Sunday, September 21, 2014

Cultural Musings: On Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide, TV Guide magazine, The Maze Runner and the Longevity of Nick Cave

Film critic Leonard Maltin, promoting the now-final edition of his long-published Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide

The rise of the Internet and, in its wake, social media, has meant, I think, that no one bit of entertainment – be it a movie, TV show, record album or book – lasts for very long in the public consciousness. One month Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine will be the film du jour, then Richard Linklater’s Boyhood and then a different movie, which soon makes way for yet another and so on. The same with all other art forms, the result being that very little of anything makes a permanent or lasting impact anymore. Yet, at the same time, one gets used to certain artists, books or publications popping up on an annual basis. So it came as something of a shock when picking up Leonard Maltin’s 2015 Movie Guide to read in his introduction that this is to be the last one of these annual guides.

Apparently sales of the movie guide, which Maltin has put out since 1969, mostly annually, have declined precipitously. According to Maltin, its publishers no longer felt it was worth bringing out anymore since the cost of paying the staff of the guide was prohibitive. Maltin adds that he feels the readers would rather go online to seek out the information on films that they need. I wonder about that. I don’t think it’s easier to go on the Internet and sift through various movie sites to find all the info – such as the title, country and year of film, director, key cast, running time, aspect ratio and what other formats it’s in, as well as a mini-review and rating for the movie – that is contained in the guide’s movie write-ups. You could find all of that online, but not nearly as quickly or conveniently, so why scrap the Guide? This may be more a matter of profits declining than out and out lack of profitability, as is often the case with such ventures.

I will admit that I have mixed feelings about the guide. Its taste was often quite conservative – how else to justify two star reviews for such dark masterpieces as Taxi Driver and Blue Velvet? – and while I appreciate that limited space meant that older reviews, of films pre-1965, had to be dropped from the Movie Guide to make way for 300+ new reviews each year, I didn’t like the fact that Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, which was subsequently created and devoted to those movies, was available only in a pricier trade paperback edition and not also in a cheaper mass market edition. It also wasn’t worth it to pick up the guide each year for a mere 300 new entries – though if you did you would still need to hold onto the previous editions for the reviews that were dropped. The Internet, concedes Maltin, has one advantage here in that it can encompass an unlimited number of entries whereas his guide could only have so many before it became too unwieldy to carry or publish. (I tended to purchase it biennially.) I also have to admit that a 45-year run for Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide – amazingly, he was only 18 years old when he launched it – is nothing to sneeze at, but, still, it is unfortunate that it is ending. It had its own personality, own utility and value and now, like so many other print publications, magazine and newspapers, it will soon be gone – yet another casualty of our increasing reliance on computers. I, for one, bemoan that.

I do find it interesting that at the same time Mr. Maltin’s publication bites the dust, the American edition of TV Guide is suddenly being sold in Canada, including at the chain bookstore where I work. I suspect that too many readers were not pleased when the Canadian edition of TV Guide went online only a few years back and its ceasing publication on July 2 of this year, after 61 years as a separate Canadian entity, likely opened the door for its parent magazine to be allowed into my country. Coincidentally, that edition comes along at a time when most Canadian newspapers have scrapped their TV listings magazine, or, as in the case of the Montreal Gazette, are charging more to those readers who want the guide with their subscription. (For that money, they get a tiny magazine with minimal listings and no detailed show descriptions.)

If I’m skeptical that most readers don’t want a convenient publication like Maltin’s movie guide any longer I am certain that most TV watchers, or at least those many who watch TV the old-fashioned way (on TV screens), don’t like the fact that they can’t look up their local TV listings as easily as they used to when physical magazines were still around. ( I know I sound like Andy Rooney here, but still...) The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, used to even list the specific repeat episodes each week of such TV stalwarts as Frasier and Law & Order, invaluable if you missed the show the first time around or wanted to tape it. (PVRs have largely eliminated the ability to record televsion shows, too, as most new DVD recorders don’t have that option any longer; you have to buy a separate piece of equipment if you want to tape and preserve TV. And the Globe, in its infinite wisdom, now only publishes movie listings on Fridays and Saturdays, a chore if you want to look up what’s playing the rest of the week. Again, the Internet is not as user friendly as a simply laid out newspaper movie listing.) Yet, the Gazette, for one, insists that bulk of its subscribers don’t want the TV magazine any longer – I suppose if they were told it would cost more to have it, that would be true, especially as the comprehensiveness of the magazine has decreased year in and year out, but why charge more for something you gave away as part of a subscription in the first place? I’ll bet that when Canadians realize that they can now once again get TV Guide in the stores and, perhaps, subscribe to it, too, sales will pick up. And it’s worth having, too, as its annual Fall Preview issue, which I’ve been getting from the U.S. since the 70s, has a more critical bite than Entertainment Weekly’s fall preview issue. TV Guide’s critic Matt Roush actually pans the new shows he doesn’t think are worth your time, whereas EW mostly praises and/or speculates about their prospects. The latter has always been more of a cheerleader for popular culture than an incisive analyzer of it. It does make more of a difference, incidentally, if you exist as a physical magazine, as you can stand out more than if you’re fighting for attention in the vast flotsam and jetsam of the Internet. Remember, Newsweek which ceased publication as a print entity at the end of 2012 resumed printing just a little over a year later.

 Dylan O'Brien and Kaya Scodelario in The Maze Runner

I must admit I don’t get the praise for the dystopian young adult novel, which, The Fault in Our Stars notwithstanding, seems to be all that exists for young people to read in YA literature. (I’m exaggerating here, but not by much.) I haven’t read any of the books – their jackets don’t entice me to want to read them, frankly - but I have seen the movie versions of the first two Hunger Games movies, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire (the first part of the third book, Mockingjay, divided into two movies, à la Harry Potter’s last novel, comes out this fall) and, now, the film adaption of The Maze Runner, which just opened in theatres. It’s not that I have a problem with dark novels about a diminished future – I read science fiction all the time and many of the best novels are in that vein – but on the basis of the YA films I’ve seen, I can’t imagine why these comparatively impoverished and unimaginative books/movies are so adept at capturing the young imagination. I know the movie adaptations are somewhat different – as films derived from books almost always are – but I’ve asked my co-workers who have read the novels and have been given to understand the films' general storylines and plots are not dissimilar. Yet The Hunger Games movies seem to me silly and not really very fresh – kids fighting to the death for the edification of adults goes back as far as The Lord of the Flies and more specifically Battle Royale, which has more or less the same storyline.

As for The Maze Runner, in a nutshell, one kid wakes up in a strange enclosed place where no one wants to leave and where a mysterious maze harbours all sorts of dangers. Said protagonist, Thomas (Dylan O'Brien), challenges the status quo and soon enough the secrets of the maze and the world outside it are revealed. The film is competently executed, by director Wes Ball (though he can't direct action scenes very well), and reasonably well acted but still mostly a snooze. I was bored most of the time and basically stuck around out of mild curiosity, just to see how the film (first of a proposed trilogy) would end. But the conclusion was ho-hum, more than a little contrived, and not very revelatory. Maybe, because I grew up reading such interesting and provocative SF dystopian novels, like Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (adapted into the Blade Runner movie), Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, Robert A. Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold, Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and His Dog (a novella actually, but powerfully memorable nonetheless) or even Pat Frank’s 50s classic Alas, Babylon about a nuclear war which devastates humanity, but the current crop of YA books/movies simply doesn’t compare. They’re pallid versions of their predecessors. Let’s hope the juvenile readers of those books graduate to the big leagues and the superior novels (and ideas) contained within.

Nick Cave in concert, in 2013 (Photo: Victor Frankowski)

News that the legendary Leonard Cohen, who turns 80 today (Mazel Tov, Leonard!) will see the release of his thirteenth studio album Popular Problems on Tuesday, prompts thoughts on longevity (often unexpected) in the music world. Rocker Tom Petty, who’s been around since the 70s (his debut album Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers was released in 1976) and is riding high with his latest (fine) album Hypnotic Eye and strong concert reviews, is another artist whose career length seemed unlikely. He was always arresting but never seemed to garner as much attention as Bob Dylan, U2 (who just released a new album as well, Songs of Innocenceor even The Rolling Stones, whose best work is more than thirty years old – their last decent album, Emotional Rescue came out in 1980; they’ve been spinning their creative wheels ever since. (Cohen himself, whom I saw in a superb concert a little more than six years ago, could not believe that he was still so popular, at his then age of 73.) And then there’s alt country rocker Lucinda Williams, also a thirty-year-plus veteran, who puts out her first double album Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone on Sept. 30 (the buzz on this one is positive, too; the track I’ve heard from the album, "Burning Bridges," is quite enticing.) She’s had a difficult career arc, as has had Cohen, but she’s still around, too, making good music for a relatively stable fan base.

However, if I had to bet against someone sticking around for thirty years, it would have been Nick Cave. I could have never have imagined that Nick Cave would still be standing tall that many years later. (His drug use, extensive by even rock performers standards was legend and would have killed a lesser man, but his very dark, even morbid, and often disturbing songs, would seem to have precluded against such a highly successful career.) Yet here we are thirty years after 1984's From Her to Eternity, the debut album by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (his first foray as a headliner) and not only has he put out one of his finest works in his career (Push the Sky Away, 2013), his recent show in Toronto, in the same venue where I saw Leonard Cohen – an artist to whom he owes a lot, both lyrically and emotionally – was one of the greatest concerts I’ve ever seen.

I had expected Cave, whom I’ve been a fan of for over 20 years (since I stumbled across his excellent 1990 album The Good Son), to be good but I was not prepared for how fantastic he would be in concert. His intense, visceral presence was one thing – in a revamped venue, the Sony Centre, with enhanced, near perfect acoustics – but the remarkable execution of his music, backed by his crack band, was another. He simply riveted the audience, pretty much from the beginning of the show with his rendition of the amazing track, "Jubilee Street" from Push the Sky Away. He went on for a two full hours, displaying his extensive musical range (from power rock to punk to softer love songs to, even, a sea shanty), his superb, very commanding stage presence and excellent voice, one of the finest in music today. He even slipped in a clever reference to our "crackhead of a mayor" in his version of "God is in the House" (this was before Rob Ford's cancer diagnosis), one of several Cave tracks which reminded me of Leonard Cohen. (They both deal with religion, faith, love and sacrifice, among many other weighty themes. Cave was also one of the participants in the concert tribute film, Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man, from 2005.) I was surprised by how interactive his show was – he touched hands with his fans and performed at least half a dozen songs or more in the middle of twenty or so fans all with outstretched arms towards him. It was also played very LOUD, as any rock/punk show should be. That worked especially well on his version of the traditional blues tune "Stagger Lee," which, à la Cave, is an over the top murder song which he clearly relished doing.

Unlike Cohen, I can’t tell how Cave actually feels this far along in his career (he even has a semi-autobiographical documentary film 20,000 Days on Earth coming out soon), but his indelible presence causes me to ponder whom among today’s currently popular and acclaimed serious artists can expect to have careers as lengthy as Cohen, Petty, Williams or Cave. Jack White, for sure – he’s too ambitious and multifaceted to ever fade away –  but maybe that’s it. The Black Keys are great but its members, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney squabble all the time, which seems to mean their days are numbered. (The Rolling Stones are the exception in that regard, but they stay together as much for the money as anything else.) I can’t help but feel that in today’s download culture, which works against artists putting out fully realized and conceptually thought through albums, will mean that loyalty among fans will only accrue to the song and not the artist. (Have you heard anything about Fleet Foxes or Bon Iver lately? I haven’t and they’re among the better newer bands.) There may also be too much music out there for any one new band to dominate the way U2 or the Stones did in the past. Whatever the reasons, the decades-long careers of any musical figures, from Tony Bennett to, even, Madonna, are for the most part going to be a thing of the past. The artists won’t stop making music, I’m sure, but it will be in any many different milieus, and touring to support their latest album, won’t be a factor the way it used to be. Let’s thus cherish the Caves and Cohens and enjoy them while we can. Their specific musical likes won’t be around much longer.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on Hollywood and Society, a look at how Hollywood has handled hot-button issues in the movies over the years that began on May 9, at Ryerson. On October 10, he’ll be starting a new course: My Favourite Movies – And Why.

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