Friday, August 22, 2014

Ranting On...Leonard Maltin and the Decline of Classic Cinema

Leonard Maltin
By now many of you have likely heard about the end of an era in terms of movie criticism.  Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, a 45-year-old institution for cinema fans and casual movie-lovers alike will publish its last edition this fall.  An entire generation of film lovers, myself included, had a copy of Maltin’s book on their shelves growing up.  I remember my brother and I would pore through the books, trying desperately to find a movie that wasn’t listed (it was extremely difficult) and referencing every new film that we saw on AMC or Turner Classic Movies.  Whenever a young film fan would try and list every film they've ever seen (my brother I believe did this successfully once…I did not succeed and consider it a likely lost cause with my current movie-watching habits), Maltin’s handbook was the only logical starting point, and I frequently found myself adding movies to my “To Watch” list thanks to a surprise four-star citation.  Even when I disagreed with Maltin's opinions (which was more frequently as the years went on), I had to respect his deep commitment to chronicling so many movies and making them available to the mass public.

In some respects this of course makes sense.  Maltin’s book, while endlessly entertaining, cannot really compare to the in-depth reviews that you can find on a Rotten Tomatoes or with the cast listings that you can see on IMDB.  These sites allow for limitless facts, trivia, reviews, and crew members to be included alongside the basic information you’d find in Maltin’s guide.  And yet, there’s something deeply sad about this passing, and not just in a nostalgic “seasons change” sort of way.

The reality is that Maltin’s book, even with its dwindling readership, is one of the few places left that genuinely forces you to interact with the history of cinema.  Back in the day you would be looking up a review of, say, Guardians of the Galaxy and see something like Grand Hotel on a nearby page.  The book forced you to realize the breath of cinema, and not just one limited purview.  With IMDB, you just don’t get that, and it shows.  Look at the way that Robin Williams death was covered in comparison to the deaths of other film icons this year like Shirley Temple and Lauren Bacall.  Admittedly, part of what was driving Williams’ coverage was the tragic nature of his death, but the bulk of it is because most of the public has no consciousness when it comes to Temple and Bacall.

This doesn’t always seem to be the case in other fields.  Sports figures are revered for all-time by fans, and there’s a lot to be said for a baseball fan’s sense of film history over, say, even your most ardent of film fans.  Many people fancy themselves cultural connoisseurs of classic cinema, but will let the fact that they have never seen The Godfather Part II or Meet Me in St. Louis just sit there on their queue while they watch Big Bang Theory reruns again.

That really brings me to the old man with a cane part of my rant, but I do feel it’s a conversation worth having: it’s time for film fans who only seem to watch television to stop professing that they love the movies in the same way or equal way as TV.  I have encountered a number of people recently who have chastised me to no end that I have not seen Orange is the New Black, and they are right, but they haven’t hit Ida or Boyhood and are wildly behind on their cinematic zeitgeist, not to mention their classic film count.  You can certainly call yourself a television fan (even if it doesn’t have the same cultural cache that being a "fan of the cinema" does), but if you cannot remember what the last classic movie you saw for the first time was, it’s the equivalent to you calling yourself someone who reads but only finished one book in the past year.  You may be a lapsed fan, but you're not a current one.

And I guess that’s why I really lament the end of Maltin’s book, because it’s one less way for an increasingly classic film-averse society to learn more about the history of the movies.  The American Film Institute doesn’t put out its annual compendiums of the greatest films of different genres anymore.  Best of lists on Entertainment Weekly look like they were designed by a frat house and heaven forbid they list more than three films made before 1960 on those things (it's hard to imagine they once came out with a magazine of the best films of all-time that had Celine and Julie Go that list would probably contain The Avengers).  Even Oscar, once the paragon of celebrating the history of the movies, has slipped to the point where they occasionally resemble the VMA’s more than a celebration of cinema’s best.  The Governors Awards aren’t even televised, and so people who may not have been familiar with the likes of Lauren Bacall and Angela Lansbury and other recent Honorary winners won’t get the moments I had while growing up, watching Kirk Douglas and Elia Kazan and Michael Kidd pick up their Oscars and seeking out their films as a result.

So while film criticism will live on as long as people make movies worth having an opinion on, the reality is that classic cinema and its celebration is something that has become an endangered species, and something we should not stand for as film-lovers.  And what’s the best way to help deter this from happening?  By doing what we would have done the first time we grabbed a Leonard Maltin book-go out, find a classic title that you’ve never seen and been putting off (or better yet-one that you haven’t even heard of), stop watching Real Housewives or The Voice, and fall in love with classic cinema once more.

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