Film books: the mad, the maverick and the macabre in the year's cinematic offerings
Sunday 16 December 2007
The cult of movie star worship is over. It must be; instead of the usual Monroe and Gable books this season a saltier selection has turned up, kicking off with Polanski by Christopher Sandford (Century 18.99), exploring the life of the director who provides "a living symbol of Franco-American misunderstanding", and who adds to that sense by characteristically declining to be interviewed.
Exiled and tainted by the trauma of his early life (his mother died at Auschwitz), the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate and that notorious charge of underage sex, Polanski has consistently refused to adopt a posture of humility. Hollywood condemns those who turn their backs on it, and so he has remained cinema's greatest outcast. Kenneth Tynan felt that Polanski's films were overshadowed by his life because his cliffhangers ended with real falls. Described variously as an "evil mole" and "someone you'd only want to touch with a pair of tongs", it would be easy to study his output solely in the light of his outsider status, but Sandford is alive to the paradoxes that riddle Polanski's life, and notes that the director's dark vision works best at times when the world is going wrong. It's amusing to think that when the Polish finally embraced their prodigal son, one party newspaper expressed regret that he had been exiled in the solitude of Los Angeles. It's likely Polanski did not trust himself to separate fact and fantasy in what would have been his deepest interview; a shame, because the portrait makes a riveting read.
It seems inevitable that any conversation about Ken Russell is going to involve penises, and Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and his Films by Joseph Lanza (Chicago 16.95) gets to the point, as it were, from the outset. Russell's film life has been a bacchanal in which burlesque is used to shape serious cinematic ideas. To enjoy him is to surrender to a voluptuary and not worry about the end-of-the-pier acting, so it's no wonder that critic Pauline Kael thought the man was mad. Had Russell been Italian he would be as revered as Fellini. Instead, it's still impossible to see many of his films. At least we have the next best thing in an enjoyable biography of a frustrating visionary who could create haunting scenes of passion and decay, but could do nothing to help a bad actor.
TV Cream's Anatomy of Cinema by Phil Norman and Chris Diamond (Friday Books 12.99) is a website spin-off guide to the films criticism forgot. Apparently we've all been misled by studies of Loach and Losey, and the real heart of British cinema lies in Dentist on the Job and the entire oeuvre of Bernard Bresslaw, which is probably true. The result is a barmy admission of honesty about an industry we have consistently overrated. From the incongruous casting decision that stranded Welshman Hugh Griffith in Ben-Hur to immortal speeches that include "We've been tricked by cleverness!" from The Crimson Ghost, this is the book you want to put in every film lecturer's back pocket. Is Smashing Time a better film than Blow-Up? It is, argue the authors, if you want an accurate view of swinging London that's not a self-conscious art statement. Besides, if you put together all the surnames of the characters in Smashing Time you get the first verse of "Jabberwocky", a vindicating fact oddly overlooked in this volume. Shame about the drawings, which appear to have been done by someone's cat.
Cinema Macabre, edited by Mark Morris (PS Publishing 25), is a sumptuous analysis of the films that erect the hairs on the back of your neck. Intriguing essays follow from the League of Gentlemen, Simon Pegg, Brian Aldiss, Jonathan Ross, Neil Gaiman and others, often returning to childhood fears and loss of innocence, with Orphe and Carousel featuring beside The Wicker Man and Hellraiser. Speaking of which, The Hellraiser Films and their Legacy by Paul Kane (McFarland 28.95) takes its subject seriously and works through a surprising number of thoughtful ideas, from horror's fascination with all things medical to the recurring voyeuristic tropes in Clive Barker's work. There's no reason why a study of B- movies shouldn't reveal as much as any volume on the great directors, and this is a definitively well-researched fan volume about a film series made for fans.
Hancock's Last Stand by Edward Joffe (The Book Guild 16.95) should probably never have been written. It's a painful account of Hancock's final days in Australia, working under a director in thrall to the wayward, depressive star. Hancock's alcoholism and self-hatred colluded to prevent his final moments in the spotlight from being anything but unbearably sad. It didn't help that his last script was dismal, or that the well-meaning Joffe thought that trips around Sydney's drinking spots might somehow improve his charge's performance.
Hollywood Undercover by Ian Halperin (Mainstream 12.99) is about crashing your way through Hollywood. Don't believe the blurb; far from becoming a movie star, Halperin just about manages a role as an extra. Hollywood periodically throws up characters whose desperation for exposure feels simultaneously ingratiating and suspicious. Halperin moves through porn, scientology, the Oscars and the odd brush with fame, easing the sense of dubious veracity that pervades his account with YouTube links to key scenes in the book. These have the effect of making virtually everyone who tries to help him seem nice while presenting Halperin as an unscrupulous creep.
Better to end on two true joys. Bambi vs Godzilla by David Mamet (Simon & Schuster 11.99) is an instant classic on writing for movies. Funny, insightful and frequently offensive, Mamet on film is like Simon Gray on theatre. His analogy of the modern screenplay as a begging letter will stay with you.
The delightful British Film Posters by Sim Branaghan (BFI Publishing 24.99) goes into a level of detail only graphics students need, but it's the first complete history of the subject, and the gorgeous artworks many unseen for years speak for themselves. British poster sites were a different shape to America's, so new designs often had to be produced, spawning a separate design ethic that feels like an alternative history of cinema. What amazes is how so few artists created such an astonishing range of work.
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