As we inch closer to Oscar night—otherwise known as the 86th Annual Academy Awards: this year to be aired March 2—it’s easy to shake our heads at the number of films we’ve missed during the past year. And the year before. Oh—and that great one from—what was it? 2012? We missed that one, too.
Local author Robert K. Elder could probably fill you in on a thing or two about all those great movies you’ve missed. In fact, his most recent title, The Best Film You’ve Never Seen: 35 Directors Champion the Forgotten or Critically Savaged Movies They Love (Chicago Review Press, 2013), uncovers some forgotten gems, from guilty pleasures to almost-masterpieces to “undeniable classics in need of revival.”
The book, something of a companion to Elder’s previous title, The Film That Changed My Life: 30 Directors on Their Epiphanies in the Dark, tackles what is really his first love: the movies. Elder, editor-in-chief for Chicago Sun-Times Media Local and founder of Odd Hours Media, LLC, notes two movies in particular that changed his life: Cinderella, the first film he saw in a theater, a treat from his grandmother, and—a far cry from an animated fairy tale—Reservoir Dogs.
Although the two movies couldn’t be more different, Elder sees in them the common thread of discovery. Both films struck him and have stayed with him over the years. “Disney always had that strong filmmaking stamp. They, better than any other film company, were able to capture that awe of film,” Elder says. “Tarantino is completely on the other side. The first time I saw Reservoir Dogs, it blew me away.”
Such is the power of a good story, and Elder is lucky enough to parlay storytelling and films into a career that includes not only authoring books about films but writing movie reviews and even working, for a time, in the film industry.
Elder spent a summer working as a production assistant for Warner Bros. on Without Limits, a biopic about international track star Steve Prefontaine starring Donald Sutherland and Billy Crudup. It was an educational, interesting experience—not least of which because Elder was nearly killed by the camera crane during filming. “It almost crushed me,” Elder remembers with a bit of an ironic chuckle. “Somebody grabbed me out of the way. I was oblivious.”
Shortly thereafter, Elder moved from Hollywood to work as an intern for the Chicago Tribune, home to one of the greatest film reviewers of our times. “Being able to review films at the same newspaper Gene Siskel worked at was an amazing kind of honor,” Elder says.
From the Tribune to the Sun-Times to a variety of other media, including The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and Salon.com, Elder’s work has appeared in a host of places. It seems he is rarely without a pen in hand or a project in mind. In fact, The Best Film You’ve Never Seen is his sixth book, and he’s already thinking about his next project.
Not that Elder restricts himself to writing about the movies. His interests are as varied as the publications in which his work has appeared, from romantic dead ends to the death penalty to sex. The key, he says, is to select topics that are really of interest and to avoid becoming pigeon-holed as “the film guy” or whatever, especially when writing a manuscript can take such a huge chunk out of your life. “You have to decide whether you’re in love with this topic enough” to live with it for a few years, Elder says.
So many writers adhere to the old adage that you should write what you know—and Elder’s varied interests allow him to strike out in a number of directions. But it’s also important to write about what you love, and Elder seems to have no shortage of fodder there, either. Regardless of the subject or genre, there’s something fascinating to discover just about anywhere. “I love capturing epiphany moments—the moment when your life changes direction,” he says. “That was where The Film That Changed My Life came from.”
Elder’s writing life may well be made of a series of epiphanies that continually take his life in new directions. Perhaps in the movie version of his own life, he could be played by Brad Pitt, who has said that, “I always liked those moments of epiphany, when you have the next destination.”