BOOKS FOR CHRISTMAS / All about turning money into light

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The Independent Culture
WHAT ARE film books for? As we approach the centenary of cinema - in 1995, it will be 100 years since the Lumiere Brothers exhibited their first film in Paris - we can expect a fair crop of commemorative volumes, most of which may be useful for pr oppingup a shelf of videos. Some will obviously be worth keeping for reference or advice; and a few, the best, will improve our understanding of films and the people who make them. Already this Christmas has brought a larger than usual crop of these las t: Ingmar Bergman's Images (Bloomsbury pounds 20), John Baxter's biography of Bunuel (Fourth Estate pounds 18.99) and David Thomson's revised edition of his Biographical Dictionary of Film (Deutsch pounds 25).

Thomson, who contributes the ``Sunday Movie'' column to this paper, is entertaining, informative and opinionated. His dictionary covers the whole of cinema, from a perceptive article on the Lumiere Brothers to a touching assessment of Dennis Potter, but makes no pretension to factitious objectivity: Thomson is not afraid to use the first person singular (for example, when distinguishing between his enjoyment of Joe Eszterhas as a companion at lunch and his feelings about the man's work as a script-writer); his world centres on Hollywood, giving him a tentative approach to other locations. He can throw out provocative remarks: Easy Rider was a ``disaster in the history of film to set beside the loss of Technicolor, the invention of gross par ticipation,the early death of Murnau and the longevity of Richard Attenborough''. He can be irritating, even bitchy, but he is never dull. In this, he resembles Pauline Kael, the veteran former critic of The New Yorker, the latest volumes of whose colle cted reviews, I Lost it at the Movies and Going Steady (Marion Boyars pounds 14.95) also appeared recently.

Thomson recognises that film and television are now part of the same industry, but doesn't make a fuss about it. Jim Hillier does. In The New Hollywood (Studio Vista pounds 10.99), he sets out ``to explore the way that film-makers themselves experience working in the Hollywood system, rather than to take a critic's approach to their output''. The key figure in his book is Roger Corman who, as an independent producer during the 1970s and 1980s, showed how to survive outside the studio system, with low-budget exploitation movies. Unfortunately, the lack of ``a critic's approach'', together with an ill-digested narrative and some discouraging work from the Studio Vista design department, bring back to that nagging question: who will wan t to read The New Hollywood, and why?

Equally bland, but in quite different ways, are Lizzie Francke's Script Girls (BFI pounds 11.95) and James Cameron-Wilson's Young Hollywood (Batsford pounds 18.50). The first is a history of women screenwriters in Hollywood which celebrates their contribution to successes like When Harry Met Sally (Nora Ephron's script ``became the star of the film''), while tending to put responsibility for their failures on others, usually the director (Ephron's script was ``hardly to blame'' for the fail ure of My Blue Heaven, for example). The second is essentially a collection of Brat Pack biographies; some of its subjects do not appear in Thomson, but there are too many omissions (Melanie Griffith, JoBeth Williams and others) to make this indispensabl e for updating your reference library. You can probably also manage without Warren G Harris' dull biography of Audrey Hepburn (Simon & Schuster pounds 17.50), despite its revelation that her parents were followers of Oswald Mosley, and Garry O'Connor's A lec Guinness: Master of Disguise (Hodder pounds 17.99), which only confirms what loyal (ie tight-lipped) friends the actor has.

Jean Renoir's Letters (Faber pounds 25) form an interesting complement to the biographies by Celia Bertin and Ronald Bergan, not least because they suggest why those are in many ways unsatisfactory works: there is a huge gap in the correspondence at the end of the 1930s, precisely the time when Renoir was making his best films and most deeply involved in the politics of the National Front: the first 46 years of Renoir's life produced only a little more than ten per cent of this correspondence, ne arly 90 per cent dating from the period 1940-1978. The 1930s, on the other hand, is interestingly covered in John Baxter's biography of Bunuel, including his relations with the Surrealists and the Communists at the time of Louis Aragon's break with Andre Breton. Despite a few appalling errors (the attribution of William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity to Edmund Wilson, for example), this is a well-researched account of the life and times of a director who was associated with some of the major intellec tual figures of the mid-century - including, marginally, Jean Renoir. In temperament, the gentle humanist Renoir and the irascible anarchist Bunuel had little in common, except the interest in sex which explains why they both made adaptations of Octave Mirbeau's Journal d'une femme de chambre. In that competition at least Bunuel wins hands down.

After the disturbing political confessions in his autobiography, The Magic Lantern, Ingmar Bergman turns, in Images (Bloomsbury pounds 20) to a fascinating and mature reflection on his films, under thematic titles: ``Dreams Dreamers'', ``Jests Jesters'',``Miscreance Credence'' and ``Farces Frolics''. The book will be an indispensable companion for the next Bergman season on television or at the National Film Theatre.

Lolita, Napoleon and Meet Me in St Louis (BFI Film Classics, pounds 6.95 each) are the latest in this well-designed and well-edited series of monographs. Richard Corliss gives Stanley Kubrick's film a Nabokovian treatment, writing his study as a line-by-line commentary on a poem, ``Pale Film''; Nelly Kaplan's close association with Abel Gance gives her a unique insight into Napoleon; and Gerald Kaufman has researched the MGM reconstruction of the making of Meet Me in St Louis. No doubt what use these are: all three would greatly add to one's understanding of the films.

What else is film criticism for? We may feel its chief purpose, like the movies themselves, is to entertain. Journalistic criticism aims to be witty and incisive, and is licenced to be flippant or dismissive, provided this is accompanied by humour: Pauline Kael's summing up of the final scene in Bunuel's Simon of the Desert ("what is presented to us as a vision of a mad, decaying world in its final orgy looks like a nice little platter party"). It is important to be reminded that there are other approaches, as in Russian Critics on the Cinema of Glasnost (ed Michael Brashinsky and Andrew Horton, CUP pounds 30). Here, in intelligently glossed articles and reviews, one can see critics brought up in the Marxist tradition struggling to come to terms with radical change. They suggest another notion of the use of writing about film.