October 31, 2010


The first screening that I attended in a professional capacity was for a now-forgotten piece of quaint English shit, Greenfingers. It was at Denver’s historic Mayan theater, run by Landmark, and I was only the third person to arrive after the lovely publicist, who used to be on a soap opera and has since moved out of the market, and local radio show host Reggie McDaniel. I was nervous – scared, really – and he was kind. He was, in fact, the only person genuinely kind to me for the first couple of months on my new beat – my other colleagues were suspicious of me in exactly the way that I find myself suspicious of all the new faces that show up at screenings in the Denver area nowadays. Reggie passed away a couple of months ago after a long illness so long that I’d started to think of him as invincible. In a lot of ways, his congestive heart failure brought back the last two years of my father’s life for me – I was hoping to replay it, I think, with dad pulling through this time. But he didn’t, and Reggie didn’t. And it’s been hard for me to make it back to the Cineplex ever since his passing. If my output seems anemic lately, well, it has been.

Reggie called his show the “Every Day People’s Guide” and listening to him, and then reading me, you’d be hard pressed to find a lot of common ground. We both loved horror films, but where he tended to find something positive to say about everything that he saw, I tend to find something negative. It’s just the way our critical muscles attached to our public skeletons, I guess, but it didn’t stop Reggie from inviting me onto his show on a few occasions, nor from encouraging me when I was most frustrated by my treatment by an industry that, frankly, doesn’t owe you any favors and knows it. He was wiser than I am still. He told florid stories, gory with embellishment (I think), about times he tried to kill commanding officers with lab rats and his stint as a drill instructor, using them as explanation for his genuine philanthropy. Everyone noted with irritation that he seemed always to be on his phone. Not everyone knew that he was fielding calls from crack addicts, ex-whores, and assorted convicts he’d taken under his wing and into his home. Reggie said he had a lot to atone for.
The truth about Reggie is that he was a keen critic with a good eye who understood that the only way he could parlay his passion for film into something like a living wage was to bank on his expansive personality and play to the dumbest person in his audience. The thing is that he did it without condescension. It’s something that I couldn’t do – and something that I couldn’t always resist judging him for. But in private conversations, he revealed to me a depth of understanding – and a clear, precise way of expressing himself – that belied his persona as the affable buffoon; his careful presentation as the voice of the people. There’s a part of me that still doesn’t know what to feel about that. It’s the part of me that probably needs to lighten up.

I remember a screening of Mulholland Drive where, midway, Reggie muttered “What the hell?” in what might be the most honest initial reaction to the picture. I remember a BBQ dinner at a wonderful little hole-in-the-wall called “Blest” that has, alas, since folded and disappeared, in which a few fellow diners at first disdainful of Reggie in his purple suit were won over by the end by his good humor. I remember telling Reggie that if we were religious at all we’d ask him to be godfather to our kids and him saying that it was just about the greatest thing he could think of that it would even cross our minds – us being not religious at all, and all. I mostly remember shaking his hand and patting his shoulder at every screening, asking after his health and him asking after my “beautiful wife” and “beautiful kids.” He made me feel welcome and safe at every screening that I attended for almost a decade. I miss him.

I met George Hickenlooper after a lecture he gave at the Aspen Shorts Festival several years ago. I approached him after and expressed admiration for his thoughts and the breadth of his knowledge and he agreed to an interview the next morning in the lobby of his hotel. He was modest, unassuming, and ferociously honest about his experiences in Hollywood and the people he met there. During a fest in which I met people like Alexander Payne and Bruce Beresford, it was Hickenlooper that I stayed in contact with. Later, during the Denver Festival a couple of months later, George called to ask that I withdraw the transcript of the interview that we did together because of a possibly embarrassing revelation. I remember talking to him while I stood in a crowded upstairs hall at the filmcenter, waiting for a screening. I remember telling him “no.”

“Listen,” he said, “I really like you and that’s why I told you those things. You’re smart, you did your homework, and I thought we had made a connection.” I responded that I felt that we had as well and that if only he had indicated that his remarks were off the record, I surely would have respected that. I have an entire interview with Bob Rafelson that I can’t ever share because at the end of it he said to me “Oh, hey, all of this is off the record.” Ethics. I felt wounded that George would ask me to be something other than what I was because he was embarrassed that he’d told me too much. I’ve learned a lot about myself and about others doing this job that is, essentially, sitting by yourself in a dark room and then sitting by yourself in front of a little lit square and a keyboard. I’m conflicted again.

Hickenlooper was back in town this year for this year’s edition of the Denver Film Festival. I’d reached out to him through Facebook; I’d hoped that we could have a drink and put it behind us and talk again, as we had years ago, about the auteur theory, and what a boob Bogdanovich could be, and Welles, and final cuts and confederate ghosts. I saw it as a way to get back on the proverbial horse, maybe cover this fest again with the same kind of enthusiasm and gusto as I had before I lost my shit and let my frustrations with what you can’t control get the better of me. I’d even chatted with a fest director that I’d alienated some time in the past and done my best to bury the hatchet. Truth be told, I was almost moved to tears to see him.

And then Hickenlooper was found dead at the age of 47 in his hotel room. With apologies to Nick Ray, it’s a lonely place. With apologies to Cory McAbee, this space is a lonely town. R.I.P. Reg, R.I.P. George. Welcome to the downhill side.


Norm Wilner said...

That was really lovely. Condolences on both losses.

(I'm including this bit because I fear the above sentence might read like spam. It shouldn't.)

Anonymous said...

I'm a little confused, then, why you'd use a thoughtful elegy to further publicize a fact that your friend found so embarrassing he'd already asked you to withdraw it from an interview transcript. Probably like a lot of people, I'm reading this piece but not the original interview, and as touching as the rest of the piece is, this just feels like exactly the wrong gesture, repeated to an even bigger audience. Retroactively modifying an article at a subject's request is one thing. Repeating a fact in the context of its own undesirability to a subject of whom you were obviously fond feels like something else. But maybe that's just an older person speaking from different experiences. In any event, condolences on the loss of Reggie, who sounds wonderful.

Walter_Chaw said...

Good point. I'm dumb, but teachable, Thanks.