Author Archives: Everett Jones

Speaking of Orson

Everett Jones -- January 15th, 2014

 

orson welles and roger hill

Last year saw the publication of two entries in a very (to my knowledge) small genre: book-length conversations with Orson Welles. My Lunches with Orson, from Metropolitan Books, captures Welles during lunches in Hollywood in the 1980s with fellow filmmaker Henry Jaglom. As edited by veteran showbiz journalist Peter Biskind (Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) their talks give full rein to Welles’s famous ego and temper. He blithely badmouths his Hollywood peers (with Hitchcock and Chaplin coming in for much of the abuse), indulges in the semi-facetious character assassination of entire ethnic groups and sexual orientations, and generally acts like the world’s oldest enfant terrible. Caustic but compulsively readable, this infectiously quotable book found plenty of readers, and media attention, on its release, but I’d like to also speak up for Orson Welles and Roger Hill: A Friendship in Three Acts by Todd Tarbox, from BearManor Media.

Released with far less fanfare, this book shows the great man at around the same period of his life: near the end of it, in the early 1980s, when he was still taking journeyman acting jobs and pursuing never-to-be-realized projects like the autobiographical The Cradle Will Rock (eventually filmed after Welles’s death). His conversation partner, Hill, is not another Hollywood pro like Jaglom, however, but a longtime friend, from long before he was “Orson Welles,” and his onetime teacher, at the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, Ill. The author is Hill’s grandson, and his project is clearly personal; he gives equal attention to the world-famous Orson Welles and the accomplishments of his non-celebrity grandfather, who went on to serve as the Todd School’s headmaster for three decades. A bigger-profile book, like My Lunches with Orson, would likely have kept the reader’s attention narrowly focused on its famous subject. By comparison with Biskind’s book, Orson Welles and Roger Hill is free of any sensational, viral-ready quotes. It has its own value, though: in Welles’s conversations with Hill (whom he remained in touch with and friends with over the course of a life spent burning through friendships and relationships with the famous likes of John Houseman and Rita Hayworth), you get the sense of a brilliant person who doesn’t feel any need to be “on.”

 

Nice Guys Don’t Work in Hollywood

Everett Jones -- December 11th, 2013

nice-guys-dont-work-in-hollywood-curtis-harrington-memoir-243x366

In my previous post to this blog, I discussed The Disaster Artist, a book about Tommy Wiseau, whose spectacular three-pronged incompetence as screenwriter, filmmaker, and movie star propelled his big-screen debut, The Room, to cult classic status.  There will always be a place for movies, or books, or albums, that are “so bad they’re good,” but hopefully never at the expense of those which actually are good, with no quotation marks required. Especially because, far too often, quiet accomplishment draws a smaller crowd than a splashy embarrassment. As an antithesis to The Disaster Artist, I offer Nice Guys Don’t Work in Hollywood: The Adventures of an Aesthete in the Movie Business, by the late Curtis Harrington, who died in 2007. His memoir, posthumously published in June this year by Drag City Incorporated, traces a career as an experimental, feature film, and TV director that neared but never quite reached “success,” at least as defined as equal parts fame and profits.

Harrington grew up in Los Angeles, and made his first movies as personal, avant-garde projects in the 1940s and ‘50s, sometimes working with his friend and fellow filmmaker Kenneth Anger. He describes a private screening of one which ended with the composer John Cage taking him aside to say, “You must understand that these films are not art. Art has to do with clouds and trees and beautiful things.” Looking to turn his interests into a career and a living, Harrington began working as an assistant for Hollywood producers. Later, in 1961, he directed his first feature, the independently made Night Tide.

queen of blood

The most poignant through-line of Nice Guys Don’t Work in Hollywood is a proximity to fame and success that never quite translates to awards or big box-office receipts. As it happens, Night Tide was the first starring role for one Dennis Hopper, ten years later the counterculture celebrity of Easy Rider, but at the time just a jobbing actor best known as a pal of the late James Dean. The dreamy, slow-paced film-about a sailor on shore leave who falls for a woman who plays a mermaid in a boardwalk sideshow-doesn’t exactly pack them in at the drive-ins. It does, however, convince B-movie legend Roger Corman to hire Harrington for somewhat less high-minded fare: retrofitting a Soviet SF epic into Queen of Blood, the story of a green-skinned, beehive ‘do-wearing alien space vampire. Then, in the late ‘60s, comes the chance to work as a director in the Hollywood studio system–just as that system is about to be changed forever by films like Easy Rider. He takes the opportunity to make a series of horror movies, including Games, What’s the Matter with Helen?, and Whoever Slew Aunt Roo?, which are stylish, witty and not the blockbusters he needs. Rather than being acclaimed as an auteur, Harrington moves onto work-for-hire like shooting episodes of Dynasty and Charlie’s Angels.

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Harrington doesn’t stint on what he knows readers will be most interested in: his encounters with stars. After all, the first sentence reads “Jennifer Jones was giving a party for Truman Capote.” Unlike his friend Anger, author of the gossipy epic Hollywood Babylon, though, Harrington hasn’t written a tell-all. As the title suggests, he’s not here to score off old enemies or tell tales out of school about old colleagues. His first Hollywood boss, Jerry Wald–whose ruthlessness supposedly inspired a classic showbiz satire, the novel What Makes Sammy Run? –is fondly portrayed as “an extremely dynamic producer” and as Harrington’s mentor. Even a legendary bad boy like Dennis Hopper emerges in the book simply as a trusted collaborator. A memoir that’s clear-sighted but not bitter, Nice Guys Don’t Work in Hollywood is a reminder that some movies, and books, and music, are so good, they’re good.

 

The Disaster Artist

Everett Jones -- November 27th, 2013

disaster artist

When I think about how the creation of great art has been represented by other artists, the first thing that inevitably comes to mind is a clip from an old Hollywood film set in old Europe about the life of a famous composer. Starved for inspiration, the composer takes his beautiful fiancée to a nearby park, and during a carriage ride, begins to notice the sounds of nature: the clip-clopping of the horse’s hoofs, the sweet melody of birdsong…Before long, he’s waving his hand in time to the rhythm, his beautiful fiancé is humming to herself, and the kindly old coachman is joining in with his own musical contributions. And soon, the composer is rushing home before he can forget the great symphony that has just spontaneously appeared in his head.

Writers, filmmakers, and other storytellers seem to have a hard time making the creation of great art entertaining or believable, let alone both. Bad art, though, is a different matter, as shown by The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell. Published this October by Simon & Schuster, the book tells the story of Sestero’s experiences co-starring in The Room, a 2003 indie drama starring one Tommy Wiseau, who, in would-be Orson Welles-fashion, also wrote, produced, and directed his screen debut. Despite a lavish marketing campaign, it quickly vanished from the few theaters it was booked into, only to reemerge as a cult movie to rival Plan 9 from Outer Space and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Fans attend midnight showings in costume, with props and memorized dialogue ready for responding to their favorite moments onscreen. In true 21st century fashion, Wiseau’s film has enjoyed the most popularity as a source for YouTube clips showcasing the maladroit acting and writing that transforms a humdrum story-an ordinary guy (Wiseau) discovers his best friend (Sestero) is having an affair with his best girl (Juliette Danielle)-into an experience of otherworldly weirdness.

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Wiseau’s one-of-a-kind screen presence is a major part of the appeal. His affectless, slightly accented delivery makes for an irresistible combination with dialogue which sounds like it was produced by virus-ridden voice recognition software. Fans of The Room won’t be disappointed by the picture of Wiseau drawn by Sestero, who was not only the enigmatic auteur’s co-star but also his longtime friend and onetime roommate. Even readers who couldn’t care less about modern-day cult classics may find Tommy Wiseau to be one of the more memorable characters they’ve encountered in print for some time. He emerges as a sort of cross between Jay Gatsby and Edward Wood, Jr. (Plan 9 from Outer Space), with elements of a classic American immigrant story. Sestero, who becomes the socially inept Wiseau’s closest friend, never learns his real age or national origin, but does hear oblique references to a childhood in Eastern Europe and to a dark, shady past. He experiences Tommy’s intense adoration of James Dean, whom he longs to emulate, and even more intense patriotism for his adopted country. Sestero does learn that the friend with whom he shares as a small apartment as a young, struggling actor is also mysteriously wealthy, enough to own prime San Francisco real estate and apparently pay for The Room’s $6 million budget out of pocket. But the eternally clueless Wiseau comes across as an unlikely real estate mogu; at one point, while shooting a scene in a flower shop, he asks the owner about her dog:

“Is it real thing?”

The woman kept looking at Tommy, probably trying to figure out if this man who’d taken over her store was really asking if her dog was real. Did Tommy think it was a robot? An android pug of some kind?

“Yes,” the woman said finally. “My dog is a real thing.”

The Room’s cult is based in mockery, as is much of The Disaster Artist’s humor, but the key to the book is that its title is ultimately meant seriously. It’s clear that The Room is a deeply personal piece of work, even if it is does also deserve the frequently-applied label, “one of the worst movies of all time.” Sestero can even pinpoint the exact moment when Wiseau, as in that cheesy old Hollywood film, receives his burst of inspiration: a visit to the local multiplex in 2000 to see The Talented Mr. Ripley, which Wiseau somehow transforms through creative misinterpretation into The Room. By the end, it seems somehow fitting that Wiseau’s enormous, unfulfilled ambition to make a great film has resulted instead in such a terrific book. I can imagine that Tommy would be pleased to know that I was left thinking, “Boy, this would make a great movie.”

Books to Read

Everett Jones -- November 13th, 2013

sontag

Since a recent post to this blog, which begins with a reference to “my bedside stack of books”, I’ve been thinking about reading lists.  About lists scrawled unceremoniously on loose-leaf, spiral notebook paper; lists organized and kept meticulously updated in computer spreadsheets; and -like Seth’s- manifested in the concrete form of an ever-growing tower of books. And not just about how we organize our books-still-to-be-read, but also why. A list can be a self-improvement tool, a way of prompting ourselves to finally soldier through whatever official classic has escaped us until now, or it can be a wholly guilt-free inventory of pleasures still to come. Or, as with people who daily receive new review copies, it can just be the most practical way to keep on top of a mountain of books.

Keeping a list of the books you should read is the kind of practice that’s easy to make fun of, but it has a pedigree. As a teenager, Susan Sontag, famously, wrote in her notebooks the titles of the books she needed to read to before she could be the famous intellectual she planned to become. Most such lists, of course, don’t lead to a future or a career path like Sontag’s, but it’s good for readers to know that there’s nothing wrong with being aspirational and upwardly mobile. Still, some people will undoubtedly be reminded a little too strongly of school assignments and course descriptions. Once past the point in life where other people can force you to read a canonical classic, the average reader may have little interest in returning, and even less in assigning work to him or herself.

As a counterpoint to Susan Sontag’s autodidactic agenda, there’s a romance fan I know who has a spreadsheet to keep track of the books in the genre she still hasn’t read. With details like author, subgenre, and publisher stored in columns alongside the title, she can apply whatever criteria currently seems important and comb through a huge inventory of an even bigger genre, essentially letting it do the work of making selections for her. She’s not trying to be a new kind of reader (as Sontag says in the recently published Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview, ““It’s exciting to me to subscribe to something that’s foreign to my earlier taste), but to do a better job of being the kind of reader she knows herself to be.

PW Best Books 2013: ‘The Flamethrowers’ by Rachel Kushner

Everett Jones -- October 30th, 2013

the flamethrowers

Leading up to the November 1st publication of PW’s Best Books of 2013, our reviews editors are blogging about some of their favorites from our top 100. Here’s the latest post:

Since arriving in bookstores this past April, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers has stunned readers with a sense of energy and onward-rushing momentum perhaps more to be expected from a genre thriller than a literary novel like this one. Set in 1975 and 1976, the story takes its unnamed narrator, a young woman and aspiring artist known only as “Reno,” from Fun City-era NYC to an Italy seemingly on the brink of revolution.  Through all this, the book creates a sense of speed that’s captured in what, for many people, will likely be its defining image: that of Reno racing an Italian-made motorcycle, a “Moto Valera”, across salt flats in the deserts of Utah. It’s not surprising that among the adjectives critics have used to describe The Flamethrowers, “cinematic,” or some close equivalent, has been one of the most common.

Films and filmmaking take a good deal of space in the novel, albeit alongside such possibly less well-worn topics such as Brazilian rubber-extraction methods, Italian radical politics, and the evolution of skiing styles. Kushner, who would have been around seven years old when the story takes place, finds a shortcut to the feel of the period in citing the titles of movies her characters would have likely seen: Klute, Contempt, Red Desert, Behind the Green Door, and-to less obviously cool effects-the Barbara Streisand remake of A Star is Born. None of these references come as a surprise, any more than it would be surprising for a period film to use a needle-drop soundtrack.

However, some of Kushner’s cinematic allusions go unexplained. Fairly early in the book–-to be exact, page 84 in the hardcover edition–-there’s a description of “a movie about a Belgian widow turned prostitute” that’s “all claustrophobic domesticity, a woman moving around an oppressively ordered space, shining her son’s shoes and making coffee in a percolator.” What she’s describing is 1975’s minimalist, experimental Jean Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, directed by Chantal Akerman and starring Delphine Seyrig, but you won’t find that title anywhere in the text. Nor will you find the title of the “three a.m. movie” Reno watches later in the book (p.198) that begins by showing a woman who “had ditched her husband and kids and was about to set off on a series of sketchy adventures with a jumpy, anxious man.” But since I’m here, I can tell you it’s Wanda, the 1970 solo feature from the actress Barbara Loden. A little easier, on p. 175, is “that movie where poor Karen Black utters the fatal question at dinner with her lover’s higher-class family: Is there any ketchup?” Of course (?), it’s Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces, also from 1970, and a touchstone for the book’s emphasis on Americans uprooted from their pasts and on the road. These unexplained references might bother some readers, but they’re in keeping with Kushner’s focus on opaque, closed-off worlds–avant-garde artists and radical cells–and her conception of a narrator who misses as much as she perceives.

Source Material

Everett Jones -- October 16th, 2013

As much as shortening days and darkening leaves, a sure giveaway that it’s fall is the narrowing gap between the titles on display in your local library or bookstore and the movies making their way into your local multiplex or neighborhood theater. With the blockbusters of summers behind us, Hollywood’s latest offerings are more likely to be based on recent bestsellers and high school reading list classics than on comic books, board games, or sitcoms. Another round of the Oscars is in the offing, after all, and filmmakers and studio heads know that literary prestige can be one pathway to awards. A quick glance at the list of past Best Picture winners shows just how far respect for the written word can take a movie, including still-beloved titles like Gone with the Wind, Rebecca, and Ben Hur, or, more recently, No Country for Old Men and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

It’s not always the easiest path to follow, however, with plenty of readers, writers, and critics waiting along the way, eager to take issue with overly liberal or scrupulous adaptations. As I see it, film versions of novels can fall into one of two possible pitfalls. They can try to replicate bestselling books as closely as possible, hoping thereby to also replicate their huge readerships. This is the strategy of both the Harry Potter and Twilight series, and while in both cases it obviously “succeeded” in a strictly financial sense, it often doesn’t result in the kind of combined critical and commercial success that is enshrined by a win for Best Picture. As a non-reader of both series, I watched their big-screen adaptations mystified both about what was going on and as to why I was supposed to care about any of it. While films like Ben Hur and Gone with the Wind were careful to cater to the originals’ fans, they didn’t restrict themselves to this pre-established audience, and have lived on as classics even when the books are little-read.

On the other hand, filmmakers can run just as aground struggling to capture the essence of a literary prizewinner. Adaptations of the likes of Proust, Nabokov, Joyce, and Melville have won respect from critics, and perhaps even some attention from curious audiences, but they’ve rarely broken completely free from the originals’ shadows. Pynchon fans will have a chance to see, next year, if the same occurs with Paul Thomas Anderson’s forthcoming adaptation of Inherent Vice. A book that is both highly respected and widely read, though, might present the greatest danger for the ambitious movie director, with the movie versions of The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Human Stain being two cases in point. The secret winners in all of this might be the least assuming adaptations, such as, most famously, The Godfather and Jaws, both versions of popular novels but not at all in thrall to either devoted fans or the original’s reputation.

 

 

Customizing Genre

Everett Jones -- October 2nd, 2013

As was explored in a recent post to this blog, lately authors and publishers have been mixing together seemingly incompatible genres -Amish vampires in space, anyone? – with an accelerating degree of exuberance and abandon. From my side of the Publishers Weekly headquarters, this mini-trend rests comfortably alongside a long-existing feature of the books we consider, for better or worse, “genre” rather than “literary.” Put simply, they can be customized. In particular, detective stories lend themselves to a seemingly infinite number of possible variations. The whodunit, or the romance novel, or the fantasy epic, does have a formula, one that could likely be broken down with almost scientific exactness, but within those strictly drawn lines, a lot of coloring can go on. As a reader and writer, I’ve collected a few choice examples over the past few years.

Livia J. Washburn’s four books featuring tour guide/sleuth Delilah Dickinson turn on one of the most specialized, and unlikely, premises for a mystery series imaginable: crimes that occur during tours of places associated with famous American Southern writers. I first encountered Delilah in the third book of what Washburn and her publisher, Kensington, have dubbed the Literary Tour series, Killer on a Hot Tin Roof. This installment, published in 2010, came after Huckleberry Finished and Frankly, My Dear, I’m Dead,  and has since been followed by For Whom the Funeral Bell Tolls. That last title might indicate that Washburn is widening the series’ self-imposed restrictions, which of course is her prerogative to do with a sub, sub-genre that didn’t exist until she conceived it.

KillerOnHotTinRoof

Timothy Hallinan’s Junior Bender series concerns a LA-based burglar-cum-private eye who serves a clientele mostly drawn from crooks like himself. In Crashed, Little Elvises, and The Fame Thief (all out from Soho Crime), Junior’s cases lead him to famous names and stories, slightly disguised, from Hollywood and record industry history. Junior inhabits our own time, albeit a slightly cracked version of it, but his investigations are more focused on clearing up the historical record than on meting out present-day justice.

fame thief

Vincent McCaffrey’s two mysteries about a Boston book dealer named Henry Sullivan, Hound and A Slepyng Hound to Wake, both from Small Beer Press, draw on the author’s experience as a “book hound” and bookstore owner. There’s little urgency to what crime-solving Henry does, which isn’t a bad thing; McCaffrey would rather probe the print world’s increasingly threadbare state as it adapts to the Internet, and his readers will be happy to follow this thread.slepyng

The mystery genre may exist in a pretty limited series of models, most of which can be placed somewhere between the two poles of Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler, but what these three authors, and many others, have found is that the ready-made formula of a whodunit can be adapted to practically any kind of experience or interest. Working within a genre almost guarantees certain limitations not in play with literary fiction: practically no mystery, for instance, can do without at least one dead body, no matter how soft-hearted the author or intended readership. And not many publishers are likely to accept a whodunit without a solution. In another way, though, working within such constraints offers the author other freedoms. Such as, the freedom to explore whatever material she or he cares to, without feeling the need to assert its universality or deeper significance.

What Books Not to Pack

Everett Jones -- September 18th, 2013

As the previous post to this blog explored, a key part of any book lover’s travel plans consists of which books to bring along. When other people are deciding how they’ll be spending their days or where they’ll be dining at night, we are selecting just the right books to pack, transport, and possibly even get around to reading at our chosen destination. For a brief, recent trip to attend a friend’s wedding, though, I didn’t put any such thought into the reading material I stowed away into a traveling bag minutes before leaving for the airport. The only criteria was to shrink the “to read” section of my bookshelf that’s been steadily growing over the course of this year. And, so, it was just a coincidence that two of the books happened to contain, respectively, the words “wedding” and “marriage” in their titles.

Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, due out from St. Martin’s Press this November, is an authorized sequel, by Sebastian Faulks (Birdsong), to P.G. Wodehouse’s beloved series of comic novels and short stories  about the brilliant, unflappable butler Jeeves and his dense, extremely flappable employer Bertie Wooster. I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies, which was published in January by Knopf, is a study by film historian Jeanine Basinger (The Star Machine) of how the sacred institution of wedlock fared in Golden Age Hollywood, where in films like Woman of the Year, Made for Each Other, and The Long, Long Trailer marriage was celebrated, probed, and sometimes rendered a little less sacred. How the relevance of these two titles initially passed me by , I have no idea, but as soon as they were unpacked, even I couldn’t miss that two likely-looking wedding gifts were sitting in front of me. And what could make a better gift than a book?

For me, at least, that question is easily answered. Of course, I already had a present picked out for the wedding, something practical for the new couple’s starter home, but the temptation to add a book or two on top of it was a hard to resist. Selecting the right book as a present can be as much an invitation to obsess as choosing one as a traveling companion, and finding the right one far more satisfying than by-the-numbers gift-giving. After all, the average gamer will probably appreciate the latest Grand Theft Auto, and the average movie buff should be happy with a DVD of last year’s Best Picture, but a satisfactorily gifted book has to be as closely matched to the recipient as a new outfit or suit.

On the other hand, an unwanted book is a much worse outcome than a piece of electronic media being left in its plastic wrapper untouched. As a gift, a book says something about who you think its intended owner is. If your perception is drastically different from that person’s self-image, the book will be about as much use as clothing tailored to wildly inaccurate measurements. And in this case, I realized that I couldn’t say how welcome either book would be. I’d known the bride for years, but had only met her husband a few times before. Maybe the latter part of the title “I Do or I Don’t” wouldn’t be welcome, certainly not from a near-stranger. As for Jeeves, I wasn’t sure that the groom would want to feel that he was being compared to the idiotic Bertie Wooster. And without having finished the book, how could I know that the promised wedding bells would make for a happy ending? (Okay, I probably didn’t have to finish the book to know that.)

The books went back into the traveling bag, and back with me on my return flight. Sometimes, the book most apt for a given occasion isn’t the most appropriate one for it.

Lethal Nostalgia: On S.J. Perelman

Everett Jones -- August 21st, 2013

Most of us readers are likely to share at least a few literary heroes in common with each other, as well as new favorites from younger generations of writers. But maybe a better marker of taste, or at least a more interesting one, is the one consisting of your own private heroes, the writers that you find your way to by yourself. One of my favorites, the comic writer S.J. Perelman, has been worshiped by plenty of people in his time, and after it (he died in 1979), but I suspect that he falls into the latter category these days.

Perelman still has a major supporter in Woody Allen, but he doesn’t otherwise occupy too much shelf space anymore outside of the dustier sections of the Strand (or whatever your local used bookstore might be). His personal reputation didn’t benefit much from a 1986 biography by a fan of his work who found she was less taken with Perelman himself, and no one has reissued his short stories, essays and parodies since the Modern Library in 2000. Nonetheless, I’d like to think that there could be a much larger audience for his work, which combines a pop culture-fixated sensibility, not a million years removed from today’s, with a frequency and density of verbal invention that’s difficult to imagine occurring again.

Like so many of the writers of his time (he was born in 1904), Perelman’s professional path took him to 1930s Hollywood. He may even have been luckier than most in finding work suited to his particular talents. I can’t see William Faulkner or F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name two, getting along as well with the Marx Brothers. Perelman’s most lasting imprint on Tinseltown, however, wasn’t made as one of a team of gag-men servicing star comedians, but through a series of pieces Dorothy Parker called “[Perelman’s] blood-curdling experiences with old movies.”

The “Cloudland Revisited” series, which Perelman began in the 1950s after having largely ended his screenwriting career, looked back at the entertainment of his teenage years, which for him meant the 1910s. For subject matter, he didn’t just look to the movies, but also at the bestseller lists, with “Into Your Tent I’ll Creep” and “Why, Doctor, What Big Green Eyes You Have?” dissecting, respectively, the potboilers The Sheik and The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu. In other pieces, a visit to the Museum of Modern Art’s screening room is the framing device that lets Perelman revisit otherwise inaccessible Hollywood artifacts like The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Foolish Wives, and Male and Female.

The narrative path traced by each “Cloudland Revisited” essay is predictable: Perelman remembers a teenage fixation on a book or film that led him to try to imitate, say, Captain Nemo, or Erich von Stroheim. While reading one novel, he tells us, “every last asterisk…was literally engraved on my brain, which, after two hundred and ninety pulsating pages, must have borne a striking resemblance to an old bath sponge peppered with buckshot.” The essays’ resolutions are equally predictable: Perelman is as let down by his return trip as a Star Wars fan on the opening night of The Phantom Menace. The turn-of-the-century pop culture landscape he recreates, populated by consumptive vamps, deposed princes, and some pretty jaw-dropping ethnic stereotypes, is a weird and unfamiliar one, but the lens they’re viewed through can feel surprisingly familiar. Fans of Nathan Rabin’s My Year of Flops or Patton Oswalt’s Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, in particular, might find something similar about Perelman’s mixture of criticism and self-deprecating memoir. Perelman thoroughly dismantles whatever book or film is under his microscope, but he doesn’t spare himself for having once fallen for them (and for still being a little under their spell). The message of the series is captured in the essay “When to the Sessions of Sweet Silent Films…”: “As a middle-aged movie fan, I’ve learned one lesson: Lay off that nostalgia, cousin. It’s lethal.”