Christmas books: Film - Sinking under the weight of the first hundred years

Alistair Owen struggles titanically with guides and histories
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DAVID O Selznick brought Alfred Hitchcock to Hollywood hoping the young Brit would make a disaster epic called Titanic. Thomas Schatz demonstrates in The Genius of the System (Faber pounds 14.99) how independent producers like Selznick pointed the way to modern Hollywood, where an action director serving as his own producer is given free rein by two studios to shoot his own script for a costume epic about a sinking ship. The concentration on deals and budgets and salaries may be a bit much at times, but it is through these details that Schatz gets behind the scenes and beneath the surface of the many big pictures made between 1920 and 1960. Andrew Sarris covers much the same ground in You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet (OUP pounds 25), but if his introduction - a didactic, auteurist critic attacking polemical film writing - proves unappetising, then his subsequent studio by studio, genre by genre, director by director and star by star approach proves simply too unwieldy to swallow. The Penguin Book of Hollywood (pounds 25), on the other hand, is an eclectic, accessible anthology of film writing edited by Christopher Silvester, featuring film-folk from Cecil B DeMille to Richard E Grant, and is best appreciated - since neither it nor the Sarris can boast a single illustration - alongside Graham Shipman's Cinema: The First Hundred Years (Phoenix pounds 14.99), a glossy gallop through a century of celluloid from 1895 to 1994, with a critical text accompanied by a multitude of glorious stills.

The photograph on the cover of Woody Allen (HarperCollins, pounds 19.99) shows just the top half of his face, but John Baxter makes efficient work of the implied mystique surrounding New York's most famous recluse, suggesting that everything you wanted to know about Woody but were afraid to ask can be found in his films, though not necessarily in the eternal nebbish he plays in them. Former Baxter subject Steven Spielberg (Faber pounds 12.99) is given another going over by Joseph McBride, but he talks to so many people about his subject that he risks losing sight of him, and because Spielberg hides his obsessions better than Allen, McBride has to spend more time deconstructing the movies than detailing their actual making. Patrick McGilligan manages to do both in his brooding examination of Fritz Lang (Faber, pounds 16.99), who created an oppressive world in his German features Metropolis and M, but was haunted by their success after moving to America, where the autocratic style which made them possible was unsuited to the - for him - equally oppressive Hollywood studio system. All three men share with James Whale (Faber pounds 14.99) a tendency to airbrush their past, and in his sympathetic biography of the director who made the original Frankenstein, James Curtis reveals the working-class roots in Dudley which the gay director tried to rise above, charting his course from the English stage via the Hollywood studios to his career slide and eventual suicide, so concisely that a real sense of the man and his movies falls by the wayside somewhere along the line.

Living film-makers can be concise, too. Loach on Loach (Faber pounds 11.99) takes less than half the pages of Sayles on Sayles (Faber pounds 9.99) to cover a career almost twice the length, and not because Graham Fuller asks his interviewee fewer questions than fellow editor Gavin Smith. But then, if he'd had the gift of the gab, Ken Loach probably wouldn't have been knocking on financiers' doors in Soho while John Sayles was grabbing script- doctor assignments in Hollywood, or floundering amid banned British TV documentaries while his American counterpart was funding his own theatrical features. What both men share, as shown by their latest cinema releases, My Name Is Joe and Men With Guns, is a love of character-driven, socially conscious dramas, and there's few enough of those about these days. Alan Clarke (Faber, pounds 12.99) had a social conscience, too, but seemed less inclined than either Loach or Sayles to burrow for the gleam of hope beneath the rubble his characters inhabited. Edited by Richard Kelly, and somewhere between a biography and a scene-by-scene, this is the story of an eternal rebel and his unique body of work as told by the people - colleagues, friends and relations - who were there until his death from cancer in 1990.

Faber's most serious competition in the film-book market comes from Bloomsbury. Shooting to Kill (pounds 12.99), by independent producer Christine Vachon, is the best nuts-and-bolts guide to film-making from conception to release since Sidney Lumet's indispensable Making Movies, boasting detailed breakdowns of budgets, call sheets and preview questionnaires, together with on-set diaries from the making of Velvet Goldmine and I Shot Andy Warhol. All The President's Men (pounds 8.99), meanwhile, is the best entry yet in the Original Novels series, a detailed account by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of their investigation into Watergate scandal, which screenwriter William Goldman somehow wrestled into a classic movie. Bloomsbury are also behind the new Movie Guide series, a hip riposte to the BFI's more sober Film Classics. However, the A to Z format - C is for Connery, F is for Fleming - is very self-conscious, compounded by the authors' obsession with their chosen film, and in the case of Adrian Turner on Goldfinger (pounds 10.99), with James Bond as well. British film fans may find the Bond book handy for a peek at the 60s, but only if they overlook the inevitable insistence on macho minutiae.

There are new Christmas editions of the various film guides. Halliwell's Film & Video Guide 1999 (Penguin pounds 13.99) is the grand-daddy of them all, now in its 14th edition, twice as many as either the Virgin Film Guide (Virgin pounds 16.99) or the Time Out Film Guide (Penguin pounds 13,99), both in their seventh. Half the point of film guides is that you disagree with what the editors say about the films, but if there's one person more fuddy- duddy than the late Leslie Halliwell it's his replacement John Walker, and the wealth of production details for his partly inherited 23,000 entries are often more useful than the reviews they accompany. Virgin provide equal credits to Halliwell's and much longer critiques, but only include key films since 1930, reviewed anonymously so you don't know who you're disagreeing with. Time Out offer next to no credits for a good many more entries than Virgin, and field so many highbrow critics that it would take forever to extrapolate your tastes from theirs, but it's the only guide with a review of Velvet Goldmine, released one month ago, and its index of actors, directors and subjects is second to none.

Images In The Dark (Titan pounds 16.99), an encyclopaedia of gay and lesbian films and film-makers, clearly has a better reason than your average film guide for being highly selective. Raymond Murray may be less scrupulous than some editors in his selection criteria - rumours of homosexuality are enough to merit inclusion - but it makes a lively and useful addition to any bookshelf and a must for film studies departments. Murray would doubtless have some interesting readings of the films in Gangsters (Aurum pounds 35), an exhaustive, maybe definitive, year-by-year critique of every film since 1928 to feature public as opposed to private, social as opposed to personal crime. The selection criteria are disconcertingly elastic, and no amount of argument from Aurum Film Encyclopaedia general editor Phil Hardy can justify the inclusion of The Silence Of The Lambs in this rather than their forthcoming Film Noir volume. Slimmer, cheaper and considerably lighter - in terms of weight rather than content - is Christopher Frayling's revised edition of Spaghetti Westerns (I B Tauris pounds 15.95). Although typeset in two columns reminiscent of an academic journal, and printed on paper which blurs the photographs, Frayling's enthusiastic study of the key entries in the genre mark this out as another one for both film students and the general reader.

Considering that scripts are regarded as a minority interest, Faber certainly publish a lot of them, both contemporary screenplays and a new series of Classic Screenplays. The Apartment pounds 9.99, Billy Wilder and I A L Diamond's acerbic comedy of office life circa 1960, not only served as the model for writer-director Cameron Crowe's own Oscar-winning film Jerry Maguire (pounds 9.99), but Crowe wanted Wilder to play a cameo in it, noting in the diary which prefaces his script that the veteran director's refusal may have been the first time in ages that someone had said no to star Tom Cruise. For screenplay aficionados and aspiring screenwriters, however, there's no beating the Shooting Script series from Nick Hern Books, who this year add two sparkling gems to its small but impressive crown: The Ice Storm (pounds .9.99), adapted by James Schamus from Rick Moody's novel of Seventies sexual mores, and The Truman Show (pounds 9.99), Andrew Niccol's breathtaking, original story of an extraordinary ordinary man. Introductions by directors Ang Lee and Peter Weir, notes from the writers and several pages of stills accompany photostats of the original shooting scripts, invaluable for anyone who wants to avoid writing anything as bad as Titanic .