Posted by Richard Harland Smith on August 22, 2014
Another week, another obituary… only this time we’re here to bury a book (and, time permitting, praise it). Plume, the boutique imprint of Penguin Random House has announced that Leonard Maltin’s 2015 Movie Guide will be the last of the series, the end of the line for the movie-lover’s favorite doorstop. It’s a bittersweet moment, one that has many of us, I’m sure, remembering the first time we clapped eyes on one of Maltin’s ever-thickening guides. I was 12, on the cusp of turning 13, and I had convinced my mother to sign me up to be a member of a book club that brokered in volumes on movie-making and entertainment. I barely remember what three books I ordered as part of the introductory offer (one was a Vincent Price biography) but part of the deal was that you got a free copy of the Maltin guide. I had no idea who Leonard Maltin was but a free book was nothing to sneeze at. Though there were no pictures, the The 1975 Edition TV Movies Guide edited by Leonard Maltin (we weren’t so much about the catchy titles back in the day) became my constant companion and the closest thing I would have to a bedmate for the next eight years. (Yeah, I was a late bloomer.) Though the book fell well short of its promise to relay “everything you want to know and more about 10,000 movies now being shown on TV” (fault: publisher, not editor), there was more than enough in there on which a pre-teen cinephile could glut himself. Over the next several years, I used my allowance to keep current with Maltin, as the TV Movies Guide became Leonard Maltin’s TV Movies and Leonard Maltin’s TV Movies Video Guide and Leonard Maltin’s Movie & Video Guide and finally Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide.
The title change says a lot about the way our enjoyment of movies in our homes changed film criticism. When I first started reading Maltin (and his reviewers — it took me many years to learn that LM was not responsible for every review), home-based movie-watching was catch-as-catch-can; one had to take whatever the television was showing and simply wait for treasured titles to turn up in their own time. The Maltin book also hipped you to a ton of movies that never seemed to play on the tube, from series installments of such (to my eyes) obscure franchises as Boston Blackie, the Lone Wolf, the Falcon, Torchy Blaine, and Mr. Moto, to horror and science fiction curios that tantalized and beckoned despite the book’s dismissive attitude toward them. A sea change in home entertainment was nigh, however, and a decade after I first started reading Maltin the home video revolution allowed us to watch our favorite movies over and over again, without commercial interruption. Even that industry was ever-evolving, as video cassettes were outpaced (if not outsold) by laserdiscs and later DVDs, which beget video-on-demand and digital streaming. Also folded into the timeline were such friends of the cinephile as American Movie Classics and Turner Classic Movies. This wealth, this veritable explosion of available material, turned the Maltin guide from a wish list to a shopping list — I’m sure I’m not the only person in the world who brought the book into a video store to help me make my choices.
Things change, and nothing lasts forever — hell, that’s why we love the movies, right? They preserve, they keepsake for us memories and feelings that might otherwise slip away with the passage of time, they make immortal the stars of classic Hollywood (and not-so-classic Hollywood, and Off-Hollywood, and Off-Off Hollywood), they give us sanctuary and succor against the inevitability that we are not timeless, we are none of us eternal. But the rules of the game are encrypted in the ever-changing title of the Leonard Maltin guides, which reflected the ever-changing nature of movie-watching beyond the bijou. In the wake of the announcement that the guide will be going the way of the automat and Thanksgiving begging has been the expected hue and cry of the faithful who cannot, it seems, wave goodbye without shaking a fist, without finding someone or something to blame. We’ve been through this fire before with the decline of the repertory cinema, the demise of the independent video store, the death of film… so much finger-pointing, so much foot-stomping. As much as cinephiles love to love, they love to hate, too, and I’m not immune to the reaction (I have a standing resentment against the month of November)… but maybe blaming the Internet for the passing of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide is the wrong way to look at it.
Before Maltin, film criticism seemed a rich man’s game, the bailiwick of those Algonquin Roundtable swells, with their bon mots and imperious attitudes; even if you read the shirtsleeved James Agee you were hardly a meat-and-potatoes type. I don’t know how or why I came to read Agee and Andrew Sarris before I had hair on my chest but I did and I had to lift my game to understand them, I had to pull down the dictionary and look up words, I had to grow to reach them. In retrospect it seems that Leonard Maltin did much with his guides (and it is important to note that the guides were really the least of his endeavors as a film scholar/enthusiast/historian) to popularize cinephilia, to put film criticism in the public domain. With its economy of expression, the guides made film criticism accessible, portable, and relatable; you didn’t have to agree with a particular critical decision — the ratings were a point of departure to which each of us was tacitly encouraged to provide counterpoint. But the assignment of star ratings (and the designation of “BOMB” for the worst of the worst) contributed to a dumbing down of film culture in our country. Maltin did not invent star ratings but his guides legitimized the conceit and in so doing turned us into a culture quicker to rate a movie than discuss it. Other critics followed suit, adding more stars to Maltin’s four-star constellation (with no appreciable gain in nuance) or doing the thumbs up/thumbs down thing, as if a movie could only be good or bad, worthwhile or worthless. I would argue that these changes had as deleterious an effect on the valuation of cinema by the masses as do the Internet Movie Database and the glut of film blogs that are now being blamed for the death of the Leonard Maltin Movie Guide. Maybe I’m more forgiving of these new voices because I stopped buying the Maltin guide in the late 80s as I discovered other references, other sources… but I say let’s not tarnish what should be a loving sendoff with acrimony and bloviation. (Try and imagine Lou Gehrig’s famous “luckiest man” speech being capped by a tirade against Big Pharma.) Yet despite my complicated feelings, I’ll go on record to say that Leonard Maltin’s contribution to movie culture is incalculable and his legacy will continue to benefit cinephiles (and those who just like a good show) long after this one book has been forgotten. I’ll be picking up the 2015 edition, as a keepsake, and affording it a place of honor on my bookshelf as a way of saying thanks for the memories.
Related reading: Forgiving Leonard Maltin.
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