Last Friday, Aug. 8, Todd Lothery, chief film critic for the Raleigh TheNews & Observer announced that, after seven years, he would be leaving his post as the Triangle’s only full-time movie reviewer on Aug. 29. It was a strenuous job, but Lothery did it well, providing the paper with a thoughtful voice that was informative without being pompous, and populist without succumbing to condescension.
“Being a movie critic is one of those jobs where everybody tells you what a great job you have, so you feel guilty for not liking it more,” Lothery confessed in a recent telephone conversation. “It’s not that I hate it, though. It’s just that I feel like I have untapped creativity in me.” In the interest of developing his creative resources, Lothery will begin taking classes at the Center for Documentary Studies, an institution that operates under the aegis of Duke’s continuing education department. “I realized that I don’t know much about the technical side of the medium I’ve been writing about all these years.”
A native of suburban Chicago, Lothery attended Purdue University for a time before moving to North Carolina in 1990. Five years later he began working on the The News & Observer‘s entertainment calendar part-time. In 1997, after completing his bachelor’s degree in English and film at N.C. State University–where his instructors included Indy freelancers James Morrison and Maria Pramaggiore–Lothery began reviewing movies full time for The News & Observer.
Lothery says the biggest reason for his career change is that he is rapidly approaching a certain undiscovered country. “I’m turning 40 in October. I’ve never put much stock in birthdays, but this was one of those birthdays that makes you take stock of your life. You think, ‘Wow, just 20 years ’til retirement.’”
In advance of his birthday, Lothery received a very sweet gift from his wife Kay Wiles, a Raleigh social worker. “I’m very fortunate to be married to a woman with a good job,” Lothery says. She said: “Take a year and a half off and figure out what you want to do.”
“We’ll have to make some cutbacks, but we’ll manage,” he added, noting that he and his wife have no children.
However, Lothery also acknowledged some dissatisfaction with his workload at The News & Observer. “The job description has changed in the last six to eight months, that has something to do with it,” he says. He has been asked to pick up some additional editing responsibilities, which have limited his production of film reviews, thus forcing the paper to run wire service reviews. But the increased editing responsibilities wasn’t the only problem. “They’ve been pushing me to do more reporting. Some of the assignments are interesting but many are not.”
Despite the shifts in his responsibilities, Lothery says that personal considerations were paramount. Furthermore, watching 250 films a year has taken its toll. “Year after year of reviewing gets you in a rut…A certain weariness sets in after a while,” he says.
“I’ve gotten to where I just can’t get as excited as I should about movies,” Lothery continues. With so much dreck to sit through, says Lothery, “It takes rare films–the Fast Runners–to come around and re-excite your passion.”
Weary as he may be of Bad Boys II and their ilk, Lothery shares the Triangle’s embrace of the documentary. “There have been so many docs this summer–they’ve kept me going.” His favorites so far have been Spellbound and Stone Reader. These films have also given Lothery an opportunity to sharpen his own instincts for the documentary. His review of Stone Reader, although positive, also contained a (well-founded) charge that certain scenes were staged. Lothery says he received an indignant email from the film’s director (not published in paper), in which he denied the fabrications.
In addition to studying documentary production in the fall, Lothery will catch up on other long-deferred projects. “I’ve started a bunch of short stories over the years, and I can finish them now. I might also try writing scripts. I’ve seen so many bad movies over the years. I feel like I could do better–even if a hundred thousand other people have said the same thing!” Lothery also plans to do some freelance writing, perhaps doing travel pieces in addition to continuing to produce the occasional film article.
At the Center for Documentary Studies, Lothery’s coursework will focus on the nuts and bolts of production. “I’m a guy who’s done nothing more than hold a camcorder a couple of times.” His studies will culminate in the production of a documentary. Although he doesn’t have an idea yet, he’s already been kicking around possibilities with friends. “There are so many things you wouldn’t think would make a doc,” he says, pointing to this summer’s slew of successful off-beat docs such as Spellbound, Capturing the Friedmans and Stone Reader.
Indeed, this summer’s phenomenon of hit documentaries might prove to be the next gold rush, and perhaps Lothery’s career move will turn into a trend. And if he does come up with an idea, he should guard it well.
In other news, Bickett Gallery in Raleigh is hosting its heavily publicized 23 HOURS multi-media exhibition. Numerous facets of this five-week extravaganza have been covered elsewhere in these pages but it’s worth noting that the gallery will devote Wednesday nights to a hip and eclectic array of programming, beginning Wednesday, Aug. 13 with Alex Cox’s Repo Man, a cult fave from 1984 that stars Emilio Estevez. The main event will be preceded by an A/V Geeks presentation of short educational films from Skip Elsheimer’s famed archive. The series is being curated by the wife and husband team of Marsha and Devin Orgeron, both of whom are members of N.C. State’s English-lit faculty.
The series will continue next week with John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959), a film that is something of an indie film landmark, showing the way for future DIY efforts. The following weeks will feature hip films with pop music themes. First, there’s Mystery Train, Jim Jarmusch’s whimsical 1989 comedy set in Memphis, a film that explores the Elvis mystique and features an appearance by the late Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Jean-Luc Godard’s relatively obscure Sympathy for the Devil will be the featured attraction on Sept. 3. This film contains fly-on-the-wall footage of the Rolling Stones at work in the studio, crafting one of their greatest–and most self-conscious–tunes. Then there’s that parallel plot involving Black Panthers living in a junkyard, which the Orgerons may be able to explain to us.
Rounding out the series is Doug Pray’s Scratch, a hip-hop documentary that played last year at Durham’s Hip-Hop Film Festival. All of these films will be preceded by shorts programs, ranging from recent Glitter Films selections to the world premiere of Pidgeons Don’t Sing, Mick Winters’ account of a band showcase at Kings Barcade in March of this year.
All programs start at 8 p.m. For more information, visit www.bickettgallery.com or www.23hours.org (although at press time the latter site was out of commission). The Bickett Gallery is located at 209 Bickett Blvd. in Five Points, Raleigh.