Christmas Books Special: Film

What does a producer do? Was Alexander Walker always wrong? Christopher Fowler has the answers
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The Independent Culture

The absence of a Lord of the Rings trip this Christmas may be too grim to contemplate, but at least film books can provide cinephiles with a pleasurable substitute. Starting at the business end, we have The Producers (Methuen £16.99) by Tim Adler, who manages to make the dry number-crunching of film production easy to comprehend and fun to read. He's divided his producers into different species, picking Jeremy Thomas as his auteur, Christine Vachon as his rebel and Dino De Laurentiis as his slow-motion car crash of a movie mogul. This is a book produced from Adler's personal experience, so it's tight in scope, but his case histories hold as reliable samples for the entire industry. He's especially good on the ways producers can encourage creativity and invention - Duncan Kenworthy is revealed toning down Richard Curtis's sugary excesses, while Thomas takes perverse pleasure in getting the unfilmable made. After reading this, you will understand what producers do.

The absence of a Lord of the Rings trip this Christmas may be too grim to contemplate, but at least film books can provide cinephiles with a pleasurable substitute. Starting at the business end, we have The Producers (Methuen £16.99) by Tim Adler, who manages to make the dry number-crunching of film production easy to comprehend and fun to read. He's divided his producers into different species, picking Jeremy Thomas as his auteur, Christine Vachon as his rebel and Dino De Laurentiis as his slow-motion car crash of a movie mogul. This is a book produced from Adler's personal experience, so it's tight in scope, but his case histories hold as reliable samples for the entire industry. He's especially good on the ways producers can encourage creativity and invention - Duncan Kenworthy is revealed toning down Richard Curtis's sugary excesses, while Thomas takes perverse pleasure in getting the unfilmable made. After reading this, you will understand what producers do.

Mark Cousins was a taste I had trouble acquiring. His fawning naïveté during these interviews with stars and directors fired my gag reflex - but when he slipped in darker questions like stilettos, I started to warm. The Story of Film (Pavilion £25) confounds all expectations, and is my winter choice. Here he covers the whole shooting match, from the first terrified cinema audiences ducking to avoid an oncoming train in 1895, to today's subtle postmodern films from Japan. To pack the creative highlights of more than a century into under 500 pages requires obsessive skill, but Cousins does it while making a number of wonderful sidelong connections. It's a rare history that has Jodie Foster and Oliver Hardy on the same spread, but the narrative forges such links with ease. Amazingly, while painting the broad picture Cousins finds room for the most telling of details. Zooming from India to Italy to Iran, he's able to make plenty of astute political connections, and his refreshingly non-partisan world view somehow cuts Hollywood down to size without unduly denigrating it. The narrative is also, as they say, lavishly illustrated.

One tends to think of Alexander Walker as always being entirely wrong. Not about facts (although he only mentioned lottery cash when the films it funded were bad), but everything else. Opinionated, irritating and perverse he may have been, but he rarely committed the sin of being boring, and Icons in the Fire (Orion £20) is a very good read. As a survey of films from 1984-2000, it's the occasional whingefest of a critic often out of step with the medium, but even when he's observing the antics of auteurs through narrowed eyes, Walker can't help but betray a love of the films he professes to loathe - except in the section on British gangster films, when you can feel his veins popping with apoplexy. Walker's great paradox is that his conservatism does not affect his admiration of edgy directors like Jarman and Greenaway, and it's a surprise to find him championing Christine Edzard's experimental (and to my mind unwatchable) anti-Thatcherite production of Little Dorrit. An eye-opening volume that will still have the power to annoy many readers, especially when Walker starts banging on about British films being subsidised with lost tax revenues.

Blockbuster by Tom Shone (Simon & Schuster £18.99) is, appropriately for its subject, fast-paced and obsessed with the box-office bottom line. Spielberg and Lucas are the driving forces behind the creation of summer movies, but selecting Jaws as the first blockbuster is moot, as The Towering Inferno and all those disaster movies surely predate the phenomenon. Shone has fun tilting at classic hits, pointing out that Indiana Jones is a crap archaeologist (he manages to lose the Ark of the Covenant) and that the appeal of Blade Runner is that it keys "into cinemgoers' eternal desire to be swaddled in wall-to-wall gorgeousness". Occasionally he misses the obvious: the failure of The Last Action Hero is that its broken-backed plot inspired disbelief in even the most undemanding, but there is a tendency for Hollywood suits to blame marketing rather than their own misguided greenlighting process. A common factor in nearly all of these giant crowd-pleasers is that they were horrible to make. Lucas had to be daily convinced not to kill himself on Star Wars, while Titanic is described by the effects supervisor as "the worst experience of my life". There's a suggestion that Shone feels such films should never be too intelligent - peculiarly, he comes down hard on the critics of Titanic's appalling dialogue - but he makes a decent fist of a pretty familiar subject. Still, you can't help but feel this is all redundant; haven't these films already made an art of publicising their smallest production details?

At the other end of the telescope is Filming on a Microbudget by Paul Hardy (Pocket Essentials £4.99), certainly the cheapest and most useful book here for budding film-makers. It offers a clear-eyed guide to the pitfalls of production on the run, providing practical advice and dismantling preconceived notions of what a good film should be. Hardy reminds his audience that the world is not waiting to see their movie, but balances warnings with optimism. In his section on "Bad Planning", he encourages film-makers to be very paranoid, which is good counsel in my book.

Finally, three new biographies. Kevin Jackson has written about the life of Humphrey Jennings (Picador £30), the brilliant but largely forgotten GPO Film Unit documentary director whose films included Listen to Britain and Fires Were Started. He was long admired for bringing a lyrical brand of working-class socialism to documentaries, but his fans now seem to be middle-class film lecturers, who should enjoy this.

Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat by Edward McPherson (Faber £20) offers nothing much that's new, but is an enjoyable celebration of the century's greatest comic genius. Still, all the printed description in the world can't capture the pleasure of discovering Keaton's funniest set-pieces on film. And Sean Penn (Faber £16.99) gets an intelligent in-depth career analysis from Richard T Kelly, your taste for which will be entirely governed by your tolerance for an actor I've always found painfully earnest and somewhat self-regarding.

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