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