Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Film Geek Starter Kit: The Dynamite Kids’ Guide to the Movies

Posted by CinemaPsycho on July 17, 2011

In the absence of anything going on worth talking about (unless you’d like me to rant about Netflix’s latest price gouge, though I really don’t see the point), I’ve decided to do something different this time and take a little stroll down memory lane, which is something I rarely do. While looking through a box of old junk at my parents’ house, I came across this book that I treasured as a kid but had completely forgotten about until now. I think I can honestly trace my very beginnings as a film geek back to this book, and seeing it again brought a ton of memories flooding back. What is it, you ask? Why, it’s The Dynamite Kids’ Guide to the Movies, of course!

For those who aren’t aware (or simply forgot), 5nmcr6m1n3j16r1n.jpg Dynamite was a kids’ magazine in the 70’s and 80’s (Wikipedia tells me it actually stopped publishing in 1992) that was sort of a pop-culture mag for kids of the era. My parents subscribed to it for me when I was a kid, and I believe I got this book about movies as a subscription bonus. It was published in 1980, so I would have been around 10 years old at the time, and I was endlessly fascinated by it. You have to remember, this was long before information was available at the touch of a button; I loved going to the movies, of course, but as a kid I knew very little about how they were made or about films in general. My experience at that time was mostly limited to Star Wars and Walt Disney movies. This book, while hardly meant to be a comprehensive film guide, opened me up to a whole new world of movies. If a film was even mentioned in the book, I instantly wanted to see it. Of course, my family didn’t have cable or a VCR at the time, so I pretty much had to wait for old movies to show up on network TV or late-night syndication, and needless to say I didn’t get to see a lot of the films discussed here (some of them I still haven’t seen) but it got me going on the idea of discovering movies that I hadn’t seen or heard of before, just for the pure enjoyment of it. Which I’m still doing to this day.

Written by a Margaret Ronan, whose other works include books on the paranormal and the 50 states, The Dynamite Kids’ Guide to the Movies was a veritable treasure trove of information for a young person interested in cinema. It includes everything from an A-to-Z glossary of film jobs (ranging from “Art Director” to “Wrangler”) to a similar list of filmmaking terms (from “Angle” to “Zoom”), to articles on the beginnings of cinema, publicity stunts, stuntmen, the creation of sound, movie quotes, the translation of movie titles from English to foreign languages, child actors, animal actors and even “Weird Tales from Hollywood” (stories about ghosts on movie sets and other unexplained phenomena). For a 10-year-old at that time, this was eye-opening stuff, and it instantly got me interested in the world of moviemaking. I spent hours reading the articles and staring at the black-and-white photos of everyone from Bruce Lee to Buster Keaton to Veronica Lake. Yeah, I was into this big time.

My favorite part of the book was the “58 Great Dynamite Movies”, which is basically an alphabetical list of movies recommended by the Dynamite editors accompanied by small B&W photos of each film. Looking at it now, what’s great about this list is that very few of the films on it can be accurately classified as “children’s movies” or “family films”; instead, they include movies like American Graffiti, The Birds, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Haunting, The Innocents, Lawrence of Arabia, The Miracle Worker, Fantastic Voyage, The Time Machine, Forbidden Planet, Planet of the Apes, True Grit, Walkabout and of course 2001: A Space Odyssey. In other words, the editors of Dynamite weren’t talking down to kids or just recommending films that were aimed at their specific age group – they were speaking up to kids and getting them interested in movies that would be considered “grown-up” works. How many adults these days would recommend films like The African Queen or The Guns of Navarone to today’s kids? Not many, I’m guessing. The list also includes a few films that would be considered “obscure” even now, like Ken Loach’s Kes, the animated sci-fi film Fantastic Planet, the Tony Curtis WWII vehicle The Outsider, and the British thriller Whistle Down the Wind (anyone ever seen this? Me neither). Notorious flops like Hawaii and Bugsy Malone get equal time alongside blockbusters like Jaws and Close Encounters. Even Robinson Crusoe on Mars somehow got in there! I knew nothing about boxoffice or critical acclaim at the time, of course – if they were in this book, I wanted to see them, and they all sounded fascinating to me.

Not that Ronan and her editors got everything right. In a lengthy article titled “Who Does What?” they champion the producer as the creative spark behind filmmaking, apparently completely discounting the auteur theory. “The producer is the person behind the movie all the way. He or she comes up with the idea for the film”. Yeah, that’s rarely true. The director is just portrayed as a person for hire, which is sometimes true (mostly with hacks) but is rarely the case with the great directors. Maybe the producer-driven model was the norm in the days of the old studio system, but by 1980 that model had pretty much been replaced. There are exceptions of course, like Jerry Bruckheimer and Joel Silver, but mostly directors have been the driving creative force behind filmmaking (at least good filmmaking) since the “film school” boom of the 70’s. Now, if you’re talking about the business side of things, that’s a different story. Some of the writing is funny in retrospect, as when Ronan discusses Robert Blake as an “all’s well that ends well” child-actor story, but you can’t blame her for not being able to predict the future. And some of the references are pretty out there – under The Incredible Shrinking Man, she writes, “A movie to make Randy Newman take back what he wrote about short people”! What 10-year-old is going to get that reference? I don’t recall a lot of kids back then listening to Randy Newman, though I could be wrong.

Despite these gaffes, The Dynamite Kids’ Guide to the Movies is a reminder of a time when movies were truly magical to a generation of kids. It’s a time that sadly seems to have passed us by. The magazine’s young readers were polled about what movies were their all-time favorites, or in their words “what five movies could you see once a week, and still want to see the rest of your life?” The top 5 answers were Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, King Kong, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Frankenstein. See, kids knew their movies then. These days, kids are force-fed an endless stream of superficial garbage (seriously, watch the Disney Channel for an hour and tell me I’m wrong) 24-7 and don’t seem to have much interest in classic movies, or movies in general. I’ve said all this before, but kids just aren’t watching movies that much, and I think it’s kind of sad. They’re not discovering their own cult films on video or late-night cable the way we did. Nor do they seem curious about many of the movies that came before them. If they go to movies at all, it’s mostly to see junk like Transformers and Twilight. It’s ironic that as movies have become more and more available via DVD and streaming, they’re actually being watched less by this generation of kids who are growing up with this technology. As a kid I would have killed to have the kind of selection available that we have now. Call me a cranky old man if you want, but I’m telling you now, the less appreciation there is for an art form, the less likely it is that art form will survive. If all we offer the kids is a steady diet of total crap, pretty soon that’s all they’re going to want. And I’m not even talking about art films or foreign films or anything too complicated – I’m talking about a simple appreciation for the craft of filmmaking in general. It seems to have disappeared as CGI and “tween” sensibilities have taken over Hollywood. The more we adults condescend to the kids, the less curiosity they will have later for the good stuff. I can’t imagine the mentality of someone growing up with Transformers as the norm in filmmaking. If that’s all I was being offered, I probably wouldn’t care about movies that much either.

But who knows, maybe there’s a tiny bit of hope. My 14-year-old nephew has recently started watching old Twilight Zone episodes – he’s fascinated by them. That’s a start. And he told me a story about how he and a couple of friends went to see Battle: Los Angeles at a second-run theater a couple of months ago. They decided to bail after about half an hour because, in his words, “there was no story.” Hallelujah, baby! Maybe the kids are all right after all. I guess we just have to give them time. In the meantime, The Dynamite Kids’ Guide to the Movies may be long-forgotten by most, but it’s a potent reminder of a time when movies really mattered. I wonder how many other kids of the time read this and got inspired to watch movies, and maybe even make them. And I wonder if anything will ever inspire kids like that again.

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