Book Review--Magnificent Obsession: The Outrageous History of Film Buffs, Collectors, Scholars, and Fanatics


Magnificent Obsession: The Outrageous History of Film Buffs, Collectors, Scholars, and Fanatics
Anthony Slide
University Press of Mississippi, 2018

Even from the early days of film, cinema fanatics have existed in some form. Though not always known as film buffs, these mostly white, male, and socially awkward aficionados have been present and of an essentially consistent character over the decades. In a new book, prolific film writer Anthony Slide explores the world of these super fans for whom the movies are a life-consuming obsession.

This is a community with which Slide is intimately familiar, which gives the book an authenticity that would be impossible to achieve as an objective observer. He goes into the history of movie fandom, collecting, and the connecting culture, even explaining the origin of the term “film buff.” There is also much attention given to the habitat of the film fanatic, from theaters and bookstores to trade shows and private screenings.

Most fascinating of all though, are the people from this world. Slide has known many of them personally and they are an unusual bunch. Though I already knew a lot about the social awkwardness, theft, and eccentric personalities to be found in this milieu, I found plenty to surprise me here. I had also had a taste of the bizarre behavior to be found in this scene via a series of difficult and oddly amusing phone calls with one of the men featured in this book in the process of arranging an interview with an actor several years ago. Despite all this, I didn’t expect the level of aggressively antisocial, sexually depraved, and mentally unstable behavior I found here. 

There are plenty of likable, or at least enjoyably eccentric characters featured in the book, but for the most part this is an unpleasant bunch. There’s the man who stalked Leonard Maltin, calling him in tears in New York from LA, (unsuccessfully) inviting himself on a trip with him and his wife Alice, and actually showing up at their apartment building and leaving a letter for the film critic in the lobby. Another film fanatic kidnapped a woman who lived in his building, stripped her naked, taped her to a chair and spray-painted her black. And among the most devoted collectors of film and memorabilia there are many who took advantage of those who wanted access to their rare collections, some even exhibiting psychopathic behavior.

In the midst of these lurid can’t-look-away tales of social dysfunction is a mostly unorganized, and in some cases unintended movement to save and promote cinematic history. The beauty of that passion and preservation in the midst of this fandom is like a rose in a trash heap. 

All told, it’s a fascinating story, with plenty of unexpected twists and turns. Slide doesn’t hesitate to share who he thinks is boring, sleazy or unattractive. He also has plenty of love for those he admires in this scene. Often, he feels both ways about the same subject. You need never wonder what he really thinks.

The digs, which come with a sort of affection for these people who have through their obsession done much for film history, give the book a personal feel. Slide is often a a part of the story, whether through his presence at various events he describes, the friendships he has had with film buffs and those connected with them, and his connection with the community as a writer and film expert. Whether or not he sees himself as a film buff is not made clear, but he knows the world of film fanatics intimately. The title of his book is apt; this is truly an "Outrageous History."

Many thanks to University Press of Mississippi for providing a copy of the book for review.

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