It's all good. The mail is how you know people are reading, and if you can't stand the heat, you need to get out of the newsroom. (Or, in this case, out of the windowless cube-farm where you hardly ever have to show up anyway because you freelance from home.)
Still, hate mail is always startling. As my friend and former colleague Bryn Bailer once remarked, there's something about being called a bitch that stays with you.
I got broken in on the weirdo mail thing right at the outset, because I started out as a movie reviewer, and if there's one thing about which every living human being has a lively opinion, it's the movies.
The other day, I was cleaning out a closet and came across a file from back then. The clippings with "Your Sick!!!" scrawled across them are fresh as ever.
Cinema, as those of us here on Olympus like to call it, really does belong to everyone, which makes reviewing enormous fun: You're part of a really happening discussion. But you also learn fast that no matter how bad, sad and misbegotten a particular film might be, someone, somewhere loves it. Loves it. When from the supposed loftiness of your official position, you tell that person that, no, actually, her favorite movie reeks, she takes it as a personal insult. And itches to insult you back.
For the record, I didn't pan many movies. In fact, I prided myself on my lack of discrimination, and anyhow was a really big chicken compared to our own wicked and hilarious James DiGiovanna. For example, I would have never dared call an Oscar-ready film like Million Dollar Baby a "steaming pile of dung." (Besides, I wouldn't have wanted to. I loved Million Dollar Baby and cried all through the last 20 minutes. That's the kind of reviewer I was.)
Once in a while, though, having just spent two hours of my only life on Earth watching a movie so bad that all I could think about was crawling away from it and out into sunlight and freedom, I would indulge in an honest expression of my feelings, ostensibly in the public interest: Should you fork over your hard-earned cash to see (Gone Fishin', U Turn, Urban Legend, anything by Jean-Luc Godard)? Reader, I recommend you keep your legal tender in your pocket, for the following reasons.
And so on.
But as you can see by looking up these barkers on the IMDb or Rotten Tomatoes, somebody out there likes them. Those somebodies were happy to let me know what a moron I was.
In most cases, I'd just snicker and send off my standard reply, "Thank you so much for your comment. Here at the Arizona Daily Star, we greatly value our readers' opinions. We greatly appreciate your taking time to write." Kill 'em with kindness and stay in the plural. Works almost every time.
Once, though, I pissed off a guy who kept writing, becoming more personal and unpleasant every time. His name, which of course I will omit here, not wanting to attract his dire attention once more, sounded like an anagram and was invariably followed by "Ph.D."
I had annoyed Dr. Screwloose by throwing up all over a movie called Starship Troopers, a 1997 War of the Worlds-meets-Star Wars sci-fi combat epic that ends with patriotic, blue-eyed, hard-lovin' space cadets from Buenos Aires torturing a large, quivering, evil insect mastermind for laughs. I mean, really.
I loathed it and said so; the good doctor and his son (my correspondents always liked to set me back by informing me that everyone they knew agreed that I was a moron) felt it was the best movie they'd ever seen. What specifically awakened his highly credentialed rage, though, was that I'd characterized it as racist. Among Starship Troopers' more startling clichés is a matched male/female set of black troopers who go almost naked, wear primitive-looking ivory jewelry and eagerly lay down their lives for the white superior officer they worship. I've had a thing about the sacrifice-of-the-black-guy motif since I saw Terminator 2 and was traumatized by Joe Morton, the actual Brother From Another Planet, giving his all so that the--ick--White Boy Messiah could live. (No, best not get started on James Cameron. These are the obsessions of the last century.)
My guy kept writing for a while, but eventually ran out of steam. Perhaps he found his way to the IMDb message boards, where abusive, politically charged arguments are underway at this moment about whether Starship Troopers is "saitirical," "the greatest pro/anti war movie ever made" or just "fantabulous sci fi fun!" On the Internet, anyone can be a critic. Thank God.