Read What You See
Let’s stay in with a movie book
by Paul Lewis
Those of us who love movies, I’ve found, also tend to enjoy books about movies. Those books can point us towards new experiences or alter the way we perceive old favorites, be they the films themselves or the creative minds who auteured them in the first place.
Easily my favorite of the recent movie books is a guidebook, The Scarecrow Video Movie Guide (Sasquatch Books, $24.95). It’s quirky and unusual, just like the beloved Seattle University District video store itself, once dubbed “the coolest video store in the country” by Premiere magazine.
As a former Seattle resident and Scarecrow customer, I cannot contradict the claim. I could easily fawn over the store’s voluminous selection of obscure, out-of-print, and imported DVDs and VHS tapes, or reminisce about the evenings with friends watching some gem or old favorite we’d uncovered in the stacks, or how Scarecrow is one of the few places I’ve found the American television edit of the Twin Peaks pilot episode available for rental, but then I’d never get around to the guidebook.
Laymen will likely find the structure of the book unsettling, as the films are not listed in neat, alphabetical order. No, the book is laid out exactly as is the store itself, separating noteworthy and distinctive directors into the front of the book, then sorting by genre everywhere else (a favorite subsection, within psychotronic/horror films, is the “Vengeful Acts of a Wrathful God” section).
The reviews are all handled by staff and “friends of the store,” and are exactly as you might expect a conversation with an independent movie clerk to be. Sure, there’s the occasional hipper-than-thou tirade (a feature of most any Seattle institution) or factual error ( Octopussy was not Roger Moore’s final James Bond outing), but mostly what translates is the passion and love for film which gestates from the walls of the store itself.
An intriguing feature is the occasional dueling review, when one writer’s positive or negative spin elicits a response from another writer (“Everybody loves The Goonies,” opines one J.S., while B.T. retorts “Actually, I hate the fucking Goonies. ”).
I guarantee that perusing this book will result in a plethora of titles you’ll want to seek out for yourself.
Almost as entertaining and enlightening as the reviews themselves is a short history of Scarecrow and a clear explanation of the store’s philosophy. While the book doesn’t out-and-out trash chain stores, it does trumpet Scarecrow’s independence and its willingness to put profits back into finding more obscure titles. As anyone in town who misses such a wonderful local oddity as Evil Eye Video can attest, “We are pretty certain of this: The best video stores around are your local independent video stores.”
A bit less successful but no less intriguing book for fans of modern cinema is Sharon Waxman’s Rebels on the Backlot (HarperEntertainment, $25.95). The subtitle “Six Maverick Directors and How They Conquered the Hollywood Studio System” nicely elucidates the book’s content.
Most intrigued will be fans of the six directors: Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell, and semi-local grindhouse wunderkind Quentin Tarantino. Waxman, a Hollywood correspondent for The New York Times , obviously spent much time researching and interviewing each of the directors and their notable collaborators. Sadly, the ’90’s era when these directors were coming into their own in the corporate-owned “independent” cinema is exposed in Peter Biskind’s excellent 2004 tome Down and Dirty Pictures , and Waxman covers much of the same ground, even using the former book as a source.
Most intriguing about Waxman’s book is the dispelling of myths surrounding some of these magic-makers. Spike Jonze, whose real name is Adam Spiegel, is widely reported to be an heir to the Spiegel catalog fortune. Waxman debunks this notion, revealing that the practical-joking Jonze never bothered to correct the misconception. Tarantino has likewise allowed myths about a white-trash upbringing continue to the disappointment of his successful and upwardly mobile mother who left Tennessee for greener pastures and career opportunities in California. Tarantino’s mother, Connie McHugh, has been so unhappy with unflattering press coverage that Waxman’s interview is a rarity.
Again, I have to defer to the more comprehensive Biskind book, though Rebels is much more painstaking in dealing with the development of certain signature projects: Fincher’s Fight Club , Russell’s Three Kings , Jonze’s Being John Malkovich and Soderbergh’s Traffic chief among them. The book works best as a testament to artists creating within the strictures of conservative corporate environments, something that perhaps the ownership at Scarecrow Video know a little something about.