The Last Small Town Movie Critic (Great Read)

In the moments before the December memorial service for Bryan VanCampen, the lack of attendees threatened to provide a lazy metaphor on the demise of journalism.

Nobody, Beth Saulnier thought, shows up for anything anymore. She had helped organize the event for her friend, the longtime film critic for The Ithaca Times. Their 30-year friendship began over a mutual hatred of “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial” at the Moonshadow Tavern, then a hangout for Ithaca journalists. Saulnier and VanCampen were critics at rival papers and co-hosts of a public access movie review show, “Take Two,” that aired from 1992 to 2003, a time when studios needed TV to entice viewers with movie clips, when a platform to bloviate on film was not one of the internet’s many flaws.

Much had changed, even if VanCampen never did. He devoured no-frills peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. At his service, they were piled high for guests.

“A cable access studio, two newspapers and a local TV station are kind of the opposite of everything that happens on the internet right now on social media,” Saulnier said. “And nobody needs us anymore.” The Ithaca Journal, a withering Gannett paper, finally dumped her after more than 20 years without even a thank-you-for-your-service.

VanCampen kept going. Then a neighbor reportedly found him dead behind the wheel of his parked bright red Chevy on Sept. 18, 2023.

Cinemapolis, Ithaca’s beloved, cozy art house theater nestled between Green Street and the Ithaca Commons, hosted the memorial service. It was one of VanCampen’s haunts. Saulnier was a frequent companion. They liked the top row, center, underneath the projector — a buffer from those damn talkers — and that majestic screen right in front. He did not use a notepad. He skipped a bucket of Cinemapolis’ popcorn, drizzled with real butter. It was all about the movie.

Bryan VanCampen, who would have turned 61 on April 13, was a luxury in a town of 32,000, annually inflated by bright young things who increasingly grew up on Rotten Tomatoes. That he lasted as long as he did was noteworthy. Would he be remembered?

By November 1990, Nicholas Nicastro had written his movie column at the alt-weekly newspaper Ithaca Times for five years. He wasn’t pleased with new editor Kenny Berkowitz’s requirements and was burned out. It was time to go.

Bryan VanCampen, known as “BVC,” answered an ad in the paper. 

Berkowitz noticed a big difference between the critics. Nicastro was an intellectual. VanCampen, who loved the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” and collected memorabilia from the trippy animated feature, was not. Berkowitz thought VanCampen was honest and direct. He brought readers with him to the theater.

“I just felt that he did such a good job translating what he was experiencing to the page,” said Berkowitz, who edited VanCampen for more than a decade. “There was an immediacy in Bryan’s writing, and I think people really responded to that.”

It was all about BVC’s experience with the movie, said Matt Butler, managing editor at The Ithaca Times from 2018 to 2020. “There was some comfort in that for readers, because they didn’t feel forced to feel anything. This is sort of a hackneyed phrase, but he was the kind of guy you’d think about having a beer with and talking about movies.” Butler believes that style works best in local journalism. Communicate your thoughts. Don’t worry about going viral or cozying up to movie stars.

ithaca collage

Clockwise from top left: the Ithaca Commons shopping and dining district, the entrance and marquee of The State Theatre of Ithaca, the Cornell University campus, and a couple kissing at Buttermilk Falls State Park. (Shutterstock/Spiroview Inc, Shutterstock/Steve Cukrov, AP Photo/Julio Cortez, AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

The city of Ithaca is not glitzy. Cornell University and Ithaca College allow for an annual influx of youth and idealism. But it has a bohemian, artsy vibe, thanks to the faculty and the young people who go for it before the bitterness sets. It’s a lovely, increasingly costly place to live, as indicated by a crop of new luxury apartments. The neighborhoods are charming; the restaurant scene is first-rate. Going green is part of its ethos. Comedian Patton Oswalt talks about “weird, magical fairy bubble(s) of sanity” like Austin, Texas, and Athens, Georgia, where you have to stay forever or leave when you’re young; otherwise, you’ll forget how the real world works. That is Ithaca, but with lousy, lengthy winters and a troubling number of middle-aged men with ponytails.

Berkowitz wanted BVC to think beyond Route 79. He urged VanCampen to syndicate his column and offered to help with pitches for other outlets.  VanCampen never followed through. “I just don’t think that was important to Bryan,” Berkowitz said. “What was important was seeing the movies, and loving the movies.”

VanCampen had no desire to ditch the small town for big-city dreams. He was not an outlier. “Ithaca is a town of many big fishes in a little (but extraordinary) pond,” Saulnier observed. “So Bryan was one of a lot of people doing notable work in a tiny market.” But, she added, if someone offered VanCampen advice, he did the opposite to spite them.

Whatever it was — a lack of ambition or an abundance of contentment — it produced an ideal local film critic. VanCampen didn’t need much. “I really feel like Bryan, until the last movie of his life, had this wide-eyed wonder of the joy of going to the movies,” Saulnier said. His appetite was insatiable. Now that we’ve seen this movie, we really have to listen to the director’s commentary. 

Any money VanCampen earned, he spent. Paul Smith, a childhood friend who directed “Take Two,” estimates VanCampen owned between 3,000 and 4,000 DVDs. They were loaded on stackable fold-out bookcases from Walmart that dominated the living room walls — and rose from the floor to the ceiling — in his two-bedroom trailer. The remaining flat surfaces were devoted to “Yellow Submarine” ephemera.

He was unburdened by the weight of adulthood. Saulnier thought her friend walked a tightrope between childlike and childish, a description Smith called “incredibly diplomatic.” That enthusiasm could be corrosive. His diet veered toward the staples of unsupervised grade-schoolers; he smoked a ton of dope. Saulnier can’t recall VanCampen ever having a girlfriend. Smith knew BVC since fifth grade, but VanCampen was only comfortable discussing four topics: movies, stand-up comics, singer-songwriters, and puppets. Years and years passed. They never talked about anything important.

“I worried about him,” Saulnier said. “I worried about him all the time.”

There was no career, only passions: puppetry, acting in local theater, stand-up comedy, guitars. He worked in kitchens, as a food delivery driver. Darrell VanCampen, who died in 2023, helped out, including paying for his son’s Regal Unlimited pass; BVC could get into Cinemapolis for free.

BVC with guitar Paul Smith 2009

Guitars were among film critic Bryan VanCampen’s passions. (Courtesy: Paul Smith)

“I just thought he was carrying a weight, that it was just so hard,” Berkowitz said. “What was my $25 a week going to do for Bryan? Not a whole lot. So I really wanted him to have more. And I didn’t want him delivering food or working for Shortstop,” the fabled Ithaca sandwich shop. (“In Ithaca, the guy slicing your bagel may have a Ph.D. in comp lit,” Saulnier said. “There’s no shame in it. It was just his life.”)

VanCampen had a computer but only knew the basics of Microsoft Word. He didn’t have the internet at his house. Every week, he arrived at the Ithaca Times office with his work on a bright yellow flash drive that looked like a Peep, Butler recalled. He’d hang out, pleasant and open to suggestions, as Butler edited.

Ithaca celebrates quirk and creativity like other cities do deep-dish pizza or contempt for tourists. VanCampen was a character who favored bright colors and chapeaus — Saulnier deemed this dressed-up style “old coot gangster” — who grew up in the Ithaca area and knew its artistic landscape. The city was his backyard. Readers’ trust grew year by year, clip by clip.

“The main way you gain credibility in local journalism,” said Butler, now editor-in-chief of the nonprofit newsroom, The Ithaca Voice, “is by sticking around and really being here.”

“News gets the Pulitzers,” said Carrie Rickey, a film critic at The Philadelphia Inquirer from 1986 to 2011. “The quality of the news is integral to the ego of the newspaper. Movie or music criticism or art criticism is something for cultists, basically.” To wit, the Inquirer no longer has a regular film critic.

Ithaca does have a robust news scene, including Tompkins Weekly. The free weekly newspaper swells with upbeat news and profiles of community helpers. It has some arts coverage, but no reviews.

The Voice focuses on local news. Butler would love to cover more arts and sports, but limits exist. “We only have four people on staff,” Butler explained in February, and it would take time to train freelancers on his expectations. Readers would inevitably complain about the play or the concert that didn’t get covered. Butler doesn’t need the headache.

But he did want VanCampen to join the Voice. He had earned readers’ trust. “I think people would come to read BVC, in part, because it was like saying hi to a friend,” he added.

“These columns were so much the story of Bryan’s life,” Berkowitz said. “… You could tell that was the real guy. Bryan did an amazing job of creating a persona that (was) so close to who he was.”

Like full-court basketball, film criticism requires an intensity and stamina that is harder to summon with age. “I don’t want to go back there in so many ways,” Saulnier said, laughing. She used to watch up to five movies a week, sometimes three in a night, to prepare for “Take Two.” Now in her 50s with a husband and streaming services, the old life has zero appeal.

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Film critics Bryan VanCampen and Beth Saulnier on the set of their public access movie review show, “Take Two,” in 2002. (Screenshot/Titus Heights Studio, YouTube)

And little financial stability. At the end of her run at The Ithaca Journal, around 2016, Saulnier recalls being paid $25 a review. Her offer to write for free was rebuffed. Larry Hochberger, the Ithaca Times associate publisher, admitted the pay for columnists is “shamedly meager.” Smith said VanCampen received $45 for a 700-word review. That took 90 minutes to write. He also got paid for features or if he interviewed a headliner who dropped into town.

This is the reality for working film critics. A steady job at a high-profile outlet is close to impossible to snatch unless a non-layoff-related vacancy occurs, and those jobs usually go to the elite, like Justin Chang, who jumped from the Los Angeles Times to The New Yorker. Some fold reviewing movies into their editorial tasks, like Scott Renshaw at Salt Lake City Weekly. The other options require a formula of financial security, talent and hustle: It’s a break from a full-time job. A part of your freelance workload. You patchwork enough outlets to quilt a career.

VanCampen existed in happy stasis. Writing for The Times, Smith said, was a job that allowed him to do something he enjoyed. “He didn’t really have any skin in the game,” Butler said. “This was purely from a love-of-film standpoint.”

Ithaca, Hochberger believes, has a large network of intelligent, talented writers. It makes sense to use it, including to replace the irreplaceable.

“There’s no master plan,” he said in late February, regarding who will take over BVC’s film column. “We’re trying some things. It gives us a chance to see where the focus lies and where it should be.”

One byline readers have seen belongs to Matt Minton, 20, a screenwriting major at Ithaca College who has contributed arts coverage for The Ithaca Voice and film reviews for The Ithacan, IC’s student newspaper.

Minton will move to Los Angeles in August to complete their last semester and start their career. Their pipe dream is to write for The Hollywood Reporter or Variety as they are “interested in looking at broader trends in the industry.” Pragmatically, though, it’s about getting in anywhere. The networking calls are constant. “I’m just trying to learn about different organizations, different jobs I might be interested in,” Minton said. They have edited, written features and interviews, grown comfortable with public speaking, covered film festivals. They’re prepared.

In a flash, Minton will be in an unfamiliar place thousands of miles away from the familiar. It’s not the fear of getting an internship that lingers but leasing an apartment and driving in Los Angeles traffic, the gaps in knowledge that become chasms when adulthood ceases to be a fuzzy concept or a faraway threat.

“I think about it all the time,” they say. “I think about all the opportunities that will open up. I’m definitely nervous about it, but it’s one of those things where I know I have to jump into it.”

Reviewing movies, though, is a career path ridden with landmines. “I know so many people from personal networks that have gone the freelance route and work side jobs in order to keep going,” Minton said via text message. They hope outlets know that film critics help readers understand art and their relationship to it, that they spotlight first-time independent and overlooked directors who possess vision and insight. Writing movie reviews is something Minton would like to pursue as they scout opportunities and mull options.

The demise of film criticism in newspapers, Carrie Rickey believes, started in the 1990s. The big department stores closed, and with them went a major source of a paper’s ad revenue. (Movie ads migrated, too.) Instead of taking out classified ads, readers saved their money and used a new website called Craigslist. Then Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic turned critics’ insights into aggregated scores. “The newspapers,” the former Philadelphia Inquirer film critic said, “devolved at about the same moment Gen Y was growing up. And they were looking elsewhere.”

More people stayed home, too. Rickey blames the 1999 premiere of “The Sopranos,” which marked the beginning of the apparently endless reign of peak TV. Why head out to see the auteurs when you could savor quality storytelling and nuanced characters while wearing pajama pants?

Initially, the internet was deemed a sanctuary for young movie reviewers. Space and gigs were finite in newspapers. Online, both were seemingly unlimited. There was one problem. “The people who created the internet remunerated the people who were creating the hardware,” Rickey said. “To them, content was fungible and free. They never paid the people who were providing the content. It was revenge of the nerds. All the financial or salary models were thrown out the window during this.”

The local film critic’s role mirrors the decline of journalism, said Michael Sragow, who reviewed movies at a slew of newspapers and alt-weeklies for decades. Instead of papers having locally tailored arts sections, their corporate owners increasingly thought national. That happened at The Baltimore Sun, where Sragow spent a dozen years: The Tribune Company, which then owned The Sun, decided to use movie reviews from the Chicago Tribune instead.

“It’s this lack of confidence in the local readership and this shortsightedness,” Sragow said. “It’s true cable TV became a bigger cultural thing and that during the (COVID-19) pandemic people started streaming and all that. I still think people love going to the movies. It’s just the short-sightedness of the people who are just looking for the national-global dollar. When people talk about the receding audience, it’s because the audience isn’t being reached out to. The connections are all gone. If you had more lively local film journalism and arts journalism in every city, the cumulative impact would be huge on the industry.”

The Ithaca Times, Hochberger said, has “an audience and a mission” to cover the local arts — which anchors the paper’s back half. That includes VanCampen’s beloved Cinemapolis, which shows movies every day.

Cinemapolis marquee

The marquee for Cinemapolis in Ithaca, New York. (Pete Croatto/Poynter)

“It’s hard to stay in the forefront of people’s minds when we’re kind of always here,” said Kate Donohue, the theater’s executive director. “So attention from local press in lots of different ways helps our signal cut through the noise.” Local coverage, she added, is “vital to getting people out the door to the events that make this a really culturally vibrant place.”

Utility is essential for the local movie reviewer in 2024. Renshaw tries to cover everything playing in Salt Lake City theaters that week.

“You get a beat, you get people who can give you information,” said Renshaw, also City Weekly’s arts and entertainment editor. “You all know that ‘Dune 2’ was opening, but did you know you can also go see ‘The Searchers’ on a big screen this weekend? Did you also know you can have a conversation with a filmmaker at this particular event? Those kinds of things are not going to be available on Rotten Tomatoes. If you want to build an audience, you do that by making yourself distinct and distinctive.”

Writers can get there with voice and writing, but Renshaw warns, “that’s really uncommon, that’s really hard to do.”

Roger Ebert is frequently considered the last film critic with national influence, but he wasn’t unspooling a thumbs up to “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” from atop the Willis Tower. He was a terrific profile writer — check out “A Kiss is Still a Kiss.” He wrote essays, remembrances, and, yes, a guide on using his cherished rice cooker. “If you want any kind of job as a writer you need to be able to have a diverse skill set,” said Renshaw, who joined City Weekly in 2000, and has covered everything from bands to the visual arts.

And, yes, people still go to the movies.

On an ash gray February afternoon, the Cinemapolis lobby bustled with Friday customers preparing to see “American Fiction” or “The Zone of Interest,” future Academy Award winners. Ithaca has plenty of entertainment options. It boasts an excellent concert space (the State Theatre) and two playhouses. Ithaca College and Cornell University regularly host renowned guest artists and speakers. Donohue doesn’t view these places as competition, but part of the same community.

“Local press is still really important to people in this town,” she said, her voice occasionally competing against the rattle of the lobby popcorn machine. “And I do think that there is interest among our local press outlets and supporting community engagement around the arts. I’m very grateful for that. What that looks like in the future? I don’t know exactly.”

The 90-seat theater in Cinemapolis was packed.

“There was so much good feeling in that room,” Smith said. What surprised him was the number of strangers who shared their memories of BVC. It felt like a community. All the appreciation for VanCampen’s work and the sadness over his death has shown Hochberger that The Ithaca Times matters.

Donohue eventually had to kick everyone out — a movie had to run. VanCampen, Saulnier thought, would have loved that.

BVC 2004 Paul Smith

Late film critic Bryan VanCampen (Courtesy: Paul Smith)

Afterward, she and a group headed to Viva Taqueria & Cantina, where she “basically lit one margarita after the other.” She hadn’t seen “Take Two” in years. There she was with VanCampen in their 20s, swapping bon mots. And there were her dogs, Mr. Jane Austen and Miss William Shakespeare, on that sparse set. ”I was so moved and so overwhelmed. Yeah, it was magnificent.”

Clips from the show were part of a touching 22-minute-long tribute video by Smith. A moment stuck with Donohue. Near the end, Ken Pardee, one of BVC’s friends, observes that VanCampen didn’t achieve the markers of traditional success. But he fulfilled his dreams, save for being Spider-Man. He wanted to write and direct plays and movies. He wanted to do stand-up comedy. He wanted to be Roger Ebert.

He just did it in one place.

Right now, no one knows what will happen to VanCampen’s possessions. His friends want his DVDs to go to the Tompkins County Public Library on Green Street, between The Ithaca Times and Cinemapolis. A sticker would signify the movie is part of the Bryan VanCampen Movie Collection, a reminder of what Ithaca had and what it lost.

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