A Book Review Essay by Tony Williams.
Deliberately described as a “provocative film scholar,” this prolific, self-educated expert in film, who has written more than 250 books in the area of popular culture, now turns his attention to a specific species of an audience he knows very well that he will offend by this very book (Mississippi, 2018). It opens with not a “buyer beware” but a “reader beware” outlining an iconoclastic approach that some may take offense at:
This books contains Material that May be Offensive to Film Buffs.
Discretion is Advised.
Similarly, Because of its Anecdotal Style,
Together with Some of the Author’s comments,
the Book May Well Offend Academics in the Film Community. (ix)
Slide’s subject matter concerns a particular type of individual obsessed by particular aspects of film that has “generally taken over the film buff’s life to the detriment of relationships and paying work” (4). It is definitely an obsession but in many ways, as the title denotes, a “magnificent obsession,” and, as much as the author may attempt to distance himself from the group he describes by humorous, critical comments based on real-life observations, I do suspect an unconscious admiration for this community that began in the early 1910s and continues, in a different form, to the present day. Why else would he have devoted his time to such a book in the first place? However, he is quick to discriminate between the “kind and helpful” (ix) older generation, many of which he knew, and their small group of successors, an “inarticulate, but loudmouthed group of individuals, easily identifiable as today’s film buffs” (ix).
As with all the author’s work, this book is characterized by its accessible, informal style presenting no obstacle to the general reader with academic jargon, one characterized by scrupulous research and detailed citations except when he has to rely on his memory of events and individuals, neither of which were committed to paper at the time. The result is an engaging and fascinating perspective of this obsession in all its different manifestations that may not appear worthy of attention to most people in the academic community. It nevertheless forms the focus of an engaging and witty book that is one of the most pleasurable I’ve read this year.
Following acknowledgments and introduction, the book falls into thirteen informative chapters dealing with defining the “Film Buff”: Fan Clubs and Fan Mail; the role of buff pioneer Chaw Mank (1902-1985); Film Buff Screenings; the Film Buff Collector, Film Buff Publishing, Publications, and Bookstores; the Film Buff as Scholar; the Role of the Old Silent Movie Theatre; Sex and the Film Buff; Organized Film Buffs; the Prolific Joe Franklin; Stalkers; and The Film Buff, the Internet, and the New Age.” Helpful Notes, Bibliography, and Index follow.
Slide presents the reader with a fascinating history, at times resembling a version of “Fellini meets Mondo Caine” in its gallery of bizarre and eccentric characters devoted not to F.R. Leavis Common Pursuit of Great Literature but an obsessive fascination with cinema in all its forms. However, despite its emphasis on the bizarre changing “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” into Slide’s particular version, Magnificent Obsession provides balance not just with its emphasis on characters treading a fine line between sanity and madness but also the respect given to the memory of revered figures such as William K. Everson, DeWitt Bodeen, and Herman G. Weinberg as well as that earlier revered generation of buffs who, according to some, maintained the lost virtues of civility and were always willing to share their findings with others.
Quoting a 1964 description by William K. Everson of Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society members, Slide refers nostalgically to a
kinder, gentler time when film buffs were similarly kind and gentle, caring of other (sic?) and anxious to share their knowledge. Yes, some might be eccentric, and some might be decidedly odd. But you could enjoy, be amused by their company. They were part of a noble breed of people who loved movies – even film professors back then, once upon a time, actually had an affection for their subject. How times have changed. (4-5)
This is worth quoting in full since it reveals both an admiring aspect of this book and a fatal flaw. Not all of us fall into the narrow academic definition that Dr. Slide often indulges in. Some of us do love film and, thankfully, the later reference to Dr. Gary Rhodes reveals that the film buff and scholar can exist simultaneously (184-185). Also, as Anthony Slide holds an honorary doctorate, he is now (as the late Mrs. Thatcher would say) “one of us” and unless he returns his doctorate (as John Lennon returned his M.B.E.) liable to remain so. However, I cannot deny the existence of those he justifiably criticizes since there are far too many of them in the profession today who certainly do not believe in those old Cold War values of “peaceful co-existence.”
Proven offenders deserve everything Dr. Slide gives them as seen in his reference to a 1921 medical definition of many adult fans as morons with the mental age of eleven. “Those who have suffered attack at the blog sites frequented by film buffs would agree” (16). Slide here reminds us of William Shatner’s put-down of Trekkies during his 1986 Saturday Night Live appearance:
The modern film buff has evolved in much the same way as the human has evolved from the ape, but perhaps without the same level of sophistication or the same notion of cleanliness and good health…. There are those who resemble Renfield on a bad day, there is the prevalent smell of bad odor, the physical deformities. (17)
Perhaps Dr. Slide was born after his appropriate time since he reveals himself as a master of Grand Guignol? However, he supplies a well-deserved tribute to the late William K. Everson (1929-1996) that will resound with those fortunate enough to meet him (even on just one occasion, as I did), and here Slide is justified with his usual bias since the man was so unique:
Everson once commented that only after thirty years of film viewings might a buff call himself a historian. Certainly, he reached that status. Further, he did it with a generosity of spirit, sharing his film collection with all, buff and scholar without financial recompense and expectation of any reward, As Rick DeCroix has written, “He mastered film history the best way possible, by watching films. No doubt precisely because he was not an academic, William K. Everson fully understood how to present film to all people, making cinema an unusually thrilling place of discovery and rediscovery.” (83)
Some of us still try to do that within the institution despite the presence of uncongenial, opportunistic, and untrustworthy “colleagues.”
However, this book has its share of typos that I hope future printings will correct. (I say this not in the spirit of a nit-picking “academic” but according to the sub-editing practices I often use when reviewing manuscripts as well as to assure the author that the book has been thoroughly read before reviewing.) In addition to the query concerning p. 4. above, should “invited” on p. 109, para. 6, l. 4 be changed to “invite”? Was not the date of Billy Budd (not listed in the index) 1962 rather than 1960 (115) unless Slide is referring to the date DeWitt Bodeen (1908-1988) finished his screenplay?
However, these are just minor in terms of the many pleasures contained in this book. Slide mentions film journals such as Films in Review and Focus on Film whose heyday occurred in bygone, but very, respected eras. The generosity shown by retired editor Henry Hart of the first in contributing towards a fund to have a lilac named in honor of Blanche Sweet is extremely touching. As Slide states, “It was the sort of gesture, not only on Henry’s part but also on my own, that no self-absorbed, rude, and arrogant film buff today would understand” (225, n.46).
In chapter seven, Slide mentions other unsung heroes such as Ben Ohmart who runs BearManor Media from Kyoto, Japan who not only successfully appeals to the film buff market (131) but also (in my opinion) publishes some very important books that academic and mainstream publishers ignore to their cost. Slide also honors the sadly missed TV host Robert Osborne whose TCM introductions proved that one could transmit both a genuine love of film and knowledge to a wide audience rather than the demeaning “Thumbs Up/Down” of Siskel and Ebert. The latter’s posthumous (and undeserved) reputation is a mystery to me.
Those who have met or spoken with Dr. Slide will easily discern his characteristic low key humor in passages such as the following. Referring to fetish Queen Bettie Page, “within three years she had quit her original chosen profession, found God, and had a major breakdown, resulting in incarceration in a California mental institution. There is not necessarily a correlation between the last three” (165).
Referring to the “not guilty by reason of insanity” verdict delivered to Reagan’s failed assassin and former Jodie Foster stalker John W. Hinckley Jr., Slide comments, “Am I callous, insensitive, and unfeeling in my belief that a similar verdict might be rendered against many of today’s pseudo-anonymous film buffs who overpopulate Internet blog sites” (200).
He concludes his justifiable attack on certain individuals knowing full well that like those victims of Edward G. Robinson’s Rico in Little Caesar (1931), they may like to dish it out but ultimately can’t take it. Slide also affirms what some of us already know about today’s film bloggers (to say nothing about unqualified “film experts” in English and even certain Cinema departments) in terms of comparisons with the past generation:
There is little if any comparison between them and the majority of today’s film buffs, who are ignorant of scholarship and serious research, living in a world inhabited by their own kind, and willing always to be negative and cruel towards those who do not share their interests. Generally, they are bitter men, undeserving of encouragement. (209)
This is a very valuable book. If, at times, Dr. Slide appears like a curmudgeon, he is a well-informed one with documented sources but that is not his real personality. I have never met him but had very pleasurable, sometimes infuriating, discussions, with him on the phone and always found him to be a representative of those past values now missing in the world of cinema fandom. However, I believe he is being very unfair in making sweeping judgments against a beleaguered minority in academia trying to do a good job against overwhelming odds. In an email exchange with Slide, Dr. Gary Rhodes mentions that academia was the only way for him to continue his love of film but he also admits the existence of “very young academics who seem to have no interest in film at all” (185). Were they always devoid of passion for the cinema or did academia drain them of their passion? Although Rhodes believes the first is the answer, I would also go for the second. As Chris Sharrett and Robin Wood pointed out, universities are no longer the creative centers of civilization but part of today’s monolithic corporate culture. Yet, despite that, some of us are still around to throw spanners into the works and this number may be more than Dr. Slide thinks. Joking aside, his doctorate is well deserved and his contributions to film history over the decades of great value. We need more people like him around but outside the system.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English at Southern University at Carbondale as well as Contributing Editor to Film international.