Garry Wills' eclectic and engaging new book "Outside Looking In: Adventures of an Observer," contains some unexpectedly scintillating sections about Baltimore -- and about movies. Wills lived here in the 1960s and 1970s while teaching journalism at Johns Hopkins. He became a true and proud "Baltimoron," whether rooting for Johnny Unitas, or partnering with Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro III on an ecumenical education board, or escaping a police sweep of anti-Nixon protesters thanks to John Waters, who told the cops, "That's all right. He's with us."
Wills' account of serving with Waters on a jury for the Baltimore Film Festival is deapan-hilarious. (It makes you appreciate all the more the Maryland Film Festival that we have today.) Wills and Waters connected as Catholics and Flannery O'Connor fans over a film adaptation of O'Connor's "The River." But two visiting jurors from the AFI in Washington told them that this film was "too professional" to win a festival prize. According to Wills, "They saw film festivals as meant to encourage the amateur, the experimental, or the 'nonslick' -- they thought Waters was deserting his own cause when he went with a conventionally filmed religion-themed movie."
Wills recounts vivid moments from his friendship with writer-director Paul Schrader, which began at the time of Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" (Schrader wrote the script). It's terrific to learn that Wills considers cinematographer John Bailey, who did Schrader's "Mishima," one of his own heroes. Wills also offers notes on the filming of Oliver Stone's "Nixon" -- he visited the shooting after learning that Stone had given Anthony Hopkins, his star, a copy of Wills' "Nixon Agonistes." It's disconcerting to learn that the judicious Mr. Wills admires "The Doors" and "Natural Born Killers," but part of this book's fun is its quality of surprise.
The funniest passage in "Outside Looking In" belongs to "Tommy Three's" sister, Nancy Pelosi. (Wills comments, "She is often attacked as a San Francisco liberal; but I knew her as a Baltimore Italian political pro.") Wills writes that when Pelosi spoke at the funeral Mass for antiwar activist Father Robert Drinan, who left Congress under order from Pope John Paul II, she "noted that the pope had clearly played a providential role. When Drinan stepped down, the voters put in his place the openly gay congressman Barney Frank."
If you feel in dire need of good cheer this post-Election Day morning, pick up a copy of this book.