Film Books You Can’t Live Without
The Cinema Book ed Pam Cook
The world of academic film theory can be a daunting one for those more used to “Making of” books, a matter not aided by the wealth of material out there and the closed language set used in theoretical writing. The Cinema Book covers all the main bases of film theory and criticism, from genre to semiotics, soviet montage to Hammer horrors, from history to the star system in a way that makes you feel an expert in any given field. It goes out of it’s way to place ideas in context but more importantly works as the ideal reference work to critical essays by sorting the wheat from the chaff. The ideal springboard to launch you into the world of film theory, you’ll turn to it time and again. The icing on the cake is the fact that the book is also nicely designed, profusely illustrated and sits nicely on any coffee table.
Signs and Meanings in Cinema by Peter Wollen
Wollens seminal text on screen aesthetics has remained essential reading for the 34 years since it’s initial publication. Split into three parts he discusses the aesthetics of Eisenstein and his use of montage to convey meaning, the theory of authorship (auteur theory) and the semiotics of cinema. What is surprising is how much has held up to scrutiny over the years, partly down to Woollens appreciation of the limits of some of the theories he is espousing. Each section is sufficiently in depth to provide food for thought but concisely written to avoid flab. Though academic in nature the tone is never one of alienation to the amateur enthusiast. One day all university text books will be written like this.
Rebel Without A Crew by Robert Rodriguez
Tales of financing your first feature always make fascinating reading but the Rodriguez case is so surreal it really stands out from the crowd. Selling his body for medical science gives the young director a month in which to write his script plus the all important $8000 to fund the film itself. What follows is a set of trials and tribulations as cameras and actors go astray, dark glasses are employed to disguise cue card reading and stunts are performed “on the fly”. And when the filming is over his troubles have only just begun – now he has to sell the thing! What starts as an attempt at a calling card through the Mexican straight to video market turns (eventually) into a major festival release which costs Columbia more money to splice it’s logo on the front than it cost Rodriguez to make his entire film. A funny, amiable and insightful book filled with youthful enthusiasm and joire de vivre Rebel Without a Crew is an inspiration to any budding film-maker and a jolly good read to boot. Bundle that with the screenplay of El Mariachi and a breakdown of Rodriguez’s guerilla “Ten Minute Film-school” and you have that rare combination – informative yet immensely enjoyable.
Adventures With D W Griffiths by Karl Brown
Karl Browns autobiography is a personal account of one of the founding fathers of narrative cinema at work. Griffiths had already directed scores of films when a young Karl Brown joined in as an assistant cameraman to the legendary Billy Bitzer. Through Browns eyes we see the creation of silent cinemas influential and controversial epics like Birth of a Nation and Griffiths remarkable, huge flop Intolerance. This is stiring, pioneering stuff seen from an unusual perspective. Find out how to build Babylon, film an orgy (or not, much to Karls chagrin), battle Goliath or stage the civil war. Warm, fascinating reading about Hollywood in its infancy.
Mondo Macabro by Pete Tombs
To the uninitiated World cinema means Tarkovsky, Fassbinder and Eisenstein – all direct “opposites” to the narrative of Hollywood cinema and worthy subjects. But there’s a whole world of entertainment beyond the English language that doesn’t dwell on dialectical montage and this is where Mondo Macabro fits in. A global tour of the worlds most bizarre and derranged film-making featuring everything you could imagine and a lot you’re glad you didn’t. Find out that Bollywood isn’t all romantic or action but that, yes, there are Bollywood Dracula films. With musical numbers naturally. Gasp at Philopeno horror films, softcore Turkish versions of Bewitched or the twisted world of Brazils “Coffin Joe”. Special emphasis is placed on Hong Kong films (the Crippled Avenger films, madcap martial arts and the unusual goings on in the Ancient Chinese Whorehouse – don’t ask) and Japanese cinema (little in the way of Kurosawa, plenty in the way of tenticular gropings, mutated body horror and ligotage). A real eyeopener and a book crammed full of material you are unlikely to see at your local art cinema and certainly wouldn’t get at Blockbusters. Plenty of pictures go a long way to prove this isn’t just the product of a deranged imagination. Those wishing to cast their nets not so far from home should also consider Immoral Tales, focussing specifically on European esoteria.
Antonioni and Film Noir
Taschen 2003 , 192 pages , £9.99 , PBs
Bitesize: Two more releases from the new Taschen series of film books, handsomely produced and reasonably priced.
Film Noir by Alain Silver & James Ursini
Film Noir is a departure from the director based books in the series concentrating (unsurprisingly) on film noir – the cover starkly depicting the tattoo “Hate” on Robert Mitchum’s gnarled hands from “Night of the Hunter”. Rather than try and cover everything Silver & Ursini wisely narrow their sights in two ways – first, despite getting a few passing mentions, the wave of neo-noir films of the seventies and beyond are largely left to the sidelines in order for the classic noir age of the forties and fifties to get more page space. Secondly, each chapter is taken thematically with one key film and its maker singled out for more detailed analysis – a good way to touch all bases without the book becoming an illustrated list. Some of the films covered include: In A Lonely Place, Double Indemnity, Kiss Me Deadly, Out of the Past and Touch of Evil. Silver & Ursini are clearly in love with their subject and try to convert the casual reader to their Noir cause. Placing the films in their social and literary context they seek to explain why the movement became so popular – particularly critically (although initially derided by studios and critics alike as B-Movie fodder) through Cahiers du Cinema. This is a great introduction to the subject but it also offers plenty for those already familiar with the genre. The large number of quality illustrations will appeal to almost anyone and make Film Noir an essential purchase – most jarring is the number of full colour photos of films that were shot in black and white; it’s quite a shock at first when you are familiar with the films. In short, something for everyone.
Michelangelo Antonioni: The Complete Films by Seymour Chatman
For one of the most respected of world film-makers Michelangelo Antonioni’s work is surprisingly awkward to come by – a couple of Region 2 DVD’s (Blow-Up and the sporadically interesting Beyond The Clouds) and a handful of those nicey-but-pricey Criterion ones. Even on VHS there were a couple of releases by the BFI but that was about it. True his films are intrinsically cinematic – elaborate long takes, sumptuous cinematography and a pace that requires the kind of concentration that only a darkened room with limited toilet break facilities offers – but that doesn’t seem to stop others. And yet there is a plethora of books dedicated to this artist who remains best known as a cinematic stylist. Seymour Chatman adds another book on Antonioni with the latest in Taschen’s Complete Films series but the shadows of his previous academic works (both as author and editor) seem to give the book a slight slant away from an introduction to Antonioni’s work. Once again the pictures are the stars with many exclusive shots to drool over. Indeed a large bulk of the pictures on show are of Antonioni himself working on his films, either supervising an elaborate crane shot on the set of The Passenger or precisely arranging cavorting bodies for Zabriskie Point. The reproduction gives a good indication of Antonioni’s mastery of colour compositions.
Any Cop? Excellent value for money with plenty of rare photographs to savour – Noir Films is an essential purchase, Antonioni is more likely to appeal to fans only.
Motion Picture Purgatory – Rick Trembles
FAB Press 2004 , 192 pages , £9.99 , PB
Canadian caustic cartoon cinema criticism collection.
Film reviews generally fall into one of two categories – those that have a picture of the film with it and those that don’t. Bucking the trend for nigh on twenty years is Rick Trembles (now that’s gotta be a pseudonym), film columnist for The Montreal Mirror (when he wasn’t being sacked for getting too close to the knuckle). Rick, you see, doesn’t go for the bog standard “thumbs up/thumbs down” stars-out-of-five stuff. Oh no. His reviews are illustrations. That’s right. Comic strips. This means that the reader instantly gets an impression of the film before getting down to the nitty-gritty of actually reading about it.
Salient plot points and occasionally minuscule detail are given equal weight with Rick’s caustic penmanship ridiculing big budget and indie stalwarts with equal vitriol. Despite concentrating on more recent films (as befits a weekly review column) there is time for older works such as Birth of a Nation (1915) or Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising as well as avant-garde, cult, horror and pornography – all of human life is here (provided it’s on film). Occasionally reviewing is abandoned for concept – the Being John Malkovich review is admirably summarised in one illustration, while Pirates of the Caribbean is incomplete because some wretched heathen used their mobile phone loudly in the closing moments. The Passion of the Christ gets the same merciless treatment as The Devil In Miss Jones.
Tremble’s unusual approach to criticism (the cartoon review has been part of Japanese film texts for a while) raises interesting questions about the films discussed and a critic’s interpretation of what’s on screen – each illustration is notably authored by Trembles but displays a vast array of cinematic topics. Often the illustrations go to some length in establishing the minutia of the film, other times the broader picture is shown. Rick’s penchant for alliteration makes for instant billboard reviews – or rather it would if the deletives were (deleted that is) and they were a little less detrimental.
While Trembles does admit to enjoying the odd film there is a sense in which he tortures himself week in week out to review stuff that he utterly despises – venting his spleen (and showing lots of spleens in his frequently gory vignettes) in a way that is half laugh-out-loud hilarious and half, well, a bit mean spirited.
Any Cop?: Opinionated and infuriating but clearly the work of a deranged genius – film reviews for psychos.
Behind the Mask of the Horror Actor – Doug Bradley
Titan Books 2004 , 288 pages , £10.99 , PB
Bitesize: An illustrated guide to the faces behind the monsters’ masks and the people who made them.
Doug Bradley has a face you’ll recognise instantly… but it’s not his day-to-day one, not the one he was born with. No, Doug is famous the world over for being the main Cenobite, eventually named Pinhead, in the Hellraiser series of films; his scar-etched head emphasised by equidistant nails hammered in at every ill-healed intersection.
In 1993 he toured with a lecture on the role of the masked horror actor and expanded this into book form now, revised, in its present paperback incarnation. Rather than launch straight into his own experiences he takes us from the pre-historic wall paintings in the Cave of les Trois Freres, France, through the role of the mask in Greek plays and the traditions of Japanese theatre.
The mask then has a powerful history in human representation – cinema is but the most prominent recent manifestation of this. Narrative cinema’s love of the monster goes back to the late 19th century. Bradley follows films adaptation of stage make-up through early silents, the generally unsung work of Cecil Holland and to cinema’s first major masked star – Lon Chaney. The “Man of a Thousand Faces” applied and developed his own make-up in countless movies, torturing and contorting his body to produce silent Hollywood’s most memorable characters; the Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera and the grotesque canine toothed vampire of London After Midnight.
Although not exclusively the case, the majority of masked actors after Chaney relied on the increasingly inventive work of the make-up artist. Bradley follows the major players (Karloff, Christopher Lee, the only occasionally made-up Vincent Price), along with some welcome but perhaps less expected masked actors, particularly Jean Marais who played the beast in Jean Cocteau’s superlative La belle et la bête (1946).
The rise of the modern horror (as it has now become – as is rightly pointed out the term “horror film” was not used early in cinema history, normally referred to as “Thrill Picture”) – and the franchise of the modern monster movie takes up the final section of the book, following the careers of Gunner Hansen (Leatherface, among others) and Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger, among others) as well as the actors behind Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees. Naturally a reasonable portion of the book is given over to Bradley’s experience as Pinhead and, as the book progresses, autobiography comes more to the fore, following his working relationship with Clive Barker, various theatre and avant-garde projects up to the making of Hellraiser and beyond.
Put in context it gives a greater understanding of the different tribulations the masked actor has to endure; the endless hours of rigid make-up, the early (4 a.m.!) mornings, the discomfort, the Noh theatre methods of getting into character. All throughout the book the sufferings of the art are re-emphasised by one actor after another – no-one can abide the sloppy lunches! Behind the Mask of the Horror Actor is a fascinating insight into a less well-documented part of the acting fraternity. Its easy going style (from factual details and biography to colloquialisms and anecdotes) coupled with personal experience and the technical details of the make-up process make it an essential all-round purchase for anyone interested in film, acting, horror or make-up.
Any Cop?: Monstrously good read for latex lovers and film enthusiasts alike
The Art of Destruction: The Films of the Vienna Action Group – Stephen Barber
Creation Books 2004 , 160 pages , £11.99
Bitesize: Shock theatrics on film – wallow in the degrading art of the Vienna Action Group.
So, you think you’re pretty rock ‘n’ roll do you? Reckon you’ve seen it all, done it all and that the Dirty Sanchez blokes wouldn’t know gross if it vomited on them? Well, the Vienna Action Group would still out-puke you AND get to call it art as well. So who are this bunch of happy (or not-so happy) go lucky funsters?
Formed in Vienna (funnily enough) in the 1960s, the VAG (as we’ll affectionately call ’em from here on in) took performance art out of its cosy “cover a naked lady in blue emulsion” beginnings and dragged it through the quagmire of a decade, coming to terms with televised warfare and crumbling moral boundaries. Not content to merely talk about sex and whip their togs off, the VAG went the whole hog and shagged on stage. For the sake of art, naturally. But they didn’t stop there, far from it, the shag-fest a mere (w)hor(e)s d’oeuvre to the main courses of theatrical depravity.
Putting it bluntly: they’d give anything a bash – sometimes animals, sometimes themselves. They’d kill a few beasts. They’d stab and mutilate each other and themselves. Toilet breaks? Not for these crazy dudes – why stop the performance mid swing? Surely it’s better to just shit on the stage and get on with the rest of the show? Naturally, such antics were not always appreciated and the overall effect on the main members’ lives was profound – imprisonment, breakdowns and even suicide. Were this just a theatrical movement, the VAG might well have languished as a footnote in experimental performance art, but fortunately (!) for us many key performances were filmed so we can ‘enjoy’ the VAG experience at our leisure.
The films themselves range from documents of performances to highly structured experimental films. The Art of Destruction concerns the main protagonists of the movement and their own particular brands of performance/art/terrorism as well as a discussion of the major films and their influences. Each member is given space for biography (and there are some bizarre backgrounds to be sure) and key performances, all amply illustrated in disturbing black and white. Rather than just a catalogue of broken taboos the VAG are seen as natural extensions of both Dadaism and the “Happening” scene of the ’50s, but one distinctly Austrian in the way that it rebelled against a harshly censorious government whom the performers saw as intrinsically unrepentant of its recent fascist past. This adds greater weight to the performances than perhaps the later New York transgressive movement, and their influence can be seen in everything from Helnwein paintings to mainstream Marilyn Manson videos.
The VAG’s story is an engrossing and compelling one (despite necessary repetition), of arrests, imprisonment, notoriety, cult-like sex in chateaux, suicide and degradation but it’s not for all tastes – the very nature of their art is confrontational, nihilistic and the book reflects that. Graphic illustrations of coprophilia, masturbation with animal organs, self-mutilation, defecation and a host of other perversities are the order of the day so you might feel the need for a cleansing shower after reading.
Any Cop?: Fascinating but worrying art-film book for very sick bunnies only.