Men on film

Leonard Maltin and The Advocate’s Alonso Duralde talk about their new movie books, coming out just in time for stocking-stuffer season

BY admin

November 07 2005 1:00 AM ET

Legendary film
critic Leonard Maltin gives his fans a twofer this holiday
season, with his essential
2006 Movie Guide
(Plume, $20) and the brand-new
Classic Movie Guide
(Plume, $20), which features more than 9,000 entries
for films made through 1960. Advocate arts and
entertainment editor Alonso Duralde makes his first
foray into the film-guide world with
101 Must-see Movies for Gay Men
(Advocate Books, $14.95), a compendium of faves from
All About Eve and The Apple to
Xanadu and Zero Patience. In a recent phone
conversation, the two colleagues compared notes on the
triumphs and tribulations of making movie books.

Duralde: I have to tell you, every year getting your
new movie guide, it’s like getting the Sears
catalog when you’re a kid. I always have to
tear through it and find the reviews of the movies that came
out since the last one.
Maltin: Well, God bless you and people like you. Your
book’s a lot of fun.

Duralde: Oh, I’m glad you liked it. It sort of
started as a lark, and midway through I realized it
was a taxing lark and wished I’d called it
45 Must-see Movies for Gay Men.
Maltin: Yes, well, I’ve been there and done
that.

Duralde: As with your movie guide, I hope it’s
the sort of thing that people will take with them to
the video store or have next to them when
they’re Netflixing.
Maltin: I think the best part of a book like
this—I do it on too large a scale;
you’ve done it on a very well-focused
subject—is the feeling that you get of bringing
people to good movies. That’s the greatest
satisfaction. If someone stops me and says, “I was
debating whether to stay up late last night to see
something, and I read your review, so I stayed up and
I really liked it,” that makes me feel good.
That’s very satisfying. And I’m sure you will
have the same kind of response, knowing you have
turned somebody on to something really good. Or
something interesting. Or something that will lead them on a
different stream, to investigate more films by the
same writer, the same director, whatever it may be.
Well, not in the case of Glitter. [Alonso
laughs
]

Duralde: [Glitter director] Vondie Curtis-Hall
is a great actor, at least.
Maltin: Oh, we like him. We’re rooting for
him.

Duralde: So this year you’re diversifying the
franchise with the Classic Movie Guide. This is
all up to 1960?Maltin: Yep. The reason behind
it was simple: We’d run out of space. There are
certain laws of physics that cannot be violated, and
they couldn’t bind the book any thicker and
keep it together. I don’t mean that in the cosmic
sense; I mean literally keep it together. [Alonso
laughs
] So finally we came upon this
idea—my daughter takes credit for it—which was
to segregate the older movies, but not -completely.
The idea is that in the annual book you should still
be able to look up City Lights or The Thief
of Baghdad
or Metropolis or High Noon,
and you can. But you can’t look up a lot of the
lesser films of the ’30s and ’40s and
’50s. Those are now only in the Classic Guide.
Duralde: And a lot of them have never appeared
before, right?

Maltin: Then, while we were at it, we did have space
in the Classic Guide, we said, “We
should probably add some stuff.” We added 1,100
more reviews.
Duralde: That’s extraordinary.

Maltin: It’s crazy, is what it is. You know,
you have to be nuts to do this. Doing a reference book
is not for sissies.
Duralde: I feel your pain. I was just reading in your
intro where you talk about the challenge of what year
you assign to a movie and all that stuff, and now that
it’s come up for me…well, let’s just
say some of my proofreaders took IMDB.com as gospel.

Maltin: Oh, that’s a mistake.
Duralde: So I kind of had to say, “No, this
movie might have played Toronto in that year, but it
opened in theaters the following year.”
It’s a thankless task.

Maltin: It’s not thankless when it’s done.
Duralde: This is true.

Maltin: It’s like virtue; it’s its own reward.
Duralde: So how much of your year goes into this?

Maltin: It’s never-ending. We used to do the
book every other year in the ’70s and early
’80s, and frankly, we would goof off that off year.
We shouldn’t have—that was not the smart way
to do it—but we did. Then when it became an
annual in the ’80s, we realized that the only way to
do it was to just keep at it all the time. So nobody
works on it full-time, but by the same token,
nobody’s ever not working on it. [Laughs]

Duralde: As someone who observes the industry, do you
see the three new gay cable channels giving a home to
movies that people have forgotten about that are going
to turn up on TV again?
Maltin: I think it’s great. When I was a kid,
the big, bold promise of cable TV was that there would
be narrowcasting. There’d be a stamp-collecting
channel; there’d be a dog-care channel. And that
never happened, because even the channels that started
out narrowcasting decided, oh, we want to make big
money. So narrowcasting never came, but
it’s starting to diversify a bit. The gay channels
certainly are good and welcome evidence of that. Just
as IFC and Sundance channels have created a welcome
home for independent features—and
shorts—giving access to those films to people
who don’t have art theaters in their community
and maybe only have a Blockbuster. This is a lifeline, and I
would think the same would be true for the gay
channels. And that’s terrific.

Outtakes from The Advocate, November 22, 2005

Duralde: When you started writing the Movie
Guide
back in the late ’60s, did you have
any idea that it was going to become such a staple for people?
Maltin: Not a clue. And of course, I didn’t
start it, it was sort of handed to me. I was in high school,
in the 12th grade, about to graduate, but I was
already publishing my fanzine. And a teacher in my
high school said to me, “I’ve got a friend who
works at Signet Books in New York, and I just think
the two of you would hit it off.” I was in the
suburbs of New Jersey, and I went to see him, ideas
dancing in my head about, Gee, maybe I could get to
write a book.
But nothing definite; it was just the
idea I was meeting somebody in publishing. I brought
copies of my magazine with me, and he already knew the
magazine, which broke the ice very easily. He
subscribed to it. And he said, “Do you know this book
Movies on TV by Steven Scheuer?” I said,
“Sure I do, everybody does.” He said,
“What do you think of it?” I said,
“It’s fine as far as it goes.” He
said, “Well, what would you do differently?”
And I said, because I knew that book really well, that
I’d put in the director’s name and give
more than just the two stars of the movie, I’d
put in the costarring cast. And I’d say whether it
was in color or black and white, and what the running
time is so you know if they’re cutting it when
you watch it on TV. I rattled off all these answers, and he
said, “Well, how’d you like to do it?
I’m looking for someone to do a rival book.
You’re the guy.” Days later a contract was
being drawn up for me to do exactly that, only he
didn’t have the nerve to tell his colleagues at
Signet that he was hiring a 17-year-old kid to do it.

Duralde: You’re like the Horatio Alger of
film nerds.
Maltin: I mean, it sounds like a B-movie
script. A very good B-movie script, but that is the literal
truth of how it happened. When you ask me about my
goals or projections for this book, I had none. The
task of simply getting it done was so enormous,
that’s all I thought about. And when I saw it
in galley form before it came out, I was distraught,
because I thought it wasn’t good enough. And I was
right, which was why I kept improving it.

Duralde: You have a team now, but for those
first ones, it was just you solo?
Maltin: No, no, it couldn’t have been done. I
hired people right away. It’s always been a
collaborative effort. It pretty much has to be.
I’ve always said that if I had seen 19,000 films,
it might be possible to do, but I’d be drooling a
lot. I couldn’t conduct this interview with
you.

Duralde: The perception people have about
critics so often is that we just hate everything and are
there to pooh-pooh anything that’s fun or
entertaining, but I’d say quite the contrary is
true. You’ll never meet people who are more actively
interested and excited about movies and wanting to share that.
Maltin: Or gets the same charge out of
championing film. It’s the best part of the job,
being the one to rally support for something
worthwhile that isn’t getting the kind of
advertising or the kind of attention it deserves.

Duralde: You’ve become a sort of keeper of
the flame for old Hollywood. With the books, with public
appearances, you endorse the golden age of movies. Do
you see films of that era slipping away, or do you
think Turner Classic Movies and DVDs are bringing new
generations to them?
Maltin: I hope. I’m not so blind or so
insular as to think that audience is being regenerated in
vast numbers. But the very fact that TCM is there on
the channel spectrum and that people who are surfing
around might stumble onto something that looks
interesting and then stay and watch it, and that might pique
their interest to see something else, is a good, good
thing. Fox Movie Channel too. And the Westerns
channel, goodness knows. It’s not the way when I
was a kid, when all television was a repository of old
movies. All you got day and night was old movies. You
couldn’t avoid them; you couldn’t escape
them. And everybody was aware of who Humphrey Bogart was and
who W.C. Fields was, just because they were there all
the time. And that’s just not true anymore.

So I try to do
what I call “missionary work.” In my class at
USC, it’s a big class, 360 kids, only about a
quarter of them are film majors, the rest of them are
athletes, pre-laws, economics, business majors, all
sorts of people. It’s a real audience. And I
can’t change what the class
is—it’s not a film history class; I inherited
Arthur Knight and Chuck Champlin’s longtime
class, “The Movies With New Moviemakers.” But
the last night of the semester, I do show an old film
and I have a guest from the old film. And then every
week I show a short or a cartoon and I give a little
mini-history about that. So I try to get in my licks. I
showed To Be or Not to Be, one of my favorite
movies, and Robert Stack came. He was just a charming guest,
a delightful guest, and of course they all knew him
from TV or recognized him. At the end of the class,
two guys came up to me and said, “You know, we would
never have watched that film in a billion years. But this
was really wonderful; we’re going to try to
find this on video.” I wanted to hug them! They
made this entire semester worthwhile. That’s a very
good feeling.

Duralde: One thing that surprised me about
putting together this book was how many movies aren’t
available on DVD. I think there’s a general
assumption that the studios are opening up the vaults
and releasing everything. Although for you, I’m sure
it comes up a hundredfold.
Maltin: Startling. Especially when you look in
the ’60s—any decade, really, from the
’60s on back. It’s discouraging. And
people are insulted, if not downright furious about it. But
hey, I’m old enough to remember when none of
them were available; I’m still excited that
there is such a thing as home video. But they’re
mystified, and if it’s a film they love or
remember well, they really, really don’t
understand why it isn’t out on DVD or even VHS, even
though it might not be a classic or even have a big
star in it. So we still have a long way to go.

Being a
particular fan of 1930s movies, we have a very long way to
go. But the glass is definitely half-full. The Greta
Garbo box that just came out is a small miracle. Other
good stuff is coming all the time, so I live in hope.
But it is surprising to a lot of people. Is Boys in the
Band
now out?

Duralde: It’s not. That was one of the
surprises. No Boys in the Band, no Cruising,
no Making Love
Maltin: And those are really significant films.

Duralde: Definitely. Neither of the Valley of the
Dolls,
although I know you’re not a fan of
the first one.
Maltin: But you’d think, right?

Duralde: There are people who would buy those
things, no question.
Maltin: Of course.

Duralde: And so many independent video stores
now have a gay-lesbian section, they’re certainly an
audience to be counted on to pick up a couple of
copies if any of those become available.
Maltin: Exactly. This has to do with
specialized marketing, and I’m afraid a lot of the
big studios suffer the same problem in home video that
they do in theatrical releases. They don’t have
the willingness or the patience to go out and try to do
specialized marketing. I mean, taking an ad in The
Advocate
for The Boys in the Band, that
alone would sell a lot of DVDs, right? They’re
too busy reissuing to Wal-Mart at a lower price;
that’s what they do. It’s an exact
equivalent to the reason that majors don’t know how
to handle smaller movies. They know how to sell big
stuff; they don’t know how to sell small stuff.

Duralde: And they know how to chase after big
dividends. Even though all these titles would do relatively
well, they’re not going to give you the kind of
turnover that Harry Potter movies are. Is there a good
way for people to complain about this? Do studios respond
to e-mails?
Maltin: First you have to figure out who owns
the movie, which is not always easy to determine. If you can
tell who owns the movie, I’m a big believer in
writing letters. Always have been. I don’t know
how many of these companies bother to read them, but
I’m still a believer in writing letters. And
you don’t write ranting letters, threatening
letters—you write a civil letter and say, “I
know I’m not the only one who would love to see
a copy of such-and-such on DVD; please consider
putting it out.” If enough people write, they might
pay attention.

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