Leonard Maltin reminds me of my dad. They were both born in the fifties, and their salt-and-pepper hair is now more salt than pepper. They’re tall, speak in friendly tenor voices, and have developed a little middle-age paunch. Moviewise, they like some of the stuff that comes out today, but would generally rather stay home with TCM. They can appreciate art-house and fringe cinema, but feel more comfortable with the smooth Hollywood craftsmanship of John Ford or Michael Curtiz. They don’t like gross-out comedy and graphic violence, and while they understand irony, they were born just a few years too early to embrace it. Sure, there are differences (my dad doesn’t have a beard, and I doubt he ever shared Leonard’s affinity for the Little Rascals) but in all the important areas, they’re the same man.
Our parents are our earliest moral arbiters, and more than anyone else, they define for us what is right and wrong. Try as we might to later reject their values, they create our first moral framework, and everything we teach ourselves for the rest of our lives exists in relation to that framework. This fact occurred to me while perusing the just-released Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide 2012, the umpteenth volume of Leonard’s annual reference book. Just as some small part of me will always believe my parents are infallible, so too will I always believe the Maltin guide represents absolute truth.
With its spare, almost telegraphic prose style, Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide seems written by a computer. While film criticism is by definition subjective, the Maltin guide’s 18,000+ capsule reviews aim for fact. To pick a movie at random, The King’s Speech is an “amazing – and inspiring – true story brought to life with verve and considerable wit,” with “a truly wonderful cast.” Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a “lively, clever, funky adaptation […] but the novelty wears off before the movie is over.” Cop Out is “crude, needlessly overlong, thoroughly excruciating.” That’s the Maltin guide in a nutshell: safe, mainstream, and with the pretense of objectivity. Sure, I may think he overrates The King’s Speech and underrates Scott Pilgrim, but Leonard’s view is mainstream society’s view, and if I secretly suspect he’s right, it’s because we all secretly want to be part of the mainstream.
iPhone app notwithstanding, one might question the need for a Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide in this day and age. Surely IMDb has old Leonard beat when it comes to cast lists, running times, awards info, and even information on DVD availability (Leonard still lists whether films have been released on video and laserdisc; how adorable). Surely venues like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes have rendered Maltin’s little star ratings and three-word dismissals irrelevant. Surely I can find a critic who doesn’t think Laserblast (2½ stars) is better than The Shining (2 stars). Right?
Wrong. We still need Leonard Maltin, and we need him for the same reason we need our parents: to teach us what is good and what is bad; to give us a framework in which to operate; to define the mainstream (“Honey, I know you think Salo is Pasolini’s finest work, but to polite society, it’s a ‘BOMB – Lowest Rating’”).
I realize my hypothesis is weakened by some of Maltin’s more ludicrous judgments. Sometimes he has trouble with a few of the newfangled movies the kids like (Memento: 1½ stars), and for crying out loud, Taxi Driver still only gets 2 stars (“It’s undeniably influential to a generation of filmmakers; some scenes and images have become iconic. Judge for yourself.” Come on, just admit you’re wrong).
Well, I brush these off like a Christian might ignore the parts in the Bible about homosexuality. Much like the Bible, the Maltin guide was written and re-written and edited and re-edited over many years, so not everything can hold up under close scrutiny. Actually, the Biblical comparison is apt: I must ignore these imperfections, because without the absolute truth of Leonard’s word, I may be lost. Children must eventually grow up and leave their parents’ nest, but if we live in a godless universe, what is there left to believe in?
Sure, I’ve fancied myself as much a moral relativist as the next godless young hipster, but friends, we’re all human beings, and deep down, we all want something to guide us. More than anything else, this why we need Leonard Maltin. Nietzsche may have told us that God is dead, but to quote another popular aphorism, there is “a God-shaped hole at the heart of our being,” and I think I finally know how to fill it. Comrades, let us find something to believe in. Let us unite behind an ideal. Spread the word far and wide that Leonard Maltin is Truth, the Way, and the Light. Leonard Maltin is God.