Screens Armchair Cinephile 

Reel reads

Amid the season’s best-ofs and sum-ups, the realm of film books gets short shrift. So in this last week of 2005, we offer an incomplete look at what bookstores offered the film buff in the last year or so.

The genre’s bread and butter, one assumes, is the movie guide—the listings meant to help you decide what to rent this weekend. As with new cars, the 2006 models are already out; any serious cinephile will steer away from the pocket-sized digest and toward the back-breaking tomes. The back-breakingest is VideoHound’s Golden Movie Retriever (Thomson/Gale), which at around 27,000 entries is the most comprehensive listing around. That’s its main strength, followed by an easily scanned rating system and a useful set of thematic lists (from “Road” movies to “Moscow Mafia” yarns).

Slightly behind in number of titles is Halliwell’s Film, Video & DVD Guide (Harper Collins), which, with a less intuitive star-rating scheme and pared-down synopses, earns its keep by sporting a better-known name and a no-nonsense layout for stats such as DVD availability, awards nominations, et cetera.

The Internet Movie Database has stolen some of the thunder from Ephraim Katz’s belovedThe Film Encyclopedia (Collins), but only some. Sure, you can find an actor’s credits on-line, but Katz’s biographical sketches remain invaluable, and the book is also a handy reference for definitions of behind-the-scenes terms such as “dolly shot” and “key grip.”

This year saw a few strong single-critic collections meant to steer young movie lovers toward the cream of the historical crop. These range from straight repackagings of newspaper and magazine reviews (Kenneth Turan’s Never Coming to a Theater Near You, published by Public Affairs; John Simon’s On Film, from Applause) to Joe Leydon’s Movies You Must See (Michael Wiese), which adds such tidbits as “topics for further research” and “lessons for filmmakers” to each review.

The one to beat, though, is Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies II (Broadway). The Thumbed One has grown far too easy-to-please in recent years, approving all sorts of bland dreck, but he still knows a masterpiece when he sees it. These are essays to accomplish that highest critical goal: helping us draw more pleasure or edification from movies for which a “thumbs up” judgment has passed the test of time.

The year’s other must-read in the single-critic category is a long-overdue reissue. Agee on Film spotlights the man who, in the ‘40s, raised the humble movie review to literary heights. In an unusual honor for a critic, the Library of America has collected James Agee’s On Film with miscellaneous film writing, journalism, and his screenplay for Night of the Hunter in one hardback volume; a companion book boasts his novel A Death in the Family and his landmark collaboration with photographer Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

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This has been a good time for highbrow reissues, in fact. First came Princeton’s expanded edition of From Caligari to Hitler, the “psychological history” in which German critic Siegfried Kracauer explored his nation’s soul. The book is omnipresent in film schools for good reason, reminding us that a nation’s celluloid fantasies are more than mere entertainment. Similarly seminal are the two volumes of What Is Cinema? (University of California), a collection of theories from André Bazin, whose acolytes included Truffaut and Godard.

The DIY film school continues with straightforward how-tos like The Hollywood Standard (about script format) and the self-explanatory Filmmaking for Teens (both from Michael Wiese), and Alexander Mackendrick’s more intellectual and wisdom-stuffed On Film-Making (Faber & Faber).

A couple of titles reminded us that there’s more to learn about even over-exposed subjects: Despite the System (Chicago Review) analyzed the details behind Orson Welles’ mythologized battles with studio chiefs; Richard Schickel’s biography Elia Kazan (Harper Collins) went beyond Red Scare controversies to analyze the director’s career.

Knopf, not satisfied to offer a novel co-written by Marlon Brando (Fan-Tan), published a highly anticipated book by David Thomson that turned out to be nutty: The Whole Equation was anything but whole, aiming for a spiritual “history of Hollywood” but having more to say about a great writer’s quirks.

Finally, among the regular avalanche of coffee-table movie books came two lavish ones about Stanley Kubrick, neither stepping on the other’s toes. Stanley Kubrick, Drama & Shadows (Phaidon) affords the first-ever glimpse of the filmmaker’s early career: As a staff photographer for Look magazine, he snapped street scenes, staged portraits, and a series of boxing pix that anticipate his debut feature, Killer’s Kiss, the protagonist of which was a prizefighter. Taschen took on Kubrick’s motion-picture years with The Stanley Kubrick Archives. A mammoth tome that earns the “archive” description, it is split into two lavishly illustrated parts: one exploring the carefully made images contained in the films themselves, one cataloging hundreds of sketches, posters, screenplays, and other items from Kubrick’s personal collection. Here’s hoping 2006 finds Taschen digging up a similar trove from another filmmaker’s estate—The Alfred Hitchcock Archives, anyone?

By John DeFore


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