The Pictures Got Smaller
There are still excellent movies being made, Blank says, citing “Brokeback Mountain,” “Million-Dollar Baby” and the Sigourney Weaver-Anthony LaPaglia film “The Guys” as among his favorite recent releases of the past decade.
In fact, Blank calls 2002’s “The Guys” one of the best movies he’s seen in the last 15 years. Set just after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it stars LaPaglia as a New York fire official who has to eulogize eight dead firefighters and Weaver as the writer hired to help him.
But you’ve probably never heard of the movie, he says. Despite a strong screenplay and good performances from the leads, “The Guys,” lasted only a week at Oakmont’s The Oaks theater and wasn’t shown anywhere else.
And that’s the problem, according to Blank. Maybe Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” was right, and the pictures have gotten smaller.
“The frame of reference has shrunk,” he says. “I know people would say it’s mushroomed, but I would say it’s shrunk.”
Blank notes that when he was small, double-features were still common. If you went to the movies to see a cowboy picture, you probably got a romantic comedy or a war film or a detective story as well, along with short subjects and previews. As a result, he says, moviegoers were exposed to many types of entertainment they wouldn’t otherwise have sought out.
Now, like TV networks and radio stations, movies are narrowly focus-grouped. Blank laments — as trade publications confirm — that most films are designed to appeal to teen-agers and young adults.
And with continuous breathless coverage of entertainment news by TV networks and Web sites, moviegoers have virtually no chance of being surprised by any film. “The single most important element in selling any movie became the ability to describe it in a single sentence,” Blank says. “It’s almost impossible for people to select a movie that they don’t like. You’ve got a predisposed audience going to the picture and responding to it very favorably.”
The Multiplex Era
In the multiplex era, kids on dates or in small groups are looking for reliable, predictable entertainment, Blank says. Nearly every weekend, there’s a teen-sex comedy, an animated feature, and an action film available at every multiplex, and that leads to a dreary predictability.
It makes a critic’s job wearisome, he says.
“Part of the reason I lost interest was the majority of movies being released in multiplexes and what sold phenomenal millions of tickets was just disheartening,” Blank says. “A significant part of the audience today cannot sit still for dialogue and ideas.”
When movies slow down to depict conversations and relationships, he says, “out come the cell phones and Blackberrys, and people start checking their messages. It only takes a few seconds for the loss of attention to be noticeable.”
On the TV Beat
By “narrow-casting” their output, the major film studios followed television and radio, which Blank covered for two eventful years at the Pittsburgh Press, where he worked as radio-TV editor not long after serving as a U.S. Army signalman during the Vietnam War.
“I got totally caught up in that job,” says Blank, who covered local and national TV and radio from November 1969 until January 1972. “I’m not exaggerating when I say I was spending so many hours on that job I was considering keeping a cot down there (at the paper) and a TV.”
TV critics these days can count on the networks to distribute DVDs with new shows for prescreening. When Blank was covering TV, a few shows were screened for critics at the local affiliates, but VCRs didn’t exist, so reviewing the new seasons required watching every single primetime series, seven nights a week for four weeks, until he had viewed most of the highlights.
Luckily, there were only three commercial networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — and limited PBS or syndicated output.
“The irony was that (the Pittsburgh newspapers) were on strike when the most famous series of that era premiered,” Blank says. Thus it was on KDKA-TV (2) that he gave his first review of the landmark sitcom “All in the Family.”
“What has amused me to this day is that I compared it to a domestic comedy that it was so diametrically opposed to called ‘Mama,'” he says, the sitcom based on the movie “I Remember Mama.”
(In fairness, Blank made the comparison because the debut episode — “Meet the Bunkers” — featured a long scene set at the dining room table, just as “Mama” also often did.)
Then the country’s 10th-largest Sunday newspaper, the Pittsburgh Press gave Blank a “bully pulpit” to gain access to the biggest TV stars of the 1960s and ’70s, plus movie stars like Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart.
On the local scene, Blank profiled a different Pittsburgh broadcaster every week, alternating AM, FM and TV. In the process, he wrote some of the only significant features on some fairly obscure local personalities, along with profiles of some better-known local celebrities like Jack Bogut, Marie Torre, Bill Hillgrove and Bill Cardille.
When Blank finally got his dream job — drama and movie critic — he had a rude awakening. “Whereas the three networks were utterly attuned to the Pittsburgh Press TV desk, access did not exist at the Hollywood movie studios for the drama desk,” he says.”It isn’t just that I wasn’t able to get instant phone access to Redford and Streisand, but the requests for supporting people never came through.”
Pittsburgh has been considered an “underperforming” movie market for decades, Blank says. Worse yet, the major film booking agencies that served local movie theaters were based in Philadelphia. Still, he persevered until 1992, when a strike by delivery drivers shut both Pittsburgh newspapers for eight months.
After the strike ended, the larger Pittsburgh Press had been absorbed by the smaller Post-Gazette, and Blank was at the Tribune-Review, a paper then based in nearby Greensburg that had just launched a Pittsburgh edition.
The problem of access was “greatly magnified,” he says. “I was at a smaller paper, unknown outside the area, and never, never did any (requests) come through.”
Still, Blank plugged away, organizing theater trips to Broadway in between writing reviews, covering news, and reporting on new releases and old classics. Despite working for a small paper, he managed good “gets” (his last star profile was of Billy Bob Thornton), and he remained both unpredictable and prolific. (According to rottentomatoes.com, Blank wrote 1,224 reviews between that Web site’s debut and February 2007, agreeing with the conventional wisdom only 65 percent of the time.)
That made him a valuable resource for people looking to swim against the tide; last year, while critics from the Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, and New York Daily News were praising the Academy Award-nominated Will Smith vehicle “The Pursuit of Happyness,” Blank was tepid, calling it “tiresome in its depiction of relentless bad luck.” (“Unfortunate coincidences and contrived misfortunes abound as everything always goes wrong.”)
But the job of a film critic was losing its allure. “The newspaper was going more in the direction of advance stories,” Blank says, “which I had increasingly lost interest in doing, because film critics’ jobs should not being doing the studios’ job of selling movies.
“That’s the point at which I decided it was time to get out of the business,” he says.
There was no last article; no farewell tribute. Appropriately enough, however, Blank’s last Sunday column did round up his personal favorites from Broadway and Hollywood.
Busy as Ever
Although his work with the Hibernians is unpaid, Blank’s as busy as ever. He’s also still going to the movies (as a fan, but nothing he’s seen yet has changed his mind about his decision to stop writing criticism) and he’s catching up on TV he missed in 40 years of going to the theater at night. (Blank’s working his way through “Seinfeld” on DVD; he completely missed the series during its original run.)
Most importantly, he’s sounds happy to be doing something worthwhile for the community. In recent months, local Hibernians have assisted food drives, raised money for an Amish community devastated by a shooting in central Pennsylvania, and supported charities like Emmaus House and the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
At the risk of invoking another cinematic cliche, it sounds like the clouds have parted for Blank.
“Oh, God, don’t write that,” Blank says, laughing. “That sounds so hokey.”
Well, Ed Blank never did like predictable endings.
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Members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians must be Irish Catholic men in good standing with their parish. To find out more, visit the local AOH website at aoh32.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Jason Togyer has been a PBRTV correspondent since 2001. In the interest of full disclosure, he is a former Tribune-Review employee who worked briefly as radio and TV writer in the same department as Ed Blank. He works full-time in public relations and marketing, and part-time as a producer and on-air host at several local radio stations. He is also part of a group trying to start a new public radio station in the Mon Valley area. Opinions expressed do not reflect those of his employers or of PBRTV. Email him at jt3y-at-dementia.org.
Commentary by Jason Togyer
There’s something missing from your Tribune-Review these days. The movie critic’s job is empty after 14 years of being Blank.
Ed Blank left the newspaper in February. (“I very specifically resigned,” he points out.)
The culprits were the paper’s insistence on shorter reviews — really just blurbs, he says, that left no room for criticism or analysis — and an increasing number of dumbed-down films that had little need for criticism or analysis anyway. “There are many movies I have no need to write more than three or five inches about,” he says.
Blank, who launched his career as a critic covering radio and TV for the late, lamented Pittsburgh Press, hasn’t disappeared. He’s showing up regularly these days as a guest host on WPTT (1360).
And he’s focusing his energies on a worthy cause, handling publicity and recruitment for the state and local organizations of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (he’s Irish on his mother’s side), helping spread the word while looking for worthy causes to which the group can offer public service.
If you’ll pardon a cliche, it’s a far cry from the “glitter of tinseltown,” or at least the Pittsburgh equivalent. As the Press‘ radio-TV critic during the late ’60s and early ’70s, Blank relentlessly reviewed every new show on all three networks and public television (there were no inexpensive videotape players and relatively few shows were pre-screened for critics) and he conducted the only in-depth interviews that some local broadcasters ever sat down for.
But he’s best known for his movie criticism, which expressed unpredictable opinions and was informed by a film buff’s true love of the art. And though Blank has given up writing about movies every day, he hasn’t given up on cinema.
He does look harder to find quality.