Those of you participating in the 2019 Field Library Reading Challenge know the next category we’re promoting is “Read a Book About Movies.” Really, this is one category that’s almost too easy. We have all kinds of books about movies, from novels to insider looks at the industry itself to books about the making of particular (usually classic) movies, to books about all the movies you haven’t seen yet but should (a sub-industry in itself), to collections of movie criticism to biographies and autobiographies about and by some of the big names in the industry. If you can’t find something you want to read in all of that, you’re simply not trying.
Allow me here to suggest a particularly funny entry in this category, Confessions of a Cineplex Heckler, by Joe Queenan. This is not a new book (it was published in 2000), and some of the movies referenced in it might seem a little obscure (let’s face it, the real dogs from almost twenty years ago are mercifully forgotten), but the snarkiness is still as funny as ever, and most of his targets are movies and trends in movies that you will find familiar even 19 years later.
This is the kind of book you dip into when you need a good laugh. Most of the essays in the book were written for Movieline magazine (now, sadly, no longer in business), and they tend to be kind of quirky. For instance, in the first essay Queenan sets out to prove that many of the more ridiculous things people get away with in movies would never work in real life. He does this by attempting them himself: trying to see whether you could be killed by having a bookcase fall on you as happens in Howard’s End, or whether someone who’s blind could actually walk across a New York City street without being killed, as in Scent of a Woman. In the title essay, he actually goes to different theaters and becomes that jerk who shouts out stupid and rude remarks about the movie, to see (a) if it’s fun and (b) if and when someone will stop him. If you were in an audience where he was doing this trick, you would find him incredibly obnoxious, but when you read about it, it’s actually incredibly funny. He looks with great seriousness at movies about Irish people to determine which is the “biggest load of blarney” (I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the fun by telling you the answer to that one), comments on the trend of handsome actors getting beat up in movies, does a brief stint as the Bad Movie Angel, reimbursing people who have actually paid money to see really terrible movies, and discusses the unfortunate likelihood that if you send someone to a video store for a particular movie, you are likely to get any one of a number of similar sounding movies, owing to Hollywood’s lack of imagination (yes, I know there aren’t video stores anymore; look at that one as a historical document if you like).
I have to warn you in advance that if you like any movies from the late 90’s or earlier, odds are good Queenan hates them. This is not a book that gives glowing reviews of anything, so prepare yourself. But even if he’s talking about a movie you have warm feelings for, you have to appreciate his wise-ass commentary, which is nothing if not vivid (and funny). For instance, he describes Robert DeNiro’s hairstyle in the remake of Cape Fear as “creat[ing] the impression that a rat marinated in Vaseline has been surgically grafted onto his neck.” Describing Cujo, Queenan remarks that it is “set in Maine, where people don’t get out often enough, and even when they do, they’re still in Maine.” One of my favorite lines is when Queenan describes an actor as “Looking about as comfortable amidst his mountain of medical research textbooks as Keanu Reeves would look with the concordance to the Complete Works of Moliere” (a cheap shot, but a funny one).
When you need a serious dose of snark, when you don’t want a book to give you more movies you feel you should see but to make you feel better about the movies you’ve managed to avoid, do yourself a favor and pick up Confessions of a Cineplex Heckler.