Issue No. 4 / Summer 2006
Patrick McGilligan often appears to be one of the most hard-working and reliable of those involved in chronicling the history of the motion picture. He has authored major biographies of Alfred Hitchcock, Clint Eastwood, George Cukor, and Fritz Lang, and he is also the editor (and often author) of the Backstory series of interviews with Hollywood screenwriters. The latest, Backstory 4 (University of California Press, $60.00/$24.95), contains major interviews with Robert Benton, Larry Cohen, Blake Edwards, Walter Hill, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Lawrence Kasdan, Elmore Leonard, Paul Mazursky, Nancy Meyers, John Milius, Frederic Raphael, Alvin Sargent, and Donald E. Westlake. Each begins with a brief introduction to the subject and a listing of his or her film titles with release years. What is particularly appealing about the Backstory series is that the interviews are not only important from a historical perspective, but also serve to help in an understanding of the craft of screenwriting � and how different it can be for one writer compared to another.
As coffee table books go, Shepperton Studios: A Visual Celebration by Morris Bright (Southbank/Trafalgar Square, $65.00) is a very attractive proposition, although it is perhaps difficult from an American viewpoint to understand why this British studio should be deserving of such a volume. (Obviously, most American publishers had the same question in that the book is distributed over here by a relatively small company, specializing in British publications.) There is a foreword by the late John Mills and an introduction by Ridley Scott. Once the basic history if dealt with, the book concentrates on various categories of production, such as "Early Classics," "Gritty Realism," "Horror," and "Epics," and on the productions of Richard Attenborough, Kenneth Branagh and the production company of Working Title Films. There is a complete filmography, beginning with Reunion in 1932, directed by Ivar Campbell, and ending with Where the Truth Lies in 2004, directed by Atom Egoyan. It is amazing that despite the major and well-known titles in the intervening years, the first and last films should be so obscure!
Completing the package is a DVD of twelve trailers for films shot at Shepperton, and including The Third Man, Billy Liar, The Servant, and Dr. Who and the Daleks. I have not viewed the DVD and so cannot report if it is NTSC or, as I suspect, PAL, and thus not playable on most machines in the U.S.
On The Passion of the Christ: Exploring the Issues Raised by the Controversial Movie, edited and with a new preface by Paula Fredriksen (University of California Press, $19.95) is a surprisingly reader-friendly anthology of essays on Mel Gibson's 2004 film. The book examines issues raised at the film's release, including, of course, anti-Semitism as well as gratuitous violence and its interpretation of the Bible. What is most appealing about the book is that not one film critic is represented and there are no credits and samplings of reviews (and the only scene from the film is the cover illustration). The contributors (whose names will mean nothing to the average reader) are academics, theologians, the clergy, and journalists. In fact, the first essay is by Jon Meacham, and adapted from a piece originally published in Newsweek. (Other essays are from U.S. News & World Report, The New Republic and Wall Street Journal.) While one might question the need for a continued controversy (and thus promotion) of The Passion of the Christ, this present volume certainly provides for intelligent thought and discussion.
There is a basic source for factual information on screen and television adaptations of the novels of Thomas Hardy, and that is Paul J. Niemeyer's Seeing Hardy: Film and Television Adaptations of the Fiction of Thomas Hardy, published in 2003 by McFarland. Now, we have the first academic text on the same subject, Thomas Hardy on Screen, edited by T.R. Wright (Cambridge University Press, $75.00/$29.99). Here, thirteen academics, primarily from the fields of English and literature, discuss a variety of topics, with the emphasis on Far from the Madding Crowd, Jude the Obscure, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Return of the Native, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and The Woodlanders. I found the most interesting piece to be Peter Widdowson's study of Thomas Hardy in the silent era, which is quite detailed and suggests that D.W. Griffith's Way Down East is influenced by Tess of the D'Urbevilles. (A similar suggestion was made by Sarah Kozloff in a 1985 article in Literature/Film Quarterly.)
Aaron Becker's Contesting Identities: Sports in American Film (University of Illinois Press, $16.00) is the paperback edition of a book first published in 2003. And it is a very good � if somewhat short � book! The author provides an informational, academic and entertaining overview of major silent films with a sporting theme, discussing, for example, the homosexual implications of the 1926 MGM production of Brown of Harvard. He examines how the film industry emphasized white Americans in sports until the 1950s, when it acknowledged the obvious � most U.S. sporting endeavors are primarily the province of African-Americans. The book is divided into three major topics, Hollywood and the Black Athlete, Gender in American Sports Films and Class and American Boxing Films, and it takes the reader from Buster Keaton's College to White Men Can't Jump and Jerry Maguire. I hope the author will consider a lengthier and far wider discussion of the subject.
5 Films by Frederick Wiseman, edited by Barry Keith Grant (University of California Press, $29.95) consists of transcriptions � in that Wiseman's films are documentaries, there are no scripts � of Titicut Follies, High School, Welfare, High School II, and Public Housing. There is a relatively brief introduction by Grant and an even briefer � less than two pages � foreword by Wiseman. The book also contains a filmography, a listing of personal awards received by Wiseman and a bibliography. Obviously, these transcripts are no substitute for a viewing of the films themselves, but they are certainly worthwhile in the contribution they make to published sources on the documentary.
If your pleasure is "butt-kicking babes" (as they are described by the publicity), shown in various stages of what appears to be undress, with a simplistic text, then The Modern Amazons: Warrior Women on-Screen by Dominique Mainon and James Ursini (Limelight Editions, $24.95) is for you. There is a good filmography and a timeline, but this is a volume strictly for the fans and fetishists.
James Ursini usually writes in tandem with Alain Silver, and the couple's latest work is Roger Corman: Metaphysics on a Shoestring (Silman-James Press, $24.95). Heavily illustrated and attractively designed, the book provides an overview of the producer/director's career, film by film, and with commentary throughout by Corman. I suppose this is really nothing more than a "Films of�" book, but a very good "Films of�" book.
Strictly for the hardcore film academic community is Britta Sjogren's Into the Vortex: Female Voice and the Paradox in Film (University of Illinois Press, $40.00/$20.00). The book "confront and rethinks" feminist film theory on the workings of sound and voice in film � or more precisely a small number of films. One of the enthusiastic blurbs on the back cover promises that, "this important book will be widely debated for years to come." I can only comment that the debaters will first have to decipher what the author means, and I doubt that many will have either the time or the energy.
The London publisher, Orion, has reprinted in paperback three volumes on recent British film history by Alexander Walker: Hollywood England: The British Film Industry in the Sixties, National Heroes: British Cinema in the Seventies and Eighties and Icons in the Fire: The Rise and Fall of Practically Everyone in the British Film Industry, 1984-2000. All three are distributed in the U.S. by Trafalgar Square at a uniform price of $18.95 each. Alexander Walker was the prominent film critic of the London Evening Standard from 1960 until his death in 2003. He was often controversial and certainly never reticent at taking a divergent view that might not always appeal to the majority. There was a very famous encounter on television with director Ken Russell in which the critic was physically attacked with Russell's using the Evening Standard as a weapon. I did not always agree with him, but he was certainly kind to me when I was a young man in London.
One might suppose that as a critic, Alexander Walker would write at length on the films of the era. But no. Instead, he discusses, in great detail, the economic and social history of the British cinema. The films themselves take a secondary place in the text. There is probably no better formal history of the British cinema in the last four decades of the 20th Century than this. The author explains that his books are based in part on a close reading of the various trade papers, notably Screen International and Variety, but I do wish that he might have included exact sources and documentation. There are no endnotes and only a handful of footnotes throughout the three volumes. Nevertheless, these are books whose reprinting is to be applauded, and which should become standard sources on the history of British cinema, along with Rachael Low's earlier volumes on the subject.
The Hollywood Novel
The latest Hollywood Novel to come to my attention is one definitely for film buffs. The Cutting Room by Laurence Klavan (Ballantine Books, $23.95) is a suspense novel whose central character, Roy Milano, is a film buff in pursuit of an original, and complete, print of Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons. A resident of New York, Milano pursues his quest as far west as Los Angeles and as far east as Barcelona. Along the way, there is a lot of movie trivia, which film buffs may enjoy. Film buffs may also get some satisfaction from asking how the author can be unaware that an original print of The Magnificent Ambersons would weight about eighty pounds and be on nitrate film stock. At one point, the author has a six-year-old boy carrying the film around in a bag! There are other problems with the author's strange view of reality, and that is perhaps why The Cutting Room is now available on the remainder table at your local bookstore. (Sorry it took me so long to get around to this 2004 title!)
Author Klavan is also responsible for the libretto for the musical, Bed and Sofa, based on the Soviet silent film of the same English title. His novel should not be confused with Louise Welsh's The Cutting Room (published in 2002 by Canongate), which is a great mystery novel, set in Scotland, and whose hero becomes involved with a cache of pornographic photographs.