Variety’s “The Movie That Changed My Life”: 120 Celebrities Pick the Films That Made a Difference (for Better or Worse). By Robert Hofler. Da Capo. $15.95.
Pow Wow: Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience—Short Fiction from Then to Now. Edited by Ishmael Reed with Carla Blank. Da Capo. $19.95.
Stringing together unrelated vignettes or stories no more makes a coherent book than stringing together lots of words makes a coherent book title. So authors and editors of lengthily titled books, such as Robert Hofler and Ishmael Reed, create, or try to create, large themes within which their works’ small individual elements fit neatly. Unfortunately, the fit is not always neat – although when it is, it can be highly interesting. Variety magazine senior editor Hofler asked a wide variety of celebrities in various fields to tell him what movie made the greatest impression on their lives. Now, this is a recipe for self-aggrandizement if there ever was one. Can you imagine, say, Senator John McCain saying that The Bridges of Madison County mattered most to him – even if it did? Of course not; McCain picks Viva Zapata! – Elia Kazan’s 1952 story of the Mexican revolutionary. Can you imagine feel-good guru Sanjay Gupta saying that Rambo did more for him than any other film? Nope – Gupta picks the heartwarming E.T. What about director Tim Burton – can you imagine him choosing, say, Bambi as the movie that influenced him most? He picks, not at all surprisingly, Frankenstein (although James Whale’s sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, is actually a better film). The point is to take everything these celebrities say with several grains of salt – they are celebrities, which means they are always on the lookout for their image, and nothing they say about films is likely to go against whatever public persona they have carefully tried to cultivate. With that major caveat, Hofler’s book is fun, and it’s quite easy to read – each entry takes only a page or two, and there are plenty of illustrations from the films mentioned to make the brief text even shorter. Also, some of the celebrities use the book to extend their professional lives – Joan Rivers, for example, turns her appearance into a mini-sample of her frequently profane comedy. Hofler tries to divide his celebrities into categories into which they really do not fit: Danielle Steel and Hugh Hefner are in “The Romantics,” Kurt Vonnegut is among “The Front Liners” (with McCain and Senator James Webb, among others), Governor Bill Richardson is in “The Athletes,” Tom Brokaw appears among “The Historians,” and so on. Given the arbitrary nature of the classifications, the book would have worked better by simply presenting the celebrities in alphabetical order (they are not even alphabetical within the sections). But this is a minor issue in a book that, in the final analysis, has little that is major about it – although it is often entertaining in the way that minor movies can themselves be.
Pow Wow, on the other hand, sets its sights on something very serious indeed: “a gathering of voices from the different American tribes,” as Reed, a poet and novelist, puts it in the Foreword. Reed here offers more than 500 pages of stories and poems – 63 of them in all – about various aspects of the American experience. Most of those aspects are negative – no Horatio Alger tales here – as the authors explore homelessness, bigotry, abusive relationships, racial and social isolation, and a general feeling of being outside the mainstream (however defined). There are some well-known or moderately well-known authors included, from Langston Hughes to Paul Laurence Dunbar to Mark Twain to Benjamin Franklin (yes, that Benjamin Franklin); and there are lots of unknowns. The backgrounds of the authors are highly varied: Aphrodite Désirée Navab is Iranian-Greek American, Ty Pak is from Korea, Bharati Mukherjee is from India, Mary Tallmountain is Alaskan, Lucha Corip is from Mexico, and so on. The “Contributors” section of the book is in its own way as interesting as many of the stories, showing just how many people fall under the category of “American.” As for the tales themselves, they vary extremely widely. Anna Nelson Harry’s fable “The Giant Rat” is about the meaninglessness of the things that cause war. Jimmy Santiago Baca’s “Imagine My Life” is about living “on the dark side of life…nosing my way into patches of rotting life to find my answers.” Fielding Dawson’s “Pirate One” is about a memory of Roberto Clemente. Vivian Demuth’s “Night of the FEMA Trailers” is a post-Hurricane-Katrina story. And so on – each tale in its own style, with its own subject matter, related to the others only by virtue of having been placed between the covers of the same book. Reed’s work is as much hodgepodge as powwow, with its contents’ one nearly universal connecting thread being bleakness – even the Twain story, “The War Prayer,” is a dark and deeply cynical one. This is not a book for those seeking uplift – although a close reading of its “Contributors” section indicates that there are more positive things in America than these individual writers choose to observe.