Fiction May 2013

The Critics

A short story
Matthew Woodson

Films are ranked within their genres, so Avatar, bursting with computerized wonderments, would never go up against, say, The Princess Bride, which, as it happens, is Ida’s No. 1 pick in the genre “Romances in Which Lovers Are Separated by Great Distances and Also by Fantastical Creatures That Run Amokity Mok.” If video stores—that is, if they weren’t all being boarded up—used Ida’s system of classification, they would have to set up hundreds of separate sections: “Comedies Centered on a Hero Who Possesses an Impossible Device and/or a Superpower.” “Psychological Thrillers That End Inside Someone’s Head or With Doubts Cast on the Reality of Reality.” “Big-Budget Epics Featuring More Than Six Big-Name Actors.” Within each genre, she chooses a holy grail, a model of cinematic perfection against which all other similar films are compared. Her ratings system is actually a very complicated algorithm, and it has made her site, FlickerPopGirl .com, a popular destination for moviegoers and aspiring film buffs over the age of five. I keep a close eye on the site, and routinely patrol the Web for what’s being said about it elsewhere. But I’ve stopped responding to criticism. Once, near the beginning, a particularly nasty thread got started about a review of a Harry Potter movie (she gave it three happy hearts in the “Action Adventures About Adolescent Vamps, Werewolves, Wizards, Magicians, and Demigods Based on Successful Books Sold at Walmart” genre). I logged in secretly with the handle sitonthis_cane to inform the three commenters that Ida was only eleven years old and that in some states I could probably use pliers to rip out much-needed body parts without fear of doing any jail time. I should have known better. That only egged them on. They called Ida a slut, and worse.

Traffic on her site ballooned in February when she gave the latest vampire movie an unusually harsh review.

Anyway, Ida figured out it was me and threatened to block me from the site forever if I did something so colossally stupid again. Besides, she said, comments like that didn’t bother her. Most likely, they were from “a bunch of Seven Samurai-loving film minors who at some point or another had tried kissing a poster of Audrey Hepburn from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, ‘just to see what it was like.’ ” Where had she learned to talk like that?

My online tirade did have one positive result: Ida agreed not to post photos of herself on the site—at least for the time being. Sometimes in her reviews she used screengrabs of scenes and photos of new movie posters in theater lobbies, and my biggest fear was that she’d eventually turn the camera around. I tolerated her Web site primarily because she’d seemed so much happier since it had gone live. But as the number of visitors ticked up, I got nervous—nervous that I’d overexposed my child, nervous that some perv would start stalking her because … well, just because.

The worst part: I’m the one who suggested the Web site. I’m the one who bought the domain name. I’m the one who set up the whole operation. Ida has always been a solid writer. Of all the qualities I passed on to my daughter (my inexplicable moodiness; my thick, fibrous ears; and even my nearly debilitating farsightedness), verbal acuity is perhaps the only good trait I was able to contribute to her particular double helix. I write a weekly column for the state newspaper. The column is called The Rambler, by Eric Noon, in which I, true to title, ramble about politics and government but also about curious happenings and the minutiae of my life as a single parent. (The tale of how I came to be a single parent, by the way, is one I’ve never divulged to readers: how my wife never seemed to get used to the idea of being a mother, and how, frankly, she never got used to the idea of being my wife. On good days, she could shine like the sun, and you’d thank God the light was shining on you. But nights with her were colder than an arctic wilderness. Those were lonely times. Anyway, enough of that.)

My daughter is also capable of unnerving silence, no matter what questions I employ, but films have always been our refuge. Together we laugh and gasp and cry—yes, some films bring tears to my eyes. Our mouths dangle open in shock when the supposedly dead brother turns up very much alive. Our hands fidget and sweat when the zombies are beating down the door. For anywhere from one to four hours, our pupils awash in the flicker of the flatscreen, we are like the same person.

When Ida turned twelve, I began dating an audiologist named Alice. She interviewed deaf candidates for cochlear implants. She said the work made her feel like an angel. I hadn’t been out with a woman in about a decade, so I was able to disregard remarks like that.

“She looks like Groucho Marx without the mustache,” Ida said about Alice. “No, strike that. With the mustache. She looks like John Belushi spewing potatoes from his mouth. She looks like a pregnant Arnold Schwarzenegger, as in Junior. She looks like—”

“Enough,” I said.

“All I’m saying is, you could do better, Dad.”

I didn’t date Alice for very long, but it was during that time that Ida’s Web site exploded. She had almost 35,000 unique visitors each month. Some of the studios began mailing her press materials and invitations to screenings. I hid every letter. “Aren’t there any film clubs at school?,” I asked her. “I don’t need a club,” she said.

When she wasn’t watching movies, she was in her room punching furiously on her laptop’s keyboard. Hour after hour, the bedroom door locked, she analyzed and theorized, her only live audience the stuffed animals and dolls of her youth, their beady-eyed view of the hard-at-work girl with the dark hair and horn-rimmed glasses obscured by jewelry boxes and books and teetering stacks of DVD cases. My office was down the hall. I’d click the “About” tab on her site for updates on her life.

About Ida. I wish I were Ingrid Bergman. I bleed chai tea. My favorite Bond film is On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. My favorite love story is The Red Balloon. The appeal of cinema lies in the fear of death. Jim Morrison said that. You can just stay here and watch for sharks. The Little Mermaid said that.

One afternoon, I knocked on her door.

“Yeah, what?” she asked. A movie I’d never seen was paused on our older, boxier television set, now a fixture on her dresser.

“Let’s go for a hike.”

“It’s ten degrees outside, Dad.”

“No, it’s at least thirty.”

She didn’t respond.

“How about we go get some coffee, then? Or a chai? My treat.”

She eyed me suspiciously.

“Okay,” she said, “but that’s it. No other errands. Promise?”

We put on winter coats and drove downtown to the Starbucks in the lobby of the town’s only big hotel. I ordered the drinks, and then we lounged in two chairs as Christmas music, a month early, played overhead.

“So,” I said.

“So,” she said.

“Is Alice going to meet us?”

“No, just us today.”

“I know why you brought me here,” Ida said.

“To drink chai?”

“No, to talk about how Alice wants to stay over. I heard.”

“Heard what?”

“You guys talking the other night. After I went to bed. Just so you know, I’m okay with it.”

My latte tasted horrible. The steam fogged my glasses. In truth, Alice had already slept over twice.

“I brought you here because I think you need to get out of the house more,” I said.

“What do you mean? I’m out of the house every day for school. If it’s privacy you want, we can decide on a signal.”

“A signal?”

“You know, like a sock on the door. Or three rocks stacked on the front stoop. Or a—”

“Stop,” I said. I didn’t even want to know what movie that was from. “I’m not looking for more privacy. I just think you should have some activities that don’t involve you sitting in front of a computer all day long.”

“But that’s what you do,” she said. “You never leave the house at all.”

She had me there. This was about two years before I realized how much smarter than me she truly was.

“This isn’t about who’s outside the house more,” I said. “Listen, I love the site. I’m not saying you should stop. I’d just like to see you make a few friends.”

“I have friends at school.”

“Good, bring them over.”

She concocted a giant sigh.

“Your school has a drama club,” I said. “I looked it up on the Web site. I think you should give it a try.”

She said the club was full of “schizo girls” and only one or two guys, both of whom, remarkably, looked like Steve Buscemi.

But not long after winter break, Ida came home and surprised me by reporting that she’d been to one of the club’s meetings. The school’s drama teacher, Mr. Sides, ran the group, and they were debating what play to present that spring. I asked—perhaps a little too hopefully—whether she’d go again. She shrugged. I decided not to press.

That January we went to see a film called Far Away the Sea—about a marriage before and after the Spanish Civil War—and she wrote that it was a needless scene-for-scene remake of an earlier film, which I didn’t even know she’d seen. Not long after that, she wrote a glowing review of Sunflower, a new biopic about a little-known folk artist named Ezekiel Flat, who in the 1980s would go on Benzedrine-fueled binges to produce hundreds of jagged and slightly erotic portraits of his female neighbors. She said the animated sequences, in which sunflowers transformed into snakes, were like “a screwed-up telescope into a crazy person’s head.”

Traffic on her site ballooned in February when she gave the latest vampire movie an unusually harsh review. She called the adolescent ennui “obnoxious” and said Casper the Friendly Ghost was more menacing—and more three-dimensional, for that matter—than the supposed villain of the film. A couple of big-name sites linked to that post. More letters arrived from the studios, with invites to early screenings in Charlotte, the closest city that offered such niceties for the press. I locked all these letters in the top drawer of the desk in my office. I was protecting her.

Then, later that month, a big magazine called. The reporter wanted to interview Ida—to find out more about the precocious twelve-year-old critic “who is obviously no pushover when it comes to the big-budget franchises.”

“Actually, she’s thirteen now,” I told the reporter over the phone.

“All the same,” the woman said. “We want to do a profile.”

She offered to fly down for a weekend in March. I told her I’d think about it, but after I hung up the phone, I began to fret.

My buddy John suggested I tell Ida everything. We were eating Chinese food at a strip mall. John and I had grown up together. He owned a Toyota dealership in town, so I drove only Toyotas. John probably knew more about my bad habits than any woman ever had. He knew that I kept a spray bottle of Febreze in my satchel because I sometimes snuck cigarettes, and that I had more than once gone half a year before washing my sheets—though, actually, that last fact might be familiar to my regular readers. (I believe I confessed that in a column titled “What I Learned (or Didn’t Learn) in College,” which was published, I think, in July 2003. In that same column, I also tackled the emergence of so-called green diapers and recounted how Ida, as a baby, had once soiled a cloth diaper so obscenely that I’d thumbed through the Yellow Pages in search of a vendor for hazmat suits.)

“No harm in telling her,” John said. “Better that she find out from you than from someone else.”

“Why, do you plan on telling her?”

“Of course not. I just think she can handle it. She’s a smart kid.” John wiped General Tso’s sauce from the edges of his mouth with a napkin.

Daryl and Ida retreated to her bedroom—door open, at my request—and I sat down at my desk for an update on my daughter’s life, courtesy of the “About” tab on her site.

“This whole Web-site thing is getting out of hand. I don’t know what I was thinking,” I said. “I’d pull the plug on it, but I’m pretty sure Ida would never talk to me again.”

“Oh, it’s not so bad as that,” he said. “Maybe she’ll grow up to be a critic.”

“You don’t understand. She already is a critic,” I said, probably a little too loudly.

John didn’t seem to understand how seriously popular the site had become. I almost added that Ida’s reviews now had about twenty times more readers than my column.

My mood lightened later that week when Ida brought a friend home from school. His name was Daryl, and he was in the drama club. He wore a camel-hair jacket over a tennis shirt, and when he removed his dark sunglasses, he really did resemble Steve Buscemi.

“Daryl, I understand you’re an actor?”

“Yessir, Mr. Noon. I played King Lear last year.”

“Elton Middle School staged King Lear? With teenagers?”

“Yeah. I wore a white Merlin’s beard. I modeled my performance on Orson Welles’s in Citizen Kane and Emilio Estevez’s in The Mighty Ducks. The second one more than the first.”

I asked how he managed in the storm.

“Like this,” he said and spun around in our kitchen, arms stretched out like a blind man. “ ‘Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!’ ”

I clapped. Then Daryl and Ida retreated to her bedroom—door open, at my request—and I sat down at my desk for an update on my daughter’s life.

About Ida. I’ve got a birthmark the shape of California. Fraps are for saps. I agree with Jean-Luc Godard: cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world. But I also believe what they say in The Princess Bride: people in masks cannot be trusted.

I checked my voicemail. The reporter had called again, looking to confirm the weekend of her visit. I stepped into Ida’s room. Both kids were staring into the glare of her laptop. Some of the stuffed animals were missing from the bed.

“Anyone hungry? Anyone want to go get a couple of chais?”

“Can’t right now, Mr. Noon,” Daryl said. “We’re finishing up a screenplay.”

“A screenplay?”

“Ida and I are making a film. Shooting starts this Saturday. I’ve already gone location-scouting at the state park.”

“What’s it called?”

“Not sure yet,” Ida said, tapping the backspace key.

“But the working title is No Trespassing.

“It’s about two kids who are tracking this weird and valuable creature. It’s a rabbit crossed with a bird and it lives in the woods behind their house. While they’re out looking for it, they get kidnapped by an Appalachian drug cartel.”

“Interesting,” I said. “Ida, can we talk for a minute?”

She gave Daryl a look that said Keep working. We went into the hall.

“Yeah?” she asked.

“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something. There’s this magazine writer who wants to do an article about you.”

“You mean the one who’s coming next month, right?”

“So you already knew about this?”

“Yeah, she e-mailed me a while back. Glad she finally got in touch with you.”

“And you want to do it?”

She nodded.

“Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure,” she said.

She went back into her room and shut the door. From my office, I could hear them testing dialogue on each other.

“Quick, hide under that old truck,” I heard Daryl yell.

“Shit,” Ida screamed, “They set their dogs loose!”

Since Ida had big plans on Saturday, I decided to meet John for a movie at the $2 theater out on the highway, where they were showing back-to-back Ingmar Bergman films. We arrived in the middle of Through a Glass Darkly. Candy and popcorn and Lord-knows-what-else crunched under our feet as we found seats in the dark. John looked behind us, then stared ahead blankly at the screen.

“What’s happening here?” he asked.

“That woman, I think, is schizophrenic. She hears voices in the wallpaper.”

“Sometimes I hear voices in the wallpaper. They say, John, it’s time to put your clothes back on and stop scratching yourself. Come to think of it, the voice might be my wife’s.” John fidgeted in his seat. “These armrests are sticky, huh?”

I agreed that they were.

We watched for maybe an hour. When I asked if he wanted to go across the street to the driving range, he said, “Yes, definitely, right now please.”

Ten minutes later, we were on the green plastic grass, hitting ball after ball off the rubber tees. The waitress brought a pitcher of beer and some mozzarella sticks to the picnic table directly behind us. John pressed a napkin to the cheese sticks and then held up the greasy, translucent sheet between his fingers for me to see.

“Does Ida like that movie we saw?” he asked. “That why you wanted to go?”

“I’m not sure whether she’s seen it,” I said.

I got out my BlackBerry and thumbed over to Ida’s page. I did a quick search for Through a Glass Darkly. The nearest match was A Scanner Darkly, and she’d given it two hearts in the “Animated Mind Benders Based on Books by Philip K. Dick” genre. I clicked on the genre and found that this was its only film. Rattling loose another dingy-headed driver from his golf bag, John stepped up to the tee and fixed his grip again and again, fingers waving then settling. He shook his bottom and shifted his feet. After what felt like minutes, he actually swung the club. We searched the air for the ball.

“I lost it,” I said.

“Well, that’s because it never left the ground,” John said. The ball was still on the tee at his feet. “I think the torque is off on this club. Sonuvagun.”

Sometimes, she said, she had a hard time being critical of films, because really, when you think about all the challenges, it’s kind of a miracle that a film gets made at all.

If we had been two characters in a scene from The Legend of Bagger Vance or A River Runs Through It or A Field of Dreams or any of the other golf, fly-fishing, or baseball movies in Ida’s “Holier-Than-Thou Sports Films,” I would have had a line ready for John about patience, or I might have turned the moment into some sort of Zen koan about not just golf but life itself. But this wasn’t a movie. It was real. I dunked a mozzarella stick into the cup of marinara sauce and took a bite. My mouth was full when my phone rang. It was Daryl’s mother, Becca.

“I’m sure this is just me worrying too much,” she said. “But I’m in my car at the state park where I was supposed to meet the kids, and they’re still not here yet, and—”

“How long have you been waiting?”

“They’re an hour late now. I’m sure they just lost track of time.”

“Is anyone out there with them?”

“No. I dropped them off this morning. They had lunch and plenty of water and cellphones. And the camera, of course.”

“And you’ve tried their cells?”

“Of course I have,” she said. “I’ve tried Daryl’s about twenty times now.”

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