Earlier this week Canada AM film critic Richard Crouse was challenged to launch his new book Son of the 100 Best Movies You’Ve Never Seen to a live audience without actually reading from it, holding it, or even opening it. It was all part of the rules of This Is Not A Reading Series, a literary festival currently taking place here in Toronto. True to Richard’s offbeat style, he rose to the task with a clever solution, partnering with comedy troupe Monkey Toast to perform an improvisational talk-show where he and his book became the focus of a series of unscripted comedy sketches. Considering the often hit-and-miss nature of improve comedy troupes, was it a risky move? Yes, but one that paid off with laughs for a full house that rewarded him with a long line at the book signing table afterward.
“Monkey Toast” is the name of a mock talk show. Richard and an interviewer from the troupe sat at a table on one end of the stage, engaged in a question-and-answer discussion very similar to the ones we perform on Canada AM, except that a comedy troupe sat off-stage listening in and snatching at sentences and key points to quickly craft sketches from them. Richard would answer questions about the films in his book, his personal life, his career and then the troupe would jump up on stage and interrupt with a quick volley of funny sequences.
When Richard was asked to explain his penchant for fanciful socks, he explained it as a “sartorial statement”. When he described a video on YouTube of Orson Welles, reduced late in his career to performing in a frozen peas commercial, the troupe hit the stage and acted out a casting session where they need a “sartorial” actor to sell their product. When Richard described the difficulty of recommending a controversial film, the group enacted a skit where a woman discovers a copy of “Triumph Of The Will” in the garbage and decides to show it to her friends and they all love it, completely missing its true message. Later they returned to the concept, this time with one of the group sharing the movie “Annie” only to have her friends react in offense, as one performer yelled “Do you know what you get when you rearrange the letters in Annie? INANE!!”
The two sides of the stage traded performances all night. Richard discussed the movie “Waiting For Fidel” and the group used it to perform a variation of “Waiting For Godot”, Richard jokingly quipped that writing can be a sad and lonely experience and the group translated that into a stark film of German expressionism. It’s difficult to capture in writing what was spontaneous and physical on the stage, but for those in the audience, including myself and Canada AM host Seamus O’Regan, it was a funny and surprising mix that made the night fly past quickly.
Some of the biggest reactions from the audience came not from the gags, but from Richard’s own mention of rare and obscure films that had film-lovers in attendance cheering, shrieking, and even jumping out of their chairs when he described overlooked cinematic gems such as “Grey Gardens” or “Theremin: An Electric Odyssey”. Cinephiles are no different from others in their love of the underdog and every movie buff has a title or two they wish would get more attention. With Richard’s deep knowledge of both fan favorites and obscure finds, his discussion and books become both a comfort and a guide for film geeks.
As the title suggests “Son of the 100 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen” is a follow-up to his earlier book along the same theme. Richard explained to me that when he sat down to write the first book, he assembled a collection of 300 films that he wanted to include, but was forced to whittle that down to just 100. With the success of that first book, he was given the chance to write “Son of” and explore many of the films he had to cut out the first time.
Despite what the title and cover may suggest, Richard has not written a book of lists. I say this as someone who, in addition to being CTV’s tech specialist, is also a cinephile in private and the owner of over 200 books on the subject of film, some of which are so lazy as to merely assemble a list or include mini-encyclopedic entries on various titles. In Richard’s book the only number you’ll find is in the title. As you would expect with a critic of his caliber, Richard has assembled a guide where the film titles double as chapter titles and his entries are a combination of his passion for his chosen films as well as his unique ability to describe what it is about them that make them interesting. Not only does he explain why they have been under appreciated, but he also provides keen background information, details that even those who have seen the movie may not be aware of.
Throughout the book there are added sections, bonus entries on noteworthy moments in the career of Roger Corman, for example, and rare movie selections by leading actors and directors themselves, including Peter Greenaway and Danny Boyle.
The guide ranges from the very old, “The Cameraman’s Revenge” from 1912 to the very new, 2006’s “Marie Antoinette”. He includes offbeat fare such as “Evil Roy Slade” starring John Astin of The Addam’s Family fame, a title that Richard found in DVD in a bargain bin in San Francisco to conservative dramas such as “The Horn Blows At Midnight”, a religious fantasy from the 1940’s.
Before I opened the book myself, I decided to play a game and think of an obscure film I’ve seen myself and then looked to see if it had made the collection. Sure enough, “Titicut Follies” a 1967 banned documentary on the harrowing conditions of the Massachusetts Institution for the Criminally Insane is among Richard’s picks. In his book he details the circumstances behind the film’s banning as well as the minimal techniques under which it was shot. No musical score, only natural lighting, it was Dogme 95 long before the concept ever occurred to Lars Van Trier. It has easily been more than ten years since I saw it and although the film does depict jarring behavior from its mental patients, poor hygienic conditions, and stark living conditions, all shocks you expect and brace for, the disturbing reality captured is one completely lacking of any concept of caring. Living in a strange complex of concrete stalls devoid of heat, light, and fixtures of any kind, patients are left to meander free, to hide in alcoves and darkened corners as a minimal nursing staff struggle to place a name, let alone symptoms or afflictions to any of the faces the camera discovers in the gloom.
For each title, Richard is kind enough to note which ones are available on DVD, VHS, YouTube, or in cases like Titcut Follies, “hard to find”.
Movie collectors and celluloid hunters know that exploring the world of overlooked cinema is a journey you take with you, not a vacation you return from and that’s something Richard Crouse captures in his two “100 Best” guides.
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