I OWN A BUNCH of movie books. Well, more than a bunch. Dozens. Too many, I suppose. I think the hobby (or is it habit?) started about the time that VCRs came into being–about 1979–a milestone for my latent movie fanaticism. I had been awakened to a world of movies that previously had been unavailable for viewing.
I think the first book was Donald Spoto’s excellent film-by-film analysis, Hitchcock. I’d borrowed the Oak Lawn Public Library’s copy a couple of times, gotten completely immersed in it, and then finally plunked down the $8.95. Next, if I recall, was a little paperback, The Golden Turkey Awards-a sort of oddball collection of lists–lists of bad movies–turkeys, some of them in the so-bad-they’re-good category, a la MST3K; others just plain awful and unwatchable. A fascinating, fun read.
Eventually, my wanderings in Waldenbooks, Barnes & Noble, and Kroch & Brentano’s led me to my most treasured film book, Guide for the Film Fanatic (1986; Fireside Books) From the Introduction:
“If you flipped through the pages of this book, you may have noticed that, unlike many movie-list books, this one does not have a star rating system. I love those books, but I worry that rating systems have the adverse effect of discouraging people from seeing certain movies that should be equally recongnized. It’s only natural to choose a movie that has a three-star rating over one that has just two stars, but in many cases the two-star movie is more interesting–indeed it may have a cult made up of devoted fans who appreciate things that a particular review overlooked. I may attack a film, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want you to see it. This book is meant to encourage readers to see movies, not discourage them.”
Danny Peary’s is untypical of most movie review books in that every one of the films he discusses is worth your time, in some way or another. Each entry is a pleasure to read, even if it doesn’t convince you to watch the film. Peary might consider how absolutely great a movie is, or place some high value on it even if solely for its pure entertainment value, or occasionally only for historic reasons. Many of the book’s movies have a strong, cult-like following–not everyone’s cup of tea, but maybe it will be yours, if you give it a try. I discovered movies I would’ve otherwise overlooked–movies that Maltin gave just two stars to, that Siskel & Ebert rated “dogs of the week”, or films that arrived and burned brightly then for various reasons faded quickly from memory. Some films I had seen before, multiple times, took on a new light.
But the one great thing about Guide for the Film Fanatic is Peary’s approach. He brings a slightly different perspective, always an insight or two that, I would guess, other critics may not have thought of. A way of looking at a film, and then looking again, and finding some little aspect that strikes you in a personal way. ‘Oh yes, I had that same thought when I saw it.’ Although not simply a contrarian, he’s not afraid to go against the grain, or challenge the accepted, either (see below).
Sight & Sound magazine has just released the results of their latest Critics’ Poll. Below are some of their ten, newly-selected “Greatest Films of All Time”, along with excerpts from Guide for the Film Fanatic, as examples of Peary’s writing style.
“The structure is unique and brilliant, but I find it infuriating. I prefer the mystery unraveling to Scottie unraveling and becoming unbearably obsessive, tyrannical, and self-destructive. We come to root for the fragile Judy, despite what she did to him, and despise Scottie. That’s why the tragic ending is so unsatisfying and depressing.”
“Not surprisingly, the disclosure of the ‘clue’ to the real Kane–‘Rosebud’ is the name on the sled he owned as a child–is not granted Thompson, but is a visual present to the viewers from the filmmaker through his camera. […]
To the dying Kane the sled is the one possession he treasured before he got money and was able to buy everything he wanted (and simultaneously ruin his life), [including] zoo animals (which, unlike people, couldn’t run away from him).
[KANE] is a cinematic reference point that must be seen repeatedly by those who want to learn the language of film, and to learn its potential as a storytelling medium and as an outlet for personal and artistic expression.”
SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS
“Between THE BIRTH OF A NATION and CITIZEN KANE, there is no better example in American film of visual storytelling. […] The scene in which Livingston seduces O’Brien, under a full moon in the swamps–featuring Murnau’s most audacious visuals–is among the most erotically intense liaisons in cinema history.”
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY
“The most awesome, beautiful (the visuals and classic music), mentally stimulating, and controversial science-fiction film every made… HAL is actually more interesting than the men–they are mechanized; HAL is a neurotic.
HAL represents both a Frankenstein monster turning on its human creators (he tries to dispose of the crew) and a Big Brother which, unlike the situation in Orwell, men intentionally have set up to spy on them.”
“To Ethan, alter ego Scar’s name signifies that he has continuously defiled the once pure Debbie (actually, when we finally see Debbie, she is perfectly fine); by having intercourse with her, Scar puts a blemish (a ‘scar’) on the name of the pure-blooded Edwards family. By killing Debbie, Ethan feels he can end his family’s, and particularly Martha’s, disgrace.
[Ethan’s] fears about the mixing of the bloods–symbolically conveyed when he almost dies from a poison arrow–dominates his life. The cleansing of Ethan’s soul is central to this picture; the film is obsessed with the concept of pure and impure (symbolized by the white man’s intrusion on Indian land, the building of structures, the burial of bodies in the soil).
Ethan’s search is not for Debbie… it is for himself, his attempt to find internal tranquility and purge himself of racism and of the savagery that is embodied by Scar. Once Scar is killed, Ethan is cleansed…”
Besides the 1,600 mini-essays, the book also has a list of not “also-rans”, but other movies that are essential viewing for the true film lover. Again unrated, reasons are given for their inclusion in the form of a code system–“H” if it has a place in film History; “S” for Sleeper; “CC” for Camp Classic, etc.
(For some inexplicable reason, Guide for the Film Fanatic is no longer in print, but the book is available, used, from third-party sellers on Amazon.com. Peary has also written some other, very worthwhile film books, including Alternate Oscars and Cult Movies I, II and III. Regrettably, he has not written any other movie-related books for a long time. A few years ago during a film studies class, I asked the Chicago Tribune movie critic Michael Wilmington if he knew what Peary had been up to. He replied that Peary had turned from films to sportswriting.)
Update: My thanks to Jonathan for alerting me to FilmFanatics.org–a website for devotees of Danny Peary’s book.