We had a few pieces on the site last week about the end of the print edition of Leonard Maltin’s movie guide, and one of those items—in which The Dissolve staff picked some of the film-related books we read to tatters as young cinephiles—inspired readers to wax rhapsodic about the books they loved. The range of titles that came up also raised some pertinent questions about what we get out of movie guides, history books, and essay collections when we’re first learning about film. Here’s a sampling of the conversation:
Hooded Justice: “One that I picked up when I was in my late teens and which made a huge impression on me was The Connoisseur’s Guide To Movies by James Monaco. I don’t consult it as much nowadays as I used to, but Monaco introduced me to the idea that it took all kinds of films—both highbrow and lowbrow—to make up a canon.”
James Hrivnak: “I also had volumes of Ebert reviews growing up, which I loved. But I also annually got Mick Martin and Marsha Porter’s Video Movie Guide, which—like Maltin’s—crammed as many films in as possible. Some a little long, some very short (I remember the review for D.C. Cab: ‘Take the bus.’), but that one also helped broaden my horizons on a ton of classic movies.”
Tyrannorabbit: “At home, Video Movie Guide all the way, from 1986 until the mid-1990s. At the library there was this massive tome—20 or so hardcover books covering up to the mid 1980s—that was big, dense, and unforgiving, especially toward my beloved genre movies. (Alien was graciously awarded three stars out of five; out of my favorites, only Blade Runner got a five-star rating that was vanishingly rare in any genre.) After that point they released an update every year for that year’s movies, getting much less forbidding and more genre-friendly, but they also seemed like they were getting disappointingly soft. Every Pinhead and Freddy sequel could count on getting two and a half stars because at least they’re imaginative, et cetera. (I guess I have to include The Bare Facts, which was basically the pre-internet Mr. Skin. I was disappointed to just now learn that they aren’t essentially the same entity. The Bare Facts stopped bothering around 2001.)”
DrDischord: “When I was a kid there was a series of books in the school library devoted to Universal monster movies: The Mummy, Creature From The Black Lagoon, et cetera. I don't remember what they were about, or if they were about anything, or if they even had words, but the pictures were probably why I wanted to be a special effects artist so bad.”
Marty McKee: “Michael Weldon’s The Psychotronic Encyclopedia Of Film is the bible, as far as I’m concerned. No exaggeration when I say it changed my life. Not only did I learn about so many amazing-sounding movies that existed, but there were other people out there like me who had, er, oddball tastes in film. Who could have guessed in 1983 that so many of those obscurities would now be available on DVD, Blu-ray, or instant streaming? Weldon’s follow-up, The Psychotronic Video Guide, is equally essential.”
Rocket Jock: “Weldon’s Pyschotronic was the one for me, too, mostly because it introduced me to so many movies that later became important to me, and because he included everything: old classics, science fiction epics, gut churning horror, ‘bad’ movies, exploitation, you name it. Plus, there was something about his deadpan, bare-bones way of writing about a movie that made me want to see them. I bought the first book my first semester of college back in the 1980s and never looked back. Plus, after finally tracking down every last issue of the Psychotronic magazine, I had them bound in four volumes and stuck them on my shelf next to Weldon’s books. Those issues are jam packed with fascinating reading.”
Chip: “Alternate Oscars by Danny Peary. I read the hell out of that book, and wonder what his picks would be in the years since 1992. I disagreed with him a lot, but he introduced me to a lot of films and filmmakers very early on. From there, I went to get more of his books (Cult Movies, Cult Stars, et cetera). I really wish he were still writing about film.”
Hooded Justice: “His Guide For The Film Fanatic is a great read, too, even if he is wrongheaded about certain films.”
Bulent Yusef: “Where’s David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary Of Film? Is he not highly regarded round these parts?”
BurgundySuit: “Not by me at least! I've found him the most insufferable critic I've ever read. He doesn”t seem to like anything I do, mainly because he doesn’t like much of anything at all. Anyone who claims John Ford’s films are bad because of their ‘unchecked beauty’ isn't going to have much to say to me.”
Gern Blanston: “That’s the thing… Your post makes me want to go read him. I remember being surprised, and even a little excited in a way, when I saw that take on Ford, and while I don't remember every bit of that entry, I would guess that ‘unchecked’ is the key word there. I don't even remember it being wholly negative (though again, I don't have the book at hand as I write this), but even the figures Thomson praises often get a dose of complicating skepticism. More broadly, one of the fun things about first encountering Thomson, much as with Pauline Kael, is a sense of implicit permission not to fall in line with the accepted view of movies and/or their makers. Or even to complicate the praise a bit, as with (in my recollection) Billy Wilder.”
Delmars Whiskers: “The first film book I ever bought was Jerome Agel’s The Making Of Kubrick’s 2001. It’s just a grab bag, really: contemporary reviews, think-pieces, a fantastic photo section, and a long interview with Kubrick (reprinted, I think, from Playboy). But it all combined to show 10-year-old me how many different ways you could perceive a single film. Just as the movie itself had done, this book opened up my mind.”
All of your comments brought back memories for me—mostly of the Video Movie Guide, which I’d almost forgotten was the first such guide that I owned. I also remember the experience of heading straight to the “Film/TV/Music” section of any used bookstore, and buying up not just books of criticism but also published screenplays (like a nifty little Nashville screenplay paperback I still own), behind-the-scenes books (like Pauline Kael’s problematic but still valuable Raising Kane), and novels and novelizations of R-rated movies I wasn’t allowed to see yet (like Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, which I read half a dozen times before I ever saw the movie). I think the commenters have articulated well what draws us to certain movie books, and what keeps us reading—and how it isn’t always out of some scholarly instinct.
For example, the first time I encountered Danny Peary’s Cult Movies was at the public library, and I initially checked it out because it contained a lot of lurid pictures of weird-looking exploitation films, some of which I’d already heard spoken about in whispers among my small circle of cinephile friends. But I read that book—and Peary’s sequels—cover-to-cover, because the writing and the insights were so good. Like a lot of us who read books about movies do when we’re half-ignorant teens, I used Peary’s and others’ books to start making a checklist in my head (and sometimes on paper) of films I needed to see. I liken these books to the hip older teen at my high school, telling me that I should be listening to The Replacements, and should be reading Kurt Vonnegut. Their advice was invaluable.
When The Dissolve staff started kicking around this topic of movie books that helped us when we were starting out, I had a sizable list to pick from. If we were to open the topic up to include books that have helped shape my thinking about movies as an adult, I’d throw in Phillip Lopate’s Totally, Tenderly, Tragically, Robert Warshow’s The Immediate Experience, and James Agee’s Agee On Film, all of which have helped give me historical context for older Hollywood and foreign-language cinema, as well as offering new ways to look at “boring” movies and B-movies. (Lopate’s essay “Diary Of A Country Priest: Films As Spiritual Life” offers a defense of non-engaging movies that I always try to remember whenever my mind starts to wander while watching some austere art film.)
The older I get, the more excited I am by criticism that challenges me to find something in work I’d previously dismissed. This would be a good topic to explore in full later on, but I think that young cinephiles need the narrow canon that the introductory-level film guides provide—just as a way of learning the common language of movie buffs. But it’s vital to keep on reading, to stay open to the stinging dissents of a Pauline Kael or David Thomson, and to consider the alternative canons of a Danny Peary or Michael J. Weldon. What keeps me so excited about cinema is knowing that even if all film production were to shut down tomorrow, there’d still be new discoveries to make, just from everything that’s already been made. That’s why there’ll always be a need for guides, to take us down the main thoroughfare, then ease us toward the side-streets.
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