Mission Critical

film-2-1516-lisa-jensenHow reading Lisa Jensen’s reviews taught me to love film

It’s almost hard to imagine now how rich the cinematic fare was in the 1970s, even in a relatively small cultural outpost like Santa Cruz. Virtually all of the film venues that we enjoy today were in full throttle then, plus there were other long-forgotten movie houses like the Sash Mill Cinema and the Capitola Theater (which ran the oddest double bills imaginable at $1.50 a ticket) that screened a varied assortment of films nightly.

And if the ’70s marked a Golden Age for both American and foreign films, the era also marked the birth of new film criticism, first pioneered by the likes of the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael and the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman and Andrew Sarris.

In Santa Cruz, with its plethora of alternative publications, the art of the creative film review was in its embryonic stages. For a 20-year-old kid like me, it was a heady time, a moment of cultural discovery. At some point in late 1975, I noticed a new byline appearing in Good Times: Lisa Jensen. Her observant, superbly written and intelligently argued reviews would forever change the way I looked at “movies,” as they were then called, and would later come to know under the rubric of “film.”

The date of this discovery was precisely Oct. 23, 1975, when Jensen’s inaugural review of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (billed with Raquel Welch in Bedazzled at UA Cinema I) appeared in Good Times. It was so good that I clipped it, and I still have a copy of it in my files, along with several other Jensen gems.

Jensen’s Monty Python review augured all of her steady and tempered brilliance that was to come. She gave a nod to the comedy troupe’s preceding film, And Now for Something Completely Different, and pointed out the distinguishing characteristics between the two works. “[Python’s] comedy is equal parts satire, slapstick, and silliness,” she observed. “They are neither as cerebral as Woody Allen at his wordiest, nor as crass as Mel Brooks at his cheapest.”

She also made the inevitable comparison to the Marx Brothers: “There is one valid comparison:” she observed. “Attitude. Holy Grail, like the best of the Marx Brothers, is completely anarchistic … In the process, they are often tasteless, violent, sexist and redundant, but they are funny.” Forty years later, her assessment of the film still holds up.

Jensen also wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle and one of my favorite local rags, The Sash Mill Cinema Times, which allowed her more room to expand and reflect on larger themes and premises. One of her pieces on the cumulative films of Woody Allen was the first piece of film criticism I ever encountered to frame his work as an American auteur. I found it profoundly enlightening and educational. I’ve been a fan—and a student—of Jensen’s ever since.

Raised in Hermosa Beach, Jensen came to Santa Cruz as a student at UCSC, where she majored in Aesthetic Studies. She worked as a “counter girl” at the UA Cinemas and in the textbook room at Bookshop Santa Cruz before answering an ad in Good Times for an occasional movie reviewer. The regular film editor, Christian Kallen, moved out of town the following year, and, presto, Jensen moved into a weekly gig—one which she has held ever since.

Fortunately, I suppose, we have had similar cinematic tastes over the years (although not always), but the truth was and remains that Jensen has always had an accurate feel of Santa Cruz’ filmic sensibilities and appetites. “Films mirror our reality,” the German critic Siegfried Kracauer once wrote. Jensen has helped us to look in the mirror.

Many years ago, a movie house proprietor told me that a good Lisa Jensen review could make a film in Santa Cruz, and a bad review could end it quickly. In the era before the digital age, she held that kind of power. To her credit, she usually gave most films the benefit of the doubt. She was generous when other local reviewers could be downright nasty, but when criticism was warranted, she wasn’t afraid to deliver it.

After surviving, by her own account, 17 editors and five publishers at Good Times, the prolific Jensen is still hard at it, while also producing a trio of novels. She says that back then she never saw herself writing reviews for 40 years. “This was just something I was going to do until I had to get a real job,” she smiles. “Fortunately, that never happened.”

Top photo caption: Lisa Jensen wrote her first film review for GT in 1975.

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