Film books: Scaramanga Smilla and Shakesqueer

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The Independent Culture
Who reads reviews, huh? snarled Bruce Willis when The Fifth Element was panned. Indeed, and who wants bulky collections of them distorting their Christmas stockings? Or screenplays of minority art-house films? Or heavyweight academic essays? But Biba Kopf, in a combative introductory essay to Time Out's bulbous Film Guide 1998 (ed John Pym, Penguin pounds 13.99), gives Willis short shrift: "Well, in case you're having trouble reading this, Brucie, get one of your lackeys to spell it out to you slowly: stupidity is not smart, and ignorance surely isn't bliss." Time Out's tome is well worth keeping by your video recorder. Each year's new reviews (650 for this edition) are added to a database stretching back to the magazine's foundation in 1968. With a cut-off point somewhere in October this year, this sixth edition squeezes in Nil by Mouth, but not Wilde, The Full Monty or Career Girls. The newest reviews are authoritative, judicious, closely argued and succinct; alas, it seems TO critics are no longer as eccentric, passionate, off-beam and funny as they once were.

The Virgin Film Guide (pounds 16.99), also in its sixth edition, is "based on the definitive industry database", and for cast and crew lists and synopses, it's superior to Time Out. An all-round bigger book, it has clearer type, wider columns and a more flexible spine. But it lacks Time Out's useful indexes, in which you can look up the filmography of actors as well of directors, or such themes as "Mormons in film" and "Death (see also Corpses and Few-months-to-live stories)". And you'd never catch Time Out skipping cult films like Santa Sangre or Apartment Zero.

The must-have for cinephiles this Christmas is the newly paperbacked Oxford History of World Cinema (ed Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, pounds 19.99), although, oops, the spine cracks like a gun-shot the first time you open it. Divided into three sections, it covers Silent Cinema (nearly 200 pages on this alone), Sound Cinema (1930-1960) and Modern Cinema (1960-1995). The latter section features essays on "Sex and Sensation", "The New German Cinema", "The Cinemas of Sub-Sarahan Africa", "Popular Cinema in Hong Kong" and "The Black Presence in American Cinema". Kim Newman's stimulating essay on "Exploitation and the Mainstream" takes in Tarantino, Abel Ferrara and Roger Corman.

"Turkey came late to the film game." This is not the beginning of an essay in the estimable Oxford History, but the opening sentence of "Dracula in Istanbul", a chapter in Mondo Macabro: Weird and Wonderful Cinema around the World by the aptly named Pete Tombs (Titan pounds 14.99). Here you can read about such films as La Venganza del Sexo, Mad Doctor of Blood Island and Que Lindo Cha Cha Cha! As well as lurid synopses, it has very funny picture captions: "Tits and tentacles: a film genre unique to Japan"; "The nipple in the brandy glass scene from Perversao"; "Marins watches as a potential actress is tested for a role in his new film. Here, a slimy toad is being dropped down her cleavage."

This last character, cult Brazilian film-maker Jose Mojica Marins, is pictured with Christopher Lee, whom he once tried to sign up. Lee has just written an autobiography, Tall, Dark and Gruesome (Gollancz pounds 15.99), where he displays a delightful, off-hand wit and ability to poke fun at himself: his height, his frequently dreadful films, even his looks.

There's a wonderful photo of a mature Lee, grey hair flying, astride a motorbike in the film Serial. The role, the film-makers told him, was a hard-headed American businessman. "Then they added, 'Of course, there is another side to his character.' I thought, Here we go! Jack the Ripper or the Beast from a Thousand Fathoms. They said, 'At weekends, you see, he's the leader of a band of gay Hell's Angels.' My smile did not slip. 'That's tremendous,' I told them, 'I'm even more keen to do it.'" Serial proved a personal triumph ("the highlight for me was the dash across the Golden Bridge, in black leathers and Nazi regalia"). Another was Scaramanga, in The Man with the Golden Gun. Lee enjoyed this character's "ambivalence about his own compulsive sexuality, mysteriously linked to his third nipple", and pays barbed tribute to the professionalism of the Bond operation: "You knew that no expense would be spared, except on your own salary." His longtime co-star, Peter Cushing, was a charmer: "He was the most tolerant of men, expressing for instance nothing but pleasure when I sang arias to him in our dressing-rooms." Lee's memoirs are a scream.

Maurice Leonard at least has a compelling insight into his subject Mongomery Clift (Hodder pounds 17.99). When International Telephone Operator of a top London hotel in 1959, he had an affair with the visiting star. His opening chapters record this alarming fling, during which young Leonard had to clock in and race up to Monty's suite at all hours, evading the suspicions of both hotel staff and his parents. Monty stuffed wads of notes in his pockets to pay for taxis back to Tooting, but the hotel staff were more difficult to fool, especially since Monty liked chasing him naked up and down the corridors. After this spritely start we settle down to a sensitive retelling of the life and "the image that launched a thousand orgasms" - some of them the biographer's.

In similarly star-struck vein is the essay, "I know you Ryder", which opens Winona (Little, Brown pounds 16.99), an over-designed clippings book by the editors of US magazine. David Wild, the journalist who stakes his claim to the gamine star, didn't sleep with her but did once find himself introducing her to Chastity Bono with the words "Hey Chas, do you know Noni?" Such is the degree of fawning in this collection of reviews and articles that nobody seems to notice the discrepancy between the star's alleged coolness, style, restraint and hipness and the accompanying embarassing underwear shots. In the same series is Brad, even lower on content, but with lots of winsome pix of Mr Pitt waving his well-muscled arms in the air.

Shakespeare The Movie, eds Lynda E Boose and Richard Burt (Routledge pounds 45/pounds 13.99), is a collection of high-minded essays about the Bard on film, from the straightest adaptation ("Branagh's Dirty Harry V") to the faintest allusion. Prospero's Books, Derek Jarman, Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet, My Own Private Idaho and Larry Fishburne as Othello all come in for intelligent analysis but Richard Burt, in his engaging essay on (what else?) "New Shakesqueer Cinema" also takes in Porky's 2, The Goodbye Girl and Dead Poets Society, via a flurry of dreadful punning sub-heads: "Smells Like Queen Spirit"; "Looking for Bitchard". Fascinating to learn that "Over the past decade, four pornographic versions of Romeo and Juliet have made the Nurse lesbian."

Fans of Welcome to Sarajevo (pounds 7.99), Clerks & Chasing Amy (pounds 9.99) and the relentlessly downbeat subUrbia (pounds 7.99) can buy the Faber screenplays. Sadly, the delightful Career Girls (pounds 7.99) is near-unreadable with its dropped aitches and innits.

As for film tie-ins, you could, if you wanted a souvenir of so dour a movie, flick through the superior The Making of Smilla with contributions by Bille August and Peter Hoeg (Harvill pounds 14.99). The Godfather Book by Peter Cowie (Faber pounds 19.99) is a fascinating and utterly authoritative guide to the trilogy and the rows, hustles and hassles that bedevilled the filming. Accompanying the film version of Regeneration is Richard Slobodin's mini-biography Rivers (Sutton pounds 4.99), about the psychiatrist who treated Graves, Sassoon and Owen in Craiglockhart hospital during the First World War. The most unusual tie-in is Queen Victoria's Highland Journals ("as featured in Mrs Brown"), published by Hamlyn (pounds 16.99). Yep, old We-are-not-amused herself, with a few snaps of Billy Connolly and Judi Dench on the cover.