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Missing Reels


Missing Reels

If you’re a fan of classic cinema and haven’t had the pleasure of reading Self-Styled Siren, the film blog by Farran Smith Nehme, you should check out her site. You’ll find funny, erudite essays about the famous and not-so-famous figures of Hollywood’s so-called golden age. Where else will you find a long, affectionate piece on Jack Carson, one of the most successful character actors of the 1940s and 1950s? In an appreciation of Lauren Bacall’s career, she writes that Woman’s World, a 1954 Bacall film, “suffers from a bad case of June Allyson.” This is typical of The Siren’s writing. James Wolcott described her well: “Sophisticated and yet not stuck up about it.”

Overlook Press has just released Nehme’s debut novel, MISSING REELS, a story about old movies and the cinephiles (like me) who adore them. The book is filled with knowing references to silent films and classic Hollywood fare, and is written in the endearingly sarcastic tone that Nehme’s fans will recognize. What works in essay form doesn’t always work in a novel, however. MISSING REELS has too much description and not enough drama, but film buffs will relate to Ceinwen Reilly, the book’s protagonist, who, like a professor she meets, “has a hard time finding people who care about this sort of thing.”

"The book is filled with knowing references to silent films and classic Hollywood fare, and is written in the endearingly sarcastic tone that Nehme’s fans will recognize."

It’s 1987. Ceinwen, pronounced KINE-wen, is a 21-year-old native of Yazoo City, Mississippi. She lives in a New York City apartment with two gay men, Jim and Talmadge. (This is one of the book’s knowing references: The latter’s name is a nod to silent-film stars Norma and Constance Talmadge.) She and Talmadge work at Vintage Visions, an antique-clothing store that sells the types of 1940s couture Ceinwen favors. A college dropout, Ceinwen is obsessive about old movies and can discourse at length on obscure films by Leo McCarey, the director of The Awful Truth and An Affair to Remember.

One of the customers Ceinwen meets at the shop is Matthew Hill, a 29-year-old British postdoc in mathematics at NYU. Through him, she meets a math professor who knew McCarey in the 1930s. This professor invites them to dinner --- she and Matthew have begun a romantic relationship --- and mentions yet another colleague, professor Andy Evans, a silent-film aficionado to whom he sold nitrate films many years earlier.

But these academics aren’t the only people in Ceinwen’s life connected to old cinema. Miriam Gibson is an elderly woman who lives in Ceinwen’s building. They chat in a grocery store not long after Ceinwen and Matthew begin dating. Miriam tells her that she used to be Jean Harlow’s seamstress. As their friendship deepens, Ceinwen learns that, in the ’20s, a director named Emil Arnheim auditioned Miriam for a role in a film entitled The Mysteries of Udolpho. The movie is long forgotten, and the only copy of the original is believed to have been in Arnheim’s possession when he died.

According to Miriam, someone took the Udolpho original after film people and creditors went to Arnheim’s house to collect objects that could bring in money. She doesn’t know what happened to the print. The bulk of the narrative of MISSING REELS is Ceinwen’s quest to locate the film and learn the truth about Miriam’s career.

It’s not surprising that someone as passionate about cinema as Nehme would have written a story that reads more like a film than a novel. That can work, but, unfortunately, Nehme has a tendency to overwrite. Many of the characters’ backstories are revealed through discussions: Ceinwen asks a question, and the other person gives a long answer. In one scene, Ceinwen brings a Christmas present to Miriam’s apartment as a ruse to get her to talk about her past. Miriam answers in a rarely broken monologue over 17 pages. Much of MISSING REELS is the literary equivalent of an establishing shot. As Nehme surely knows, these are most effective when they’re quick.

She is on firmer ground when she describes movies and film lore, and, boy, does she know her stuff. She writes about lobby cards, the Hays Code, the “hockey puck” syndrome of flammable nitrate films, and minor works such as The Collector, a late movie by Ben Hur director William Wyler. Early in the novel, Ceinwen says that if Matthew dares to talk during a screening of The Crowd, a 1928 silent by King Vidor, they’re going to have a short evening together. What film buff wouldn’t smile in accord?

Reviewed by Michael Magras on November 26, 2014

Missing Reels
by Farran Smith Nehme

  • Publication Date: October 13, 2015
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: The Overlook Press
  • ISBN-10: 1468311697
  • ISBN-13: 9781468311693