September 18, 2020Books
Review: Movies (And Other Things) A Collection of Questions Asked, Answered, Illustrated by Shea Serrano, Illustrated by Arturo Torres
It's about to get real meta up in here because this is a Pop Culture Concierge post about a sort of pop culture encyclopedia written by Shea Serrano who strikes me as an ultimate pop culture concierge himself. (I won't call him THE ultimate PCC because, while I still have a lot to learn, I'm not willing to give up the possibility of that title for myself without a fight!)
One of my earliest pop culture resources was a site called "Television Without Pity", a (now defunct) site that published these incredibly detailed recaps of a wide selection of tv shows. I religiously read Couch Baron's multi-page opuses (opi?) of Veronica Mars. I loved the minutiae into which each recapper would go - and the best posts weren't just a summary of everything that happened in an episode, but commentary, shout-outs for great line deliveries or facial expressions, analysis of plot developments and some gentle mocking. (Their motto, after all was "Spare the Snark, Spoil the Show".) I love talking about pop culture in great detail almost as much as I enjoy consuming it (and now, writing about it!) Reading a great recap can help elongate the enjoyment of something you've already watched or read. Someone who took this to the next level is a writer named Price Peterson, who I found because of his photo recaps of The Vampire Diaries. Here is a link to some of his best recaps - they're probably not as much fun if you never watched TVD (S1-3 are great entertainment, after a bit of a slow start) so you can also scroll down to some of his awards show recaps, which are howlingly funny.
Movies (And Other Things) A Collection of Questions Asked, Answered, Illustrated is next NEXT level recapping with a twist. In this coffee-table style book, Shea Serrano takes a deep dive into movie questions you probably haven't thought of before, and in answering them demonstrates his wide-ranging expertise and appreciation for films of all kinds. This isn't a book that's meant to be read straight through in one sitting. You can actually use the index to pick up and read any chapter that's of interest to you, in whatever order inspires you. That's why I started with Chapter 22 "Did the Rockford Peaches make the right decision trading Kit?" This chapter does a lot of unpacking of a baseball movie I never get sick of, 1992's A League of Their Own. I've seen this film x infinity, so before I talk more about the book I should discuss whether it works if you haven't seen the movies being examined.
The answer is - mostly, with some caveats. I loved reading Serrano's take on the dynamic between Geena Davis' Dottie and Lori Petty's Kit, and of course it helped that I could instantly recognize every moment he discussed. In Chapters 5-7 "What's the order of the Gangster Movie Moment fictional draft?" I had a different experience. There were many movies he mentioned that I hadn't seen (Miller's Crossing, Legend, New Jack City, A Bronx Tale) or movies I've seen once and only vaguely remember (Carlito's Way, Eastern Promises, American Gangster). But even without previous familiarity with all the scenes he's describing, I found Serrano's take on the best moments in movies he classifies as gangster films really interesting and fun to read. HOWEVER there are a lot of spoilers so if you are careful about knowing as little as possible before seeing a movie, and there's any chance you might someday want to see one of the movies he writes about, it's better for you to avoid those chapters entirely.
So should the Rockford Peaches have traded Kit? Serrano answers that question and more, with a delightful rundown of some of the finer points of the movie. He ranks the eight funniest things said by Doris Murphy (played by Rosie O'Donnell). He studies a BIG MOMENT (which I won't spoil here) that many many fans of ALOTO have argued over for the past 20+ years, and shows there are no less than NINE CLUES which make his case for what he think really happened. And he uses something akin to baseball statistics to portion out blame for one of the significant losses in the film. Part of the appeal of this chapter and all the others in the book is the pure silliness of such exhaustive scrutiny of a movie. But Serrano writes each installment with clear affection and deep, well-rounded knowledge of film. If you've ever spent a road trip discussing your favorites (favorite John Cusack movie, best Star Wars installment, desert island keepers) you'll definitely get a kick out of the fresh angles by which Serrano tackles movies.
I also love the chapter "Who's in the perfect heist movie crew" (this is relevant to my interests!!!) He's got some great lists here like "Eleven things that happen in heist movies, arranged by how fun they are" "1. The montage where the team gets together 2. The scene where the participants sit in a diner and use condiments and whatnot to map out the robbery... 3. The thing where someone has to be pulled in for 'one last job". I would add a list of my own, "Movies that don't seem like heist movies but actually are" (The Great Escape, Max Dugan Returns, The Freshman, Trading Places), but that's obviously because I'm still scrapping for that ultimate PCC title. By the end of the chapter, Serrano has selected his dream heist crew (the Leader, The Nameless Crew Member Who You Know for Sure Is Going to Die Because He Didn't Get Very Many Lines in the Movie Before the Final Heist, the Driver, the Ill-Tempered Muscle, the Member of the Crew Who Tries to Double-Cross Everyone and the Law Enforcement Officer Chasing the Team). However much I think I've thought about movies in general (and heist movies in particular) Shea Serrano has thought EXPONENTIALLY MORE, and found new and exciting ways to talk about them.
Another chapter reassigns some of the Academy Awards for each year since 1995. In the first year, Forrest Gump gets replaced by Speed as Best Picture (100% Correct!) and Jessica Lange in Blue Sky gets replaced by Andie McDowell in Four Weddings and a Funeral for Best Actress (wrong on so many levels!) Whether I agree or disagree with his selections, it's fun to reimagine the past 25 years of Oscars with Serrano at the helm.
There's a great illustrated yearbook spread in the chapter titled "Who's in the Regina George circle of friends?", where we ponder everyone who ever appeared in a high school movie and decide who among them would make it to the lunch table of the sublimely evil Regina George from Mean Girls. For our consideration is everyone from Cher in Clueless (disqualified for being "too oblivious") to Harry Osborn from 2002's Spider-Man ("Beautiful and a little dumb and able to be vicious and vindictive when necessary.) There's a chapter that transcribes a conversation between Serrano and his sons about the Marvel Cinematic Universe ("Iron Man is really rich. I'd invite him [to my birthday party] because maybe he'll bring me a really good present."). There's a chapter that answers the question "Which race was white-saviored the best by Kevin Costner" pretty quickly, and then jumps to a whole lot more lists like "What are the 12 best tiny moments from the riff-off scene in Pitch Perfect?" and "What movie lawyer do you want representing you if you ever end up getting tried for a crime in a movie?" (#1 - Elle Woods).
What I like best about this book, beyond the kinship I feel with someone who micro-analyzes movies even more than I do, is that Serrano has given me new ways to appreciate movies I've already seen and loved, not to mention more movies I now want to see and learn to love as well. In addition, reading him is like taking a master class in how to write about pop culture - he's clear, specific, funny and original. He's given me a lot to aspire to, and I hope you'll check out this tour de force in movie appreciation.
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