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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Serpents Tail 2004 , 288 pages , £11.99 , PB
Bitesize: A time tripping tale of movies, porn and extinct birds…
Tubby doctor Henry Cadwallader is accompanying his ungrateful daughter Dorothy to America in order to launch her career in the movies. Naturally he is protective of her, fearing the possibility of exploitation, and with good reason. Meanwhile William Draper, a budding physician with an unsightly skin condition, is desperately trying to procure a mating pair of dodos in 17th century Alsatia. How are these two connected? What has this to do with a kinky English writer and a self confessed “auteur of the future”, keen to film his Last Year In Marienbad homage? Does regression therapy really work? And do B-list stars really turn into Hollywood realtors? Read on…
Hollywood could not survive without writers, which is probably why there are so many films about them. Normally struggling with alcoholism and the dreaded “block”, the writer is one of Hollywood’s most unlikely heroes in that his (and it normally is “his”) profession is inherently inert, not the stuff of the dynamic action hero. The Hollywood Dodo gives us the flip side: this is a book about making a movie but it adds the elements of pornography and a distinctly ugly extinct bird whose name sounds unfortunately like dildo. Oh and it’s partly, apparently, set 300 years ago when the final few dodos were croaking their flightless last.
The Hollywood Dodo flits from chapter to chapter, each concentrating on one central character/plot strand, and between fonts, so you know where you are. Initially there appear to be two distinct time streams – now and the seventeenth century – but all becomes more apparent as the book progresses. The shifts in time are not disruptive and serve the plot rather well with many of the various streams containing parallels with each other: the less than healthy physicians, the quest for a living dodo, the quack muse etc.
These would be slight stories as standalones, but they interact with a real sense of momentum and intrigue and all the strands tie together neatly in one way or another. Unfortunately the conclusion doesn’t really live up to the build up and much of the sub-plot involving regression therapy is left dangling unsatisfactorily – there is clearly more to the manic Carla Mendez, the past-life therapist, than is made clear. But these are minor quibbles, The Hollywood Dodo is a clever, well written, unpatronising thriller that combines a love of Hollywood with a sprinkling of sex, situation comedy, violence and… well, dead birds.
Any Cop?: When in full swing this is page turning, enjoyable and involving but the end is a little damp.
Critical Vision , 192 pp , $17.95 , PB
Bitesize: A spiritually uplifting tome, but not in the self-help sense. . .
As is generally the case the world over, the horror genre (bar a few tentative steps into the field by the big studios) lies in the realm of the low to mid budget film aimed predominantly at a young audience. Hong Kong horror is no different in that respect and, as elsewhere, there are genuine classics to be found and many guilty pleasures to enjoy. O’Brien’s book is subtitled A Gwailo’s Guide to Hong Kong Horror, a neat way of distancing himself from cultural snobbery and playing on the meaning of gwailo – both literally as “white ghost” and as a less than complimentary way of referring to white non-Chinese people.
This guide serves as a road-map and introduction to this oft-neglected genre, often playing poor third in Western analysis to the gunplay or martial arts film (it jostles with the more exotic wu xia pian and the neglected analysis of non-martial arts comedies and a substantial body of dramas) and is a welcome addition to the growing library of books about Hong Kong cinema. O’Brien places the popularity of the modern Hong Kong horror at the feet of two men: Sammo Hung Kam Bo and Tsui Hark (although his analysis of Ching Tsu-Tung’s work as happy journeyman is perhaps a little harsh).
Sammo Hung’s Spooky Encounters is viewed as the film that launched the resurgence in the genre (Tsui Hark’s We’re Going To Eat You and the rationalised but bizarre The Butterfly Murders did little to pique public interest at the time) and is undoubtedly a classic – a breathless blend of comedy, horror and martial arts as our fearless hero (director/star Hung) encounters spooky apparitions from the netherworld. The conclusion comprising altar-building and possession by gods is one of the highlights of Hong Kong cinema.
O’Brien is less enthusiastic about the Wu Ma classic The Dead and the Deadly but points to the film that launched the genre into the stratosphere as the peerless Mr Vampire. A whole chapter is devoted to the vampire film, both the more traditional Chinese hopping style and those imported from the European model (looking back to the enjoyable schlock of the Shaw Brothers/Hammer co-production The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires) – it is testament to the popularity of the genre that he cannot even hope to be all inclusive.
Later chapters follow the ghost film from Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (a film featuring ghosts rather than being specifically horrific), through the insane cult favourite Fantasy Mission Force to the arty sensual effects-laden A Chinese Ghost Story. There is also a section on some of the more outré of the category III offerings such as Erotic Chinese Ghost Story and the truly deranged Eternal Evil of Asia.
All in all a comprehensive overview but one that has an inherent problem facing any potential book and its relationship with the reader – on one hand while the author’s enthusiasm and descriptions make you yearn to see the films, the very process of breaking down the events and plots can remove the element of surprise. O’Brien aims his book at those already familiar with the horror genre as a whole but who are new to its Hong Kong inceptions. There are many references, particularly to European horror films, so the prospective viewer can have a familiar angle with which to view the films. In some cases this is helpful, in others perhaps inappropriate. There is a tendency to anglicise certain areas of distaste in aspects of the Hong Kong film, particularly in regard to the casual abuse of animals, something that the oft lauded Italian horror industry was not adverse to (the cuts in Argento’s Deep Red and Inferno imposed in the UK, for example, don’t relate to the murders of people but the abuse of animals) and in the often tasteless misogyny. While this is, in many respects, understandable and worth pointing out to unsuspecting viewers it does occasionally feel like moralising.
However this is, in the main, a useful guide to Hong Kong horror, pointing out the best, worst and most under-rated entries in the genre complemented by a broad overview of the talent involved with their making and trends in consumer acceptance.
Any Cop?: Very useful to have to hand when the temptation to shop on-line for oriental oddities takes hold and doesn’t let go, like the skeletal hand of a thousand year old ghost. Spooky!
Fourth Estate , 459pp , PB ,
Bitesize: Faithful, if dogged, review of 90’s Brit comedy .
If ever there was a book with a confrontational title then this is it. Sunshine on Putty. Do what? This proves to be a tag that is explained, somewhat tangentially, at the book’s opening and closing pages but reveals (to the casual browser) exactly nothing about the contents.
The “Golden Age of British Comedy” is a well-used expression but when accompanied by the “from The Big Night Out to The Office” you may want to question the author’s sanity. After all, while the titles mentioned are undoubtedly members of the comedy elite, the suggestion that the last decade or so of British comedy is in any way a Golden Age is one that should be approached with a degree of scepticism. This is, you will no doubt recall, the era of My Hero, Mr Bean and the heretical Legacy of Reginald Perrin. The fact that the later title looks back to a perceived ‘other’ Golden Age, the 1970’s, initially seems to be symptomatic of British comedy’s demise in the face of the horrible 22-episode-per-season barrage of the US committee sitcom. The crucial part of the argument for the 70’s sitcom is that they were in some senses universal, appealing to a wider audience cross section than the 100+ channel specialisation of the satellite era could hope for.
However Thompson’s arguments for a renaissance are generally not reserved for BBC1/ITV sitcoms such as My Family, but more for cult material likely to be seen post-watershed on BBC2 or Channel 4 (the focus on those broadcast on the mainstream terrestrial channels were often a result of their success – the move of The Office from BBC2 to BBC1 a case in point). Within this framework Thompson is on far less rocky ground and by skimping over more mainstream fare he can concentrate on backing up his argument. Basically the thrust is that modern comedy, as instigated by The Big Night Out is a healthy backlash from the ‘right-on’ alternative comedy of the Thatcher era (for which the ‘splitter’ Ben Elton receives much vitriol – from Labour to… well, New Labour) imbuing variety acts with a sense of post-modernism and surrealism. Max Wall, Peter Cook and to some extent the Monty Python team are partly identified as the parents of this new breed.
The approach is essentially chronological and based on numerous interviews conducted by the author over the years. The development (and development hells) of the shows are covered, along with the audience reactions. Reeves and Mortimer are viewed as a barometer throughout these turbulent years as their various projects fluctuated wildly in terms of success. Similarly the tone changes from adulation to impartial with Thompson considering, for example, not only the genius of media terrorist Chris Morris, but also the pitfalls of his comic methods and bizarrely his middle ground status between Ali G and Noel’s House Party… Thompson backs up his premise for the main, and makes you realise how good modern comedy has been. This is no mean feat as much of the material is still fresh; the benefit of hindsight allows you to edit out the unfortunate ‘also rans’.
It’s a tightrope act that holds well despite some shaky moments – there are too many footnotes and some of the internal gags fall as flat as the ton of invisible lead soup (the ‘heavy electricity’ as described in Brass Eye). Overall though it makes for a both a good read and a valuable record of the alternative-alternative-comedy of the 1990’s.
Any Cop?: An interesting examination of TV-land’s not so distant comic heritage.
Taschen 2003 , 192 pages , £9.99 , PBs
Bitesize: Excellent new Taschen series shoots straight into the number one spot of the “new film books we must own” list . . .
Benedikt Taschen has become a global publishing phenomenon with his range of well-produced but reasonably priced books. In the past these have tended to concentrate on artists (making books about the great painters available to the masses without needing to re-mortgage the house), photographers and architects. Added to this, the shameless publication of art-erotica which has meant that he always has shelf presence. Many of the books have also been designed to within an inch of their lives – the stocking clad Elmer Batters’ book and the kitsch quilting of their definitive Pierre et Gilles tome being fabulous cheeky classics.
Taschen now have a new range to add to their formidable catalogue but this time the focus is on film. While their books about film decades (Cinema of the 90s etc) have been available for some time and their exhaustive book on Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot must be in the top ten of most cinephiles’ “must have” coffee table books, this new series focuses on individuals and film movements.
The first four in the new series have just been released and the prospects are looking good.
First thing to bear in mind is the price. These are competitively pitched at just £9.99. To put that into perspective that’s just one pound more than a BFI film classic book – and Taschen’s books weigh in at a healthy 192 pages of glossy print, housed in a stylish plasticised semi-soft cover. Very swish. Each book is profusely illustrated too. Very occasionally the grain shows on some of the double spread pages but this is not intrusive and is countered by the rarity of many of the stills on offer. All feature a number of “behind the scenes” shots of the film-makers at work.
Stanley Kubrick: The Complete Films by Paul Duncan follows the life of the occasionally enigmatic director from his years as a photographer through to his final film Eyes Wide Shut. Duncan views his subject as a visual poet of the cinema whose formalist approaches to film-making struck a chord with the viewer by immersing them into an entirely aesthetic world. He counters claims of Kubrick’s reclusive nature and dismisses media claims of grandiose behaviour by examining the energy and commitment that the director put into all of his projects, even Napoleon, planned but never made. Kubrick’s meticulous attention to detail is shown perfectly in a wonderful still from the set of Spartacus where he has extras playing corpses don numbers so that he can position them with pinpoint accuracy.
Alfred Hitchcock: The Complete Films (also by Paul Duncan) has the unenviable task of distilling the director’s lengthy career into a tight wordcount. It’s a tricky balancing act – to produce an original tome about Hitchcock when there is already a plethora of books on the subject, but without alienating the introductory market who maybe are unfamiliar with Hitchcock’s foibles, style and numerous anecdotes. Much of the freshness here comes from the attention given to the early silent films that, while available on DVD in the States, remain largely unseen by anyone other than the diehard aficionado. Most Hitchcock books tend to focus on the key American films up to The Birds or concentrate specifically on the British talkies or the Selznick pictures. By giving a fuller view, the whole path of Hitchcock’s career becomes clearer to the reader. Again the illustrations are just what the doctor ordered – behind the scenes at the crane/dolly shot in Young and Innocent and an amusing Hitchcock “passing joke” on the inside back cover.
In Billy Wilder: The Complete Films, Glenn Hopp traces Wilder’s flight from Germany at the start of the Nazi uprising and his settling in Hollywood as a scriptwriter, moving into roles as director and producer. It’s the story of increasing attempts at autonomy within a rigid studio system, a system that gave freedom based upon previous successes. There is a constant sense of Wilder pushing the envelope regarding what he could show and the stories he could tell. The modern audience may be surprised at the battles he faced getting the classic Sunset Boulevard or Some Like It Hot to the screen; the latter (the AFI’s choice as funniest ever comedy) considered scandalous by some studio heads is now a regular family favourite. Hopp tells Wilder’s story in a succinct and engaging manner but sometimes details on the films themselves feel a little Spartan; they seem to be signposts for the creative process rather than showing the fruits of it. But then that’s what the pictures are for – there are plenty full page spreads with, perhaps, a touch of bias towards Marilyn Monroe.
As befits the more emotional outlook of its subject, Federico Fellini (Chris Wiegand) charts the director’s films from his (comparatively) restrained early films to the full-blown insanity of Casanova and beyond, by focusing on the subject. The critical pendulum that marked Fellini’s work (lauded with Oscar success with Amacord but shunned just a few years later for Casanova) is reflected in the periods of self-doubt and depression, particularly on the set of his masterpiece 8 ½ whose lack of completed script is recursively examined by the film itself, in what must surely be one of the most bizarre autobiographical films of all time.
Any Cop?: In all recommended buying for anyone interested or even simply curious about the film-makers covered. The “flick through the pictures” quality alone justifies the price for the casual browser but the sheer wealth of rare and essential stills makes them perfect for aficionados too. Splendid.
Robson Books 2003 , 288 pages , £16.95 , HB
Bitesize: Get off yr horse . . .
“John Wayne was a faggot” “The hell he was” – from Repo Man (Alex Cox)
“He’s the Duke, he’s A number one” – from Escape From New York (John Carpenter)
“John Wayne is big leggy” – unfathomable 80’s song lyric.
As with any modern legend, sorting out the fact from the fiction can be a tricky business. With John Wayne the whole thing is set in overdrive, partly because of his enduring position as a distinctly patriotic representative of US republican thinking, and also because of the constant stream of misinformation supplied by the film studios he worked for. Studios are notorious for creating elaborate backgrounds about their star earners in order to create and maintain audience interest. Biographers too seek new angles from which to tackle their subject – normally through the revelation of some sordid detail in the star’s past or an area of controversy. The plethora of biographies about Wayne run the gamut from the scandalous to the anodyne. Michael Munn’s approach is an attempt to sort the wheat from the chaff, adding weight to his argument because he knew the Duke (albeit as a junior film correspondent, the Duke does come across as being very generous with his time) and has interviewed many of those connected with him. All fine and dandy and this would in itself make a fascinating read, especially as, for all the reverence with which Munn imbues his subject, he is not afraid of confronting the less favourable aspects of Wayne’s life. Sadly this is countered by a need to somehow place the long deceased Wayne in the context of September 11th, via an increase in American patriotic fervour that is seen to be iconically reflected in Wayne’s perceived persona. This is unnecessary, as is Munn’s tedious line of defence that labels all critics wrong about Wayne’s oeuvre and a repetitive over-reliance on a twenty year old list of Variety’s top Westerns, adjusted for box office takings.
It’s interesting that despite a long career reviewing films and passing comment as to the quality of most of Wayne’s output, Munn does not consider himself to be a critic. However, get past the irritants and you are left with a fascinating portrait of the man, and the myth, covering his life, films, marriages, separations and children. There’s an explanation of the origins of his preferred moniker “The Duke”, his courageous fights against “The Big C” and prodigious drinking – although he always turned up to work on time. This is a celebration of a “man’s man”, unafraid to stand up for his country and its servicemen in the light of lily-livered liberals opposed to the Vietnam War. Indeed one of the main selling points is the revelation of an international communist conspiracy to assassinate the iconic symbol of free America. You may interpret this however you wish, the biography would be just as interesting without the flag waving.
Any Cop?: Overall a fascinating, if flawed (some of us have heard of The Killer Shrews and do not view The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires with disdain), biography that would have been great, had it not been for the occasional tub-thumping and descent into pious right-wing moralising.