That Old Feeling at 100

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Three years ago next week, I began this column, with the intent of focusing a gilded rear-view mirror on classic pop culture. And one of my favorite excuses for a story is to celebrate somebody's 100th birthday.

I've blown out all those candles for deceased artistes Marlene Dietrich, Richard Rodgers, Ogden Nash, Cornell Woolrich, S.J. Perelman and Ted "Dr. Seuss" Geisel. Two more honorees, Leni Riefenstahl and Bob Hope, were still alive when they got reached triple digits, though they have since ceded to mortality. I used to unearth these milestones only when I'd hear of some media cross-promotion — a tributary rivulet of books, CDs or DVDs — which often meant playing hectic catch-up. Now I go to the Internet Movie Database at the start of a year and see whose centenaries are imminent. (Click on the birth year of any celeb, and you will find IMDb's chronological list of every showbiz figure born that year. Another helpful service of the movie website I rely on most avidly.)

When my own esteemed webitors, Josh Macht and Mark Coatney, noticed that this column was nearing the century mark, they suggested I give the same treatment to That Old Feeling (TOF to insiders). Hmm... celebrate myself? Orate dewily on my night job? Reiterate the sacred precepts of cultural anachronism? I'm not sure, guys. Twist my arm some more!

OK, mission accomplished. Here we go, folks. Into the navel, endlessly gazing.


Compulsive list-keeping is the orderliness of the disorderly. I'm absent-minded; I lose videocassettes, books, film notes, my house keys and, occasionally, my mind. But I am a walking repository of baseball and box office statistics (my patron saints: Bill James and Art Murphy). I can name every winner of the Best Picture Oscar, reflexively — it's in my muscle or flab memory — from 1928 to the early 90s, at which point short-term memory loss kicks in. Thus it's no surprise, though it probably is a pity, that I have kept a running tab on the subjects and, bizarrely, the word counts of this series.

The bloody figures: 378,154 words in the first 99 columns, for an average of 3,820 words per story. The shortest piece was the first, an introduction to the scope and aims of the enterprise. That came in under 2,000 words. The pieces averaged about 2,500 words for the first few months, then just grew like Pinocchio's nose. The longest column was on a dozen films made from Woolrich novels and stories. That one (it was the second of two Woolrich pieces — I do get carried away) ran more than 7,600, and I fear that, somewhere off in cyberspace, it's still running.

This monstrous tally doesn't include another 80,000 words, more or less, for other stories that don't quite fit the requirements of TOF: Oscar predictions and wrapups, reports on Cannes Film Festival prize-winners, some baseball ruminations and a few expansions of pieces (like this week's essay on Ben Affleck) that have run in the magazine.

That's a lot of, I don't know, verbiage, or verbal spillage — more than Stephen King could write in a whole month. Immediately I have to thank my Time.commissars for their indulgence, not to mention the wondrous application of giga-bandwidth, or whatever it is that allows all the TOF columns, and other, much more valuable material, to be found on this site long after it was published. I may be a cultural fogie, but I embrace the new technology.

My Microsoft Outlook engine is not so capacious; messages disappear after 28 days. Otherwise, I would surely have kept track of the e-mail I've received — most gratefully received — commenting on my stories. You should know that TIME writers rarely see the readers' comments on their magazine stories; letters go to the Letters Department, except for those addressed specifically to the writer. At, you need merely click on a writer's byline to pick a fight or fling a bouquet. I get the message.

Well, not always. Some topics don't make readers hit the byline button. I've written a dozen or so columns on Broadway musicals without getting a single e-mail. (Which won't stop me from doing a Frank Loesser tribute one of these weeks.) Sometimes, though, I get bundles. The record-holder for TOF is the series I wrote last summer on Bollywood films. That spurred 150-200 e-mails, most of them long, knowledgeable and helpful to a passionate amateur in a huge field.

Other pieces I've written for have generated larger, more heated responses. My comments on Halle Berry's Oscar speech cued a couple hundred angry, anguished, articulate e-mails that I answered, directly and indirectly, in four subsequent TOFs. A column suggesting that Cal Ripken's 16-year playing streak didn't entitle him to hero status stoked another couple hundred comments, most of them dismissive. Last month's piece on the liberal media's contempt for Mel Gibson and his Jesus movie provoked a heavenly host of e-mails — more than 400 in the first three days — from people who, glory be, agreed with me. I try to answer every e-mail, but was overwhelmed, in both senses, by the Mel-strom in response to that story.

Keep 'em coming, pro or con, people. And thanks to all who have sent in suggestions and corrections.


This column grew out of two kinds of stories I've written for "the real magazine" — for TIME not-com. (In addition, that is, to all the movie reviews, celebrity profiles and arrant forays into the world of sport, science and, last week, the criminal underworld). One is a tribute to long-dead actors or musicians, usually tagged to a reissue or revaluation of their work.

In the 90s I wrote pieces for TIME on silent stars Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks (when their films appeared in handsome video collections), on Dorothy Dandridge (a new biography), on the comedy band leader Spike Jones (a double-CD set, with liner notes by Thomas Pynchon). One year, a splendid season of every Samuel Beckett play cued a longish essay; the next, the packaging of musical shorts from the 30s and 40s. And there was the week when all the grownups were on vacation and I assigned myself a page on a Hawaiian steel-guitar virtuoso of the 1920s. For goodness' sake, why? Because I liked him!

One summer a couple of decades ago, my distinguished colleague Richard Schickel bemoaned the lot of a film critic assigned to write about the seasonal pack of muscle-bound action pictures. "It's not that they're bad movies," he said. "It's that they're the same bad movie." Our job, essentially, was to make cutting witticisms — to distinguish not between apples and oranges but between rotten apples and rottener.

In truth, critics don't mind parading their rage or contempt now and then; and one nagging secret of the trade is that there are many more synonyms for awful than there are for terrific. (I shudder when a critic describes a movie he saw two days before as "unforgettable." And if I read "riveting" one more time as an adjective of praise, I'm going to get out my riveter and hunt the critic down.) In larger truth, we live in an age of contempt. Like a talk-show host or a Presidential candidate, a critic of the popular arts can't go wrong handing out lumps of coal and mockery. (Or, for that matter, lumps of Colin Mochrie.) But there's good stuff out there. And as I age, grow decades past the youth in which every critic thinks he's discovering the Pythagorean Theory with each new movie or song, I find that a lot of the best stuff is Back There. Back When.

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