Coming Soon to the Tribune

His sex aside, Mike Wilmington should turn out to be just what the Tribune wanted in a film critic. He writes gracefully, he’s prolific, and he not only loves film but likes films, lots of them. “Dave [Kehr] would give three movies a year four stars,” an admirer of both told us, comparing Wilmington to his predecessor. “That won’t be the case with Michael. He tends to find something he likes in a lot of movies and he writes chiefly about that. A performance, a well-edited sequence–he tends to focus on the positive.”

Wilmington is 46, and for the last nine years he has reviewed movies for the Los Angeles Times, albeit not under conditions he appreciated. He also contributes to Isthmus, the alternative weekly in Madison, Wisconsin, his home state. Several years ago he collaborated on a book on John Ford, and he writes for various professional journals. He lives alone in Hollywood, but near enough to his 78-year-old mother to keep an eye on her, and he intends to bring her with him to Chicago. It’s to provide for her that he took a steady job.

“I can lead a sort of gypsy existence,” Wilmington told us, “but she’s had an extremely tough time. She’s one of the mothers who went beyond the call of duty for their children. She had nothing but she gave me everything she could.”

Like Kehr, who wrote wisely for the Reader before accepting the Tribune’s Faustian offer of shorter space and longer green, Wilmington is not by nature a daily newspaper critic. Give him room to think and he’ll fill it. “I’d be most comfortable at the L.A. Weekly, the Village Voice, that type of paper, where I can spread out,” he says. But in 1984, after he’d spent a year at the Weekly, the Times asked him over. “I learned how to compress my writing because I was looking for security.”

He thought the Times was offering him a job on staff. What he got, thanks to management shifts, routine bureaucratic betrayal, and his own naivete, was high- profile piecework–no desk to call his own, no health insurance. Then the Tribune called.

Not that he asked it to. “I had no aspiration ever to work for an establishment paper,” he says. “I never would have applied in New York. I never would have applied in LA. I wouldn’t have applied to the Tribune if they hadn’t come to me.” The Tribune called because associate features editor Gary Dretzka had seen and admired some of Wilmington’s pieces. He also remembered Wilmington from the Daily Cardinal back at the University of Wisconsin.

“He’s a very lovely writer,” says Dretzka, “obviously very knowledgeable, but also a person who can write for a newspaper and a newspaper audience. Not the common definition of a populist writer but someone who’d fit the Tribune’s needs for maintaining a mass audience. And it’s not a requirement that our critic do profiles. Dave didn’t. But Michael does.”

Even though Dretzka asked Wilmington to apply, he wasn’t the Tribune’s first choice. Because all the other arts critics were male, Dretzka would have preferred a woman. He flew in the Weekly’s Ella Taylor in early July, put her through the usual interviews, and offered her the job. But Taylor asked for time to think about it. An evening with various Tribune first-nighters at the Goodman’s Cry, the Beloved Country did not persuade her, and after several days of agonizing she turned the Tribune down. Like Wilmington before her at the Weekly and Kehr at the Reader, Taylor was used to writing long. She liked writing long. She wasn’t sure she was cut out to work for a paper that expected short takes on a lot of movies she’d just as soon ignore.

So Wilmington, though a man, moved to the top of the list anyway. Meanwhile, back in Los Angeles, the editor of the Weekly, Kit Rachlis, was bounced by his bosses for a variety of sins, one of the smaller being his campaign to pay Taylor more money in order to keep her from the Tribune. Six writers walked out in support of Rachlis and Taylor was one of them. She called the Tribune and asked to be reconsidered, but her arguments against herself had made too deep an impression on the editors there to be forgotten. Dretzka was already out on the coast talking to Wilmington. A couple of weeks later Wilmington came in to meet editor Jack Fuller and features editor Howard Tyner. Then, like Taylor, he checked out Chicago theater–Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack. He took the job.

If he’d known the Tribune wanted a woman more, he told us, he probably would have blown Dretzka off. But he respects the paper’s priorities. “My mother had a really really rough time. I’m kind of angry at how women are treated in the marketplace because of her. So I’m not unsympathetic to the Tribune’s desire to have a woman film critic.”

Wilmington likes to take his mom to screenings. Fair enough. Years ago, back in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, she’d take him to the movies and talk about them afterward. She was an artist, and “she tended to look at films from a unifying artistic perspective.”

“I try to look at each film in terms of its actual audience instead of a small coterie,” he explains. “It’s true the school I belong to could be considered auteurist, but I don’t like to attach myself to any particular school because that implies a group of writers who write to each other.

“One thing that disturbs me in general about the whole film critical community is that it reflects the kind of class organization of journalism in general. Journalists from disadvantaged backgrounds are not at a premium. The problem isn’t addressed on alternative weeklies either. People on weeklies tend to have different types of politics from people on mainstream publications but they’re not necessarily from different backgrounds.”

As you are, we said.

“I would say so. I had a working mother who had an increasingly rough time. Part of the time I was in college, even though she was an artist and art teacher she went to work in a factory and sent me a good deal of her paycheck to keep me there. I don’t want to belabor that, because there are people from much rougher backgrounds, but in newspapers it’s not common and in film criticism it’s even less common.”

Why? we asked.

“I think with cultural criticism, people look for a certain kind of voice. And also, well I don’t know, I’m not saying this as a knock at my fellow critics, but there’s a tone in a lot of criticism that kind of bothers me, a tone of self-conscious elevation. The critic is speaking only to the happy few.”

(It occurred to us that Roger Ebert has flourished in Chicago because he’s guilty of none of these sins. Wilmington hasn’t read him.)

Wilmington is “a brilliant critic, one of the most amazingly facile writers I’ve ever known,” says Dean Robbins, arts editor of Isthmus, where Wilmington will go on contributing occasionally. “He’s a peculiarly generous critic, which doesn’t mean he gives blow jobs, but he gives artists the benefit of the doubt if he thinks they’re serious artists. He has tons of favorites. I think Orson Welles is one of his gods. He has a feeling of savage indignation when he thinks really serious artists have been slighted, and Orson Welles is at the top of that list. He has a real feeling for the underdog. He comes out of the alternative press and that’s really his orientation. He’s the least mainstream choice they could have picked.”

Fuller Up

To no one’s surprise at the Tribune, editor Jack Fuller is moving up and out of the newsroom to become president of the Tribune Company’s Chicago Tribune Company subsidiary. To Fuller’s corporate superiors, who don’t necessarily weigh performance by the same standards as mere reporters do, Fuller steadied the ship after relieving Jim Squires as captain four years ago and now merits reward.

A view from steerage is that the Tribune has been editorially adrift under Fuller. Increasingly he was an absentee editor, traveling to Florida, Virginia, and California to try to create synergies between the Tribune and its sister papers there, while five o’clock news meetings back at the Tower floundered without strong leadership. Unhealthy departments such as the Washington bureau, which Fuller was expected to upend immediately, were never confronted.

Synergies may now be easier to establish, thanks to a couple of other personnel shifts by Fuller’s boss, John Madigan. Two young executives from the Tower, John Puerner and Scott Smith, have been made publishers of the Orlando and Fort Lauderdale papers respectively, and they reportedly are far more committed to cooperation and cost cutting (Madigan’s obsession) than their predecessors.

So who will Fuller name as his successor after he comes back from vacation next week? Conventional wisdom says features editor Howard Tyner, who as much as anyone around has been groomed for the job. A former foreign editor, Tyner had no experience with features until Fuller gave him his present job. Conventional wisdom is often right, but someone a lot of reporters would prefer is Jack Davis, editor of the Tribune Company’s Daily Press in Newport News, Virginia. He’s well remembered as a former Tribune metro editor.

The Third Man

The Tribune and Sun-Times gave a lot of space to the Shoot the Bull 3-on-3 Classic in Grant Park this month, but they missed the day’s best angle. The men’s championship was won by a team led, as the Tribune noted, by “two ex-Princeton stars.” A third Princeton alum on the same team went unidentified. He was John W. Rogers Jr., president of the Chicago Park District.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andrew Taylor.