Armchair Cinephile

The small but devoted subset of film buffs who enjoy reading about movies almost as much as watching them can run into trouble around this time of year. Newspapers and magazines that typically might offer a think piece on documentary trends or a profile of some up-and-coming director are full instead of predictions, counter-predictions, and breathless gossip about who’s going to win that little golden statue. For those who couldn’t care less — or who, at best, will wait until the week of the Oscar ceremony to pay attention — quite a few worthy diversions await in the bookstore.

Biographies, critical and otherwise: Reviewers had plenty of fun at David Thomson’s expense last year, pointing out that Nicole Kidman (Knopf) was less a biography than a massive manifestation of the author’s crush. It’s certainly a more titillating read than Neal Gabler’s exhaustive Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination (Knopf), although the latter does stir the pot once again in the ongoing genius/villain debate, detailing the arguments made over the years by culture critics on both sides. Strange that Beyond the Epic: The Life & Films of David Lean (University Press of Kentucky), by Gene D. Phillips, can give its subject a thorough treatment in 300 fewer pages. Whose bio would you expect to be long-winded — the daddy of Mickey and Donald, or the man behind Lawrence of Arabia?

For a seriously never-ending subject, though, you have to turn to Orson Welles, who has inspired enough books to crowd all other filmmaker biographies off the shelves. How obsessed is actor/author Simon Callow with Orson? The second volume in his ongoing bio, Orson Welles: Hello Americans (the first was Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu, both are from Penguin/Viking) ends with almost four decades to go in the subject’s life.

If Callow’s assessment of the legend’s talents and flaws seems to be evolving as he goes, he might welcome more evidence before penning the decline-and-fall volume; let him buy Whatever Happened to Orson Welles?: A Portrait of an Independent Career (University Press of Kentucky), in which Joseph McBride digs up facts behind all the martyr mythology, drawing on both scholarship and personal experience with the director.

Intelligent eye candy: Two of my favorite genres of coffee-table books just got lovely new additions. Louise Brooks: Lulu Forever (Rizzoli) offers the Pandora’s Box star in everything from film stills to glamour-puss portraits.

In the self-explanatory British Film Posters: An Illustrated History (BFI), Sim Branaghan surprisingly offers as much text as photo space, supplying not only details of printing and design, but biographies of key poster artists. In a category of its own is Art by Film Directors (Mitchell Beazley), where filmmakers with a fine-art pedigree (Cocteau, Kurosawa) stand on equal footing with enthusiastic amateurs (Wim Wenders, Mike Figgis).

From the horse’s mouth: Two interview anthologies focus on directors of different generations. The Mind of the Modern Moviemaker: 20 Conversations with the New Generation of Filmmakers (Plume) is the more generous of the two, with Josh Horowitz catching your Kevin Smiths and Michel Gondrys as they launch their careers. The Hollywood Interviews (Berg), while slimmer, has the weight of France’s Cahiers du Cinéma behind it and features auteurs (Scorsese, Eastwood, Coppola) with a little more work under their belts.

Meanwhile, David Mamet needs no interviewee to ask his opinion: In Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose and Practice of the Movie Business (Pantheon), he dips his pen in acid and delivers a couple dozen intensely entertaining rants about the whole art vs. commerce thing.

For the scholar: The University of California’s mammoth History of the American Cinema (10 volumes covering the first century) draws to a close with Peter Lev’s Transforming the Screen: The Fifties — guess they saved one of the most problematic decades for last.

The ’50s also produced the first publication of Film as Art, Rudolf Arnheim’s celebrated dissection of the art form’s mechanics, which UC Press has just celebrated with a 50th-anniversary reprint. Last on the scholarly front is Hitchcock’s Music (Yale), in which Jack Sullivan shows how intimately the master worked with composers like Bernard Herrmann.

For the populist: Many cinephiles have naught but disdain for the blockbuster phenomenon, but leading critic Kenneth Turan would like to remind you that even the lowest-common-denominator field sometimes produces brilliance. His Now in Theaters Everywhere: A Celebration of a Certain Kind of Blockbuster (Public Affairs) collects reviews from the Los Angeles Times of rock-solid entertainments from The Fugitive to Get Shorty. More interested in business, Variety editor Peter Bart offers the stories behind the box office in Boffo!: How I Learned to Love the Blockbuster and Fear the Bomb (Miramax Books). And David Bordwell tries to make sense of the big-screen big picture in The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies (University of California).

As Oscar night approaches, maybe that Turan book can help ease cinephiles into the frame of mind necessary to see Dreamgirls walk out with more awards than, say, United 93 and Children of Men put together.


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