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When a Fire Starts to Burn: 'The Best Film You've Never Seen'

Robert K. Elder's impeccable knack for interviewing illuminates what makes 35 professional cinephiles tick in this essential book.

The Best Film You've Never Seen: 35 Directors Champion the Forgotten or Critically Savaged Movies They Love

Publisher: Chicago Review Press
Length: 264 pages
Author: Robert K. Elder
Price: $16.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2013-06
"Canons sanctify and legitimate 'the greats', the classics, the perfect films. But here's my big problem with such canons: something of the heart and soul of cinema, of the passionate experience, the passionate encounters each of us have with cinema, get erased from them. The filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier put this well when he said: 'I don't much like these [canonical] lists: too many beautiful and important films are missing, and they leave out the texture, the richness and life of cinema by not including all those 'imperfect' films which are more meaningful and alive than frozen, dated 'classics' '.”

-- Adrian Martin, “Light My Fire”

Adrian Martin was speaking about the concept of a film canon, or a “Greatest Films” list when he wrote the essay quoted above, originally delivered at the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema. He spoke in terms of critics and academics, of reviewers who make their living seeing everything there is to see, and writing what they think. But the spirit of viewing and appreciation that Martin advocated then shouldn’t be limited to those who attend and address festivals and conferences. The average person might not be able to define cinephilia, but the average person has seen a movie on cable late at night when their parents were sound asleep, and had their mind irrevocably blown. For a couple of hours in childhood, and a restless night or three afterwards, they knew what it was to be obsessed by art.

The kids who see their first R-rated movie at 11:30PM don’t always grow up to be movie-store fiends, consuming entire genres like they were bags of gummi worms. Most of them grow up to be businessmen, lawyers, teachers, secretaries, politicians, bus drivers stay-at-home moms, or even criminals. A few grow up to be filmmakers themselves, and the drive that takes them to that first day on set, saying “Action!”, is a special one, indeed.

There are directors interviewed here by Robert K. Elder who have made bad films. There are directors here who give the impression through their style and stamp that they have never seen a great film in their lives. Possibly their definition of a “great film” is different from yours. Indeed, it almost definitely is. The magic of Elder’s book emerges through the dawning realization that while not all the filmmakers named in its pages have made great cinema, they have all loved cinema deeply. It’s a testament to the Elder’s interviewing prowess and the breadth of his research that he draws out these qualities in even those subjects who seem to be less-than-illuminating at first brush.

The pleasures of Elder’s book are varied, and rely on the experiences and tastes of his subjects. Only a filmmaker of Danny Boyle’s stature and success, for example, could relate an anecdote about being too shy, for years, to interact with one of his favorite film artists (Nicolas Roeg, of Eureka) at the London pool they both frequented along with Tony Blair. The input of the decidedly experimental Brothers Quay, on the other hand, veers toward the technical, yet their intricate explanations of the methods necessary to arrive at the dreamy visuals of L’ange comprise one of the most illuminating and rewarding chapters. A personal favorite that I was ecstatic to see discussed at length and in print: Guy Maddin’s thoughts on the proto-Lynchian 1941 noir The Chase.

Even apparently uninspired choices for Elder’s book -- ostensibly about “forgotten or critically savaged movies” -- turn into rewarding discussions. Elder makes no secret of his objections to Kevin Smith’s choice, the Academy Award-winning A Man for All Seasons, for a discussion on works deserving of more acclaim or attention. Yet their conversation, which Elder claims went on for over two hours, ends up one of the most illuminating of the very interview-friendly Smith’s public dialogues. What surfaces is Smith’s passion for the play’s moralist fencing, acknowledging More as “a demon with the words”, yet observing that “the internal conflict [is represented] by when he’s not talking.”

The one constant throughout conversations with Kimberly Peirce, Richard Kelly, Peter Bogdanovich, Richard Linklater, Edgar Wright, and John Waters (try not to read it in his voice) is Elder, arriving to every press junket with a Nardwuar-worthy store of information about the film to be discussed as well as the director and their own work. Astoundingly for a book of 35 interviews, the only question that repeats is the one which opens every chapter: “How would you describe this film to someone who’s never seen it?”

Armed with his research and his curious spirit, Elder crafts a book that seeks, quietly, to redefine the act of moviegoing as a positive action, to illustrate the aspirational nature of people who live for the moments when the lights dim low. In championing works ranging from Some Came Running to ivansxtc to , this essential book arrives at a truth that its subjects know full well.

In hindsight, the crucial chapter is Jay Duplass’s, who talks effusively about the quasi-religious experience of watching Joe Versus the Volcano, a box office bomb that seemed to spell doom for the pairing of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Duplass turns out to be no expert on the film’s production, intrigued by some trivia that Elder offers. Instead, he grasps for words when talking about Meg Ryan’s multiple performances in the movie:

“I fell in love with her when she did this film... Each permutation, iteration of her character became more and more lovable for me. It’s almost like each character is a different incarnation of herself, you know? It’s hard to explain, other than that I fell in love with her.”

What Duplass tries to describe in that passage feels familiar to me, and I imagine it does to everyone who goes to the movies. It’s certain that not everyone will sympathize with his affection for Joe Versus the Volcano, which he admits maybe “one in 50 people like”. But the ecstasy of that first viewing of a film which represents to you what Joe Versus the Volcano represents to Jay drives cinephilia, the joy of discovering something that you connect with almost uniquely, that seems to have been made just for you: which, after all, is basically what love means.


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