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Men on film

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

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 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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