Forty-six years and two months.
No, that’s not how long we’ve all been hunkered down in the grip of Covid. It’s the length of my career writing film reviews for Good Times. As the pandemic raged and movie theaters shut down, my contributions became more sporadic, but 2022 was the first year in seemingly forever that not one single review of mine appeared in print.
To put it in perspective, my first movie review (Monty Python and the Holy Grail) was published in GT in October 1975, a year and a half before I met my Art Boy in the spring of 1977. We moved in together in February 1978 and married nearly eight months later. We were together for forty years ’til death did us apart. That was almost five years ago. Before, during and after all that time together, I’ve been writing weekly film reviews for GT; until the Attack of Covid, when my career came to a screeching halt. March 2020 was the last time I went to a theater to review a movie, about four days before they all shut down. (The last six films I wrote about in the paper were viewed online.)
Talk about an identity crisis!
I was a wide-eyed 23-year-old just out of UCSC, in my embroidered hippie overalls, when I started my stint at GT. I figured going to the movies would be a fun way to make my rent until I had to get an actual job. (Historical note: Rents were a lot cheaper in those days.)
On the face of it, I had zero qualifications for this job. I wasn’t a film scholar and had never taken a journalism class. But I’d spent my entire childhood watching old movies on TV with my mom. In those days, you couldn’t just dial up something on demand; you had to be prepared to stay up until 1am on a Saturday, for instance, for the weekly movie classics on The Fabulous 52 in L.A., which began at 11:15pm, right after the news. My mom popped the corn, and my night-owl brothers and I would settle in.
The series MGM Classics played every Sunday afternoon in syndication, and another station played classic foreign movies with subtitles. Musicals, monster movies, studio classics from Hollywood’s Golden Age, Errol Flynn swashbucklers, cheesy Italian gladiator movies, my mom’s appetite was inexhaustible, and we watched them all!
The rest was on-the-job training. Fortunately, I was inspired by how amazingly diverse the Santa Cruz movie scene was in those days. Besides mainstream movies at the chain theaters, there was the original single-screen Nickelodeon, the repertory-style Sash Mill Cinema for art-house fare, the plucky, independently-owned Capitola Theater (which persisted in showing double-features with cartoons, and 15-cent M&Ms, well into the ‘80s), a thriving drive-in, even a venue for X-rated movies at the old Cinema Soquel.
I was still at it ten years after my first byline at GT. I was having way too much fun! Back then, I used to joke that I’d been with the paper so long people meeting me for the first time expected me to be 80 years old.
Once, in the mid-’90s, a young writer who had recently joined our editorial pool asked around to find out how he could get some film review assignments. As he told me later, somebody informed him, “Lisa Jensen would have to die.” When Siskel and Ebert were all the rage, I appeared on a similar movie review program with fellow critic Rick Chatenever, then at the Sentinel, on local TV station KRUZ. One early evening, as I emerged from a screening at a downtown theater and started walking past the folks lined up for the next show, an older woman I didn’t personally know broke into a merry grin as I went by. “It’s our movie girl!” she cried.
During a few flush years, I wrote two reviews a week, and sometimes three, if this or that indulgent editor could figure out how to lay them all out on the same page. For a couple of years, early in the Millennium, when Greg Archer was our fearless leader, I also wrote a bi-weekly opinion column about any damn thing I wanted, which I loved.
True, there have been times when I flirted with the possibility of retiring from the fray. The closest I came was after my first novel was published in 2001. The dangling carrot of writing fiction full-time, without having to stop and expend brain cells on a movie review every week, was tempting. After all, Art Boy had given up the comic book store to pursue art full-time, and boy, did he love it! Still, it’s just as well that I didn’t follow that carrot off a cliff since it took another 13 years to publish my next novel!
But now that I am actually 80 years old (well, not literally, but you get the idea), I find myself at a crossroads. Covid has wrought havoc in all facets of the movie business: productions have been halted, release dates postponed, and movie theaters closed. Even now that most theaters have reopened, many new movies are being released directly into the privacy of viewers’ homes, either within weeks of their big screen debuts or bypassing theaters altogether for streaming platforms. Direct-to-streaming has become (yet another) new normal.
Locally, the former Cinema 9, smack in the middle of Pacific Avenue downtown, closed for good mid-pandemic; that its parent chain, Regal Cinemas, decided to abandon its Santa Cruz venue had an extra ominous ring of finality to it. It has reopened, phoenix-like, as the locally-operated Santa Cruz Cinema and the Cinelux theaters at 41st Avenue and Scotts Valley have raised the curtain again. But while the venerable Del Mar downtown, in all its 1936 movie-palace glory, is showing movies again, its sister venue, the beloved Nickelodeon, remains dark. After almost 60 years of local ownership as a treasure of adventurous art house cinema, its current parent company, Landmark Cinemas, has it up for sale.
Now I wonder what will the future of movie theaters even looks like. Millennials are suspicious of anything that takes them out of their comfort zones, like driving (hence Google buses and Uber). They may not have yet developed the habit of congregating with their fellow humans in a public space with a big screen; they’d just as soon watch movies on their phones.
Meanwhile, I know plenty of people in my age group (the Stone Age) who had long since given up movies in public for Netflix et al., even before the pandemic. Trying to stay au courant, I did review a few new movies on streaming platforms, but the sheer enormity of product was overwhelming; instead of a handful of new films to cover on local screens, there were hundreds of titles on dozens of platforms. Meanwhile, the space allocated to film in the paper shrank to almost nothing as Good Times zeroed in on supporting and promoting local businesses that were still open to some degree and available to our local readership, like restaurants, bookstores and farmers markets.
So, is this my cue to exit stage left?
We can’t know what the future will bring. If vaccinations keep pace with each aggressive new Covid variant, the public may be lured back to the movies again. Perhaps I’ll finally have new stuff to post on my Rotten Tomatoes page! Maybe I’ll still dabble in the occasional review if there’s something I really don’t want you to miss.
But in the meantime, treasured readers, know this: It has been my very great pleasure to be your movie girl for all these years. This community of dedicated, opinionated and unrepentant movie fans means the world to me.
Thanks for all your support, your encouragement and your letters, even when you disagreed with me. In the early days, my favorite was the reader who objected to “the jejune jottings of Ms. Jensen.” Fair enough—you can’t get much more jejune than age 23! (I got better—I hope.)
But mostly, as always, thanks for reading.