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Critical Confessions: Part 11 - The Dead Zone

It appears to come on suddenly, almost without warning. One minute you're juggling a schedule to see if you can fit a few more screenings into a certain week, the next Hollywood forgets you exist and takes an extended preview hiatus. Too call it feast or famine would be an understatement, since after the lull, you'll more than likely have access to more cinematic product than you can shake a celluloid stick at. Between Oscar screeners, ancillary awards hype (read: book, screenplays, soundtracks, promotional materials), and actual trips to the theater, Fall forces a critic into a state of solitary suspended animation. It's just you, the studios, and an endless parade of motion pictures.

So why the dead zone? Why now? Why the lack of anything legitimate for the last two weeks? Some point to the industry's notorious track record (load up Summer and Winter, screw off Fall and Spring) while others indicate a pro-festival format. Right now, between Venice, Telluride, and Toronto, the last remnants of the old guard print media are schmoozing and cruising on company expense accounts, getting early looks at potential award winners and larding their bylines with interviews, insights, and occasionally insipid gossiping. As a result, the suits figure that few are in town to take apart their feeble failed popcorn fare. So they release these titles sans screening and wait for the season to start up mid-month.

Indeed, looking at the calendar in my office, there are approximately 12 screenings from 8 September to 15 September. Fourteen days. Twelve new films to consider. Some are being tagged right before their release date (be warned, fans of Pacino, DeNiro, and Righteous Kill). Others are being dragged out early, hoping to generate a little gold statue buzz. Such pre-prerelease presentations usually bode well for a movie. While it wasn't my cup of tea, last year we saw Michael Clayton a full six weeks before it opened. On the other hand, Persepolis never arrived on our shores until AFTER it had won an Academy award, and even then there were review restrictions based on region and potential release.

Understand this - Tampa is the artistic armpit of the movie business. We are frequently forgotten when it comes to art house offerings while readily relegated to numerous screenings of the latest mainstream mung. In fact, you know a film must suck and suck mucho hard when Cigar City fails to get a sneak peek (I'm talking to you Babylon A.D. and Bangkok Dangerous). Heck, there was even a Disaster Movie offering the night before it opened. You'd figure that a city a mere 70 miles from Orlando (Eastern home of one Universal Studios and the House of Mouse) and 175 miles from Miama (South Beach, BABY! ) would warrant a tad more consideration. But unless we push for titles, or remind studio reps that we work here, several significant films would simply pass us by.

One of this Summer's hot ticket releases was Man on Wire. Telling the story of daredevil and high wire performer Phillipe Petit's 1974 walk between the World Trade Center towers, the documentary has been getting stellar reviews and lots of positive press. But not in Tampa. There has never been a general screening of this film, and any critic who has reviewed it either got a deal from the distributor direct or saw it outside the area. Come the end of the year, when 'Best Of' lists are getting put together, many think Man on Wire will be right up there. Yet instead of using this downtime to play catch up with places outside the major metropolitan loop, it's the clean slate calm before the storm.

Another example of locational prejudice, if you will, is City of Men. Last April, Tampa got an exclusive press showing of the Brazilian drama (a follow-up of sorts to the award winning City of God and based on the TV series of the same name). While many felt Paulo Morelli failed to capture the same South American spice that Fernando Meirelles brought to the original, it was still a highly touted release. After seeing the film, we critics were informed by the studio rep that we would have to wait until a regional release before we could review the film. As dates were set and then retracted, excuses provided and then pushed aside, we have yet to be given the go ahead to write up this title. When it finally hit DVD on 1 July, I thought about giving it a go. But since there was no longer a need to satisfy a screening obligation, I decided to lighten my workload, so to speak.

Some of my fellow scribes LOVE this time of year. It's an excuse for a vacation, or to simply decompress from a Summer overflowing with empty entertainment value. But if you're part of the nu-media, the 'constantly-having-to-update-a-blog-or-post-new-content' contingent, this lull is literary death. You have to scramble every day, digging through a backlog of material and off the radar releases in quasi-desperation to find something to scribble about. After the typical post-Labor Day wrap-up, SE&L went silent for a day. We frequently skip a post, believing that something we said previously warranted an extra bit of attention. But with no movies to talk about last week, and even less available now, it's almost impossible to come up with a fresh or fun approach. Everything just feels - well, dead.

And the notion of four months filled with daily screenings doesn't make the dearth seem any more acceptable. Indeed, as the calendar dates float by, one finds themselves wondering why THREE films have be scheduled for the 18th, or why some films are being shown at theaters 25 miles outside the city? Would it have been so hard to drag a print to the area for the last week of August/first of September? Granted, you didn't want us to see Vin Diesel destroy yet another semi-solid sci-fi premise, but couldn't that look at the new Mike Leigh comedy Happy-Go-Lucky have filled its spot? Who cares about the well named Disaster Movie? How about an earlier look at Spike Lee's Miracle at St. Anna (which, by the way, is getting the standard Disney sneak - the night before it opens…Sheesh).

Instead, we are stuck waiting - waiting for the press reps to decide whether The Women deserves our attention (the answer - HELL NO! ), or arguing with New York/LA publicists over whether or not they should send a screener DVD your way ("you write WHERE, again???"). Sure, it sounds like ungrateful bellyaching and anyone who has done this job for longer than six years laughs at the suggestion of a slowdown. But with something like the Internet which functions like an infinite source of information - and a seemingly equal number of individuals looking to get it and publish it - offline is off topic, and soon, out of touch. This may be the way things have worked for decades, but times tend to change. If the business model doesn't alter its tendencies, this pause might end up a literal dead zone before long.

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