This is what they call “meme crashing.” But, Glenn Kenny, who doesn’t know me from a sprocket hole, opened up the “10 film books that made the biggest impression on me” meme started by Movieman0283 at The Dancing Image. As someone who hasn’t read a whole helluva lotta film books in his life, this project intrigued me. I wasn’t sure I could come up with 10!
However, after doing some serious pondering for five minutes, it turns out 10 was easy. Also, every once in awhile, I try to figure out exactly how I ever fell into covering underground film. Like, what was the procession of films that led me down the path of seeking out the strange, the outcast and the obscure? That question I can’t answer exactly, but the below list of books, arranged more or less in the order they entered the timeline of my life, offers some clues:
1. Movie Monsters by Alan Ormsby (writer) and Ray Prohaska (illustrator)
To be honest, I was shocked this book popped into my head when I first started thinking up my list. This was probably bought at a yard sale and I must have read it a zillion times when I was a kid. I was never bold enough, i.e. dorky enough, to apply the make-up effects or put on a monster show as Ormsby hoped he was encouraging kids to do, but this was an early introduction to the horror genre I love so much and taught me that special effects was something that anybody could do, if they weren’t lazy like I was. Also, the drawings by Prohaska were great and I was particularly fascinated by a photograph Ormsby included of himself and his friends as teenagers putting on a horror play in his backyard, which I really don’t know why.
2. Any ’90s Roger Ebert Video Companion
Ebert’s guides were a staple in my house growing up. This was before the internet, so his books were a nice reference to have when trying to find something new and interesting to rent at the video store. These were also good books to just skim through whenever. Since my original introduction to Roger Ebert was his TV show — the original on PBS — reading his video guides turned me into thinking of him as a movie reviewer second and a truly great, engaging writer first. Probably a bigger inspiration to how I write on the Underground Film Journal than I’m aware of.
3. The Golden Turkey Awards by by Harry Medved and Michael Medved
My parents had this in the house and I’d skim through it all the time, not to laugh at the films the Medved’s were trying to make fun of, but to remind myself that I had to see all of them — because they looked so awesome! The picture of Raquel Welch strutting herself on a table over a bunch of seated old farts from Myra Breckinridge is totally burned in my memory now. (I still haven’t seen that one, even though I’ve read the book.) I don’t remember much else what was in the book, except for poor Ed Wood, but I must have known somewhat that movies other people declared “bad” I would probably think were totally awesome!
4. Independent Filmmaking by Lenny Lipton
This was my first production book when I was a freshman at film school at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Totally demystified the entire process of filmmaking. And can’t blame Lenny, but all my early stuff — in both 8mm and 16mm — was almost invariably out of focus.
5. Midnight Movies by J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum
When I found this book in the library at film school, I didn’t as much read it as skim through it and obsess over the pictures and captions. Aside from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which I had seen in high school, I had never seen anything else like these movies before. I figured out then that there was a whole world and a culture out there that I knew nothing about and had no preparation to understand. Midnight Movies was also my first introduction to John Waters, which led me to a screening of Hairspray, which led me to:
6. Shock Value by John Waters
I checked this book out of the library about five seconds after watching Hairspray for the first time. I was going to film school, but this really made me understand what it really meant to make movies. I hadn’t seen any of Waters’ earlier trashy films that he described in the book, but I knew I had to see them all immediately. Back then it was hard to dig them up. I eventually did, even if it meant renting Pink Flamingos out of the porn section where it was stocked.
7. Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman
This was assigned to a screenwriting class and was my first really insider look as to what it took to get movies made in Hollywood. It’s an hysterical, inspiring book with tons of great tips for writers, whether those tips are actually practical or not. I still love the tip about inserting completely unnecessary, moronic scenes in a script — e.g. having a scene where Butch and Sundance buy stamps — so that clueless executives feel important taking out the nonsense and leaving all the good stuff in. I also still think somebody should make an actual film out of Goldman’s haircut sample script in the book.
8. By Any Means Necessary by Spike Lee
Lee used to keep journals about the making of his films — Does he still? — and this is the one about the making of Malcolm X, one of my favorite films. Like Goldman’s book, I found this to be a really insightful look at how Hollywood really works and like Waters’ book what it takes to actually make a film. And the section of the book where Lee discusses when Warner Bros. refused to pony up the film’s budget for a trip to Mecca because they were putting all their weight behind Dan Ackroyd’s directorial debut, Haunted Honeymoon, so Lee goes to the press and starts calling Warner Bros. “the plantation”: Absolutely hysterical stuff. Almost as funny as Waters’ visit with Russ Meyer in Shock Value.
9. Movie Journal by Jonas Mekas
I read this one fairly recently when I started doing research into the ’60s underground film scene. Mekas’ fire and passion is so inspiring, this book practically burns in your hands while you read it. Well, it did for me anyway. I initially ordered this one out of the Los Angeles Public Library system, but later bought a copy I found in a used bookstore on Hollywood Blvd. This is the only film book I keep on my desk within arms’ reach. (Ok, usually buried in my stack of unwatched DVDs.)
10. Deathtripping: The Extreme Underground by Jack Sargeant
I read the revised version recently reprinted by Soft Skull Press after Sargeant asked if I wanted to review it. Hell yeah! But, really, why this is such an inspiring book is two-fold: First, no one else on the planet is doing the scholarly research on the neglected corners of the underground film scene such as the Cinema of Transgression that Sargeant does. So, he could probably put out some half-assed effort and still have a decent book. But, and this is the second inspiring point, Sargeant goes to great personal lengths to define the Transgression scene by placing the movement into an acutely insightful historical context, then includes fantastic in-depth interviews with all the players. We need more underground film books like Deathtripping, and if they all happen to be written by Sargeant, then all the better.