Saturday, January 26, 2008

A Decade Under the Influence, aka Song of Myself

In which Nick's Flick Picks disappears up his own wazoo, but it's only due to the excitement of a personal milestone, not a case of total, lethal narcissism. Though it does seem like exactly that. Apologies.



Betcha didn't know—in fact, why would you?—but this weekend marks the tenth birthday of Nick's Flick Picks, the site that encompasses but often lives in the shadow of this blog. Finally, and quite unexpectedly, I have some sense of what it feels like to be a Proud Papa, and though my website doesn't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, etc., it's nice to feel like if I threw this website a party, i-i-invited everyone I knew-ew, you would see the biggest gift'd be from me, but the card attached would say... that some other people out there like it, too. For those handful, and for any newcomers who've been enticed by the ongoing Best of 2007 countdown, here is a quick timeline of events in the short, happy life of my pre-teen bundle of joy:

January 1998 Stranded between finishing my fall-semester exams and papers during my junior year of college and beginning the spring semester on the following Monday, and frustrated that my film reviews for the university newspaper were necessarily restricted in topic and length, I took the advice of my friend Kathy that I should build a website, using the automatic bandwidth allotment that Harvard afforded to all of its undergraduates. She taught me basic html writing in the space of about an hour and a half. I still love Kathy. I am still in touch with my Crimson editors, film writer and content editor Nic Rapold (of Film Comment, Stop Smiling, and Reverse Shot) and Lylee (of Lylee's Blog and the recently retired Cinemarati), both of whom I continue to admire and to credit for a lot of what I learned about good film writing. But, ever after, this website became the major repository for what I thought, learned, and was willing to fight about in relation to film.

Trivia: my first grade posted was an A– for The Winter Guest, which I haven't seen since; my first feature was my Top Ten of 1997, which I retroactively drafted along with comparable rankings and comprehensive lists of what I'd seen from 1995 and 1996. My first full review that wasn't written for the Crimson first was for Primary Colors, which I still think is an okay piece, followed by now-embarrassing glosses on Boogie Nights and Titanic. I think my first review of a classic film was for The Passion of Joan of Arc. The original name of the website was "Nick Davis' Movie Archives," and the address was http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~ndavis/movarchs.html. Bear in mind that when I had started college in the fall of 1995, virtually none of my friends and fellow students, including me, knew how to use the internet or even what it was. Very, very few of my friends who hadn't taken the intro course to Computer Science knew html or had a website. Which is to say, it was a weird hobby, and a series of shots in the dark. Or at least it felt that way.

Spring 1999 My fantastic Medieval Literature professor Rebecca Krug, now at the University of Minnesota, was the only professor in the English department willing to sponsor an independent-study course for me during my senior spring, which allowed me to write more reviews, read more film critics of the past (Stanley Kauffman, Pauline Kael, Siegfried Kracauer, Rudolf Arnheim), and expand the website for credit. She was an absolute hero to do this for me, and that's why there are still so many more reviews on average for movies from 1998 and early 1999 than in almost any other year. I was also gobbling up whatever film history and film analysis courses Harvard offered, which weren't many in those days. The best and most educational for me were a German Studies small-sized lecture on "Weimar Cinema" taught by Eric Rentschler and two large lecture courses called "American Cinema" and "Five Directors" (Bresson, Cassavetes, Antonioni, Akerman, and Kiarostami) taught by Charles Warren. Both of these professors, as well as my graduate teaching assistant for the latter course, Sabrina Zanella-Foresi, were huge helps and inspirations, not least by taking my fledgling site seriously. I also thank my undergraduate advisor and personal mentor Elaine Scarry for encouraging me to advertise my internet writing on my graduate school applications rather than treating it as a hobby. And of course, the amazing movie theaters of Boston, particularly the Landmark Kendall Square, the Brattle, the Coolidge Corner theater, the Harvard Film Archive, the Sony Harvard Square, and the colossal but now vanished Sony Chéri downtown (where I saw Boogie Nights, The Thin Red Line, and Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace on their opening days) were an education in themselves.

Trivia: Within one week, I got two e-mails about my unenthusiastic response to Billy Wilder's The Apartment. One was from The Flick Filosopher, still a friend even though we don't correspond much, who agreed with everything I said and became a huge supporter later, in introducing me to the Cinemarati crowd (including, in order, Brilliant at Breakfast, ModFab, and Nathaniel) and talking me through the steps of buying and registering my own domain. A generous soul, that one, and a model of self-confidence, reputation-building, and prolific output for web writers everywhere, especially when (again) there were waaaaaaay fewer film sites out there than there are now, a mere decade later. The other e-mail was from a total skeptic of my review and my abilities, who asked, "Do you even know anything about film? Has it occurred to you that movies are more than illustrated stories? Did you think about Wilder's genius in using the widescreen frame for a corporate office setting, or his use of editing, sound, cinematography?" Both the encouragement and the disparagement were equally and enormously helpful in making me go deeper, think harder, write more regularly, and learn more.

Fall 1999 I started my Ph.D. in English and Film & Video Studies, and switched the website over to http://www.people.cornell.edu/pages/nkd4. Then as now, a huge percentage of my site hits came from people who followed links from the IMDb. From these earliest years, the most reliable generators of mail are the vicious, disappointed pans of The Matrix, Sophie's Choice, and Life Is Beautiful. A list of names I have been called in reference to these reviews is too long to get into here. Other consistent flashpoints on the site: Antonia's Line (which, honestly, I owe another, more mature viewing), Braveheart, Diary of a Mad Housewife, Donnie Darko, Eyes Wide Shut, Far from Heaven, FearDotCom (why, I've never been able to figure out), Gangs of New York, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, The Green Mile, Hannah and Her Sisters, Hello, Dolly!, Holiday, Julia, The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Mission, Moulin Rouge '52, Moulin Rouge! '01, Same Time, Next Year, 7th Heaven, Shakespeare in Love, Taste of Cherry, Top Gun (plus this illustrated amendment), The Travelling Players, Velvet Goldmine, The Village, Wake Island, and The Well. As always, my comparative faith in these reviews goes all over the map; reading your own writing is almost as soul-sickening as hearing your own recorded voice, right? The site has always been as fun for me as an archive of what I (apparently) used to think as in its reflection of what I actually do still think.

January 2001 Having exceeded the free bandwidth provided by Cornell, I took the plunge and bought my own domain. If you've ever wondered about the name: www.NickDavis.com, www.Nick-Davis.com, www.NickOnFilm.com, www.NicksReviews.com, www.NicksFlicks.com, and any number of other, less tongue-twisty alternatives were already taken. Some of them no longer are (although, to the continued chagrin of my ftp non-Beta Blogger account, http://nicksflickpicks.blogspot.com is). My partner suggested the name on a train ride in Switzerland, still the most exotic thing we have ever done. I apologize, perpetually, that the name is hard to say, and harder to spell.

Fall 2002 Just as I was starting to feel like I should nix the website to focus only on academic writing, I was invited to join Cinemarati and met a whole host of other film enthusiasts, almost none of them paid for their film writing, and all of them keeping their projects going out of love, commitment, and some extra teaspoon of crazy. My people, beyond question. Induction into Cinemarati also meant an invitation onto Rotten Tomatoes, where I still only agree with the TomatoMeter 66% of the time.

Spring 2003 A totally fortuitous turn of events involving a mutual friend led to meeting Nathaniel in person and, the very next day, taking a 5-hour road trip with him, and then, the day after that, meeting ModFab and MaryAnn. Delicious, and wholly unexpected, to build a circle of far-flung friends via an internet compulsion and a personal passion. Within a little over a year, Goatdog and MainlyMovies sent out-of-the-blue e-mails that turned into warm, eventually in-person, and (I anticipate) lifelong friendships. The best possible side-effect of nattering on in a public space about the things that are important to you.

Summer 2004 Speaking of out of the blue: for the first and, so far, only time, one of my reviews was formally licensed to appear on a mass-market DVD, right next to Roger Ebert's and Peter Travers'. In Bridget-speak: was v.v.exciting, like eating real Belgian chocolate for first time, or shagging Colin Firth, or similar.

December 2004 My first formal interview for a full-time professorship omits a single question about my Ph.D. dissertation, which was then nearing completion ("Do they hate it?" I wondered) but includes a full ten minutes about my internet writing, what it means to me, what kinds of people I tend to hear from, and from where in the world they write. If you listen closely, you can hear the last nail going into the coffin of that old saw, Professionalize Yourself By Hiding All Of Your Personal Interests and Passionate Hobbies and Pretending To Be a Serious Thinker™.

January 2005 By adding this blog as a component and, for many new readers, a first gateway to the website, I instantly start falling behind on my dissertation dramatically increase attendance, catch up with a new(ish) internet platform, and participate in public film discourse through more genres than long, chunky reviews.

February 2007 After nine years of ruining people's eyes with white text on a black background, and making them cast their gaze all the way from the marginless left side of the screen to the marginless right side, I get my act together and do an extreme makeover on the principal pages of the site (though the full archive of reviews and old features are, of course, taking time to update).

I know it's silly and self-absorbed to outline a personal history of my own project, especially when my audience has never been large and my web mojo is still hilariously outdated: I still write my entire site on WordPad, scripting all of the html myself, and then uploading it onto my domain through an FTP software program I got from Cornell in 1999. I have never opened Dreamweaver or PhotoShop in my life. I won't even tell you how I make my graphics. All I'm saying is: I was never good at keeping up with a diary or a journal, I have been struggling to make time for this website almost since the moment I started it, I spend about $1000 per year on movie tickets and don't get any screeners or make as much as a dime from this site, and I didn't think for a moment (and probably couldn't have imagined) all the ways in which this lark of mine would change and enrich my life, so I'm as surprised as I could possibly be that I've stayed committed to this project and kept it running... and even if everyone stops reading or I stop writing tomorrow (hint: I won't), I am so thankful that I've stuck with it.

As the year goes on, I'll be marking this tenth anniversary by revisiting Top 10 lists that are more than a decade old (they'd look a lot different now, and the availability of films I could never have seen in 1995 or 1996 has obviously skyrocketed), and by completing that Favorite Films project that's been stalled at #34 for well over a year. Meanwhile, THANK YOU to anybody who has ever read, linked, e-mailed, asked a question about, said a kind word about, or said a constructively nasty word about this website; I'm even feeling soft today on the full-on haters (well, some of them). By now, I should be well beyond the clichéd and perpetually violated promise to write more reviews, post fewer unexplained grades, etc., but hitting a milestone like this does give me a boost of extra incentive in an insanely busy month of real-job work to keep turning this mutha out.

And of course, the inspiration provided by the great films, including the 10 movies illustrated above that have been my #1 picks from 1997 through 2006, is its own sublime incentive. The #1 of 2007 and the rest of the ranked Top 10 will be announced as soon as my selections in 10 other categories have been posted... so it's back to work for me, and a "Stay Tuned" for you!

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17 Comments:

Blogger par3182 said...

wow, i had no idea you had been around for so long - you interweb pioneer, you

happy anniversary to my second favourite professor (the one on gilligan's island has a few years on you, baby)

7:19 PM, January 26, 2008  
Blogger John T said...

Congrats Nick! This is easily one of my favorite sites on the web (and a daily stop for me). Ten years-the tin anniversary. Will you be reviewing The Tin Drum?

7:33 PM, January 26, 2008  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

Or maybe The Wizard of Oz?

7:46 PM, January 26, 2008  
Blogger CanadianKen said...

Few people can communicate the joy of watching movies like you do. And when you DON'T like something, you can eviscerate it brilliantly. Yet, somehow, you remain just about the sweetest presence in cyberspace. Congratulations on the impressive and endearing balancing act.

9:03 PM, January 26, 2008  
Blogger Cal said...

Congratulations Nick,

That was really inspiring actually. I'd settle for just a portion of what you've achieved already. Keep up the great work.

Oh, and are you gonna be doing top tens and awards for the Pre-1980's anytime soon? (Please!)

6:34 AM, January 27, 2008  
Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Congratulations on 10 years. Quite a feat of longevity for any accomplishment, but especially for the Web. So you've now been doing this for exactly one third of your life? Breathtaking!

8:59 AM, January 27, 2008  
Blogger Esther said...

Congratulations Nick! As someone who's been blogging for less than four months, I just want to say that your longevity is truly inspiring. Thanks for sharing the story of how you got started. I'll definitely be coming back regularly.

9:14 AM, January 27, 2008  
Anonymous goatdog said...

Happy ten years, Nick! I'll always thank you for including The Letter and The Cell (and even Apocalypse Now Redux) on your top 100 list, because it's that quirkiness that led me to email you back in December of 2004. Knowing you has made me a better film critic--you've taught me how to look at films in ways I hadn't thought of. And you are, without comparison, the nicest guy I know. (My ten-year anniversary is still two years away.) (I have more Oscar movies for you!)

9:25 AM, January 27, 2008  
Blogger tim r said...

Everything goatdog said. Your website remains my single favourite thing on the net, as it has been ever since I stumbled on it back in '04. Long may it thrive. Long may you thrive. xo

2:06 PM, January 27, 2008  
Anonymous steve said...

Wow... 10 years. Congrats - the site is awesome and a pleasure to read!

5:42 PM, January 27, 2008  
Blogger DL said...

Wow, congratulations! I know I don't comment very often on the blog portion of Nick's Flick Picks, but browsing through the archives has truly been one of my most valued pastimes the past couple of months and thank you very much for being one of the absolute smartest, most engaging writers on the internet.

Again, congratulations and Happy 10th Birthday!

9:47 PM, January 27, 2008  
Blogger lylee said...

Happy 10th! Good grief, has it really been a decade since our Crimson days? You and your site have come so far since then... but you consistently remain one of the finest writers on film I have the pleasure of knowing personally. Keep up the fabulous work!

2:07 AM, January 28, 2008  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

I love you.

that is all. so happy we met and so sorry i've been tardy about wishing you a 10th anniversary!

5:44 AM, January 28, 2008  
Blogger JA said...

A very happy belated 10, Nick! I can't wait until the day your words are directly scanned onto the computer-chip implanted inside my brain, so you have to promise to stick around that much longer. ;-)

3:30 PM, January 28, 2008  
Blogger Marius said...

Congratulations, Nick! We all love your blog. Also, I think you're very cute. There! I said it. :)

10:32 AM, January 30, 2008  
Blogger Yaseen Ali said...

Ever since I stumbled upon your site back in the spring of 2004, it has been a staple of my "movie diet". If I had known that you were writing even before then, I surely would have been a reader. You have had a profound influence on not only how I write, but the things I look for in a film. Congratulations, and I hope you're around for many more decades.

11:13 AM, February 09, 2008  
Blogger gruffruff said...

Sorry to have found this post more than two years later.

Mega hairy muscle hugs wishing you a great now 12 years of flick picks.

Nick, you have broadened my film horizon a hundred times over. I really appreciate your knowledge and devotion to all things film.

8:30 AM, April 21, 2010  

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