Commentary

Shaffer: Acerbic film writer finds hope, goodness after online post for help

jshaffer@newsobserver.comJanuary 5, 2014 

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Craig Lindsey with Fantastic Four star Jessica Alba at Lowe's Motor Speedway on Memorial Day.

PHOTO BY CRAIG LINDSEY — newsobserver.com

— As a Raleigh film critic, Craig Lindsey has always dipped his writer’s quill in a pot of hot bile, penning articles that rail against romance, skewer all things sentimental and oppose story lines that hint at optimism – enemies of his misanthropic heart.

Years ago, he awarded the Oscar-winning film “Slumdog Millionaire” with a B-minus grade, calling it an “accessible charmer” and comparing it to “a puppy dog that’s ready to sit on your lap and lick your face clean.”

He dedicated an entire column to his hatred for the pretty people Hollywood celebrates, declaring, “I like women with belly fat and stretch marks and bullet wounds and C-section scars.”

Sadly, the world is rough on scribes, especially those whose tools are bitterness and rage. Freelance checks, when they come, come late. And every year, they get smaller – unlike electric bills and rent.

So, faced with eviction last week, the notoriously cynical Lindsey sought help from a pair of unlikely sources: charity and human goodness. He posted his scowling picture on indiegogo.com, holding a cardboard sign, asking friends and strangers to help him raise at least $900 to keep a roof over his head.

By Sunday night, he’d raised over $7,800.

“If I had a soul,” said Lindsey, 37, looking for words to express gratitude, “all of this would be overwhelming. I can’t think the world sucks anymore. This is on me now. If I can’t find goodness, I’m just an #%@$.”

Lindsey is my friend, though I suspect he tolerates me as another smiley-faced, daisy-picking Pollyanna who always sees the bright side.

If you knew his story, which he shares reluctantly, you’d understand why life tastes sour to him.

Craig’s tale

He lost his mother and his grandmother, who raised him in Houston, in the same year. His mentally disabled brother wandered away from a care facility and was found dead years later.

He got laid off from The News & Observer in 2011 and became one of many writers floundering in a hostile economy. He found freelance work at The Indy, the N&O and a string of other places, scraping by, applying for and not getting jobs as a security guard, unsuccessfully attempting to wait tables. Once, a man paid him $150 to write a letter to Bill Cosby, asking for help starting an all-black sailing team.

“I’ve gotten used to things not going well,” Lindsey explained.

For as long as he can remember, he’s struggled to find a comfortable place. He calls himself a black nerd, which to him is somehow more damaging than being a nerd of any other color. Like many nerds, myself included, he felt most comfortable in a library growing up. It didn’t much endear him to peers in Houston.

“What teenage black kid you know wants to grow up writing for the Paris Review?” he asks. “Growing up in Houston? Where the Rockets won back-to-back championships? Man, I was pretentious.”

He wins a lot of awards, but he rubs a lot of people the wrong way. He enjoys finding out what it takes to tick people off.

He nurtures unorthodox tastes, notably his careerlong obsession with Dame Helen Mirren, hardly a cheesecake pinup, whom he credits not only for her Shakespearean chops but for her willingness to appear on-screen “butt-bald-nekkid,” a term he invented.

So with all of this baggage, he asked for money, his cardboard sign bearing the motto “Will be a snarky, cranky, unpredictable smart-ass for food.” Funny, yes. But it didn’t feel right. Would anybody embrace an unemployed journalist as a cause?

They did. Within three hours, he had his money.

The money kept coming

Then it kept coming, $10 and $15 at a time, from all over the country. James Wolcott, cultural critic for Vanity Fair and Lindsey’s mentor, chipped in a few bucks.

Within a few days, Lindsey appeared on WTVD and WNCN. His plea got featured on Jim Romenesko’s media blog, which is the equivalent of Variety to news scribblers. “I’m guessing his rent will be covered,” Romenesko wrote.

Lindsey turned up again on Jeffrey Wells’ Hollywood Elsewhere site, where the former Entertainment Weekly writer decided, in a triumph of bad taste, to poke fun at Lindsey’s weight, quipping that he obviously hadn’t cut back on food. (Lindsey has lost 80 pounds in the two years since the picture in question was taken.)

For me, seeing my friend targeted by this kind of mean-spirited and adolescent humor, the kind only the most desperate hacks resort to in their columns, shows the importance of sending financial support to local writers. Without the Lindseys of the world, we’re stuck with the likes of Jeffrey Wells.

I saw Lindsey on Thursday night, and he told me he felt like George Segal at the end of “California Split.” It’s an obscure movie reference for anyone but a film critic, but the gist is a longtime gambling loser finally hits the jackpot.

He’s been down so long that he hardly knows how to handle being up. But he senses that he’s been a rich man all along, a misanthrope with a fan club, George Bailey in the ’hood.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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