with a sparkling cover letter. Then I opened a beer and sat back to wait for the congratulatory phone call, which I expected to arrive the next day.

            Well, the call didn’t come the next day. Two weeks later I still hadn’t heard anything. Then much to my horror and shock, I opened the latest issue of the Press to find Godfrey had been joined by some HACK named Matt Zoller Seitz, a clearly delusional sort who was under the cockeyed impression he was some kind of “film expert.” What the hell was that all about?

            Obviously some egregious mistake had been made. Had this diabolical Seitz ne’er-do-well intercepted my package and slapped his name on my sample reviews? Had that bumbling oaf Strausbaugh dialed the wrong number to deliver the good news, not realizing his mistake until it was too late? It wouldn’t have been the first time. In a rare moment of lucid rationality for those days, I opted against getting drunk, calling the New York Press offices and railing in a high-pitched voice about the unfathomable injustice of it all. Instead I figured it would be easier to simply stew, vowing to maintain a deep and scalding resentment for this “Matt Zoller Seitz” character until my final rattling breath.

            Then two things happened. First, I started reading Matt’s reviews, and realized instantly he was much smarter than I was, more fully versed in film history, and a much better writer. Okay then. Never mind.

            Second, a few months later, a week after I was fired from The Welcomat, “Slackjaw,” the column I’d been writing since 1987, was picked up by the Press and began running weekly. I also became a regular freelancer, writing features, reviews, news bits, whatever the hell they needed to fill the space on any given week.

            Okay, let me pause here a moment to offer a quick object lesson in the vagaries of quarter-century old memory. The above story is one I’ve clung to fiercely for a very long time. The only problem is that I first began writing for the Press in 1993. In 1991, the same year Godfrey started at the paper, Matt graduated from college and took a job at the Dallas Observer. He didn’t move to New York until 1995, at which point—a full two years after I started—he joined Godfrey in the film section. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking, but dammit I will continue to cling to that story anyway.


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