The Best Film You’ve Never Seen

An interview with the writer of a must read new film book

A killer with black leather gloves. Death by meat cleaver. A beautiful reporter. Poorly dubbed audio. Goblin’s amazing throbbing score. A famous psychic. And a terrifying ventriloquist dummy.

No, I’m not referring to Christmas with my family. The Hollywood Theatre is bringing back more grindhouse goodness with another early gem from giallo master Dario Argento. This coming Tuesday, a 35mm print of “Deep Red” will be shown at the theater.

In the annals of once great filmmakers who’ve now seemingly lost their mojo, Argento is the Italian equivalent of John Carpenter. For both filmmakers, once known innovative horror films, their best days waved bye-bye a long time ago. But forget about the embarrassingly terrible and schlocky recent efforts of “Mother of Tears” and “Giallo” and go back to a better time, a time when Argento was the man for moody, violent horror. “Deep Red” is insane and inventive as hell, but that’s not all that’s in store for the evening.

Before the film starts, there will be a reception, book signing and Q & A with writer and cartoonist Mike Russell and Robert K. Elder, the author of the fantastic new book, The Best Film You’ve Never Seen. Elder, a U of Oregon grad whose work has appeared in The Oregonian, went to the school on the advice of Ken Kesey after he interviewed Kesey for his high school paper. Now he calls Chicago home, but will be back in Portland to talk about his book, Argento and attempting to rewrite film history.

That was the impetus for his latest book, a quasi-companion piece to his 2011 effort The Film That Changed My Life, a series of interviews with filmmakers who discuss the film that inspired them to make movies. “The Best Film You’ve Never Seen” is ambrosia for voracious cinephiles always looking for that next meal, a hidden delight, or a filmic treat that was destroyed during release by critics and poor box office. The book collects 35 directors— including Edgar Wright, Guillermo del Toro, John Waters, Danny Boyle, Peter Bogdanovich, Richard Linklater—who passionately defend their choice for the best underrated movie you probably haven’t heard of and should do everything in your power to see and/or reconsider.

In the spirit of the book, here’s an edited transcript of the interview I conducted with Elder recently.

Q: What are your thoughts on “Deep Red” and Argento?

Elder: Argento is a deeply interesting character. “Deep Red” is his most Hitchcock-like film. And it’s also one of those that I think most…how can I say… most boldly underlines the problems he has with women that pop up in all of his films. It’s a good pairing, a difficult pairing [with his book]. More challenging perhaps for those who are a bit squeamish and don’t know Argento at all. I think most people in America after a certain age know his daughter [Asia].

Q: Well, since it’s playing at the Hollywood you’ll be in the perfect setting to show and talk about that film. That theater has changed quite a bit in the last few years.

Elder: I’m glad to hear that. I lived in Oregon in the late ‘90s and I spent a lot of time in Portland. I covered music, interviewing everyone from Henry Rollins to Marilyn Manson. When I was reviewing film for The Oregonian at that time, I think the theater was in turnaround so I’m really excited to see what they’ve done with it.

Q: For the book, which took you more than seven years to complete, did you start with a long grand list of directors you wanted to speak with and whittle it down?

Elder: I had a very strict criteria: people who said yes. They had to be people I respect and had an interesting body of work. For instance, Henry Jaglom, who’s had a long, storied career. His taste is not my taste, but that made for a really great interview. He defends Orson Welles’ “F For Fake,” which may be my favorite film in the book. He’s also the only director who doesn’t play ball with me. I’m supposed to play devil’s advocate, supposed to say, listen, this film is dismissed for these reasons. He would have none of it, didn’t want to hear anything that would diminish [the film] in his eyes.

Q: You mentioned in another interview that you argued with Kevin Smith about his choice for the book, “A Man For All Seasons,” since it won six Oscars including Best Picture in 1966. But the choice I found most interesting was John Woo picking “Le Samouraï.”

Elder: I think film nerds know who Jean-Pierre Melville [who directed “Le Samourai”] is, almost anybody else, no. Yes it has its own Criterion disc and I’m happy to have that, but he is not as well known as Truffaut or any of his other contemporaries. I didn’t make John defend that. There’s a sliding scale. Everybody knows who Orson Welles is, but not everybody knows what “F For Fake” is. Melville just doesn’t have the esteem in popular readers. I wrote this book not for film geeks. I wrote it for a more general audience. I chose to let these directors talk about what they considered obscure and what they thought needed attention.

Q: Many of these filmmakers willfully admit the faults of the films they’re championing. Even in the general audience today there seems to be an embrace of the so-bad-it’s-good phenomenon, with screenings of “The Room” and “Troll 2” for instance.

Elder: It isn’t ‘Mystery Science Theater.’ We’re legitimately trying to rewrite film history because we think these films have been lost. The fact that I push them and ask why did it fail and they’re willing to acknowledge some flaws, it’s like saying, ‘you might have some reservations about this.’

Q: Another thing I really admire about the book is that it goes beyond the simple good/bad paradigm of discussing films. It’s hard for some people to understand that a film can be great even though you can admit it’s flawed, perhaps very much so.

Elder: A film critic friend of mine contends that a flawed film can still get four stars, and I agree. For example, look at “Apocalypse Now.” It’s disjointed and has an unsatisfying ending, but it is one of those movies that sticks to your spine.

Q: Any filmmakers you were hoping to get for the book that eluded you?

Elder: I have been chasing Quentin Tarantino for years. But he kind of does this already. He is the guy who changed my life. When I saw “Reservoir Dogs” and the commode sequence happened, that was the first time I noticed the director’s fingerprints on the filmmaking process. Eventually I want to track him down. Sadly Robert Altman agreed to do the book but then he passed away. Same for Robert Wise. There were a couple chapters cut for space. Ondi Timoner (“Dig!”) chose this lost Robert Frank documentary on the Rolling Stones called “Cocksucker Blues.” It’s such a legally touchy film I think you can’t show it publicly unless Frank is there. After seeing it, you wonder why. It’s less about the Stones than all the bad behavior of the people around them.

Q: Since things move so fast in the culture now and we’re quick to dismiss something without really considering it properly, do you think it’s harder for underrated films released now to be discovered later?

Elder: I don’t think so. For so many years you had no way to see a film once its theatrical release was done. Now with all the various home formats there’s so many more ways for a film to find its audience than ever before. Now’s the time to have these conversations and praise them while they still have an economic life. Richard Linklater talks about in the book these different lives a film has: how it did at the box office, what the critics thought about it, and then there’s its true life. How it holds up, how it’s remembered.

Q: What’s something you’ve seen recently that feels destined to be another Film You’ve Never Seen entry?

Elder: I’m a tiny bit biased because I’m from Billings, Montana. It’s not a recent film, but I did just revisit Robert Redford’s “A River Runs Through It” and I always thought it’s just amazing. When it came out, it got mixed reviews. It has an early Brad Pitt performance. I think Redford captured not only that time and place but also that relationship in that book. If people haven’t seen it, it’s about more than just fly fishing. Another one with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Jeff Daniels before they were in “Looper” together is “The Lookout.” It’s this tightly wound little film. I really recommend that one as well.

-Listen to an extended audio version of this interview over at Adjust Your Tracking
-The release of the movie coincides with Goblin’s first ever US tour. The band will appear at the Hawthorne Theatre October 19 at 9 p.m.

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