Book Review: "Life As We Show It: Writing On Film"

Matthew Sorrento handed me this book Life As We Show It: Writing On Film, with the endorsement that “this might be the kind of thing you were talking about.” I’d recently walked away from a very cushy post as film critic for the Baltimore City Paper, partly to concentrate on writing fiction (my first novel Hotel Butterfly *ahem* is now available for download) but partly because I’d hit the same wall as the starry-eyed altruist who went into social work “to help people.” The bitter secret of film criticism is that, if you do it long enough, you become a critic – a know-it-all dyspeptic who rejects the blind date magic that happens when you sit down in your theater seat with a guileless heart, because there are only so many Taxi Drivers and Rashomons out there, and the world keeps clamoring for “Scary Movie Umpteenth.” Like how Colette put it, “If I can’t have too many truffles, I’ll do without truffles,” and so I staggered away, hoping to clear my critical palette with a self-enforced fast away from film, followed by the option to step out of a movie at any time should I sense its well-being heading south. (I am a terrible movie date for this reason, by the way, but I did sit all the way through “Gentlemen Broncos.” For the record, I liked it, and I don’t care if anyone else did.) This cinematic high colonic was the tonic I needed, and it got me thinking about how we love movies – not the why, which is the provenance of the critic, the spearing and dissecting of what’s well done, but the how – the irrational, heart-flutter passion we have for movies we can’t defend critically to anyone else yet somehow speak to us in a phantom tongue, like those identical twins who construct their own language and then are pried apart into the collective glossary thanks to well meaning speech pathologists. It’s much easier to order of pizza in New York when you speak English (or Spanish, sometimes), but what’s lost about that secret womb kingdom of Atlantis when you and your twin don’t have that shared tongue anymore? What are you going to discuss over your slice and diet Coke, now that you’re finally reunited? “Dancing with The Stars”?

I love me some silly movies. I love the first 75 minutes of “Explorers” (1985), right before Joe Dante needs to ruin the mystery that’s propelled three young boys into building a rocket and launching into space. I love “Interview with the Vampire” (1994), even though I care not a whit for Anne Rice, and I love “The Jane Austen Book Club” (2007) although I always imagine another ending (spoiler alert) where Prudie (Emily Blunt) says “Go to hell, Jane Austen, and you crazy book club bitches” and runs into the motel with her horny, available, so barely legal student (Kevin Zegers) to fuck his brains out all over the ugly shag rug. These are critically indefensible enjoyments – and yes, you may include “Gentlemen Broncos” in this list. They have nothing to do with a movie’s quantifiable, pedigree-able quality and they have everything to do with how movies fly under the radar of our subconscious and whisper secret launch protocols to parts of us that never see sunlight.

Life As We Show It speaks to that power, and that alone makes it unique among film writing collections. This is an academic collection springing from the right, not the left brain, and its essays and screenplays inside speak to film’s ineffable, sensual qualities, in equally ineffable and sensual ways. The quality of the writing inside is a bit of a crap shoot – some essays, while well-written, start to meander into the land of Who Cares? – but that’s the critic talking, and I’ll restrain myself. I’ll take the anti-critical tack of emphasizing the positive and say that by the time you round the corner into the book’s third act, essays like Wayne Koestenbaum’s “The Elizabeth Taylor Puzzle,” in which a gay man dissects a personal obsession with that violet-eyed voluptuary, in concert with her devourable public image (did you know Liz said “To me the most beautiful smells in the world are babies and bacon”?) It’s an essay full of sagacious bon mots like “After watching Elizabeth Taylor movies I feel eerily masculine” and “[Cleopatra] has no meaning more multiple than the pleasure of watching Elizabeth Taylor in Egyptian drag. Don’t sneer at that pleasure. There are too few occasions for publicly indulging that taste – a taste for nothing in the body of something.” (In a similar vein, later in the book Bard Cole makes the point in his essay “The Victor Salva School of Film Theory” (a free-associative meditation on convicted child molester/director Salva, the nature of viewing, the director’s eye as an inevitable bull’s-eye of lust, and the fuckability of Justin Long – fess up, you know you’re out there) that “with the slow, pause, and zoom features now available on DVD players, there are now a lot more porn movies out there.”

Finally, most stunningly, is Elizabeth Hatmaker’s half-remembered dream of an essay “Hysteresis,” a tone poem montage that’s to most critical writing as Bill Morrison’s Decasia is to Frederic Wiseman documentaries. Hatmaker riffs in tight, swirling sentences on miscegenation, X-cuts, the mystery of sex, a half-remembered late night movie “Good Luck, Mrs. Wyckoff” (1979), fear, horror, lust, the woman Emmett Till whistled at, long-cooled crime scenes and decaying videotape. It’s a truly staggering work, one I can’t begin to distill in a few glib blog sentences, and its presence alone makes this book worth hunting down.
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