Independent choice: film books
Saturday 22 February 1997
Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary
Documentary film is a curiously neglected art - routinely underfunded, pushed out of schedules by TV franchises. Yet there's a case to be made that documentary, and not the plays of Dennis Potter, represent the true innovative soul of TV. Recent mainstream cinema successes like Hoop Dreams and Crumb seem to prove its enduring appeal, and innovations in camcorder technology allow it to cover new territories, as the BBC's superbly Reithian Video Nation proves.
We can, reckon the editors of the exceptionally good Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary (Faber, pounds 20), expect to see a new wave of film directors come forth from bedsits with nothing more than a Hi-8 camcorder. Just as the 1970s bred directors from commercials and the 1980s from pop promos, Kevin Macdonald and Mark Cousins predict that home-movies will breed the next Orson Welles. It's a convincing and optimistic hypothesis, another example of that elusive swinging-Sixties re-run that cultural commentators claim to see everywhere in England.
Though Imagining Reality looks a little pedestrian from the cover, it contains a wealth of brilliant editorial choices (including the extraordinary documentary segment where Alan Clark, unrepentent to John Pilger about the export of arms to dodgy regimes, admits he's more worried about the lot of animals than humans). By concentrating on the words of the film- makers, the editors have avoided the abyss of film studies and kept to a more creative tack. From Nanook of the North to Leni Reifenstahl to the live murder during the Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter or Warhol filming Marcel Ophuls drinking a quart of whisky, there seems no end to the richness of the genre. It's a rare thing for a definitive reference book to be so inspirational, as this certainly is.
Meanwhile, the BFI provides another treat in the guise of new additions to their Film Classics series (all pounds 6.99), an imaginative venture that has included Salman Rushdie on The Wizard of Oz. Les Enfants du Paradis by Jill Forbes is a fascinating account of the production of Marcel Carne's film against all the odds and a German occupation. Alberto Manguel's feisty critique of James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein teases out the film's homoerotic strands and produces a dextrous meditation on the cinematic idea of the monster. Scots novelist A L Kennedy has written a good appreciation of Powell/Pressburger's masterpiece Colonel Blimp - the film Churchill tried to ban as unpatriotic. Kennedy's downbeat Scots scepticism on the British class system makes her a vivid writer on the subject. David Thomson turns in a respectable The Big Sleep, the Bogart-Bacall classic he claims inaugurates a "post-modern, camp, satirical view about movies" of the type now favoured by Tarantino.
Howard Hawks (who directed The Big Sleep) is also honoured in a collection of essays from BFI Books, Howard Hawks: American Artist (pounds l3.99). And Martin Scorsese discusses Hawks' big influence on his own films in Scorsese on Scorsese (edited by David Thompson and Ian Christie, Faber, pounds 8.99), an excellent book of occasional pieces from the most cinematically literate of all current American directors.
Some lively polemic appears in Ill effects: The Media/Violence Debate (edited by Martin Barker and Julian Petley, Routledge, pounds 12.99). These essays show how easy it is to demolish the arguments of the pro-censorship lobby, and the media's dishonest pandering to it. Mark Kermode seems to touch on a core theme: that the desire to control others' viewing in some way mirrors the parent's fear of losing control over a teenager. A prime candidate for the red pencil is, of course, David Cronenberg's script of Crash (Faber, pounds 7.99), which you'll just have to make do with until we get a chit from nanny. Otherwise, hop on the Eurostar and see it in Paris.
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