After 20 years, however you choose to respond to my cinematic ramblings, rantings, and ravings, I will meet you with open arms and sloppy wet kisses. Thank you. Je t’aime. Please come again.
I don’t really remember precisely how it happened or why it was allowed to, but as of March 2022, I’ve been reviewing movies in The Reader for exactly two decades. After the towers fell, but before the Iraq War sequel, I strolled into an office in downtown Omaha and persuaded some kind-hearted editors to let me write a movie review.
That review was for Blade II. I’m just thankful that our beloved John Heaston, publisher and editor of The Reader, was slow to accept that the internet wasn’t a fad, or I’d have to link to it here. I remember it was a slack-jawed rave filled with so many unnecessary adjectives, unlike my terse, succinct, carefully honed prose these days. That they let me write another was a tender mercy. That I’ve done one just about every week for more than a thousand weeks now is some kind of lunatic miracle.
If you don’t mind ─ and I really hope you don’t because I mind if you do ─ I’d like to walk through some of the highlights, lowlights, and notable nonsense of the last 20 years. In a lifetime filled with expected ups and downs, in the midst of what feels like a historic globo-societal upheaval, reflecting on this most unexpected “career” is something like a prayer I’m making.
Memory (Not the Song From Cats)
In middle school, bullies used to chuck me down a big hill outside at lunchtime. Don’t worry, this wasn’t in Omaha, we don’t have hills. I used to hide at the last lunch table in the cafeteria with my best (only) friend, Andrew, to avoid the aforementioned hill chucking. We would talk about comic books. Specifically, we would talk about Spider-Man.
In 2002, not even three full months into my dream job reviewing movies, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was set to be released. What is the equivalent of this? Becoming an astronaut the same week first contact is made? Becoming a doctor the month someone decided leeches were a bad idea? Becoming a stand-up comedian the year a new way to do sex is introduced?
I was in grad school at Creighton. While on break from an evening class, I got a call from my editor telling me she got me into a preview screening at the now-abandoned AMC Oakview. To make it, I had to leave that moment. My professor overheard and mouthed the word “Go” in slow motion.
When I got there, it was packed. I don’t mean “It was busy.” I mean the over-capacity crowd seemed on the verge of riot. I couldn’t even get through the lobby.
Then I saw her, pinned between studio reps and security. The editor who had my pass made eye contact with me. She whipped around, whispered into a studio rep’s ear. Studio rep grabbed security dude. Security dude did the “Moses parting the Red Sea” gesture and yelled “Move aside, this man is press.”
Reader, I would like this on my tombstone.
I was escorted to the theater, where I found my name printed on a sheet, pinned to a centered seat in the middle of the theater. “Ryan Syrek. Film Critic. The Reader.” I still have it.
I carry so many “forever” memories because of this job.
The insane number of hours I spent screening shorts submitted for the Omaha Film Festival in that long-running event’s early days. Bickering with Heaston for months about changing from a star ranking system to letter grades. Attending Film Streams’ opening night. Working with the Barstow family as it planned to open Aksarben Cinema. Debating whether the movie or book version of The Shining was better at an event to raise money for the Omaha Public Library. Getting in knock-down, drag-out internet fights with douchebag provocateur Max Landis and alleged novelist James Dashner. Falling in deep, real love just outside a multiplex. Laughing so hard at an intoxicated man who brought his dog to a showing of A Million Ways to Die in the West. Getting angry about errors introduced by copy editors into a review that prompted me to send an email in which I declared I didn’t need that much oversight because “I am editor.”
How embarrassingly lucky I am.
Regrets, I’ve Had a Few (Not Lyrics From a Paul Anka Song)
I honestly have fond memories of every bit of hate mail. My first was a letter mailed to The Reader because of a typo in Pontius Pilate’s name in my Passion of the Christ review. Since then, I’ve been called “Disney’s Bitch” in Facebook messages, got quasi-death threats for my Hateful Eight review, and took the most heat of all for my B- review of Moonrise Kingdom. Don’t cross the cult of Wes Anderson, y’all. It legitimately never bothered me. My first thought, every time, was “It’s so nice of them to read my stuff.”
Some stuff does bother me, like what a dumb idiot I used to be. Reading past reviews is like binge-watching only the “Scott’s Tots” episode of The Office for a week. From flat-out bad opinions to embarrassingly reductive and ignorant perspectives that reveal my privilege and implicit bias, going through old articles is throwing myself into a haunted house made of my own words. And that’s just stuff I wrote in 2021.
Every critic should get better with time. Each movie watched is another chance to learn, to expand horizons, to climb into what Roger Ebert called an “empathy machine.” What I’m saying is, if you are mad that I hated your favorite movie, you’re probably right, and I’m probably wrong. Unless it’s Baby Driver.
I don’t regret “making movie reviews political.” I regret not doing it earlier. I regret the years I spent not realizing the responsibility I had to place art in context with the real world. I regret the reductive language I used, like describing certain elements as “feminine” without unpacking the loaded associations of that term. I regret all of the things I should have explored, criticized, and questioned but ignored.
But to end even this section on a positive, I was asked by a friend if I was ever ashamed of all the bad jokes I’ve made over the years. I told him how I once got The Reader to publish a review of Hidalgo titled How to Love Your Horse and Not Get Arrested. So, no. No, I do not regret any of the bad jokes.
I Swear (Just Like the All-4-One Song)
Given the state of, you know, everything, it seems insane to speculate about what the next 20 years of doing this could be like. On good days, when hope barely noses past despair, I think about how it could feel to reflect on an Ebert-long critical career. I just want to keep doing this for you, with you.
I want to have Heaston keep chiding me for not going further, not doing more. I want to keep butting heads with buttheads and headbutting butts who want cultural criticism to be reduced to “objectively saying whether or not other people will like a movie.” Here’s a spoiler alert two decades in the making: Nobody can tell others if they’ll like something or not. Nobody can even say if art is “objectively” good. There is no objective criticism, jackholes!
I promise to stop calling readers “jackholes.”
I promise to be unflinching in reviewing my own reviewing. To not assume after at least a thousand reviews that I am anywhere close to where I could be and should be.
I promise to remember how lucky I am to have this role, this outlet, and these people around me. I can’t believe Omaha has had an alternative newspaper survive for this long. Heaston and others sometimes cringe when I praise them for it, but it is so special. This is all so special. I promise I’ll never stop being thankful for that.
The kid who hid from bullies at lunch has held his dream gig for 20 years now.
This man is press.
I am editor.
Thank you. Je t’aime. Please come again.