So, did my heart spasm in agony? Did my gut fill with what feels like a bale of uncoiling barbed wire? Did I pound my fist and/or skull into the nearest cinderblock wall and cry for the Angel of Death Incorporated to finally come and carry me off to a realm without pain. Where nepenthe flows and dulls the sorrowful memories of broken romance or might-have-beens? That's how it goes, usually.
But not this time. No, this time I was actually proud, if a little bit reflective and blue. Blue - yes, it was the blue that caught my eye. No shade of blue quite like that one.
You see, I was screening a new Canadian documentary, HUGH HEFNER: PLAYBOY, ACTIVIST, REBEL, a sort of career appreciation of Hefner as a political progressive. Much of the time the narrative was great archival footage of bunnies or feminist robo-bitches still trying to do their little Fahrenheit 451 on the softcore mag (I don't read it, of course, and I don't read Ms. either. A plague on both their houses). Then the lens interviewed Hugh Hefner in his home study, luxuriantly lined with fine old books. Behind him, I noticed was a row of aqua-blue book spines that looked oddly familiar. Is that what I think it is? Yes, yes it is!
For my lost love, if you haven't guessed, was not a female, but something gentler and more companionable, a reference book title. It was the Motion Picture Guide (MPG), a vast encyclopedia-set of world cinema that was probably one of the most remarkable and foolhardy enterprises in the narrow realm of movie-book publishing. Very simply, the idea was to review Every Feature Ever Made, at least in the sound era (a special extra volume highlighted the best of the silents). The initial set covered 53,000 movies, many in vast detail, with full credits, right down to titles of all the incidental musical numbers. All this on heavy-bond paper in sturdy, if featureless, blue hardcover.
To go with the massive ambition, these books were cruelly expensive, too. I'd like to say about $400 for the original 1984 multi-volume inception set, an additional $100 for each successive yearbook. There were no illustrations, just pure text. This was serious business. You would not find the MPG in any bookstore. Only libraries and institutions carried it - and certain Very Rich individuals. Hugh Hefner's love for movies is legendary. So evidently he was a customer.
And he was likely reading my words. Because, for nearly ten years, I was a contributing freelance writer-reviewer and editor for the MPG, the ultimate movie-reference book. The Motion Picture Guide threaded though my life in the 1990s, and very nearly changed it drastically. If you can tolerate an aging writer's lachrymose reminiscence, I'll tell you about my years with the MPG, and along the way I will even drop the names of some VIP celebrities (beside Hugh Hefner).
I was not present for the inception, of course. My first awareness of the MPG came when I saw it hawked in full-page ads in American Film and other scholarly film journals (most now defunct) of the 1980s. No way could I afford it, and I pushed the subject to the back of my mind. By the end of the decade, however, I was a jobless Journalism graduate trying to get established as a movie reviewer. I already had one book contract, with a European publisher, to review movies at $1 an entry - a story all in itself, my Euro-adventure; I may tell it sometime - that was barely enough to get me press legitimacy here and earn me a toe-hold as "media." But it did, and I went to screenings by night, worked a $4 per hour day job sealed up in a photo-lab darkroom.
Believe it or not, at 1989 prices and a seedy bad-neighborhood west-side Cleveland apartment, I was able to live on this dreadful income. No girlfriend, of course. No close friends at all, really. You had to watch yourself in that neighborhood. Much later, local photographic artist Masumi Hayashi would be murdered, a few blocks south of where I called home sweet home Cleveland. But on some sweet summer days, if there was enough rare daylight left, I might take an hour's walk to Edgewater Beach and look at the water - then try to get back before sunset and avoid being mugged.
In this cloistered existence I kept casting around for additional publishers, preferably out of town. Remember, this was during the VHS-tape home-video "revolution," with a lot of B-grade and foreign stuff going direct-to-tape, a whole new genre in itself, pretty much. I made contact with home-video specialty magazines, presented my foreign-film-encyclopedia credentials, was told I was just the writer they needed, welcome aboard, here's your assignment for the next issue. And by the next issue the magazine would be out of business. This did happen more than once.
Would I never escape the photo lab? Then I happened to come across the Motion Picture Guide "Annual." This was news to me; apparently after the initial multivolume encyclopedia set I saw in the ads, the editors over in Evanston, north of Chicago had decided to keep the thing up to date with annual supplements covering movies alphabetically in any given year. In my ignorance I'd missed annuals 1986 through 1989 (it must be emphasized that all this happened well before the World Wide Web; an aspiring critic had to just keep an eye out at newsstands, bookstores and trade journals for potential employers). I wanted in.
Writing for a magazine would be nice - but an American BOOK! Something solid, durable, hefty, practically monumental, sitting on the shelf (if only in libraries and institutions) long after the day's Plain Dealer, with its high-paid big-name writers was turned to dust...that appealed to me. Just by its very long-term existence the Motion Picture Guide was, to me, the Akashic records of cinema, the immutable ledger, in which every new release had to be accounted and examined with the greatest of care and deliberation. I knew I could do that.
I contacted the editors in Illinois presenting my resume and willingness to cover even the home-video ghetto beat, if that was all that was available. Indeed I got a phone call back. They wanted me as a freelancer, and at rates generous by my impoverished standards.
I wrote for the MPG for a year, dropping floppy disks - anyone remember those? - of my manuscript files into regular US mail - anyone remember that? At the end of the annum a large cardboard package came in the mail, and out slid a massive blue volume - my complimentary copy, on top of my regular payment of my first Motion Picture Guide Annual. This was a $100 value presented to me free of charge (but if you thought they were going to give me the whole 13 volume set with it, you're wrong; I still had to visit those, enshrined in non-circulating reference collections in libraries, like paying a visit to the High Holy Scrolls in some temple). For the first time I saw my words in English in a book. A nice, solid book, not a newspaper destined for the bottom of a bird cage the next day.
The addition of the MPG to my freelance portfolio opened a few doors for me at other publishers and institutions as well - freelance, of course, nothing full time. But I was young and stupid and I figured full-time would come. I started doing well indeed, by my pitiful standards. Just with the freelancing, I felt secure enough to serve notice to quit the $4 per hour photo lab, as soon as they could find a replacement. I think that was on a Friday. It was on the Monday following that I got the news: The Motion Picture Guide had abruptly closed down.
Years later - my memory is faulty on the exact details - I struck up a conversation with someone from the Chicago area who told me he actually worked in the same building that housed the old MPG offices. He remembered the closure well, he said. It was an eerie thing, just like those paranormal sea stories one hears about the Bermuda Triangle, that one moment it was a bustling editorial suite, full of people - and then the next time he looked it was deserted. Desks vacant, pots of coffee still sitting there, waiting to be poured, as though the whole team had been suddenly alien-abducted into limbo. Maybe with today's deathbed economy that's not surprising any longer, but in 1991 it was a bit striking.
So there, just like all those short-lived home-video magazines, the MPG was gone, and with it my future and economic lifeline. I did manage to stay maybe two or three months more in the darkroom, as that's how long it took them to find someone willing to take the gig at those prices (and then I got to come back, briefly, after she quit, to fill in). I treaded water financially, working odd assignments and things here and there. Somehow I got by. And I still watched for new publishers.
Then in the trades I read something: the Motion Picture Guide lived! It had become associated with a bicoastal concern named BaseLine. Founded by a high-profile critic named James Monaco, with offices in New York and Los Angeles, BaseLine was a movie business database and networking tool of prominence back when the internet was just a simple, 1200-baud text-only thing you dialed into on the phone cables.
BaseLine was like the ancestor of the Internet Movie Database as well as an "online community" of filmmakers around the world. Anyone willing to buy into its ultra-expensive membership - you were billed for online use of BaseLine at something like $20 a minute - had elite access to movie-industry credits, resumes and contacts. Legend had it that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were on BaseLine. They hid their identities behind fictitious production-company handles, but if you knew the right e-mail address and had a message, a resume, a script or treatment, they'd see it.
So via their 800-number (which was itself a Charlie Chaplin reference) I contacted Jamie Pallot, the Englishman listed as the new Motion Picture Guide editor in NYC, introduced myself and asked if I could come back on board as a freelance writer for the resurrected MPG. The reaction was more or less like this: Sure, you're still working for us. But where have you been, Charles? We've been waiting for you!
(Positive as that was, this and similar "welcomes" from freelance publishers have left me with a certain anxiety. I've applied to work at many places full time, without success. How many of them actually HAD HIRED me after all - and just not bothered to tell me? Just expected me to somehow figure out for myself I'd landed the job and knew when to come in, start work etc. And, of course, when I didn't show up - because nobody took the trouble to notify me I worked there - my name was crossed out and the position duly handed to somebody else. I would like to say this to any employers who may have done that: You wrecked my life. You did.)
Another MPG writer and a chief editor under Jamie Pallot in New York was named John Miller Monzon, and he was my main contact. Reviewing for the MPG at this point carried a nice perk, free-of-charge access to BaseLine, as a necessary reference tool for information-gathering, transcribing movie credits, etc. One time I found my account was not letting me log on, and I had a deadline to make. The usernames at the BaseLine home office all tended to fall into a predictable pattern, and the default passwords were almost always the usernames. So for the first and last time to date, I succesfully "hacked" into the system. I guessed John's username and password and completed my assignment.
Right away over the 800 line I informed Mr. Miller Monzon of what I'd done. No problem, he said, thanks for getting your stuff in. Maybe a day or two later I got a letter, a bit frostier in tone: Charles, PLEASE REFRAIN from doing anything like that again, okay? And I obeyed. But secretly I jammed on the idea that, for one brief shining moment, I had been a master cyber-criminal. Charles Cassady - Hacker.
I wrote and reviewed any way the wind blew. Depending on prevailing tastes, I got heavily into direct-to-video softcore "steamy erotic thrillers," until Clevelander Joe Eszterhas and his cronies made BASIC INSTINCT and "steamy erotic thrillers" become sort-of cool, and all the MPG critics with seniority grabbed them. Then, after HOME ALONE went supernova at the box office, I got handed all the direct-to-video kiddie flicks made in imitation (which, to my great amusement, often had the same talent from those steamy-erotic-thrillers, now in the bewildered-moms and workaholic-dad roles). I also did a decent mixture of foreign flicks and documentaries.
And I looked forward to every spring when another heavy cardboard package came in the mail and another blue-tinted huge hardcover MPG Annual emerged from the cardboard cocoon (heavier each time, as we covered more movies). With the payments I was able to move out of Future Masumi Hayashi Murder neighborhood and into a tiny efficiency in a safer part of town with just enough room for me, the kitchenette and the computer. And my freelancing continued apace.
John was a good sort. I remember one day in 1993 with more detail than others. He sounded harried. The World Trade Center had just been bombed - for the first time - and John was fielding calls from relatives across the country asking is he was all right, even though the Motion Picture Guide offices weren't very close to the towers, they were on Avenue of the Americas. I was gleaning bits and pieces about New York City, long-distance, in my little efficiency.
The only real unpleasantness was when, suddenly, the free BaseLine account was eliminated in a cost-cutting measure and I got some frighteningly expensive bills in the mail for my use of the online service. Fortunately, I was able to talk my way out of them, and thus did I close my BaseLine account. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were never disturbed by me.
Once I even happened to get out to Los Angeles and visited the BaseLine offices. I think I dropped a few hints that I wouldn't mind becoming a full timer there, although the real editorial work took place in New York - there were even a number of Motion Picture Guide spinoff books, mass-market paperbacks put out under the imprint CineBooks, though I rarely saw those.
This was a portent, however, of changing times for the MPG. Soon ties between it and BaseLine were severed permanently, and the book's official residence became New York City. Don't quote me on the exact business history, but it seemed that Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp International had owned a good bit of the MPG for a while now, and they were firming their hold on the property. CineBooks/the MPG (practically the same thing) became close affiliates with Murdoch's infamously costly late acquisition, TV Guide. In the early years of the World Wide Web, those who logged onto TV Guide Online could find the contents of the MPG - both our annual updates and the original listings of the 13 volumes from 1984 - as TV Guide's official movie database. I felt quite ubiquitous. Even if I lived in a cubby hole, and even if nobody in Cleveland, especially prospective employers to whom I applied in media fields, knew my name or cared.
John Miller Monzon moved on about this time, but let me tell you of just a few of the other MPG writers. Jacob Levich was an editor who was way ahead of the rest of the country in being smitten with India's "Bollywood" culture and aesthetics. He constantly pushed for incorporation of more Indian popular cinema in to the MPG, though I fear it was an uphill battle for him. Maitland McDonagh was an attractive lady who was a gore-horror-zombie enthusiast, an expert on chiller filmmaker Dario Argento, and authoress of The 50 Most Erotic Movies of All Time. These are mutually exclusive descriptions; I thought such a woman might be a pure invention of lonesome fanboys or hack male screenwriters. But I met her in person and confirmed she really existed.
The super-prolific Robert Pardi I never met - but he covered more direct-to-video schlock that I thought was humanly possible. I didn't think his crazy Hunter-S.-Thompson-as-movie-nerd writing style quite appropriate for the MPG's dignity and intended eternal shelf life, but there was no denying he was a hard worker with cast-iron eyeballs. Ed Grant hosted a NYC cable access program called Media Funhouse, in which he interviewed local and national "cult" heroes in movies and music. Ed would verbally explode with facts and ideas in every phone conversation; I'd never met a man who talked faster. He was like that commercial pitchman of the 1980s, John Moschitta Jr. Did life in high-speed Manhattan really do that? Or perhaps my prolonged residence in the Rust-Belt midwest had slowed me down instead, say to 18 frames to per second instead of the industry-standard 24.
On the subject of critics, I must at some point introduce Roger Ebert. On one occasion I had the opportunity to meet him, during a Cleveland appearance in Playhouse Square. As befitting my social standing, I had been scheduled dead last of all the local press to interview the Pulitzer-winning critic, and he was literally ashen-gray from all the boondocks-idiot reporters he had to tolerate. I could tell he just wanted me gone (I am sensitized to this; I would feel waves of scorn emanate from my subsequent girlfriend like solar flares), but as we spoke an amazing thing happened: I mentioned I worked for the MPG. Ebert brightened. As a Chicago guy he knew its origin well, and its creator, the reference-book expert J. Robert Nash and principle writer Stanley Ralph Ross.
Ebert actually told me some gossip about the MPG's creation. It seems that Nash and the publishers thought they could put the book together quickly and cheaply by early Optical Character Reading (OCR) technology. That was a fax-like scanner that could not only get the image of text but could translate it into editable document form. By feeding sheets and sheets of old print reviews into the setup, they had their raw material on which to build their database - after all, NOBODY humanly had the time and wherewithal to actually SEE 53,000 old movies.
But they could never get OCR to work, with their MS/DOS or CPM-level computers. They ended up shanghaiing a small army of editorial interns from Northwestern University and set them to the job keying in/rewriting the reviews at a marathon pace to make the deadline. I got the impression it was most stressful. Roger Ebert actually had enjoyed talking with me and shared his personal e-mail address. I think it's a pretty famous e-mail address now, but I felt honored anyway. I even wrote back to him once - some minor fact-checking thing with another project, and he wasn't able to help. But he replied.
Ebert also said something else though. The MPG had been a financial boondoggle for its creators. Nobody had ever figured out how to make money off such a costly product, and that's why it went from one owner to another, a financial albatross. This should have been a warning for me, but I let it fall by the wayside with the next development. Jacob Levich liked my work and attitude and movie savvy. He said there was going to be a reshuffling in the editorial hierarchy over there in New York. He asked if I was interested in applying to the position of editor of the Motion Picture Guide.
Know that this never happens to me. No matter how much freelance writing or photography I've done for a regular client, no matter how effusive they were in praise of my work, nobody has ever offered me a "real" job. Nobody's ever said, "Charles, we want you to come work for us full-time." Nobody. Nobody except Mr. Levich.
And to become editor for a project such as the Motion Picture Guide would be beyond-description career satisfaction. The carpet of words that would carry me out of Cleveland and into the minarets of Manhattan, like Aladdin's flying throw-rug.
I boarded a plane to New York and took a taxi to 1211 Avenue of the Americas and took a elevator to the fifth floor. I saw the offices, met Jamie Pallot, met Jacob Levich, met Maitland McDonagh and others on the team, and I gave my best presentation I could of myself. Back in Cleveland I splurged and bought a used but fairly late-model (for the mid-90s) Zeos laptop PC, to pack all my files in and be my mobile office. I called a New York real-estate broker. He tentatively reserved a Brooklyn apartment for my inspection if and when I arrived. And I will never forget the upbeat words he spoke before we concluded the call: "Cheer up! You're a New Yorker now!"
I think that was on a Friday. I was supposed to hear the CineBooks staff's verdict on me by the next Wednesday. I think it was Tuesday when I got the news. No, I didn't get the job. At that time, in fact, nobody had the job. Jacob Levich, who most favored hiring me, had been expelled from the company altogether. Apparently there had been some long-simmering Creative Differences at the top, and it had finally inspired a regime change. There was a likelihood one of the old hands from TV Guide would take over the editorial reins at the MPG - not some loser from Cleveland. And indeed, soon I was reporting to Ed Grant. At least they were nice enough to retain me as a freelancer.
What would have happened to me if I'd gotten the job? As Roger Ebert had already foreshadowed, the MPG was not to last much longer. Maybe I would have landed another job at NewsCorp or a similar monster media conglomerate after its demise. Maybe not.
I had scrounged some savings by now, living like a miser as I did. Why didn't I just go to New York anyway? Take that Brooklyn apartment, and continue my freelancing, hoping for some opportunity to present itself in the metropolis? Yes, maybe I should have done that. Except that at this period I also had an Ohio-oriented weekly freelance newspaper column (soon to grow to two, then three); I was freelancing for a local nonprofit; I was about to start freelancing for Cleveland.com; and I even continued to send material to that European book. This slender network of gigs sustained me. And I felt that if I carefully tended to them, these seedlings in my professional garden, any one of those could have flowered into a full-time job offer at any time.
But they never did. And eventually most dropped my services or went out of business. One by one.
I fear had I boldly relocated to New York I would have been one of those sad Northeast Ohioans - I see it most in writers and filmmakers - who leave this town to make their fortunes, only to come crawling back here when the money, opportunities and confidence run out, moving in with mom/dad and offering excuses for wretched failure. "I missed the Flats!" "I know the Browns are going to the Superbowl this year and want to cheer them on!" "There's no place in the world better than Cleveland, I love it here!" (translation: "please kill me").
Or maybe I would have clung on in the Big Apple, by any means necessary. Maybe I'd have gone into advertising/publishing i.e. walking around with a sandwich board promoting a major porn bookstore. And I'd have been like that, at the feet of the Twin Towers, when the planes hit on September 11, 2001. Maybe that's what happened - and in my final seconds of life before a plummeting sheet of glass bisected me I begged God to reverse time and send me back to Cleveland, unharmed, in 1996, to resume life as if I'd never left Ohio "OKAY" rumbled God. "BUT I'VE SEEN WHAT HAPPENS WITH YOU THERE TOO. YOU'RE NOT GOING TO LIKE IT EITHER. FOOL."
Can anyone prove that it didn't go down that way?
Even though the dream was dissipated, there were still some nice times in my final years of MPG freelancing from a distance. Maitland McDonagh admired my work, and she was a force majeure at TV Guide Online. For a year or so she granted me the distinction of my very own bylined online monthly column at TVGuide.com, trolling the depths of direct-to-video. When the Howard Stern comedy PRIVATE PARTS premiered to rapturous reviews and media bowing in homage towards Stern in every direction, I dredged up the video embarrassment in his past, RYDER P.I., a inept little detective comedy shot on Long Island in which Stern did a cameo as a favor for some colleagues. This obscure movie remained one of the few topics off limits for discussion on Stern's show. Maitland praised me for not falling in lockstep behind her colleagues in the all-Stern-all-the-time love-fest.
And I recruited a Lakewood musician and writer, Aaron Milenski, as an additional freelance MPG reviewer, though he had a real job (and a band, and a growing family) that took up much of his time. He still got write-ups of some personal favorites into print and was happy with that.
Aaron and myself thus became pass-down recipients of a late spinoff of the MPG - the Motion Picture Guide on CD-ROM. During a too-brief period when multimedia CDs were all the rage (as opposed to just going online for everything) it was decided that putting the whole movie-review database on a Windows/Macintosh CD was a likely more effective way of selling the thing directly to the public instead of peddling a now 20-volume monster book set of encyclopedias. Two successive versions of the MPG on CD came out - both priced extremely high, for software that was basically all text. And a third was in the works. The third version would be the real high-water mark. Now the database would add all the missing silent films, tweak existing reviews from the 1984 version, and it would bring in prominent documentaries. I helped do my part.
If this version was ever completed it must be in the personal possession of Rupert Murdoch. For, in early 1999, shortly after reviewing a straight-to-video Pauley Shore comedy, I got the ax. In a NewsCorp cost-cutting measure, the Motion Picture Guide would no longer be produced for the public in book or CD form. All the freelancers were thenceforth discharged from their responsibilities. The database would continue to be a part of TV Guide.com, augmented with theatrical new-release entries added by Maitland McDonagh and another TV Guide staffer. So Caesar commanded, and so it shall be done. That was that.
I checked back from time to time, on the faint hope that the Motion Picture Guide might revive again and my duties renew, but it never happened. Oh, and the Zeos laptop I bought for my New York existence crashed and never came back to life, either. Out of the MPG ashes I did get a few business connections that have kept me in the online-reviewing arena. Lately they've been cutting my assignments back, in fact.
So that is the story of the Motion Picture Guide and my relationship with Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion fixture. Come to think of it, there is some resemblance between the book and a girl. Its acceptance made me feel not quite so alone in the world. I was taken to places I'd never been. I felt exhilarating highs before the bottom dropped out. And by the end I was left back to mostly where I started, blinking in mild disbelief and denial and wondering if I could have done more. When did things start to go bad? Could I have conceivably patched things up? Was the relationship too one-sided? Was I used?
If only I had done more...
One last observation: In some scenes in that Hugh Hefner documentary the MPG set is plainly visible, while in other shots an array of Hefner family photos block the view of the encyclopedias. I did give negative write-ups to a set of direct-to-video erotica that Playboy Enterprises produced during the home-video explosion. I perhaps shouldn't read too much into a continuity error, but I can't shake the feeling that maybe Hefner has it in for me too. So there goes that job prospect.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW? (if you have it, crank up closing-theme music from STAND BY ME on your stereo for maximum effect)
BaseLine still exists, as a fancy web-based subsidiary of the New York Times. Is website is www.baselineresearch.com. Tell George Lucas and Steven Spielberg I said hello.
Jacob Levich - ah, I wish I knew. Haven't been able to ascertain definitely where he ended up, though I think that directly after his MPG ouster he found work on the West Coast.
John Miller Monzon became a prominent producer of documentary short films and features. He helped bring to the screen 2009's THE COVE, the Oscar-winning expose about vile Japanese slaughter of porpoises and whales.
Maitland McDonagh continues to be published and honored for her work in the field of Italian zombie cinema studies. She served as "Miss Flick Chick" for TVGuide.com. Her most current website, if I'm correct, is www.maitlandm.com.
Jamie Pallot went to work for numerous high-profile New York publishers, including Time Inc. and Conde Naste. For his development of magazine-related web presences he was inducted into the Digital Hall of Fame in 2008.
Ed Grant's Media Funhouse persists now as a blog. Recently hailed by the Village Voice, Grant has upwards of 100 YouTube videos from his TV show, mostly interviews with an amazing assortment of louche and culty entertainment types. Grant actually responded to my inquiries as I was writing this article, and he makes it sound like being MPG editor towards the end was no picnic.
Aaron Milenski I looked up again several years ago, when another publisher, well respected with a national reputation, accepted my idea to compile a giant guide to nonfiction cinema. He did his usual solid-pro job reviewing and writing, and then the publisher revealed it didn't have the largesse to actually publish the book. They paid me, then killed the project. I had to pay Aaron out of my own pocket. Rest went to car repairs.
Robert Pardi, I have not been able to definitively trace in a cursory search. Somewhere he may still be trapped under a gigantic pile of direct-to-video VHS screeners, like the Collier brothers. I live in Cleveland, and yet I know who Homer and Langley Collier were. The real-estate agent was right, I should have been a New Yorker. Damn it all. Damn it all.
Charles Cassady Jr., I'm not sure anymore. I think I lost track of him. I think sometimes he wonders if walking away from that $4/hour darkroom job was a dreadful mistake.