Movies, Writing, and Real Life.

September 30, 2014 at 7:26 pm (reviews) (, )

The QT3 Movie Podcast logo

The first time I can remember encountering Tom Chick, it was in a UseNet group about 15 years ago. It was a thread about some real-time strategy (RTS, to those who play them) computer game. I think it might’ve been Age Of Kings. I can’t even remember whether I liked the game or not, or what I said, but Tom vaguely disagreed with my comments.  I do remember how I felt when he took issue, however: “Who the hell is this Tom Chick jerk?” It got under my skin a little. When Tom challenged me those many years ago, he didn’t get personal, but he got into my head, if that makes sense. It’s easy to deal with if some internet toolbag gets personal. You fire off a snide remark back, or you ignore it.

The way Tom got under my skin was to ask me why I felt the way I did about whatever game it was. He didn’t say “You’re wrong.” He didn’t tell me I was an idiot. He wasn’t dismissive of my opinion. He simply wanted to know why I felt the way I felt about the game, and explained why he had a differing opinion of its quality. Think for a minute about how having someone seriously (and with genuine curiosity) ask you why you like or dislike something, how that can get inside you. The person who asks you “why?” is asking you to examine the complex ways in which you experience things and then wants you to try to externalize it in a way that makes sense. When someone with a differing opinion does that to you, if it catches you in just the right frame of mind it can put you back on your heels a bit. I remember that such was the case here.

I discovered pretty quickly that this Tom Chick jerk reviewed games for a living. (I was also sort of flabbergasted to find out that he played Reporter Gordon on The West Wing, and had a brief stint as Oscar’s boyfriend on The Office.) I’d see reviews he’d write in magazines or online sites. I discovered he and another games journalist were starting up a website. I started reading there a lot. Eventually, a music discussion on whether it was possible for rock and roll musicians to create great music while under the influence of drugs (someone was arguing vehemently against it) created enough nerd rage to cause me to register and start posting on the forums. Tom and I crossed paths there. Occasionally we cracked one another up. We played a few games together. (Want to be humbled? Play Tom Chick in an RTS game where he knows secret hotkeys, like Rise Of Nations. You’re frantically trying to herd your on-screen guys like cats at a tuna cannery, while he’s calmly doing this ALT-right-click hotkey voodoo thing and mopping the floor with you.) We got to be that most modern of  characters of the information age. We became internet friends.

I’ve always marveled at how effortlessly (seemingly) Tom writes things in a unique style and voice, like this piece that came out as our troops on the ground in Iraq began to come under regular fire. Tom also writes his share of controversial reviews. He’s infamous as the guy who hated Deus Ex. When he gave a game from the popular Killzone franchise a negative review while running a gaming blog for NBC’s SyFy online presence a few years ago, the deluge of angry commenters nearly crashed the host’s server. Chick actively campaigns against the evils of the 7-9 scale (that scale is the tendency of game reviewers to simply bunch up reviews between 7 and 9 on a 10-point scale to satisfy publisher PR departments and continue to get review copies and free dinners at conventions). His reviews–now exclusively on Quarter To Three–stick to a 5-star system. When Tom gives a game three stars out of five, he means that the game is good, but flawed in some way. When Metacritic adds it into their aggregator, it’s a 60%. That’s associated with a failing grade in our consciousness. Tom doesn’t apologize for it. Metacritic is happy with it. And so it goes.

What’s even more interesting to me as I rediscover a love of movies is that Tom is a skillful reviewer and commentator on films. You can see plenty of his reviews online at Quarter To Three. For the last five years he’s been the host of the QT3 Movie podcast. Now, you may think that doing a weekly podcast is an easy thing. I’m here to tell you it’s tough. Doing one, and doing one well is almost impossible. Listening to Tom on a podcast is like watching 1970s Johnny Carson, a maestro at work. He says interesting things that are amusing, yes. More importantly though, is that he asks really interesting questions. I guess he’s scripted some of the points to discuss, but he’s willing to go far down intriguing rabbit hole tangents with his cohorts on the podcast (Christien Murawski and Kelly Wand, who are excellent co-conspirators to the most entertaining movie podcast on the internet) that it seems that most of what’s going on is unscripted. It’s kind of cool seeing a mind that works in interesting ways, giving us a peek into how that curiosity works.

For my own self, I like to write criticism and essays occasionally. I try to learn and imitate from folks I admire who do it better. For decades, what I’ve consciously borrowed, emulated, or blatantly stolen from other writers was style. Maybe a little Ira Robbins here, perhaps a smidge of Nik Cohn there, a turn of phrase from Greil Marcus, etc.  I’m not ashamed to say that any ability I have with words is derived mostly from reading a lot and appropriating style elements I like. What I realize now is that a lot of the time I was sounding the notes, but not really playing the song, so to speak. What’s been most valuable to me in the 15 years that I’ve known Tom Chick is that from him I’ve learned–finally, after years of teachers and professors trying to drill it into my head through high school and college–how to truly think critically. I try to imitate some of what Tom does, whether reviewing a movie or a game or a TV show or whatever. He has an approach in which he simply articulates “Here’s how I felt about this, and here’s why it clicked with me–or didn’t.” It sounds simple.  I don’t think it is. Roger Ebert wrote the same way. There aren’t a whole lot of Tom Chicks or Roger Eberts around, as far as I can tell.

Last year, Tom and I co-wrote movie impressions covering 30 years of horror movies. It was both great fun and daunting challenge. As a writer, I thought I’d do OK. As a thinker with interesting things to say, though, I knew I’d have to step up my game. I had my moments, I had some whiffs.  It was also an amazing learning experience to see a first-rate critical thinker go through his process of coherently explaining why something was or was not worth seeing. Because of all that, and because I enjoy scaring the crap outta myself around Halloween, I wanted to give writing about horror films another go this October. I contacted Tom earlier in the summer, and he said he was all in on doing it again. I began to get things set up for the project, including an arduous task of getting a list of almost a hundred movies down to 31.

About a month ago, Tom contacted me back again. He was unsure he’d be able to go for the movie thing. He said he’d just been diagnosed with cancer, stage 4, in his pharynx. I think he said something about wondering if I would still do the project. I think I said I would. Those emails were exchanged in a daze; how do you respond coherently to news like that? It took nearly a week for Tom to casually mention that he had good healthcare, and that despite the dire news, his doctors felt he had a good chance of being rid of the cancer through aggressive treatment (maybe lead with that, huh?) He’d be losing his voice during treatment and recovery, and that meant he’d have to leave his podcasts for a while. He expressed that while he still planned to write, he’d need to do it on his own pace and wasn’t sure he was up to the grueling schedule of watching a movie a day and then generating interesting thoughts about them.  This month-long marathon of horror movies isn’t easy, fun though it can be. It requires a time commitment (I really am watching–and in some cases rewatching–movies and taking notes daily), and then a mental sharpness to crank out content that isn’t crashingly dull. Daily deadlines can be incredibly taxing to be honest, and something I wouldn’t do if I wasn’t in love with doing it. As it is, I’m barely suited for the task, and I don’t have chemotherapy and radiation treatments to deal with.

Thankfully, I was able to find some amazing volunteers who are excellent writers, horror aficionados, and importantly, internet friends. They agreed to step in and give me excellent writing partners for the task ahead. And so tomorrow we’ll start writing about horror films, just like last October. We’ll have a lot of things to say, and if you’re reading this here, we’d love for you to join us there in discussion in the comments. I’m sad that Tom won’t be participating, but overjoyed that the reason for that is him getting better and beating a disease he’s got a puncher’s chance at having completely purged from his system. And if Tom isn’t present there in the words themselves, I know it’ll be apparent that his obvious influence will be visible in everything we write.

A GoFundMe page to help Tom deal with expenses while undergoing treatment and recovery is right here. Go give a little.

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