A week in books: Acolytes and heretics before a sacred screen

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The Independent Culture

Next week marks the holiest festival of the religion adopted by much of the modern world. A billion adepts will, collectively, share in its stylised ritual of expectation, sorrow and eventual triumph. Then, a couple of days after broadcasts of the Oscar ceremony cease, Easter will come round as well.

Any resuscitated Roman would spot the Academy awards as a lavish pagan rite designed to propitiate the fickle gods of Fame and Fortune. And if celebrity (especially celluloid celebrity) has become the presiding faith of our age, we should start to look at its literature in the light of theology. As in theology, movie books sport plenty of examples of hagiography and ecclesiology, along with a few brave works of honest doubt and outright heresy.

Firmly in the orthodox camp comes a tome such as Emanuel Levy's Oscar Fever (Continuum, £12.99). Despite its promise to analyse "the history and politics of the Academy Awards", this amiable, fact-packed survey takes most Hollywood articles of faith for granted. True, Levy explains the McCarthy black-lists and usefully glosses every Oscar doctrine, from the cult of disability (ever since 1948, when Jane Wyman won as a deaf-mute rape victim) to the eternal preference for middlebrow mush (since How Green Was My Valley beat Citizen Kane in 1941). Yet Levy, a senior critic at Variety, lists the crimes of the Academy – right up to the 11 statuettes for Titanic – with the twinkly detachment of a scholarly cardinal cataloguing the tortures of the Inquisition. I suspect that loyal acolytes could love this book to death.

Prominent among the heretics now is Harry Knowles. A paralysed super-buff from Austin, Texas, he founded and runs the premier website for unauthorised film-biz news, aintitcoolnews.com. With a foreword by Quentin Tarantino and the elegant subtitle "Kicking Hollywood's butt", Ain't It Cool? (Boxtree, £12.99) is Harry's carbon-based companion to his online chapel of dissent. It would be easy to sneer at the adolescent swagger of his style and the endless chunks of movie arcana. But when it comes to principles, Harry is a treasure: a cinema classicist devoted to its canon, from Billy Wilder to Paul Thomas Anderson, and fuelled by a "liberal-humanist agenda".

His good-natured mockery of stars and studios (more smiley Erasmus than scowling Luther) stands up in the best Reformation way for outspoken private judgement against peer pressure, blockbuster marketing and corporate spin. Harry argues, "It's always the fans who imagine it better. Who locate the things to like, the things to live for, out of the gray slag of the past." What an impeccably Protestant sentiment.

Enthusiasm on Harry's scale triggers suspicion among the orthodox. The usual half- insults cluster round this kind of passion – nerd, geek, trainspotter. When does the expert become an eccentric, or even a psychotic crank? "Fan", after all, derives from "fanatic".

That uncertainty, along with a trailer-load of movie lore, propels Blánaid McKinney's first novel, The Ledge (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99). Its hero, John Kelso, is a sort of English Harry Knowles who hosts a cable-TV movie programme loved by late-night obsessives. One, a disturbed farmer's son from Aberdeen, kidnaps his favourite film buff in order to force him to read a scintillating screenplay. John escapes this Stephen King-ish misery, steals the script and makes a hit movie with it, while falling in love with another demon for detail – an ace TV researcher.

Much of the plot is frankly silly, stoked by melodrama and coincidence, and McKinney has a fatal weakness for delirious patches of purple prose. But The Ledge does achieve a fine jittery intensity in its nervous romance between a pair who maybe know too much and maybe feel too little. The novel's a mess, but a lively and even exhilarating one. Readers who grasp why John would punch a punter who hates Hellzapoppin' (1941) will relish it anyway. For me, its untamed vim proved yet again that – in Los Angeles or London, in film or fiction – we ought to honour the job of the editor more.

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