Missing Reels is a Thrilling Film Preservation Mystery

Last night, I finished reading Missing Reels, the debut novel of Farran Smith Nehme, who writes about herself in the third person over at her classic film blog Self-Styled Siren. Spoiler Rich [my former blog where this essay was first posted] may be devoted to dissecting film and TV shows, but considering that the story of Missing Reels concerns a young vintage clothing salesgirl in 1980s New York obsessed with classic films, I feel obligated to share some thoughts on the novel.

Missing Reels is 339 pages long and filled mostly with rat-a-tat dialogue, primarily between Mississippi-born protagonist Ceinwein (pronounced “KINE-wen,” apparently) and her snobby English mathematician boyfriend Matthew. He doesn’t share her love of old movies, but he does become an assistant to her film preservation detective work. Ceinwein is convinced that the old woman Miriam who lives in her building had to have been a Hollywood starlet once-upon-a-time, given Miriam’s snarky comments about Jean Harlow being a slut, bemusement at Ceinwen’s preference for vintage glamour, and living room-displayed headshot of a young woman with more than a passing resemblance to Miriam. It turns out that the headshot is actually a production still from the silent film The Mysteries of Udolpho (yes, Miriam’s name was momentarily flashed on a movie theater marquee, emphasis on “momentarily”), and the autographed inscription dedicated to “Emil” refers to none other than the fictitious film’s German expatriate director Emil Arnheim, with whom Miriam had a red-hot love affair during the film shoot in the late 1920s. The usually taciturn Miriam confesses to as much upon receipt of an unexpected Christmas gift from Ceinwen. Miriam’s gift to Ceinwen is a quest: unbeknownst to the curmudgeon-y lady, Ceinwen sets out to track down the long-lost film to reunite Miriam with her long-gone lover (he wrecked his car in a drunken stupor following the film’s poor test audience reception and the studio head’s butchering of Emil’s artfully composed edit). Ceinwein wants to assure Miriam that she was right: The Mysteries of Udolpho may have gone over most people’s heads at the time of its initial release, but it was in fact a bold and interesting work, just as the one-time actress’s memory has preserved it all these years.

Unfortunately, Ceinwen’s efforts to track down the lost film only pick up halfway through the novel. The first half establishes her relationship with Matthew, a postdoc at NYU, who is in a long-term, long-distance relationship with an arrogant Italian economist. Although he is honest upfront about his romantic entanglement, Ceinwen is jealous when he spends Christmas in Europe with Anna. Right off the bat, I felt annoyed by this situation. If she had a problem being with a guy who’s attached to someone else, why pursue him? Why let him pursue her? I know, I know, the heart doesn’t know what’s good for it. That would be one thing, but Matthew is downright mean. He patronizes her for never eating, somehow forgetting that her chain-smoking is an appetite suppressant and that she’s skint more often than not (and that she seems to prefer spending her income on vintage clothes and tickets to repertory movie theaters). Ceinwen’s inability to feed herself may be the manifestation of an underexplored eating disorder but it more likely signals her poverty. Matthew doesn’t take her seriously. Virtually everything he says puts her down; he clearly has a superiority complex, because she’s eight years his junior and didn’t finish college. Reading Missing Reels, I couldn’t help but imagine that Matthew would have found an instant rapport with Hugh Grant and his chums in Four Weddings and a Funeral: he’s pompous, snarky, and elitist, too.

The one truly good thing Matthew does (at least in terms of the narrative mise-en-scene) is introduce Ceinwen to a cadre of classic film enthusiasts–no, fanatics–from his department. The book lights up at the crazy professors’ introduction; like Ceinwen, I recognized who I wanted to be while making their acquaintance. Well, minus the condescension that Harry, Matthew’s mentor, points toward Ceinwen. I would never ask someone which they prefer, Love Affair or An Affair to Remember, and then judge them harshly if they didn’t choose the former. I’d probably chalk it up to the probability that he or she saw the Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr version first. (Shot almost twenty years apart by the same director, the films are practically identical, and watching them back-to-back can be a tedious experience.)

In any case, I loved Missing Reels‘ intelligent engagement with cinephilia and classic films, mixing in the likes of Make Way for Tomorrow, Angel Heart, and The Crowd. Nehme concocts a thrilling and plausible story about what it may be like to track down an orphan film. She manages to do the seemingly impossible: make film preservation sexy. There are vivid comic scenes, whether charming or awkward, in the respective living rooms of an eccentric film collector and a gossipy former assistant film director. The scenes at Ceinwen’s place of employment, Vintage Visions, never spark with as much creative energy; they mainly exist just to serve as stock portraits of Ceinwen’s over-the-top, intractable boss. I am not a Mack Sennett aficionado, but I would love to attend an event like what the Bangville Police Society puts on. I also wish there were more scenes in the lab at the uptown Brody Institute for Cinephilia and Film Preservation. In fact, I enjoyed the friendship Ceinwen struck up with the schlubby curator Fred far more than I enjoyed Ceinwen and Matthew’s whirlwind romance.

And why couldn’t she have ended up with Fred? They’re more compatible, with the same interest in watching and preserving films. I never for one second believed that he was secretly in love with his domineering boss, Isabel. That was just Ceinwen projecting, and even Matthew was jealous of the time she spent with Fred. Matthew’s dumping Ceinwen toward the end of the book and announcing his engagement to Anna threw me for a loop, too. But worse still, the closing scenes, in which they reunite after Anna throws a plate of food onto his chest, struck a farcical tone out of step with the rest of the novel. I’m glad that Ceinwen gets a job at NYU and therefore can take advantage of tuition remission benefits, but why did she have to fall for a jerk like Matthew?

I’m purposefully leaving out the good narrative bits concerning Miriam’s reaction to Ceinwen’s investigative career and whether or not she manages to find the titular reels. I hope that the book will inspire readers to explore older films and recognize that they are pieces of history we must preserve and interpret in order to come to a fuller understanding of the evolution of popular entertainments.

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