“Poor Larry Gopnik.”
Those were the first ever words I published on the internet. Myself. All me.
I’d been published plenty as a reporter for my university’s paper, the at-the-time 114-year-old Brown and White at Lehigh University, but this felt different. I was choosing to write about something. I was in charge of the final product. It was up to me to make sure people saw it. Few did, I’m sure, but I wanted to chase that independence, and so I did.
The film, of course, is A Serious Man, the Coen Brothers’ 2009 darkly comic retelling of the Book of Job. It enchanted me from my first watch—one that I drove 90-minutes to experience—and even from the first time I saw its trailer, from the rhythmic beating of Larry’s [Michael Stuhlbarg, incredible] head against a chalkboard by his friend/nemesis, the hilariously named Sy Ableman [Fred Melamed], to Sy’s repeated chorus of “Larry, we’re gonna be fine.”
I drove home unprepared to write about it. I’d never even considered review-writing as a possible hobby, nevermind a career. I was preparing law school applications, and film was a mere curiosity.
I went to class the next day with the film stuck in my head, instead of whatever reading I was supposed to be discussing. It was Critical Studies in Journalism, which sounds vague as hell but couldn’t have been more interesting. John Jirik was our professor, and for three hours once a week, a group of 12 or so students sat around a seemingly ancient oak table discussing Marx, Sinclair, and Thompson.
Jirik himself was as interesting as the class he taught. A former editor for NBC and Reuters International, he’d left the field for academia just a few years earlier, turning down a prominent position at Al-Jazeera [if memory serves me right] in order to sit around that table with us. He had tons of good stories and loved chatting about movies with me. One of his favorites was Heathers, the 1988 dark comedy starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater. He was appalled that I hadn’t seen it.
We opened each seminar with at least 30 minutes of bullshitting. And in this particular class after my A Serious Man watch, he asked, “How many of you have a blog?” I glanced around the room, nervous at first that my hand wasn't raised but ultimately reassured that my behavior was being mirrored by everyone else around the table.
“If you’re serious about wanting to be a journalist, you have to have a blog, and you have to write something every day,” he insisted, somewhat surprised and certainly a little disappointed.
He went on to say this was the best way to develop a voice and learn to self-edit, and while neither is a skill I claim to be even proficient at, I left the seminar that day determined to be somewhere, anywhere, on the web by the end of the week.
I knew if I was going to keep this blog going beyond a few weeks, it needed to be a place where I can organize my thoughts about cinema. So John Likes Movies, my once and still occasional home for reviews and other nonsense [like the 37 Weirdest Things About Draft Day and my fantasy casting for Space Jam 2] was born, and I was so grateful to have genuinely fascinating first film to gush about. I’m not sure the whole thing would have stuck without Larry Gopnik and Sy.
This blog, as silly as it sounds, literally changed my life. The law school apps were promptly trashed. I had no illusions that in the six short months until I graduated college that I’d become good enough to replace Ebert at the Sun-Times, but I was determined to give this journalism thing a proper shot.
A few weeks later, I landed an internship at Men’s Health magazine. That turned into full-time employment, and I went to work every day surrounded by wonderful people who encouraged me to continue pursuing my passion and inspired me to think about writing about film in cool, clever ways [like the time I wrote about life lessons one could learn from the 2013 Oscars].
Around that time, I went back to school to speak to a group of journalism students about the transition from college to the workplace. It was the first time I’d seen Professor Jirik since our afternoons around the oak table. I was invited by another professor, and I wasn’t sure Jirik would remember me, but I arrived a few minutes early, prepared to reacquaint myself, something I’d soon find out wasn’t necessary.
“John! How are you? I love what you’ve been doing with the blog.”
I was so taken aback that he not only remembered me but had been keeping up with my film writing that I felt compelled to tell him he was the guy who inspired me to get started.
“That’s wonderful. Of course, I remember the class well. But one question: Have you seen Heathers yet?”