Flashbacks and close-ups

22nd November 1996 at 00:00
The centenary of the cinema has raised the curtain on dozens of new film books. Robin Buss flicks through a selection.

Much though one may respect professional critics, there is a general feeling that, if you want to understand cinema, the people to tell you about it are the film-makers themselves. The periodical Projections (which appears roughly once a year, disguised as a book), is guided by this principle. According to the publishers, it is "a forum for film-makers in which practitioners talk about their craft . . . a series of despatches from the front lines."

Projections 6 (Faber, Pounds 9.99) appeared this summer, and is a collection of diaries, notes, interviews and articles by a variety of directors, cameramen and scriptwriters. Some are very enlightening, others less so. There is no intrinsic reason why a person who is good behind a camera should also be articulate and perceptive when writing about film.

In fact, Projections is unusual in its willingness to listen to screenwriters and technicians, as well as to directors and stars (not that anyone usually expects actors to contribute much to an appreciation of their films - star interviews satisfy another kind of curiosity). So the same publisher, Faber, has an impressive list of directors' biographies or autobiographies, a number of which have just been reissued for the autumn in paperback.

They include Don Siegel's A Siegel Film (Pounds 12.99), with detailed accounts of the making of each of his movies, written partly in the form of a film script; and David Weddle's Sam Peckinpah: "If They Move, Kill 'Em" (Pounds 12.99). The second of these is an illuminating portrait, with a discussion of Peckinpah's speciality, violence, while the first consists largely of trivia: how they shot the hijacking of the school bus in Dirty Harry, how Siegel scared Dana Wynter during the making of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Directors, when they sit down to write, often feel they have to be lively, literary or entertaining, and end up as bores.

Andre de Toth's Fragments (Pounds 11.99), a series of loosely-linked essays on a career that has taken him from Budapest to Beverly Hills and beyond, also has literary pretentions, and more to tell us about the author than about his films.

Kevin Macdonald's biography of another Hungarian, his grandfather, Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter (Pounds 12.99), also follows its subject around Europe, until he finds the opportunity to do his most memorable work in collaboration with Michael Powell (another director who fancied his literary talents). A useful assessment of the writer's contribution to the partnership, with a touching account of its dissolution after Ill Met by Moonlight, it won the BFI Film Book of the Year Award.

The hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee are a recurrent theme in the biographies of directors who belong to the generation that matured during Hollywood's "golden age". One can read Bernard Eisenschitz's Nicholas Ray: An American Journey, David Caute's Joseph Losey: A Revenge on Life and Joseph McBride's Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success (each Pounds 12. 99), as linked biographies, despite their differences of approach - especially as Ray and Losey, both natives of La Crosse, Wisconsin, were friends. The subtitles of the Losey and Capra books show that these were not happy lives - all three men were forced into uncomfortable artistic and political compromises by the circumstances of their times.

Enjoyable though it may be to know the production history of the movies and the struggles of their directors, only a quiz contestant would be content with that. Pauline Kael's Raising Kane (Marion Boyars, Pounds 14.95), consists of eleven of the New Yorker critic's longer essays, on topics ranging from individual films (Bonnie and Clyde) and stars (Cary Grant) to "Fantasies of the Art-House Audience", "Movies on Television" and "Why Are Movies So Bad?" The title piece, the longest in the collection, is a well-known re-assessment of Citizen Kane, arguing that Orson Welles's enormous personality and talents have distorted our perceptions of his work and unjustly marginalised the role of the writer, Herman Mankiewicz, in the making of the film. When the essay was first published, Welles replied with a furious letter to The Times. Kael has a film buff's knowledge of the movies, but combines it with a writer's talent and a critic's understanding.

Brewer's Cinema (Cassell, Pounds 12.99) is not addressed, as you might think, to the licensed trade, but to filmgoers, one of several works inspired by Dr Ebenezer Cobham Brewer's 1870 Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. It has entries on stars, films and directors, as well as technical terms, spiced with phrases and fables.

African Experiences of Cinema (edited by Imruh Bakari and Mbye Cham, BFI,Pounds 14.99), on the other hand, is a collection of documents and articles for serious students, not buffs, concentrating on the social and political context of African film-making. However, the most enjoyable film book I have read this year is Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies (edited by Mark C Carnes, Cassell, Pounds 20), in which about 40 specialists compare images of the past on film with the historical record.

Not all the judgments are negative. Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, Gerda Lerner says, "has shown us how film can speak truth to history", while Arthur Schlesinger praises Lewis Milestone's version of The Front Page for catching "the legend of Chicago in the Roaring Twenties" and Christine Stansell finds that Reds gives an idea of the "otherness" of the past.

But, not surprisingly, most of the historians concentrate on where the film-makers have got it wrong: the portrait of Sir Thomas More as a 20th-century "prisoner of conscience" in A Man for All Seasons, for example, or the way that Fat Man and Little Boy (Shadow Makers) lets the atom-bomb scientists off the hook.

And, if Houdini should ever keep his promise to return from the dead, John F Kasson suggests he might like to head straight for Paramount Studios, to tell them what he thought of the 1953 film of his life that George Marshall directed there; in fairness, too, he should not forget the scriptwriter, Philip Yordan.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today