Repertory cinema regulars can be off-putting types. They log their screenings like kids with baseball cards, reducing art to a collectible. This is the stereotype, at least, of shut-in cinephile obsessives. And these people exist – head to any Friday night screening at MoMA, where the rustle of plastic bags replaces human interaction. One might say this is not a promising milieu for a novel, but then they might not have the effervescent prose of Farran Smith Nehme’s Missing Reels. Smith Nehme is better known as the Self-Styled Siren, classic film blogger extraordinaire, undoubtedly familiar to readers of this site. A contagiously enthusiastic writer, she also has the rare talent of focusing in on performances – from the elaboration of star personas down to the minutest detail of their fashion choices. Missing Reels is her first novel, and it faithfully recreates the repertory movie scene in late 1980s NYC, focusing specifically on the silent movie nut crowd. It begins as a bittersweet screwball romance about being young and poor in the city, and develops into a shaggy dog mystery involving a lost silent feature that may yet be found.
Ceinwen (pronounced KINE-wen) is a young escapee from Yazoo City, Mississippi, scraping by as a sales assistant at a vintage clothing store. She is something of a film obsessive, but not so much of the collector kind (always more of a sweaty male pursuit). She embraces it as a lifestyle, trying to model her behavior and fashion off her favorite stars (Jean Harlow, especially) in order to distract herself from the daily grind of her existence. She lives in a flat on Avenue C with two gay roommates (Talmadge and Jim), who tolerate her particular strain of movie madness. Things start percolating when Ceinwen becomes fascinated with her buttoned-up old neighbor Miriam, whom she is convinced has a Hollywood past. Then Matthew enters her clothing store. A British mathematics postdoc at NYU, he ambles in looking for a gift for his Italian girlfriend, and an on-and-off whirlwind romance ensues. Ceinwen pursues both Miriam and Matthew, though when she discovers that Miriam did star in one forgotten silent, The Mysteries of Udolpho (invented for the book), she is hell bent on finding a surviving 35mm print. Both the print and Matthew seem to be equally elusive.
The book’s early stages take time to establish the precariousness of Ceinwen’s existence. She often doesn’t know where her next meal is coming from. Chapter two begins:
It was Wednesday. Payday was Thursday. The rain started soon after Ceinwen arrived, and there were few customers. When Lily told her to go to lunch she laid her assets on the counter and totaled them up. $1.28 in small change and half a pack of Marlboro Lights. As expected, Ceinwen was broke.
Afterward is a precise breakdown of how she can stretch that cash – with a coffee cup and a buttered roll, and the possibility of a handout from Jim. Ceinwen has loving names for all of the elements in her discounted life. There is the “Smelly Deli” (self-explanatory) as well as the “Busted” coffee, a pseudonym for Bustelo, a particularly gritty coffee familiar to underpaid New Yorkers. But though she can barely eat, she is able to maintain a glamorous vintage wardrobe, partly through the help of Talmadge’s light fingers. Nehme is adept at describing the materiality of her clothes, their texture and fit. Here is a descriptive passage of a dress she is to wear with one of her first dates with Matthew:
Sleeveless, dropped waist, obviously from the 1920s. The fabric was silk velvet, a greenish bronze that shimmered even under their dim lights. The neckline was deep and the skirt was gathered a bit in front, the ham cascading down to about mid-calf. No lace, no trimming, just the gleam of the fabric.
The clothes allow Ceinwen to traverse different worlds, to a feel a part of something outside the Smelly Deli, and connect to a lineage that runs through Harlow’s stockings.
Though Ceinwen had watched classic film since she was a child, she is no match for the obsessives she meets in her journeys. The most generous is Matthew’s department head, Harry, who has the enthusiastic generosity of a true believer (and who would make an ideal blogger). Here he is making rapid-fire recommendations for Ceinwen’s viewing schedule:
“There was a French New Wave series at The New Yorker, they needed to see Breathless and The 400 Blows and Le Bonnes Femmes. How about Walsh, how about Wellman, check out Ophuls, how much Lubitsch have you seen, how about this Fritz Lang. See here Matthew, you want macho, I’ll give you macho. Sam Fuller. Anthony Mann. John Huston double feature at Theater 80.”
Nehme lovingly details these real and long-gone rep houses, from the shoddy rear projection at Theater 80 to the wobbly floors at the Thalia. They were landmarks for Nehme’s heroic age of moviegoing, and all had disappeared by the time of my arrival in New York City. I can’t help but feel deprived. The book is as much about the death of a certain kind of moviegoing in NYC as anything else. There are still wonderful rep houses in NYC, but just not nearly as varied or cheap or disreputable.
The central thread of the book deals with Miriam’s secret life in film, and the ultimate fate of her doomed feature The Mysteries of Udolpho, an erotic melodrama directed be self-destructive German by the name of Emil Arnheim (a nod to early film critic Rudolf Arnheim). During the search Ceinwen uncovers an entire production history, the kind of original research necessary for any kind for film history or criticism, or in this case – narrative. Nehme skillfully balances the film plot and the screwball romance one, bouncing them off each other as equally tangled mysteries. Both the existence of a film print and Matthew’s emotions are impossible to gauge. The plot curlicues are never less than crisp and engaging, but I value the book the most for its evocation of a time and place – and the rather understated way in which it states how film history, and especially the effort put into discovering this history, has an intrinsic value. It recaptures a past – one that Miriam may want to forget – but a past that would have disappeared without Ceinwen’s efforts. And now those efforts can be built upon by future fictional scholars, wackos and obsessives, in the novels hopefully in Nehme’s future.