NUVO at 25: Ed Johnson-Ott on two decades of film reviewing 

click to enlarge Ed Johnson-Ott
  • Ed Johnson-Ott

I'm enjoying my 19th year as lead movie writer for NUVO. I wrote capsule reviews and the occasional feature for a while before that, but 1996 was the year when I became the lead person, so I consider that as the year I officially joined the NUVO family.

From the beginning, I've been a freelancer working from home, so I rarely see most of my NUVO colleagues at the office, unless I stop in to record a phone interview with an actor or filmmaker. On those occasions I'm an anonymous figure to almost everybody. I've never been comfortable in office settings, so I usually don't linger to socialize.

Instead I catch up at company functions — the Christmas party, the anniversary party, the Cultural Vision Awards. My son Donald — the most social person I've ever known — always joins me, catching up with old NUVO friends and making new ones as he zigzags around the room like a metal ball in a pinball machine.

I also talk with a good number of people at those events, albeit in a more subdued fashion. And I watch the newcomers; so young, stylish and filled with energy. It feels good to be part of this collective.

Ever since I was a kid I've written for underground and alternative papers and magazines, along with doing odd jobs like liner notes. In the late '90s I was thrilled to get to write the CD liner notes for Absolutely the Best by The Zombies, my all-time favorite band. I even got to pick out the tracks for the compilation album.

My route to NUVO was unusual. Tom Griswold of The Bob and Tom Show approached me after seeing some of my work in a Tracks record store newsletter and invited me to become part of the program. Looking for a spot to place me, he asked if I liked movies. "Sure," I said, and with that I started appearing on the show each Friday to review new releases. (Thank you, Tom, for changing the course of my life.)

After a few months with Bob and Tom I was contacted by NUVO. I happily accepted their offer to write capsule movie reviews and the occasional feature piece. My lack of training didn't slow me down — I just wrote how I talked and hoped for the best. Over the weeks to months to years, I became more comfortable with the job.

Once I received a letter addressed to me, Steve Hammer and Harrison Ullmann. The writer had counted how many times we had used "I" in our respective columns for the previous week. "How amazing it is," he said, "that all three of you found yourselves so much more interesting than the subjects you supposedly were writing about."

I didn't talk with Harrison or Steve about the letter at the time. I didn't talk to anybody about it. I just decided that for the next year, I wouldn't refer to myself in any way in my movie reviews. It was difficult, especially since I employed a conversational style. But it proved to be the most valuable writing exercise I've ever used. Not a single person noticed, by the way.

For better and worse, I became a consistent local voice. For many years I've yapped about the importance of consistent local voices in newspapers. If you're looking for an opinion on art, politics or sports, there's thousands of them available on the internet. But if you lived in Indianapolis over the last couple of decades, you checked in with YOUR writers: Ullman, Hammer, Jim Poyser, David Hoppe, Dan Carpenter, Marc Allan, John Krull, Bonnie Britton, Bob Kravitz and on and on. It didn't matter whether you liked them or not. It didn't matter whether you agreed or disagreed with them. They were your writers, they were people you knew.

My readers know that I get angry when a director of a fact-based movie paints an ugly false portrait of a real person to add drama to their story. I've never forgiven Ron Howard for pissing on the tombstone of boxer Max Baer in Cinderella Man.

They know I tend to write about the experience of watching a film, even when it takes me down unusual paths. My piece on The Fault in Our Stars, a film clearly not aimed at an old man, turned in a personal essay on mortality.

They know I like free association and absurdist humor. They know I don't write the headlines. And they know that no matter how much I experiment or joke around, I never forget to give an honest assessment of the movie.

As times got tight all around the country, newspapers started chucking away those consistent local voices, replacing them with short paragraphs, more pictures and increased white space in an attempt to be more easily digested by the public. I continue to be mystified that so many newspapers bent over backwards trying to appeal to people that don't read newspapers.

A lot of alternative weeklies are gone now. Most of the remaining ones don't have their own movie writer. So thank you, Kevin McKinney. Look what you made. Look at the people you gathered. Look at what you've sustained. Nice job, dude. Thank you, past and present, to Jim, Ed, Scott, Mary, Lisa and everybody that writes the words, creates the images, sells the ads, coordinates the printing, drives the trucks and puts the papers in the boxes. And thanks you to, idealized reader, for hanging in with this collective effort.

Finally, a few words to the aspiring film writer itching to take my spot. Be patient, you little twerp, because I'm not giving up this gig until they pry my keyboard from my cold, dead hands.

Ed Johnson-Ott has been NUVO's lead movie writer since 1996. He has spent much of his life working with mentally-challenged individuals. He recorded a solo album in the late '70s and two albums as leader of the new wave band The Future in the early '80s. After making weekly appearances on The Bob and Tom Show, he hosted a talk show for the station, becoming the first openly gay broadcaster in Indiana. He became NUVO's lead movie writer in 1996. Ed was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2013 and is hoping a cure is found before he spills something. He is the proud father of one son, Donald.

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