Sunday, January 23, 2011

The new documentary on Joseph McBride

In terms of shaping my tastes as a filmgoer, 1999 was an important year for me. It was the year that I saw Howard Hawks's Bringing Up Baby and John Ford's Stagecoach on the big screen (as part of the Ohio Theatre's annual Summer Movie Series). The same summer, American Movie Classics aired a Ford marathon, which included an exceedingly rare showing of Peter Bogdanovich's documentary on the director, not to mention dozens of other Ford films seen by me for the first time.

It was also the year that I discovered the work of film scholar Joseph McBride, an equally momentous event. I loved interview books with directors, especially Bogdanovich's Who the Devil Made It and Truffaut's Hitchcock, so when I spotted McBride's Hawks on Hawks at my local bookstore, I bought it instantly. By then, I had seen several other Hawks masterpieces, in addition to Bringing Up Baby. Hawks on Hawks helped me to better understand the Hawks films I had seen, while also serving as a kind of preview to what riches awaited me as I explored more of his filmography. I remember particularly loving the way McBride arranged the interview material: not strictly chronologically, often veering into specific topics, such as "Camerawork," "Marilyn Monroe," or "Advice to Young Directors," for a few pages at a time.

In 1999, I also developed a major interest in Orson Welles; I had recently seen, in theatres, the re-release of The Third Man and the new edit of Touch of Evil. So I read the revised edition of McBride's extraordinary critical study, Orson Welles, as avidly as I had Hawks on Hawks.

When I realized that McBride was 25 when Orson Welles was first published, I was astonished -- and inspired. Suddenly, it didn't seem so terribly improbable that I could duplicate his feat of publishing a book on film at a young age. One of the things I'm proudest of in my career is that my own Welles book, Orson Welles Remembered, was published when I was just a few weeks shy of my 24th birthday. By that time, I had gotten to know Joe, who has graciously shared so much of his experience and expertise with me.

It was, then, with a great deal of personal and professional interest that I watched the new documentary, Behind the Curtain: Joseph McBride on Writing Film History, directed by Hart Perez.

The film is a guided tour through McBride's wide-ranging career as a critic, screenwriter, and biographer. Particular attention is given to the subjects of his three amazing biographies of John Ford, Frank Capra, and Steven Spielberg, but many other personalities are discussed, too, including Hawks and Welles. McBride entertainingly relives his screenwriting career, which ranged from co-writing the cult classic Rock 'n' Roll High School to writing five American Film Institute Life Achievement Award specials in the eighties.

Some of the best stories concern McBride's youth. For example, I was delighted to be reminded that while Persistence of Vision (a collection of film criticism) was McBride's first published book, what would become High and Inside: The Complete Guide to Baseball Slang was the first book he actually wrote. He started work on it in 1963, when he was still a teenager. By the time he had the clout to have the book published, he recalls, he took the snobbish view that he didn't want it to sit beside his serious cinema books. Fortunately for us, common sense prevailed, and the first edition of High and Inside was published in 1980, two years before Hawks on Hawks.

"I like to look behind the official stories, which are usually lies," McBride says at one point, connecting his parents' careers as newspaper journalists to his own reputation as an investigative reporter, albeit one working in the mode of film scholarship. If McBride's youthful success was what inspired me years ago, his unending commitment to looking behind "the official stories" is what inspires me today.

The film features numerous stills from McBride's personal collection, though the visual highlight is saved for last, when he pulls out a ratty old box from his attic, containing the costume he wore for his performance in Welles's unfinished film, The Other Side of the Wind. McBride played, in a comic vein, a critic named Mister Pister in the film. Because of Welles's shooting methods (Other Wind was shot over the course of six years), co-star Mercedes McCambridge advised McBride to keep his costume in a box, in case Welles ever required his services again, and he has. Welles would be proud, in more ways than one.

Behind the Curtain is a testament to McBride's approach to his work, one any film student interested in exploring the golden age of Hollywood should see. It will have its world premiere at the Tiburon International Film Festival in April.