When I filled in my book-tag meme a few days ago, there was a serious omission in the list of “five books that meant a lot to me”. Thinking about it now, I’m amazed I didn’t include it – especially since the list by definition wasn’t necessarily meant to be indicative of literary merit; it was simply about five books that had had a deep influence on my life.
There’s little literary merit in Leonard Maltin’s TV Movie and Video Guide: 1991 edition, which I got early in the summer of 1991, the year I became seriously interested in English, specifically Hollywood, films. It was aimed not at the dedicated film buff but at the casual browser in a video library; even the hardsell on the cover – “Includes reviews of over 19,000 films!” – suggested quantity beating out quality. Each “review” was a capsule, rarely touching even a hundred words (usually much less), and supplying the most basic information – cast, director, Oscars won, trivia, with only the occasional sentence or two that might have been plucked out of a respectable full-length review. And it followed a facile one-star to four-star system, which is the sort of thing I sneer at today.
And yet, this was the book that had the greatest influence on me back when I was taking my formative steps as a film buff. I bought it on May 11, 1991 from Sehgal Bros in South Extension, just around the time I was tiring of Bollywood and getting interested in certain English films I had heard a lot about from my parents: especially the films of Hitchcock; in particular, Psycho. I remember the day vividly, remember leafing through the “P” section, finding the Psycho entry and reading with a thrill the first sentence: “The Master’s most notorious film, a jet-black comedy set in the desolate Bates Motel…” And the last sentence, the terse “Pure filmmaking at its finest.” I watched Psycho for the first time the very next day, May 12, and within the next month I had seen most of the films that constituted my entry point into non-Hindi cinema: Spartacus (I didn’t know, or care, who Stanley Kubrick was at that time, I was interested mainly in the bloated cast: Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis and the troika of Great Britons – Olivier, Laughton, Ustinov); Judgement at Nuremberg (the first time I saw Spencer Tracy, Marlene Dietrich, Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift); Becket; The Longest Day; and On The Waterfront.
In those early days my interest lay mainly in the actors, especially the ones from Hollywood’s Golden Age in the 1930s and 1940s. I would painstakingly make lists in a notebook, fill pages with the filmographies of actors like James Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman; classify the films according to the book’s rating system; cross-reference them. I would carry the book with me in a polythene bag when I walked across to the video library located in the modest four-shop community centre that has somehow, bizarrely, transmogrified into the PVR Saket complex. And then, as the shop attendants looked on amusedly, I would trawl their catalogue and refer to the relevant entries in my book before deciding what to rent.
The book remained an important part of my life in the years that followed: the cable TV revolution (we got our connection in March 1992 and for the first few months the only thing I was interested in was the classic Hollywood film that would be telecast on Sunday afternoons on Star Plus); the launch of dedicated movie channels (Star Movies and TNT); and later, my discovery of the British Council Library’s video section. I carried it around with me every time there was the remotest possibility that I might drop by a video library, or even when I was visiting a relative’s house where there might be a selection of films to watch.
Then of course the Internet came in, I discovered IMDB and the near-unlimited access to full-length, “proper” reviews penned by some of the world’s leading movie critics. And the Maltin was relegated to a distant bookshelf in a distant corner, where it still sits, torn and yellowed, many of its pages missing, peering at me forlornly. It knows I’m a little embarrassed by its presence, and it resents me for that.
But it’s also left a legacy that I might never be able to shake off: even today, when I think of the films I first read reviews of in that book, I think of them in terms of the star ratings assigned to them by Maltin and his staff. For instance, Notorious is one of my three or four favourite Hitchcocks (which would make it one of my all-time favourite films overall). But whenever I happen to think of it, I reflexively think of it as a three-and-a-half-star movie, not a four-star one (because that’s the way it was in the Maltin book). This completely screws my mind up. Books that once meant the world to you shouldn’t be allowed to lurk in corners of your mind long after you’ve outgrown them. That would be like turning 30 and still wanting to be Holden Caulfield.
But I have to admit it’s a comfort as well. It’s comforting to know that I still have those rating systems in my head, that I still remember whole sentences from those capsule reviews. In the final analysis there’s no turning your back on the things that mattered to one of your former selves. Without that silly little popcorn guide I wouldn’t be the movie-lover that I am today.