Uncle Film Nut
LeonarD Maltin's Movie Guide Bids Adieu
eonard Maltin’s 2015 Movie Guide is also the last. It will linger, one supposes, on the counters of America’s surviving video stores for a few years before it becomes too outdated even to be of use there, or is (more likely) stolen or destroyed. Readers who purchase the last edition for their home—a small demographic, since by Maltin’s own admission, the Internet pretty much killed sales—will maybe hold onto the book through lassitude or as a sentimental curio of a bygone era. Then the book will disappear quietly beneath the Wikipedia/IMDB waves.
The physical condition in which one often found a copy of Maltin’s movie guide speaks to the book’s essential qualities: in the nation’s video stores and family rooms, the book appeared excessively thumbed, with a cracked or shattered spine, bent pages, and a cover that was coffee-stained or, in the case of the video store copies, usually missing entirely. (The nation’s video store clerks often remove the cover in order to cut out the image of Maltin and tack it to the wall behind the counter, with an ironic, clerk-penned statement emerging in a speech bubble from Maltin’s mouth.) By 1986 the guide was updated annually, so there was no need for reverence for the physical integrity of a particular copy. There is no book I have seen people toss more often: from a couch to a coffee table, from a chair to a basket, from a stool to a counter. The book is, in fact, fantastically satisfying to toss, since its size and paper quality render it something like a soft brick.
I was once taught that “criticism” was a kind of writing in which one assumed the reader had seen or read the book or movie under discussion, while “reviewing” assumed the reader was trying to decide whether that book or movie was worth paying for. If you’ll allow me to assume this distinction for a minute, Maltin, despite the fact that he is often referred to as a “film critic,” is really the most genial of a particular species of televised movie reviewers who rose to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s. Maltin’s gig was on Entertainment Tonight, and it was his appearances there that turned him into a brand name and moved him above the title on editions of his movie guide. Gene Shalit employed overworked puns on NBC’s Today show, Joel Siegel did the same on Good Morning America, and Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert had their own half-hour shows, first Sneak Previews on PBS and then varying iterations of their last names and the word “movies” distributed via other networks. There were other “national” (pronounced: televised) reviewers, of course, but they were mostly successors or imitators. (Why was the national “movie reviewer” type almost exclusively male? I suspect it’s due to rampant sexism in the television and movie industries, though others might cite the sexism that is rampant in television and the movies.)
These were our film-nut uncles. Siskel and Ebert perfected a we-argue-because-we-love dynamic that, after Siskel’s death in 1999, could not be reproduced by anyone else, despite the fact that it is still routinely attempted in political or sports commentary. It doesn’t translate to book form, unfortunately, and neither does Shalit’s clowning, which my younger self felt was unfunny and disrespectful, but which now just strikes me as sad. Siegel seemed a corporate version of the type, with all the rough edges sanded smooth, which is perhaps why he never comes up in conversation. If all these film-nut uncles were gathered at an imagined barbecue, I would avoid Shalit like the plague, probably tire of Uncle Gene and Uncle Roger’s shtick, and become bored listening to Siegel hold forth about mutual funds. Maltin, because of his harmless gee-whiz, didja know approach, is the uncle I would probably chat with the longest. And he would without a doubt want to talk about movies.
altin’s movie guides are (were?) not serious books, and for this we owe him a debt of gratitude—there is much to be said for not being serious. If you’re not sure about that, maybe grab some old issues of Cahiers du Cinema, set them on your table, and put Maltin’s movie guide next to them. Which do you want to pick up first? Which do want to read around in? Which will you want to grab while actually watching a movie? (Alternate analysis of the experiment: Can you even get old issues of Cahiers du Cinema? If not…is our experiment concluded?) The writers in Cahiers du Cinema are titans of film criticism, holding forth on every aspect of this sublime art we (they) call the cinema. Maltin’s just your pal. He’s not intimidated by things that aren’t sublime. His book has an opinion on Gremlins 2: The New Batch. It gets three stars. That’s more than the first Gremlins, by the way, which only earned two stars. What?!
How many of the rankings and capsule reviews were actually written by Maltin, and how many by his staff? I don’t suspect people particularly care. Maltin’s personal aesthetics were never the item being purchased, and the number of stars the guide gives seems too haphazard to invoke true outrage. When I ran across The Guns of Navarone on the generic television station that shows pan-and-scan versions of old movies, I turned to Maltin. “Explosive action film about Allied commandos during WW2 plotting to destroy German guns; high-powered adventure throughout this first-rate production, highlighted by Oscar-winning special effects.” I watched the explosions a bit more closely after that. The guide gave it three-and-a-half stars. I felt it was a star too many, but I came in forty minutes into the movie and was watching it in the wrong aspect ratio, so who knows?
Life moved on. The book stays on my shelf. I’ll ask it a question again sometime soon, and it will have a thought to offer in response. That’s more than many books can do. Which perhaps means this edition will be one I don’t throw across the room as often. It’s the last. I’ll try to keep the cover on it.
Alan Limnis wrote about Mina Loy's novel "Insel" in last summer's issue.