It’s strange that I can’t remember the day I met Jeff Vice.
It must have been sometime in 1996, which is when Jeff ascended to the job of film critic for the Deseret News.
I say it’s strange, because Jeff became such a presence in my life as a movie critic — as someone I sat near at hundreds of screenings, someone who went from being a rival to being a friend — that it became natural that he would be in his seat when I got to the theater.
Jeff Michael Vice died this week, suddenly and shockingly, after an asthma attack Sunday that led to heart failure. He was 48, a year younger than I am, and I’m just one of many people who are struggling to comprehend the notion that he’s gone.
The day Jeff became movie critic for the D-News, he became my competition in a two-newspaper town. We relished the opportunities to show each other up — competing for interviews with movie stars or trying to outdo each other in our coverage of the Sundance Film Festival.
The rivalry was fierce enough that when I gave up my weekly radio gig on X96’s "Radio From Hell," it irked me that they named Jeff as my replacement. Jeff and X96’s Kerry Jackson grew up together in Payson, so it made sense — but it still stung.
Jeff had another rival when he started: his predecessor, Chris Hicks, who had been promoted to features editor. The D-News readers were a bit slow to accept the new guy — and Hicks was a tad reluctant to let go of his old job.
For that first year, maybe longer, Chris would sometimes see the same movie Jeff saw — then write a column that was in essence another review saying, essentially, "You know, the kid’s right." That settled down after a while, as Jeff grew more confident as a critic.
Jeff also worked to maintain the high standards Chris and his TV counterpart, Scott Pierce, established for the D-News’ arts coverage.
In spite of the fact that the Deseret News was (and is) owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — you know, the Mormons — Chris and Scott, and later Jeff, bucked stereotypes and wrote about adult-oriented content. For the movie critic, that meant reviewing R-rated movies, even though Mormon leaders advise their flock to shun them.
Jeff became such a proponent of seeing every movie — even the R-rated ones — that it became noteworthy when a review was pulled. I recall it happening only once, in 2001, with Jeff’s review of the lesbian romantic comedy "Kissing Jessica Stein." (The fact that the movie opened on the same weekend as LDS General Conference, when a lot of devout Mormons were visiting from out of town, had a lot to do with it.)
Now, thanks to CEO Clark Gilbert’s "family values" agenda (a triumph of marketing over journalism), the Deseret News practically acts as if R-rated movies don’t exist. When the D-News ran its summer movie preview in April, it listed 22 "family" movies opening this summer. My preview listed 79 films. Gilbert’s new agenda coincided with another move: Firing nearly half the newsroom staff in 2010. The purge included Scott (whom the Tribune quickly hired) and Jeff.
I saw Jeff the night he was laid off, because he still attended the screening that night for "Machete" — a grindhouse exploitation movie of the sort the D-News wouldn’t touch now.
I and other critics shook Jeff’s hand and tried to console him, but Jeff was smiling. He was liberated.
By then, Jeff had established himself with another tribe: the Utah geek community.
Jeff was one of the pillars of Kerry Jackson’s "Geek Show Podcast" — so, for a time, I found myself with more rivals than one. This was especially evident when I panned the comic-book satire "Watchmen," only to have Jeff and the Geek Show gang tear me apart for it. (Earlier this year, Jeff admitted to me that it was "not one of our finest hours.")
Jeff teamed up with Jimmy Martin, another "GSP" regular, to launch a video movie-review show, "The Big Movie Mouth-Off," for Comcast. After he was laid off, Jeff strung together a bunch of freelance gigs, including MSN and The Mediocre Show. Still, those around Jeff worried about him. His finances were stretched thin, and he seemed depressed. A year ago he hit on hard times and retreated home to Payson. Jackson asked me back on "Radio From Hell" on Thursdays — and even though it’s been nearly a year, I still feel as if I’m filling in for Jeff.
In the past few months, things were looking up. Jeff was back to showing up regularly for screenings. He secured freelance jobs with Big Shiny Robot and Cinephiled, and he became heavily involved with the new Salt Lake Comic Con.
Best of all, this month he changed his Facebook status to "in a relationship" — with a woman he met at the Comic Con FanX in April.
That’s why I and those who knew Jeff really well are so shocked and angered at his death. Because it seems so damn unfair that he would be taken from us just when everything seemed to be going right.
With Jeff gone, the movie community has lost a passionate voice. The geek community has lost a kindred spirit. I have lost a rival, a colleague, a friend and a brother.
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