It was announced this week, that after five decades in print, Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide (LMMG) will cease to be no more after the 2015 edition. That lack of existence will be in physical form only. It has yet to be determined if the reference guide will find new life in virtual form.
As it was in the life of nearly every American cinephile born before the 1990s, raised in the churches and synagogues of Blockbuster and Hollywood Video every weekend, Maltin's guide was an important, major part of our weekly liturgy.
Was being the operative, crucial definer, the clock had started ticking for the LMMG when cable providers added online guides in the 1980s. Tim Berners-Lee inventing the World Wide Web in 1990 sped that up. We can play up our reverence for the guide, yet, prior to that, there was always TV Guide, which proviced on a weekly basis much of the same information that was in the LMMG, along with screening times and channels, as well as recommendations. And lets not forget, that newspapers fulfilled this function on a daily basis too.
The film info LMMG provided wasn't wholly unique, it was the amount accessible in one volume that made it so. We shouldn't forget this.
As crucial a text as it was, here are four reasons I'm not mourning the loss of the LMMG:
1. Information over Education
The LMMG was a pithy resource that provided rudimentary film knowledge to the masses. That pithiness was also a weakness. It's a book that was best part of a larger collection. Having it on your night stand, within reach, made it useful. Unless Maltin and his contributors reduced the number of films covered, the LMMG was never going to be a robust educational guide. If you think I'm being cruel, here's the description of 1966's Alfie from the 2013 guide.
Alfie (1966-British) C-114m ***1/2: D: Lewis Gilber. Michael Caine, Shelley Winters, Millicent Martin, Julia Foster, Jane Asher, Shirley Anne Field, Vivien Merchant, Eleanor Bron, Denholm Elliott, Alfie Bass, Graham Stark, Murray Melvin. Well-turned version of Bill Naughton play (he also scripted). Caine is superb as philandering Cockney playboy who can't decide if bachelor life is so bloody marvelous. Cher sings title tune. Followed by ALFIE DARLING. Remade in 2004. Technoscope
In 1994 if you stumbled across Alfie as it was coming on television, or found it in your local video store, this is servicable enough.
In 2014, when wifi and a tablet make hundreds of reviews, articles and critical analysis easily accesible in seconds, this doesn't compare. The LMMG doesn't get to the heart of why Alfie is a film that continues to endure. There's nothing on the class comentary, Alfie's dergatory use of birds to describe women, or anything about the emotional impact an abortion has on Alfie himself. No connection is made between Alfie and the British New Wave that preceded it. A connection that is fascinating, because in 1966, Alfie was the second biggest filmin Britain, coming in after James Bond'sThunderball. As James Bond ushered in a new era, offering audiences visceral thrills, travelouge vistas and wish fulfillment fantasies of being a spy, films that develed into social issues and explored the British psyche were disappearing from cinemas.
With so much information and so many resources available, the educational role the LMMG played was trumped by a sea of information even more easily accessible than the LMMG had ever been.
2. The Second Screen Experience/Lack of A Guided Experience
If there was one area that LMMG was invaluable in, it was it could answer the question of "who is that." Flipping through the book you could quickly settle a debate. The LMMG was a low-tech precursor to the second screen experience.
As a low-tech precursor, that kept expanded insights and deep dives into an actor's or director's filmography off the table entirely. Yes, you could use the index in the back of the book. Yes, it was helpful. If you wanted to piece together a cogent, coherent understanding of anyone's body of work, the LMMG wasn't going to get you far, not without additional material at hand.
With the arrival of the tablets, movie watchers at home could enhance their film experience by visiting IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, watching trailers and interview clips on Youtube, and finding fun quotes and facts provided by organizations like AFI.
The LMMG in digital form could have also provided those facts, questions, quotes and connections to video, timed to the movie. As a book, the LMMG's interactive nature wasn't just low, it just doesn't exist.
3. Incomplete/Misleading Information
As much as we revere the LMMG for what it offered, we don't take it to task for what was missing. For instance, that Alfie description tells us that Cher sung the title tune in the American release. It doesn't tell us that Millicent Martin, who is in the film, sung the title tune for the U.K. release of the tilm.
This isn't a malicious omission. It's the result of finite space and the finite time frame that is endemic to book publishing. A print book is incredibly difficult to keep updated and accurate year to year. Changes can't be made instantly or often. At some point, whatever you add in, you ethier add to your material costs, or you must remove something to make room. Those harsh choices lead to confusion when a viewer sees the original on TCM and they wonder why that doesn't sound like Cher on their TV. And, unintentionally, it filters the film through an Americentric lens.
4. Not Giving Audiences What They Want (Or Need)
Joe Leydon contributes to the LMMG, and on his blog he quoted this from Leonard Maltin's forward to the 2015 edition of the LMMG.
“With ready access to information on the Internet, our readership has diminished at an alarming rate.
“The book’s loyal followers know that we strive to offer something one can’t easily find online: curated information that is accurate and user-friendly, along with our own reviews and ratings.
“But when a growing number of people believe that everything should be free, it’s impossible to support a reference book that requires a staff of contributors and editors."
The notion that audiences aren't willing to pay for anything has been oblierated by Amazon and Amazon Prime, Netflix, iTunes, and the dozens of sites that are proving that paywalls work. This is old world thinking. It's not that people think everything should be free, it's that the LMMG as a general text, succeeds spectacularly. That catch-all approach also makes it vulnerable. If my cable provider gives me info about every film that's accesible to me, if the network the movie is on tells me about the movies I'm watching, if Netflix and Amazon also have that as well, at some point, collectively, those sources have replicated the LMMG. And they've done so as part of a service I'm paying for. So no, folks aren't paying for that stuff for free, it's tied up in their monthly bills.
If the general purpose of the LMMG is bundled into what I'm purchasing, the most useful the LMMG could be, should be, is as a guide into film, and at that it fails.
By the end of the 1990s, I hadn't picked up a copy of the LMMG in years. There wasn't much need for it. When my friends and I were eager to learn more about Hong Kong cinema, Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head provided what we were looking for. Having discovered Miramax films on VHS and arthouse theaters, it was the early incarnations of Indiewire and Film Threat that hipped us to the arrival of films like Eve's Bayou and Chasing Amy.
As our appreciation of film expanded, we wanted to go deeper, we wanted more information. We wanted to understand why Jim Jamursch was a seminal filmmaker, and watch John Woo's films before Hard Boiled and The Killer. Once we learned that the Jackie Chan films that were hits in America in the 1990s weren't Chan's best work, and had been edited down, we wanted to find the originals and the older films.
What cannot be Googled, is the expertise that a Joe Leydon and Leonard Maltin can provide. The ability to assemble an abbreviated encyclopedia, that happens to include two to three lines descriptors that are sometimes plot synopsis, sometimes mini-review, wasn't much of a service even in the 1990s. We had outgrown it. What we hadn't outgrown is Leydon and Maltin.
If the LMMG is to continue in some new format, it has to bring something to our collective film culture that no one else can, or as well. The LMMG is just a book. It's not a living, breathing organism that conveys the magic of cinema as much as some would like to believe. The power of cinema is in the shared experience, light dancing across the screen, and the indiosyncratic way film conveys ideas and emotions. The knowledge a Leydon and Maltin can provide can't be quantified, it can be paid for. And in the proper format, people will pay for it.
So death to the LMMG! Long live Leydon and Maltin. If they revive LMMG, I hope they realize they, and the other contributors were always the most important part of the guide, not the text. They have the ability to curate experiences for audiences far into the future. That would be an LMMG legacy to celebrate.