Sunday, February 01, 2009

Origins of a Film Critic

Me (third from left) with the Mirror staff, photographed on the ground floor of the then-under-construction new building of Norwood High School in 1971. Click to embiggen.

These have been very interesting times for me: I've been unexpectedly reunited with a long-lost friend from high school, now a successful and well-travelled artist. This has led to a vigorous, fulfilling correspondence and a lot of restimulated memories from thirty-odd years ago, some good and some not-so-good. My friend evidently lost a lot of her old personal photos along the way, and she asked if I might send her some high school pics, which led me and my digital camera back to my long-packed-away yearbooks from Norwood High School. While rifling through the pages of the 1971 and '72 Silhouettes in search of her, I also took a digital snap of this personal shot, which shows me as part of the staff of the school paper, The Mirror. This is where I was first published as a film critic.

Introducing the Mirror staff from left to right: Sharon Nolte, Gary Larrison, yours truly, Jeff Wilkerson, assistant editor Joan Peters, editor Randall Parsons, Rod Best and faculty advisor Miss Danea White. (Not pictured: Bill Howard and Nadine Hoover. Nadine was a sweetie, and I hope she's happy and thriving, whatever her current circumstances may be.)

Randy Parsons was the president of the 1971 senior class, the fellow who spoke to us clueless frosh on Orientation Day, telling us about the school and the innate superiority of upperclassmen while also encouraging us to pursue extracurricular activities. I responded by following him out of the auditorium, calling "Mr. Parsons!" down the hall, and offering my services to The Mirror as film critic then and there. I'd already had some reviews accepted by CINEFANTASTIQUE, not yet published, which gave me this then-unusual measure of courage.

My chores on The Mirror, where I worked through my freshman and sophomore years, consisted of reviewing films and records and also writing/drawing a serial comic strip, Captain Norwood. Unfortunately, only two samples of the strip survive in my archive: the first and the very last, published toward the end of my freshman year. The final strip became a huge cause celebre at NHS when Captain Norwood was finally unmasked and revealed to be the school janitor, Fred Burnett, who became an overnight star. There's a picture in the 1971 Yearbook of Fred surrounded by a gaggle of prom girls, the poor man looking like a deer caught in the headlights of teenage sex. That picture is the success of Captain Norwood in a nutshell. I don't know why I didn't continue the strip in my sophomore year, when Mrs. Janet Fealy took over as faculty advisor. Possibly she wanted the paper to become a little less irreverent, or maybe I decided not to continue with it. I liked Mrs. Fealy; she was remarkably forgiving of my various crimes, like blasting The Mothers of Invention's "Billy the Mountain" on the paper office's turntable when I had no idea that she was sitting in the outer room, grading papers. The look she shot me as I emerged from the room with the record under my arm -- followed by a slow, head-shaking, half-complicit smile -- is one of my sweetest memories of high school.

Some other interesting folks here. I'm the only freshman in the picture. Gary Larrison, the senior standing to the left of me, was the first novelist I ever met. I remember him working on an original novel called THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, undertaken for Independent Study, in the paper office. I was astonished by the ambition of his project and I asked him about it with great interest; it turned out to be my first glimpse of my own future life. Sharon Nolte, who looks remarkably like Donna looked when we first met two years later, was a nice girl, one of two (the other being Nadine) who cared enough to check on me at home during an extended absence after the 1972 suicide of my best friend, Mike Hennel.

Danea White was the most important teacher I ever had, though I never had the pleasure of taking one of her classes. In addition to being the paper's advisor, she became a personal friend and mentor, and there were a few times when she, her boyfriend (and later husband) John and I used my theater passes to go to the movies together. It was a great time for movies and we saw things like A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and EL TOPO, which I then reviewed for the school paper, though I doubt even my senior editor Randy was old enough at the time to be admitted to them. One day, Miss White and John surprised me by inviting me to lunch in that off-limits haven, the teacher's cafeteria, where my presence drew the codfish-eye from a few other teachers who regarded me as something of a ne'er-do-well. I credit Danea's interest in my talent and well-being with keeping me alive during a difficult period and with encouraging me to finally forsake my art interests to become a writer. My only regret is that we're standing so far apart in this picture, the only one ever taken of us together.

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