by Bill Chambers It's hard for me to remember the BW (Before Walter) times now, but this site was already four years old when Walter Chaw joined it in 2001. In 1997, I was writing reviews for one of my hometown newspapers and living in the only dorm on the campus of York University that offered free broadband in every suite. So I taught myself basic HTML and established a GeoCities page in order to "syndicate" my print reviews. My time at the paper ended pretty much when I graduated from film school; I kept the site going because I needed something to take my mind off the crickets that had suddenly replaced my social life. I convinced myself that FILM FREAK CENTRAL--known, in those first few months, as FILM GEEK CENTRAL, to my everlasting shame--was only temporary and that screenplays, which I'd been writing in my spare time for a decade, were how I was really going to unlock the door to fortune and glory.
FFC, in its nascence, was mainly a one-man band, barring the odd review from Vincent Suarez, a friend I'd made on Usenet; CBC critic Christopher Heard, my moviegoing companion whenever I had a weekend at home; two other people I had met online, Paula J. Vitaris and Max S. Scheinin; my brother Jarrod; and Jarrod's stepson, Sam Jonasson. (I credit Vincent with introducing me to the magazine VIDEO WATCHDOG, whose example helped solidify our approach to writing about DVDs, such as tackling multiple titles at once.) The Internet was a magical Iowa cornfield back then: if you built it--"it" being a shrine to your hobbyhorse--visitors would come, and with them a certain credibility. Opportunities started to present themselves within a year of launching the site, and I have no doubt it had less to do with my writing than with being in the right place at the right time. In the spring of 1998, I was asked to join the newly-formed Online Film Critics Society. In 1999, after my print gig dried up, I was among the first exclusively web-based critics accredited to cover the Toronto International Film Festival. In 2000, I was invited to attend the annual Video Software Dealers Association convention in Vegas, my first trip out of the country without my parents. In 2001, Walter Murch invited me to spend the day with him on the production of K-19: The Widowmaker, which he was editing in an out-building next to the Toronto set. That plus my 2000 interview with Mr. Murch--auspiciously, the site's first--only happened because he'd reached out to me upon seeing my review of his incredible directorial debut, Return to Oz. Paraphrasing Mario Puzo, I told him if I'd known he was going to read it, I would have written it better. I wasn't being falsely modest, either.
Thanks to the great Norm Wilner, whose advice I sought while searching for a critic position in the mid-'90s ("This might hurt" went the subject-heading of his reply), I even got a chance to return briefly to the print world, writing a monthly DVD column for MARQUEE--a magazine I'd read since I was a kid, as it was complimentary at Cineplex Odeon theatres. It was a heady time, and a backlog began to accumulate. Enter Walter Chaw. We met on the late, lamented epinions, a utopian dot-com that solicited consumer reports from its users in exchange for a portion of the click-thru revenue these "opinions" generated. Thanks to posts like "hundreds are dead, teen angst survives," his infamous takedown of James Cameron's Titanic, Walter was wildly popular there. He bristled with intelligence--to my knowledge, no one else had quoted Robert Duncan's "Passage Over Water" in their author bio--and did not suffer fools gladly, so I was astounded when he added me to his list of trusted friends. One day doubles of Gummo and julien donkey-boy showed up at my house, and on a whim, I asked Walter if he'd be interested in covering them for the site. He quickly took the wheel of FFC's film-review section, which had always been lagging, and we got along like a house on fire, which I attribute to being able to get his "One Day at a Time" and "Days of Our Lives" references and project a modicum of wisdom by quoting Men in Black as though it came from a philosopher whose name escaped me. He humoured me a lot in those days; I know it.
Twenty-one years in and we bone like we're cheating on each other WITH each oth--oh wait, wrong tribute. A quick story about Walter, one I can only hope he doesn't remember: A year or so into our collaboration, we had a horrific blowup, 100% my fault, that resulted in weeks of mutual silent treatment. Yet that entire time, he kept sending me stuff to publish, and I kept publishing it. It crystallized a couple of things for me: that a) compartmentalizing is real, and that b) I had barely noticed FFC turning into Audrey II. (C) He is a mensch.) If the site wasn't about the writing before Walter joined, it definitely was afterwards. Our reader mail quintupled--much of it negative, but it's human nature to be lulled by agreement and spurred to action by dissent. When we started a blog in 2005 and a community coalesced around the little thought bubbles we posted there, it confirmed that our inclining traffic wasn't driven by hate-reads.
If I regret anything about the early days of FILM FREAK CENTRAL, it's that it took me so long to truly appreciate it. By which I mean I coasted, and maybe hid behind Walter Chaw's obvious greatness. I have excuses for this--good ones, too (disability stuff; not knowing how to juggle editorial and creative obligations without depleting my mental resources for the latter; a gnawing fear I was letting go of my filmmaking aspirations)--but excuses are all they are. Like many guys in their 20s, I was a know-it-all who knew nothing, and I don't believe I had much style to deflect from my ignorance. I wish I could have back all those wasted words. This isn't to say I think I'm a genius now, but watching Walter, my former York classmate Travis Mackenzie Hoover, and, eventually, Alex Jackson, Jefferson Robbins, Ian Shade (née Pugh), and Bryant Frazer continually raise the bar here, week after week, left me too swollen with pride to keep slacking off. In recent years I've also experienced hernia surgery, a permanent arm fracture, heart failure, and a steep decline in my hearing that's forced me to bow out of the podcast game for fear of embarrassing myself more than usual, and FFC has proved such a steadying force throughout these challenges that it would be profoundly ungracious of me not to give 100% to everything I do here. For better or worse, this site is my legacy.
Still, I have to admit that the current state of the world makes it harder every day to invest in something as frivolous as a movie-review site. And Bryant's unexpected passing last October was as devastating for me personally as it was professionally; what a lovely man he was. "I admit I had more fanfare and self-indulgence planned...but these are melancholy times; I feel we should just count our blessings and move on," I wrote on the occasion of our twentieth anniversary, perhaps assuming that a measure of order would be restored before our next big one. Because, really, how much worse could it get than 2017, right? Alas.
Before I go, I suppose I should speculate on the key to FFC's longevity, because 25 years is an eternity in cyberspace. Other than reducing my presence as avatar of the site (my face on Moses's body used to greet readers on the main page, and I virtually awarded year-end "Billys" in a variety of spurious categories like Worst Movie Critic ("Me"--I won that one twice) and Best Sex Scene ("Charlize Theron/Connie Nielsen w/Keanu Reeves in Devil's Advocate"--good choice), FFC remains fundamentally unchanged from the same mix of reviews, interviews, and the occasional think-piece it always was. The only pivoting we've done is to grow more mature. I freely admit I've gone back and removed some of the punching-down in our old reviews, not to whitewash our reputations, but because I hate the idea of anybody who isn't a Republican coming here and getting ambushed by a wisecrack that makes them feel small. We are teachable, though we've avoided the most cynical forms of progress, i.e., the kind where we're chasing trends. That's probably why we've plateaued in popularity, but we still have our integrity, and that's fuel. So is, to be frank, the support of our Patreons and PayPal donors, who absolutely made this milestone possible.
Thank you literally everyone who's ever read us, assisted us, or written for us, including Angelo Muredda, Alice Stoehr, and Sydney Wegner. Boy, I've really lucked out with writers. Always choose people with something to teach you.
Lastly, a special thank you to Walter Chaw. There aren't enough words, chum. Without you I'm nothing.
I leave you with this epigraph that greeted visitors on the homepage once upon a time:
Now and zen I think about life and stuff.
Roman Polanski's character in The Tenant asks his beatnik girlfriend a great philosophical question, which I'll paraphrase here: If I cut off my arms, I say, "This is me, and these are my arms." If I cut off my legs, I say, "This is me, and these are my legs." But if I cut off my head, do I say, "This is me, and this is my body," or "This is me, and this is my head."? What right does my head have to say it's me?
I know how I'd answer that question.
I love to write. I love to watch movies. I love to read. 'Film Freak Central' is for people who share these passions.
This is me, and this is my website.
Webmaster and Editor
(Updated for clarity, June 1, 2022.)