Joe Queenan, Confessions of a Cineplex Heckler (Hyperion)

Joe Queenan’s Confessions of a Cineplex Heckler is a collection of his articles on movies. Collections of articles are great for dedicated fans but generally a bit difficult to get through for the mildly disinterested reader since rarely is there a narrative focus to the whole collection. Queenan’s book presents just this dilemma. Finally, I find his article “The Remains of the Dazed” — an article I’ve been telling friends about for years though couldn’t remember the author — wherein Queenan is challenged by his editors to sit through every single Merchant-Ivory film ever made. I won’t give away the ending. Only Joe Queenan could write a few thousand words on the dullness of Merchant-Ivory and manage to excite his reader. But often, articles drag despite Queenan’s indefatigable wit. There’s always a laugh to be found in his descriptions, but the articles from which his quips come are not entirely amusing.

This problem may have been exacerbated by the so-funny-I-was-crying humor of the first two pieces of the book. “Don’t Try this At Home, Part II” details Queenan’s quest to prove that scenes from movies are impossible in real life. Duh. (Perhaps one of the shortcomings in Queenan’s pieces is that it’s often difficult to suspend one’s disbelief that such a bright man is incapable of suspending his own disbelief — many of the articles balance delicately on the false premise that movies are somehow supposed to reflect real life.) But here, in the opener, Queenan’s gambit — making himself a fool who would try to duplicate movie scenes in real life — pays off in spades. There’s the active hilarity of Queenan actually dripping hot wax on himself and then pouring champagne on the wax (duplicating the scene in the Madonna flop, Body of Evidence) and attempting to lick it off. Then there’s the passive hilarity of Queenan asking his friends if he can sleep with their wives for $1 million (they all readily agree to the deal). I laughed so much at this chapter that I put the book away after finishing it for fear of hurting myself.

The second article “Confessions of a Cineplex Heckler” details Queenan’s experiment to determine how much abuse movie patrons are willing to put up with from a heckler. Queenan goes to fourteen movies in different locations and hurls abuse at the screen and the viewers. I remember thinking his suggestion that the stranded soccer players of Alive “Eat Vincent Spano first!” was the most hysterical thing I’d read (especially considering he’d yelled the phrase at a moment when Spano’s character was still alive) until I turned the page. Again, I was so thoroughly entertained and somewhat embarassed to be laughing so much in a crowded corporate lunch room that I put away the book after completing the chapter.

The rest of the book collects essays which are hit and miss — not always do they live up to their hilarious premises. There’s an article on the growing popularity of ear mutilations in popular cinema, one on funny hair-dos, another on how dentists never get a fair shake in the movies. All funny ideas, but after 200 pages, you find yourself asking for real, “He gets paid for this?”

What makes Queenan indispensible is his ability to play himself off as both bewildered by and addicted to essentially crappy popular culture. Straddling both liberally-educated elitism and everyman populism, Queenan voices the perplexity and fascination with which so many of us view modern cinema. And when he writes on Spike Lee or Woody Allen with humor and gravity, one knows there’s more to him than being the idiot who tried to ride a wheelchair down a flight of stairs to prove Mel Gibson couldn’t do it.