Monday, March 23, 2009

Behind the Screen

Put some time in recently wading into three disparate movie books, each one receiving at least a modicum of critical praise, all three eminently readable.

David Gilmour’s The Film Club: A Memoir (2008, Twelve, 225 pp., $21.99) is a sweet, peculiarly Canadian, reminiscence of a three-year period wherein author/talk show host Gilmour, essentially between jobs, and his high-school-dropout son Jesse, reach one of the strangest parenting deals you can imagine. Liberal/academic Daddy switches abodes with his ex-wife and allows wanna-be musician and rebel-who-can’t-name-his-cause sonny boy to drop out and not go to work as long as agrees to watch three movies a week alongside Dad and further discuss them. Together, the two traverse the movie treasure trove, watching French New Wave, horror films, buried and guilty treasured, with Jesse (who begins the experiment at 16) alternatingly bored, disinterested, mum, fascinated, thrilled, and bored stiff. As time passes the two devote a whole lotta conversation to the vagaries of womanhood, manage to get a tenuous grip on their own relationship and watch some first class movies (including Aquirre, Wrath of God, Mean Streets, The Night of the Iguana, The Searchers, Pickup on South Street, even Night Moves.) Although it can be patently egocentric and psychologically sugary (a yellow brick road to hipster parenting) the memoir is self-consciously sincere enough, and oftimes funny, ultimately making a breezy and entertaining read.

What’s so funny about peace, love and Ronald Reagan as president of a labor union? Big-time showbiz biographer Marc Eliot (whose prior effort; a Jimmy Stewart bio, was first class) has elected to focus on the thirty years that Ronald Reagan spent in tinsletown, as ladies man, hapless B-movie headliner, all around glad handler, and (gulp) union activist. Reagan: The Hollywood Years (2008, Harmony Books, 375 pp., $25.95), is a keen glimpse into everybody-likes-Ronny’s acting struggles (1951’s Bedtime for Bonzo became his best known film, despite memorable turns in 1942’s Kings Row and 1940’s “win one for the gipper” Knute Rockne All American), his much publicized marital struggles with the man-eating Jane Wyman, and his stumbling into the machinations of the Screen Actors Guild, where the once self-declared F.D.R. Democrat somehow wound up union leader, and, for a brief minute, a protector of those tainted by the hues and cries of communism.
During Reagan’s run as SAG president he just squeezed by being tainted with inside dealing by the nefarious Lew Wasserman, the head of the all-powerful talent agency MCA and a life-long Reagan enabler. He also began his slide into conservatism and began toying with the precepts of what would eventually be Reagan Republicanism. Known to many of the more politically left and not-so-staid Hollywood players as an overgrown Boy Scout and a speechifying bore at cocktail parties, Reagan’s failing movie career was turned around when Wasserman found him the well-paying (and highly visible) gig as the host of the 11-year run of TV’s General Electric Theater, where he was able to occasionally star in one of the weekly drama and perfect his twinkle-in-the-eye homilies. When Reagan eventually wiggled his way into the California’s Governorship, and then the nations’ Presidency many of his peers had the same dual reaction: it made perfect sense yet it made no sense at all. Jack Warner, one of the more infamous studio honchos probably summed it up best when, upon hearing of Reagan gubernatorial win commented “Governor, no. Bad casting. The friend of the Governor.”

Looking for that cool daddy gift for yer fellow tawk-the-talk cinephile? For years I’ve been passing along the newest edition of the uniquely personalized Biographical Dictionary of Film by author/critic/academic David Thomson, a kinda/sorta reference book first published in 1975, which lets the idiosyncratic pundit loose on the wide array of artists, icons, trench-diggers, shadow players, and bull goose loonies who make the scene in front of and behind the cameras all over the wide world of cinema. Thomson’s latest, Have You Seen…? A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films (2008, Alfred A. Knopf, 1,007 pp., $39.95), yet another dose of Thomsonian wit, insight, and cine-passion.
Exactly what it purports to be, an alphabetized dileneation, each one page entry somewhere around 500 words or slightly above, ranging (literally) from Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) to Zabriskie Point (1970), with predictable stops at Citizen Kane (1941) and Rashomon (1950), and everything from Detour (1945) to The Man From Laramie (1955) in between. The omissions alone could warrant mucho debate, as could (obviously) the anointed choices but that’s nary the point. As the author sturdily states: "The book is not simply my one thousand preferred films offered with whatever mixture of authority I can muster or generosity you will allow. I like or love many of these movies and I hope you will feel that in the reading and come closer to sharing my pleasure. The first purpose or wish behind the question in my title is not to establish you as an expert in film studies but to give you a good time—or a better time than you have been having.”
Look for your own favorites, flip through it randomly, use it as the occasional non-internet reference source. Thomson’s sweeping intelligence and breath of knowledge will leave you panting for another movie-movie hook-up on yet another inevitable dark and lonely night of isolation- that age old, continually satisfying, straight-into-the-vein, cinematic fix.

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