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Book Review: Reel Culture: 50 Classic Movies You Should Know About (So You Can Impress Your Friends) by Mimi O’Connor

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The list of movies in Reel Culture spans 53 years from 1938’s Bringing Up Baby to 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, with 48 others in between that have helped shape and influence the course of American culture. As its subtitle, 50 Classic Movies You Should Know About (So You Can Impress Your Friends), illustrates, the book’s purpose is to start young film fans out on the right path. It does so by encouraging them to check out the biggest, most well-known movies in the cinematic canon… well, to a point. As the introduction states, Star Wars and its ilk are excluded because, “Everyone already knows it — if you don’t, go rent it. Now.”

These are movies so iconic that when I came across two I hadn’t seen, I was pretty well shocked and resolved to add them to my Netflix queue. (For the record, they were the classic musical West Side Story and the Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter.) Mimi O’Connor breaks down the pertinent info for each entry, summarizing plots in ways that are easy to digest and understand. Even if the description of Sunset Blvd.’s Norma Desmond as Joe Gillis’ “sugar mama” made me wince. Indeed, there are forced attempts at teen lingo throughout the book, and it’s jarring every time.

More helpfully, in the “Why All the Fuss?” sections, O’Connor explains exactly why each movie is so important or beloved. Because haven’t we all finished an underwhelming “classic,” sat back, and wondered, “Why do people like that again?” O’Connor relates these films to movies and TV shows that her target demo already likes, for example comparing Breakfast at Tiffany’s Holly Golightly to Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City or telling how The Graduate led to something like American Pie. It’s a little crude, but it works out.

And it’s important to remember that this isn’t a “best of” book like the essential 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, but rather a book with the purpose of listing the movies with the most pop cultural impact. After all, you might impress some friends with your knowledge of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s early horror classic Vampyr, but that’s not the kind of thing this book’s after. That does, however, bring up one of Reel Culture’s faults: Only three of the movies are from outside the U.S., two British (A Clockwork Orange and Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and one Australian (Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior). So there are no foreign language films at all.

Perhaps O’Connor thinks subtitles would be a bit much for her audience — and unfortunately, they’re a bit much for many casual moviegoers — but surely there are foreign films that have had as much impact on American culture as, say, The Breakfast Club. At the very least you’d think Seven Samurai, whose plot influenced that of many Westerns, particularly The Magnificent Seven; or The Seventh Seal, with its instantly recognizable image of a chess-playing Death, would merit mentions, but unfortunately not. Then again, boiling any list like this down to 50 films is an unenviable task, and it’s undeniable that all of the ones O’Connor has chosen are in some way important.

And really, if the book comes into the hands of a young person who hasn’t seen very many movies, it might change their world. O’Connor has written a book that is accessible and filled with some truly wonderful films. Any book that preaches the word of Citizen Kane or The Apartment to teens is commendable.

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About Arlo J. Wiley