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Online guide screens old movies for film buffs

Tom Jackson • May 23, 2013 at 2:00 PM

Turner Classic Movies, one of the best channels on cable TV, shows uncut, commercial-free old movies 24 hours a day. TCM's existence raises the important question: What to watch?

David Skolnick, a reporter and columnist for the Youngstown Vindicator, offers many answers at his website, Celluloid Club. Every week, he posts a “TCM TiVO Alert,” co-authored with another critic, which includes “Best Bets” suggestions for several movies and short ratings for many other films. Readers can learn that a new article has been posted by following Skolnick’s Twitter account, following “Celluloid Club” on Facebook or following Skolnick at Google+.

Skolnick is a politics and government reporter for his newspaper, a Giants, Jets and Mets fan, and a music buff.  He took several questions from me about classic films and using the Internet to become your own publisher.

Your Twitter account says "I love old movies," and every week or so, you post a long article for your movies Web site on which movies in the coming next few days on the Turner Classic Movies are worth watching.

What do old movies have that you likely won't get this week at the local cineplex? Do you specialize in any particular era?

Movies are subjective. What one considers a classic, someone else considers trash. I've seen some excellent films made in the past decade. But I have a greater appreciation and take more enjoyment from older films. I love the look of an old black-and-white film — whether it's crisp and incredible looking like a big-budget MGM movie, those directed by Ingmar Bergman or John Ford, or a Monogram or other Poverty Row studio film in which you can see lines or damage to the film. There's something magical about those movies. I'm 45 years old so I didn't grow up going to the theaters to see those old films. But over the past few years, my love of classic films has greatly grown, particularly foreign movies. There are several fine actors today, but none have the presence of Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, Joseph Cotten, John Garfield, Robert Mitchum, Jean Gabin, Charlie Chaplin or many other actors from the 1920s to the 1950s.

As far as a specialty, our niche is older films, and we love the trashy ones — such as those featured on the website in categories: Train Wreck Cinema, Psychotronic Corner and Bad Movies We Love — to foreign films directed by Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Ingmar Bergman, among others, to Pre-Code movies to the legendary Warner Brothers films of the 30s and 40s to B-movies.

Your "TCM Tivo Alert" has several long reviews, but it also has capsule reviews and letter grades for dozens of other movies. Have you actually seen all of those films?

As for the movie grades, Ed Garea, who compiles the list from the movie database he created, has seen every movie on the list and gives each film a letter grade. He's a retired IRS employee — he used to work in the media relations department of the IRS office in Manhattan, and now lives in the Dallas area.

I've seen about 80-90 percent of the films. (I've probably seen close to 2,000 films in the past five years.) I give the films on the list that I've seen my own letter grade and we average the two. Also, each alert has a We Disagree film in which we differ — sometime by a lot — on the grade of a movie.

What prompted you to launch the Celluloid Club website? Is it exciting to you that the Internet now allows every reporter (and everyone else) to become a publisher? Was the website your idea, and did you recruit the other folks?

From 1990 to 2007, I co-published Wrestling Perspective, a groundbreaking wrestling newsletter that treated professional wrestling as a business with long analysis of industry trends to two-to-three-hour interviews with wrestlers, promoters, announcers and others involved in the business. I've been quoted in the past few years by Politico and BuzzFeed based on my expertise in the wrestling business. (WP's website has some of our archives — wrestlingperspective.com)

One of the newsletter's best writers was Ed Garea. We also both share a love of cinema, though he is an encyclopedia when it comes to films. For about two or three years, Ed, myself and a group of friends and acquaintances with a similar interest in movies had a casual email movie group. We'd send short reviews of movies we'd seen on TCM or AMC to each other and have "email discussions." Ed then started the TCM TiVo Alert, which comes from his listing of good and bad films on TCM from a lifelong database he created. We'd email insight into some of the films, mention which ones we'd also recommend, which ones we wanted to see and some of the films not on his list. At one point, I was watching up to 50 movies a month.

The interest of others in the group lessened except for Steve Herte so the three of us decided we'd create a website in which we could share our thoughts and opinions on cinema. It's very exciting to publish regardless of the forum. I think it's great that the internet allows people to publish. Some of it is excellent. Some of it is crap. But it allows everyone to have a forum and if you're good enough and smart enough when it comes to getting the word out, people will read it. I'm just as excited on days where 200 people visit the website as I am knowing tens of thousands of people read my articles in The Vindicator, the Youngstown newspaper where I'm the politics writer and city hall reporter.

As for recruiting, Ed, Steve, myself and Jon Gallagher, an old friend of Ed's from our wrestling days, are the primary writers. Jon would be the only recruit and as a film fan and writer, it wasn't much of a recruiting job. My writing role is somewhat lessened because I also edit, lay out and post every article that appears on the Celluloid Club website.

Who is the website's designer, Elise McKeown Skolnick? Do you have any thoughts on the virtues/hassles of having a multi-contributor website, as opposed to being a "solo artist"?

Without my wife, Elise McKeown Skolnick, there wouldn't be a website. She designed it, created it and spent hours showing me how to post, how to add photos, how to add categories, how to create links, and how to restore articles I accidently delete.

I'm a huge proponent of a multi-contributor website. I enjoy reading the opinions of others and learning from them. It makes for a far more interesting website than if I was writing all of it on my own. Besides the diversity, it also makes it easier to post more often. While I'm the final decision-maker on the website, Ed, Steve and Jon are my partners and I am always keeping them up-to-date on what's going on with the website and asking for feedback.

I'm interested in copyright reform and Congress has put everything released after about 1923 or so under copyright. Does that pose a threat to 1920s films that aren't famous enough to be re-released but that can't legally be copied on the Internet because that would constitute "piracy"?

I'm a strong advocate of making films as accessible to the public as possible. Piracy exists and in some cases, it helps keep an old film alive and somewhat in the public eye.

There are many people and organizations, such as the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Library of Congress, that specialize in film restoration. They do great work in finding and saving films, even obscure ones, from 1910 to 1923. I don't think copyright reform has a negative impact on films made before 1923 as lovers of movies are doing a great job saving and restoring them.

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