Sep 4, 2017

The Great Hamilton Film Book Expedition

Before the internet came along, a film enthusiast had to learn more about cinema via books. And for a film enthusiast in a small town, the choices were often marginal. The local book store mainly stocked the annual reference guides of Leonard Maltin and Steven Scheuer. The “film” sections in the public and school libraries largely consisted of star bios, and glossy coffee table overviews with little context. As for collections of film criticism, there was one volume each by Pauline Kael and Stanley Kaufmann. Even so, thanks to this small reservoir and through combing titles in video stores and TV Guide, I had learned quite a bit about film- enough to impress women at cocktail parties maybe, but still I hungered for more knowledge. You don’t know what you’re missing if you don’t know what to look for.

One day in Grade 13, a step was made to change that. This was a sunny Friday in November. School was closed that day for students as it was the teachers’ Professional Development Day. Early in the morning, I hopped into the Dodge Colt for a little professional development of my own: by hunting for film books in downtown Hamilton. 

This was during that pivotal year where I returned to high school at age 20 and took a full Grade 13 course load to upgrade my average, and gather whatever experience I could towards that single-minded goal of getting into film school the following year. During those ten months, I also buffered my portfolio with two plays (one went as far as the semi-finals in the Sears Drama Festival) and most importantly, the feature-length dramatic video, The Broken Circle, which I wrote and directed.  

As far as I was concerned, any school assignment or extra-curricular activity could be a stepping stone to that goal. For instance, whenever I could get away with it, I’d make any English creative writing assignment film-related. My big oral presentation in French class was about French cinema history. And during my spare time (what there was of it, with all of this going on, plus full-time shift work to pay the bills), I would read to learn more about what other films were out there, that I wasn’t able to see… yet.

My first stop was Limeridge Mall. I started the day’s pick with the current editions of Roger Ebert’s reviews and the Mick Martin-Marsha Porter video guide. The Martin-Porter book differed from the other paperback-sized reference books in the day, as in the back, they also published filmographies of actors, writers and directors. (Maltin would start doing that a few years later, although not as comprehensively.) Further, at one of the several record stores, I had bought Tangerine Dream’s three latest albums: Optical Race, Tyger, and Livemiles. These cassettes would play incessantly in the car, at home, and during nights spent at the print shop. They became the soundtrack to my life that year, and fuelled a lot of my creativity. (One piece from Livemiles would be used in the movie.)

After hitting up the stores and having lunch there, I went down the escarpment to McMaster University’s book store. There, I found some more works which would be well-thumbed for years to come. 

Perhaps the most important find at Mac was Rick Schmidt’s Feature Filmmaking at Used-Car Prices. The timing was perfect for acquiring this book, because in November I was already planning The Broken Circle, which would commence shooting the following February. Schmidt’s book has been since updated for changing times (Extreme DV at Used-Car Prices), and for my money remains the single greatest general-purpose guide an aspiring filmmaker can have. 

A few chapters exceeded my requirements (ie- distribution, or building my own cutting suite, since I was editing on video at the community cable station), but the book’s general tone was influential. It filled you with “gung ho” inspiration about making your little masterpiece, yet it offered a realistic look at the obstacles you’d face on the way. (At the very least, you had to sacrifice such valuable things as time, job or extra-cirricular commitments, and relationships, if the project meant enough to you.) Mr. Schmidt’s volume was immeasurable for this first-time movie maker, and would also be read cover to cover while preparing any of my subsequent cinematic “epics” over the next ten years.

Further historical research would also be found in Georges Sadoul’s twin volumes, Dictionary of Films, and Dictionary of Film-Makers. They were only current up to 1971, but they became immeasurable resources, especially for world cinema. In those days, I could largely only see foreign films on TVO or the French channel (hopefully they had French subtitles that I could read). These books introduced such masterpieces as Ermanno Olmi’s Il Posto, or Renoir’s The Little Match Girl

Even at that young age, all movies mattered to me. If the Sadoul books at Mac satisfied my passion for art-house film, my hunger for grindhouse cinema was satisfied with a trip down to the much-missed Silver Snail on King Street. At last, I managed to get my hands on a copy of Michael Weldon’s classic Psychotronic Encyclopedia Of Film. This  remains one of the true bibles for cult cinema, with its copious capsule reviews of fantasy, biker, rock-n-roll and JD movies.  I’ve always happily lent out books to anyone who was interested, but I put a “no lending” clause on Weldon’s. I simply was using it too often (and it was literally falling apart from overuse).

The last leg of the Hamilton tour was off-topic, but no less memorable. Before leaving town, I cased the used book stores on King Street, including a second-hand shop on the south side (now long gone) which was run by an elderly couple. A lasting memory of my several trips to that store was that behind the counter, sat a rocking chair next to a floor lamp. My last purchase in Hamilton was here: a whopping one dollar for a copy of a Star Wars comic book (issue #18).  The man behind the counter was shaky, frail, and took a long time ringing in the one-dollar sale. This filled me with melancholy on the way back to the car, and in the journey westward as I drove toward the fading horizon line, listening to Tangerine Dream’s Tyger on the tape deck. Already Tangerine Dream was creating cinematic moments in my head. I can’t listen to “Alchemy of the Heart” on that album without thinking of that man.

The spree wasn’t done yet, in theory.  It was a Friday night, and there were still a couple of hours more to shop. On the way home, I made a pit stop in The Telephone City to visit an old haunt, The Brantford Bookworm. Memory causes me to believe that I left the store empty-handed this time, but I do recall sitting in the parking lot, still thumbing through the Weldon book, with the dim outside light dimly providing the only illumination for the car interior. (I guess I couldn’t wait to get home to read!)

I spent many years paying for this one amazing year (both financially and psychologically). One of the misgivings I now have about those nonetheless incredible ten months, is that I should have saved more money. (Of course working all kinds of weirdo hours, seldom being home, and eating out all the time sure didn’t help.) However, this Friday excursion was one frivolous expenditure I still do not regret. These texts would prove invaluable to me this year and beyond. They’re still here, sitting in the shelf to my left as I type this.