Wednesday, November 05, 2014

BOOK EXCERPT: MISSING REELS by Farran Smith Nehme

Was it really so long ago that the blogosphere sought social cohesion through the early practice of padding blogrolls with favorite bloggers? High on every aspiring blogger's wish list was the "Self-Styled Siren" Farran Smith Nehme, a classic film enthusiast who launched her website, Self-Styled Siren in 2005, focusing on cinema's golden age, particularly the 1930s-1960s. Her frothy—and undeniably informed—pieces on film rapidly earned her a coterie of high-profile fans and praises from Film Comment as one of the top ten film blogs on the internet. As her blog's readership soared, Nehme began writing film reviews for The New York Post, The Baffler, The New York Times, Barron's Magazine, Cineaste Magazine, and Moving Image Source.

Now, in Missing Reels—her wholly delightful and cinematic debut novel forthcoming on November 12, 2014 from The Overlook Press—Farran Smith Nehme's extraordinary talent in film criticism, 1980's New York City and the grand Hollywood romances of yesteryear play off of one another seamlessly, creating an irresistible glimpse into two long lost worlds.

Missing Reels follows a young, starry-eyed Ceinwen Reilly as she moves from Yazoo City, Mississippi to the gritty world of New York City in the late 1980's. While her job and Avenue C walk-up apartment don't exactly exude glamour, Ceinwen will always have old movies and silent films to transport her to a world of smoldering heroes and glitzy galas. But the balance is upset when Matthew, a charming British math professor, waltzes into her life and a classic film-fueled romance is sparked.

While frequenting repertory cinemas and trying to look as much like Jean Harlow as possible, Ceinwen discovers that her elderly downstairs neighbor may have starred in a long-lost silent film. Trouble is her neighbor Miriam refuses to say a word about it. Soon enough, Ceinwen embarks on an epic search for the missing reels—with the bumbling, awkward, and impossibly dreamy Matthew by her side—hoping to leave her mark as a movie archivist ingénue. Together they uncover the mesmerizing, albeit bizarre, New York City silent-film underworld and encounter a slew of quirky characters along the way.

Photo: Gary Spector
Nehme's extensive knowledge of golden age cinema pops up throughout Missing Reels and technical lore of nitrate print storage and the unsung masters of film abounds. The novel's nimble pacing makes Nehme's debut an addictive read and lets it rest perfectly in tune with the spellbinding Hollywood romantic comedies of the past. Missing Reels is a witty battlefield of romantic misadventures and snappy dialogue all set in the perfectly captured world of 1980's New York City.

Advance praise for Nehme's debut novel has been considerable. Vanity Fair columnist and author of Critical Mass, James Wolcott writes: "Not since Woody Allen's romping comedy Manhattan Murder Mystery has a romantic ode to New York moved with this much buoyant speed, flirty banter, frizzy sophistication, and zigzagging zeal—the zeal of amateur bloodhounds on a mission. Missing Reels, the impossible-to-resist debut novel of film blogger and critic Farran Smith Nehme is infused with the love of a time and a place and impelled by the flickering spell of cinema past, the golems and ghosts of classic Hollywood."

Dan Callahan, author of Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman, adds: "Missing Reels is as funny and satisfying as a classic Hollywood romantic comedy and as absorbing as the most intricately plotted detective story. It is also an intensely loving, convincingly detailed, elegantly shaped, and thoroughly knowledgeable tribute to the glory and heartache of working in the movies and being a hardcore movie fan, written by one of the best writers on the movies that we have ever had."

And from Mark Harris, author of Five Came Back: "With the same combination of passion, precision and generosity that she brings to her film criticism, Farran Smith Nehme has crafted a lovely, witty and empathetic novel that effortlessly captures New York City in the late 1980s, a moment when being obsessed with movies took—and rewarded—a bit of legwork."

The following excerpt will reveal a crisp cinephilic wit that interrupts the social discourse of a dinner party with parenthetical irony and wry irritation; a charming screwball comedy as irresistible and energetic as the grand Hollywood romances that inspired it and one which—as Kirkus Review states it—"Katherine Hepburn would admire. Simply grand; this tale begs to be filmed."

My thanks to Josie Urwin of The Overlook Press for permission to excerpt from Missing Reels. Copyright © 2014 by Farran Smith Nehme. Published in 2014 by The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Support your local bookstore, or buy the book through IndieBound, Amazon, or Barnes and Noble.

* * *

And there he was, Professor Andrew Evans, purchaser of Harry's movies, a man so strange he stood out amongst mathematicians. He was dressed soberly in chinos and a v-neck sweater over a shirt, and he wasn't scratching or talking to himself, but this was clearly a weird dude. His hair was down to just above his shoulders, a wiry mix of brown and gray, and his hairline crawled patchily back on his skull. His ears were so big they stuck out through the frizz.

He also appeared to be slightly pop-eyed, but it was hard to tell. Because Andy was staring at her. From time to time a man his age stared at her in the store, but not quite like this. She realized he had moved to shake hands.

"Andrew Evans," he said, in a weedy little voice. She hated thin, high voices in men.

"Ceinwen Reilly," she said. His hand was cold and slightly damp. She had it. The Gold Rush.

"So, how do you know Paru?"

The Little Tramp, she recalled, was in the mountains, snowed in by a blizzard. And his starving companion kept staring and staring, until he began to hallucinate that the Tramp was a giant chicken.

"I'm a friend of Matthew Hill," she told him. Any minute now Andy was going to grab a knife and fork and lunge for her throat. He was certainly looking in that vicinity. No, lower. She pulled the shoulder of her dress back into place.

"Matthew. Yes. I know him. He hasn't been here long. How did you two meet?"

Another social occasion, another lie she hadn't thought to prepare. "I work in the neighborhood and we met . . . around," she said. "We got to talking about old movies and then he wanted me to meet Harry."

"Talking about old movies. That's something of a surprise. I thought he only cared about new releases." His speaking manner was bizarre too, fast, pause, fast, pause, like a cabbie rushing to the next stoplight, then tapping the brakes.

"Maybe he was afraid to bring it up with you. Harry says you're something of an expert on silent movies."

"Afraid. Matthew." Obviously her lying was as polished as ever. Andy repeated her words like she'd told him Matthew had been wearing a toga.

"You know how the English are," she said. "Never want to reveal any kind of ignorance."

"I can't say that's been my observation." Pause. "On the contrary, I find the English are always pretending ignorance, in hopes of gaining some sort of tactical advantage." All righty then. Not exactly president of the fan club. "But I think it's fair to say the silent cinema is something of a passion of mine. Do you know anything about silents?"

"A bit."

He wasn’t waiting for a response. ". . . Because you remind me of a silent star, a great one. Vilma Banky. Do you know her?" Becauseyouremindmeofasilentstaragreatone pause. VilmaBankydoyouknowher? pause.

"The name's familiar."

Her input was wholly unnecessary. "She was discovered by Samuel Goldwyn and made a number of high-quality productions in the 1920s. Her acting skills were not inconsiderable, but she was famed primarily as a beauty. She was promoted as the Hungarian Rhapsody."

A no-talent sex symbol. Was this a good place to say thank you? Evidently not, Andy was still going, and while she was dithering she'd missed the tour of Banky's filmography. ". . . with Valentino, and The Winning of Barbara Worth, directed by Henry King. When sound came in she had difficulties, however. The accent, and she also had a bad case of what they called mike fright. So she retired. Luckily she'd taken good care of her finances, and she was happily married to an actor named . . ."

And here was another thing about Andy. He was a major space invader. As he talked, he inched closer. "But, like a lot of silent stars, more than half her movies are lost." She took a step back. "I hope you don't think it's too forward of me to mention the resemblance."

"Not at all. I'll have to look her up when I get home. But it's probably just the dress."

"That is a very unusual dress. Quite authentic.:

"It should be, it's from the twenties." Where was Matthew?

"So you have an affinity for the silent era."

"You could say that." Another step back.

"That's wonderful, just wonderful in a person your age. Have you seen many movies from the period?:

"Sure," she began. "I saw The Crowd at Theatre 80. With Matthew. He liked it too."

"Theatre 80? Oh no, not there! You couldn't possibly have appreciated it there. Rear projection, 16-millimeter, it’s horrendous. And the projection speed of course is all wrong."

She'd hoped throwing Matthew back into the conversation might discourage Andy, but instead she had opened the taps. Projection speed, it seemed, was the key to proper enjoyment of silent movies. Andy knew all about projection speed. The silent cameras were operated with a handcrank and the speeds varied, but projection often didn't. Sometimes it was too fast, and they were screened at sound-movie speeds of 24 frames per second in clips on television, making everything look like the Keystone Kops. But at Theatre 80 the speeds were a hair too slow. If you showed a silent movie at 16 frames per second . . . Where the hell was Matthew? She couldn’t see him anywhere . . . 18 frames per second, but Theatre 80 was slower than that, and it killed the . . . something. Undercranking. Overcranking. Adjusting to the rhythm of music played on the set during filming. It was all probably very important, but that voice, and those eyes, and how could anyone who cared so much about projection speed not have any notion of the speed of his own sentences?

Suddenly Matthew was at her elbow, and Andy wasn't noticing: ". . . and I tried to talk to the Theatre 80 management, but they really don't care that much about silents, so . . ."

"Forgive me," said Matthew, "but it seems we're going in for dinner. How are you, Andy."

"I'm well. Thank you." Ceinwen imagined Andy watching The Crowd at 24 frames per second. He’d eye the screen the same way he was eyeing Matthew.

"We should go find a seat," said Matthew. "You don't mind if I just borrow her for the duration, do you? I’m sure she'll be happy to go back later to, what was it?"

"Film-projection speeds," she said.

"That's right," said Andy.

"Ah. Sorry I missed that." Matthew made a little after-you gesture and she followed, relieved that Andy was still nursing his drink.

"Where have you been?" she whispered.

"Over by the door, talking to Paru and watching Andy back you up across the room."

"My hero."

"Do you realize you started there"—he stopped to indicate a spot at one end of the bookshelf—"and wound up there?" He pointed to a spot about eight feet away, near the window.

"He kept stepping toward me. Doesn't he realize New Yorkers need their space?:

"New Yorkers need their space. You need Yankee Stadium." He pushed her dress back onto her shoulder. "Have a heart. Andy probably dreams of cozy chats with young Mary Pickford. And there you were, in that dress, with that hair. The answer to his prayers."

"Shows how much you know. He said I reminded him of Vilma Banky." They were keeping their voices low as the others filed into the dining room behind them.

"Who?" He was pulling out her chair.

"Vilma Banky. Silent movies. A sex symbol. They called her the Hungarian Rhapsody."

He let go of the chair and coughed for a second, then resumed pushing her in. "Smooth-talking devil, that Andy."

Harry blasted into the room with greetings for both of them, and he and Donna settled directly across the table. Ceinwen spotted Yoshi sitting way down at the opposite end and reminded herself Donna had said it was nothing personal. She heard Matthew say, "Looking for something?" He was addressing Andy, who was hovering nearby.

"Just trying to find a seat." Andy sounded almost plaintive.

"You're in luck," beamed Matthew. "One right here." He pointed to the empty chair next to hers. Andy quickly leaned past Harry to plunk his glass down at the spot, like he was saving a seat at the theater. Harry's eyebrows shot toward the ceiling. Donna took off her glasses and rubbed the bridge of her nose.

Ceinwen had come to realize that Matthew had an extremely overdeveloped sense of mischief.

Still, things seemed to go all right at first, everyone passing plates and commenting on the food and Donna exclaiming over the cleverness of Radha putting garam masala in the stuffing. They talked about Paris and what it was like in February and whether there were any good exhibits at the moment. That led to Parisian moviegoing, which led to the Cinémathèque Française, which led back to silent movies, at which point Matthew asked someone to pass the wine.

She told Harry that the bad part of his silent-movie books was reading about a movie that sounded great, only to find out it didn't exist anymore. Four Devils, for instance, or London After Midnight.

"The studios never thought they had any value," growled Harry. "That's what happens when you let raw capitalism determine which art survives."

"I don't disagree with that," said Andy. "But I do think it helps to put things in a broader perspective."

"What kind of broader perspective do you have in mind?" Harry said this way too calmly.

"Lost movies appeal to our sense of doomed artistry," said Andy. It was safer to have him sitting down, thought Ceinwen, though there was still an awful lot of leaning. "The movies in your head are always much better than the movies you sit down to see. We build up heroic concepts of certain directors. Then, when their work is lost, we imagine what we're missing as even better than the movies we have. In that sense, we need lost movies. They fortify our Romantic ideal of cinema, that's cap-R Romantic of course."

She was stymied. How did you find a polite way to say, "That’s just about the stupidest thing I've ever heard"?

"Postmodern poppycock," exploded Harry, pounding the consonants so hard a tiny bit of spit flew in the air.

"It isn't postmodernism, Harry. It's—"

"Rubbish. Nonsense. Have you been sneaking over to the humanities building?" Any minute now, Harry’s finger would be launched at Andy's chest. "I'm not F. W. Murnau, I'm not Tod Browning, I'm not interested in my own puny concept of what they'd have done. I want to see those movies. I don't want to get my kicks imagining little scenes with Janet Gaynor."

"You’re avoiding the question of—"

"And furthermore"—there went the finger, only it was pointing between Andy's eyes—"I do know what happens when some slob tries to reimagine a great movie. I know because I get to sit through the last twenty minutes of The Magnificent Ambersons and see just how Robert Wise stacks up against Orson Welles."

"Magnificent Ambersons," said Andy, who'd been trying to break in, "is a completely different instance, but now that you mention it, Harry, it actually supports my case. That's a movie where we have fragments of the director's vision. When you can see part of a movie, your imagination naturally fills the gaps. Your interpretation of what it would have been like becomes your experience of seeing it."

"Reader-response theory," said Matthew. "You have been playing with the humanities boys, haven't you."

Harry's eyebrows were about to meet his cheekbones. "You've been unfaithful to us, Andy," he intoned.

"Sneaking off at lunch," said Matthew.

"Discussing Barthes at secluded tables in dark little restaurants."

"Meeting Stanley Fish at the Washington Square Hotel."

Andy's hair was vibrating. "It isn't my fault you need a certain vocabulary when discussing the arts."

Ceinwen wasn't crazy about Andy, but she was even less fond of seeing someone ganged up on. "You have to study the arts like anything else," she heard herself say. Her reward was Andy's hand giving her bare shoulder a pat. She pulled her dress back up and caught Matthew leaning a bit closer.

"That's right," said Andy. "We aren't superior to artists—"

"That’s exactly what I'm saying."

"And if you'd let me finish, I was going to say that we also need theorists to illuminate what the artist is trying to do. And my original point about lost films isn't—"

"I don't need their stinkin' theories," boomed Harry.

"Treasure of the Sierra Madre," said Matthew, like he'd hit the buzzer on Jeopardy!. Andy looked stunned. So did everyone else. As they digested the fact that Matthew had referenced a movie made before Watergate, he spoke across Ceinwen, addressing Andy with the air of a patient tutor. "The Mexican bandits, pretending to be officers? Bogart asks to see their badges, and the leader says, 'We don't need no stinkin' badges.' "

Harry's glass went up in a silent toast.

"I know the scene," said Andy. "I didn't realize you were a John Huston fan."

"I'm not." Matthew gave Andy a big smile. "That's Ceinwen."

"I thought maybe Anna took you to see it." She winced. Good grief, who knew professors were this catty. Vintage Visions was more collegial.

"Everybody," said Matthew evenly, "needs a good movie friend."

"I agree," said Donna. "Who wants to go to the movies by yourself?"

Donna then changed the subject, with no attempt at a smooth transition, to Reagan. Politics, apparently, was a much safer subject with academics. Everyone was on the same side.

The party broke up quickly, although Harry and Donna hung back. They took the 1 train at 116th Street. It was cold on the platform, and when they sat down Ceinwen put her feet on the heater underneath the seat. The car was almost empty, just two tired men in down jackets and an old lady in a plaid coat, Bible open in her lap, eyes darting around behind thick-lensed glasses. As soon as the train pulled out she began to speak.

"And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him, and he opened his mouth . . ."

"Wish she'd shut hers," muttered Ceinwen.

Matthew didn't turn. "Done to death, I agree."

". . . blessed are the meek . . ."

"Maybe she takes requests," said Ceinwen.

"Go on, ask her for Ecclesiastes."

"Ask her yourself, you're dressed for it. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity."

"Oh, go to hell."

"There's an idea. Revelations. And upon her forehead was a name written . . ."

"Don't you dare."

"Mystery, Vilma Banky the Great. What did you think I was going to say?"

"I'll never hear the end of Vilma. Will I."

"I'm just jealous." She caught herself before the grin spread. "It would take me days to think of a chat-up line that good. I'd have compared you with that woman in the Marx Brothers movie we saw last week."

"Thelma Todd?" She was the only blonde.

"No, the other half of the bill." She shook her head. "The one who hung around Groucho. Similar taste in dresses."

"What?!?"

"Although I can't help but point out, she had a tiara. Remember, you're fighting for this woman's honor, which is more—ouch! You brat, that hurt!" She pulled her foot back. "All right, all right, not her."

"Ye are the salt of the earth . . ."  The woman was getting louder.

Matthew moved closer and pushed her hair back, sucking in one cheek as he studied her face. "Maybe Ginger."

"Rogers? I'll take that."

"Gilligan's Island, although the hair—" He put his hand on her knee before she could swing her foot again and they started kissing. After a minute she noticed the subway car had fallen silent and then she heard a shuffling.

They turned their heads to see the Bible lady open the connecting door to change cars. They grinned at each other and kept necking all the way to Christopher Street.

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