The books of the films

2nd August 1996 at 01:00
Robin Buss recommends holiday reading for movie buffs.

The summer months are a quiet time for new releases in the cinema, so this may be an opportunity to catch up on some movie reading. You could even pack books appropriate to your holiday destination: Almodovar on Almodovar (edited by Frederic Strauss, Faber Pounds 15.99) for a sun'n'fun package to the Costa Brava, Woody Allen on Woody Allen (interviews, with Stig Bjorkman, Faber Pounds 8.99) for a weekend of culture and therapy in Manhattan, or Malle on Malle (edited by Philip French, Faber Pounds 14.99) if you decide to take your adolescent children to Paris and the Cote. These all belong to a series with a productive formula: movie books, too, have their genres and this one, which turns directors into auteurs, allowing them to discuss their own films individually and at length, has resulted in some excellent titles. And, for more impartial assessments, there is no shortage of director studies on the market: Julian Fox's Woody Allen (Batsford Pounds 17.99), for example, has recently appeared.

Often, the more lurid the movies, the heavier the book. This spring alone saw the publication of readers' guides to Babylon 5, Star Wars and Dr Who, two studies of the Carry On films and a commemoration of Hammer House of Horror, beside Andy Boot's lllustrated History of the British Horror Film (Cassell Pounds 11.95) and Stephen Jones' Illustrated Werewolf Movie Guide (Titan Pounds 12.99). To cap it all, there is a classified compendium, Bad Movies We Love by Edward Margulies and Stephen Rebello (Marion Boyars Pounds 17.95), which surveys some 250 films, awarding four hearts to any that the authors consider "so wretched and so lovable, you should get your hands on it right now".

Ours is an age that revels in post-modernist ironies, where Ed Wood is thought worthy to become the subject of a film biography by Tim Burton, a season at the National Film Theatre and a thoroughly researched monograph - Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Ed Wood, Jr (Faber Pounds 9.99) - without anyone challenging his reputation as "worst director of all time".

"Low comedy, high melodrama, hip tunes and mesmeric violence" are the characteristics of Quentin Tarantino's neo-noir films, according to Clive Barker, in his introduction to the script of Tarantino's recent excursion into the vampire genre, From Dusk Till Dawn (Faber Pounds 7,99) which, Barker continues, "opens in the same terrain: a place where violence is arbitrary and cruelty more likely to evoke guilty laughter than censure."

This is not the terrain traditionally explored by the leading genres. The Western, for example, has always been concerned with questions of history, conscience and justice, as one can see from the essays in The Movie Book of the Western (edited by Ian Cameron and Doug1as Pye, Cassell Pounds 20), a collection of fairly weighty essays on the major themes and examples of the genre. My own French Film Noir (Marion Boyars Pounds 19.95), looks at crime movies in France since World War II, and argues that without an awareness of issues of justice and morality, the genre becomes meaningless - in other words, when violence is treated as "simply one of the things that you can do in cinema that's interesting to watch" (to quote Quentin Tarantino, talking to Brian De Palma in Projections 5, Faber Pounds 9.99).

Of course, it does depend on the context: this issue of Projections has a large section on animation, a genre where one expects gratuitous violence. It includes an article on Ladislaw Starewicz and interviews with: Ray Harryhausen, a master of special effects; Nick Park, creator of Wallace and Gromit; and Henry Selick, who directed James and the Giant Peach (released here today).

The laziest kind of pool-side reading would be Donald Spoto's Rebel: The Life and Legend of James Dean (Harper Collins Pounds 8), which adds little to earlier accounts of the actor's 24 years. Two reissued biographies offer more improving fare for a calm summer evening: Simon Callow's definitive account of the young Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu is out in paperback (Vintage Pounds 8.99); so is W Stephen Gilbert's more provisional assessment of The Life and Work of Dennis Potter (Sceptre Pounds 7.99) - who was a film scriptwriter, as well as a television dramatist. The most significant of the new biographies is Michael Coveney's The World According to Mike Leigh (HarperCollins Pounds 18), a combative portrait of a major British film and theatre director who has received more acclaim abroad than in his own country; and Coveney lets you know just what he thinks of those ignoramuses here who have misunderstood or disparaged Leigh's work.

The centenary of cinema (which appears somehow to be continuing into its second year) has produced a number of studies of the pioneer days. Among them is Hillel Tryster's Israel Before Israel: Silent Cinema in the Holy Land (Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive, distributed by BFI Publishing, Pounds 18.99), a well-illustrated, but turgidly written account, mainly dealing with Zionist propaganda films in the first quarter of the century.

More momentous, and more entertaining, was the Jewish contribution to Hollywood, which is one theme in Colin Shindler's readable and informative Hollywood in Crisis: Cinema and American Society. 1929-1939 (Routledge Pounds 45 hardback Pounds 14.99 paper). This is what the publicity department would call a "prequel" to Shindler's Hollywood Goes to War, also in the publisher's excellent series, "Cinema and Society". In Hollywood in Crisis, Shindler examines the impact of the Depression on movie-making and of the movies on a depressed society, including Hollywood's changing reactions to the New Deal, the effect of the Hays Code and the influence of the Left, as well as a detailed analysis of the compromises involved in the final version of one "social problem" film, Warner Brother's Black Fury (1935). Of all the recent crop of movie books, this is the one I should be happiest to find lurking at the bottom of my suitcase.

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