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20 Dec 2012 - 1:34 PM  UPDATED 9 Aug 2016 - 11:52 AM

Critics and History

The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies and What They Have Did to Us
Author: David Thomson
Publisher: Allen Lane/The Penguin Group, 2012

Ambitious, erudite and always compelling, David Thomson is justly lauded as one of the best writers on cinema film criticism has ever produced. The author of The Biographical Dictionary of Film, Thomson is famous for both his carefully crafted prose and his eccentricity, which is another way of saying he's an independent thinker who fearlessly and frequently defies conventions of taste and respectability. So take note: Thomson thinks Nicole Kidman is the greatest actress of her generation. As for auteurs whose names remain undiminished at film festivals and in universities, he's no fan of John Ford or Krzysztof Kieslowski and remains convinced that Martin Scorsese lost it with Raging Bull (1980).

Thomson calls The Big Screen, “a love letter to a lost love”. This is an old riff for Thomson; over his many books, he's found ruminating sadly on the promise of the cinema, a faith he finds sadly often betrayed.

The Big Screen is an essay that pretends be a history book, but it's history in the manner of Thomson's other tomes. In other words, it's full of blind spots. (You won't find much on say Asian/Eastern cinema here.) A baby boomer, Thomson's muse remains confined to those figures and moments that defined his own critical personality: silent cinema, the French New Wave, Euro Art cinema of the '60s, The New Hollywood of the '70s. What's best about it is that it's a meditation on what movies do – how they have over a century of cinema shaped attitudes and perceptions in their audience. The title is a pun and a theory; screens, of all sizes, have overwhelmed us, Thomson argues, they monster us, they define our reality and at the same time divorce us from lived experience. The digital environment connects, and disconnects. Thomson writes that the power of the screen means "a shift in cognition, whereby looking became more important or more valid than knowing or understanding”. If Thomson is right, what does that mean for the movies, and life beyond any screen? This is one of Thomson's best books.

 

Do the Movies Have a Future?
Author: David Denby
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 2012

David Denby, like Thomson, at nearly 70, is a veteran of film criticism. He shares a prized gig with Anthony Lane at The New Yorker. In a world of bloggers, meanness, and big heads, Denby, it strikes me, is a most unfashionable critic; he's sane, decent, and persuades with sound civilised arguments delivered in a prose that's elegant and energetic. Modest and humble, Denby sees his beat as being the mall and the metropolitan art house (but he's also well-read and firmly versed in cinema in all its traditions). The book collects some of Denby's best reviews and essays from The New Yorker since he started there in 1998. Some are new, some are revisions, and all of them have a tough and tender voice that's Denby's patented style. Some of his opinions will doubtless anger fan boys and girls everywhere; he's appreciative of Tarantino's talent while scorning the director's tiny worldview –or should that be 'movie view'? In the best essays here – 'The Way We Live Now' and 'Conglomerate Aesthetics: Notes on the Disintegration of Film Language' – Denby sketches a portrait of mainstream cinema and cinema-going that is dispiriting to say the least (or the most). Denby's issue is that once upon a time movies were made for grownups. Now “surface speed and excitement” dominate. We used to remember stories; now, he says all we remember is the sensation. There's no afterglow.

Forget the alarmist title of his book. It's a deliberate goad that provides Denby a chance to make a point that is well rehearsed by his generation of critics: the seasonal blockbuster, broadly speaking, makes it harder for smaller pictures to get made, let alone seen. This has always been true but Denby suggests that things have reached a crisis when the mainstream cinema is defined by, say, the comic book franchise and the deadening cinematic style that they've given rise to which now, he argues, is all pervasive. The movies, Denby says, have a future all right, but it's the nature of that future which is the worry.

 

Movie Guides

Leonard Maltin's 2013 Movie Guide: The Modern Era
Publisher: Plume, 2012

The cover of Leonard Maltin's 2013 Movie Guide boasts that it contains “more than 16,000 entries”. Its coverage is perhaps surprisingly strong on foreign titles, recent cinema and older pictures. There's even the odd Australian film (Australia, Animal Kingdom). For the uninitiated, this now-famous brand name reference still uses a ratings system, which was once a useful novelty; top pics get four stars while bottom feeders get a BOMB (their caps). I've always suspected Maltin and his large posse of editors and contributors of some smart mischief in the way they dole out their ratings. There are quite a few three star movies here that are damned with faint praise or else condemned as 'difficult' in a welter of qualified support. In other words, the star system is a way to draw readers into exploring pictures that they might otherwise ignore; that's a clever critical project worthy of support and it makes up for the dulling sameyness of the writing, which is tattooed with bland journo speak throughout. Still, you don't read Maltin for the prose. There's an art in shaping the short-short review that evokes, provokes and summarises – there's many an entry here that can't be more than 80 words – and Maltin and co. perfected it decades ago.

 

Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide: 2nd Edition
Publisher: Plume, 2010

The Classic Movie Guide has 10,000 entries. The title is a tad misleading. Not all the movies reviewed are 'classic'. Indeed for many a casual reader they'll be completely obscure. All of them are 'old'. None of them were made after 1965. Its publication came about as a companion to the Guide, Maltin explains in his helpful introduction, because “there was a need to open up space in the annual”. Maltin proudly stakes a claim for it as a reliable and accurate resource in terms of specs, names, and details; even running times have been especially clocked where possible. The tone, style and ratings system has been shipped over from the Guide and so has the somewhat jaded 'seen-it-all' tone so prevalent with American middlebrow writing on film. Still, what's good about it is its dedication to covering movies made in the pre-sound era and its attempt to gloss the careers of long forgotten movie stars.

 

Have You Seen . . . ?": A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films
Author: David Thomson
Publisher: Penguin, 2010

David Thomson's terrific Have You Seen…?, originally published a couple of years ago and now widely available in paperback, has only 1000 entries. Don't be fooled by such brevity; every review here is worth reading and re-reading. Thomson was urged by the publisher to use a ratings system and include illustrations. Thomson successfully resisted. Ultimately, he delivered a long essay on each film; but don't expect a list of his 'greats'. “Enthusiasm is too easy,” he writes, “and it can lead to lazy writing and formulaic thinking.” His final selection has its fair share of predictable choices and art house favourites: Casablanca, Breathless, The Seventh Seal, 8 1/2, La Jetee, Blow Up. But don't expect the same dry-rot checklist of virtues you get from other scholars on these pics; Thomson has the uncanny ability to re-visit the classics and treat them as something alive and new. He has an impish wit and a sense of cinema that's all embracing, virtues in any historian. And the latter role he undertakes with the utmost commitment; he starts the book with a few droll observations about Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

 

 

Coffee Table Books

Clint Eastwood: Master Filmmaker at Work
Author: Michael Goldman
Publisher: Abrams, 2012

Clint Eastwood: Master Filmmaker at Work is a large format book produced on paper so thick you might think it could stop a Magnum .44 bullet. It has all the best features of a biographical work: access, sobriety, seriousness and an appreciation of those qualities – in all their complex subtleties – unique to the subject. Yet Michael Goldman's book is, well, a bit boring and that's because the text – based on his creative process, a fine project – seems nothing more than a collection of testimonials to 'the great man and his works'. What's truly revealing of Eastwood's evolution as a filmmaker here are the well-chosen production stills. On screen Eastwood is as tough as a punching bag. But seen here off-screen Eastwood looks positively wholesome; one gets a real sense of the quiet, learned, autodidact that friends and colleagues talk about (and we rarely see).

 

Jaws: Memories from Martha's Vineyard: 2nd Edition
Author: Matt Taylor
Publisher: Titan Books, 2012

Martha's Vineyard is a tiny island 45 minutes travel time off the coast of New England USA. In 1974 it was famous for two things: a tourist destination for wealthy New Yorkers, and as the place where presidential hopeful Teddy Kennedy's chances ended in scandal. For film buffs, its name has another significance: most of Jaws was filmed there. Before Jaws was a hit, and changed cinema, its making was a notorious calamity. The mechanical shark did not work. Shooting at sea proved impossible. The weather was disagreeable. The twenty-something director Steven Spielberg was creative and demanding. These circumstances – natural and otherwise – conspired to drive Jaws' budget and schedule into overdrive. Memories of Martha's Vineyard re-tells the Jaws production story, but from the point of view of the islanders.

Big, long, detailed and intimate, Matt Taylor's monstrous book is great fun. It's a sort of 'collective memoir'. The text offers up the recollections of the folks of Martha's Vineyard who in some way contributed to Jaws – sometimes practically, sometimes aesthetically.
It's also a scrapbook; many of the book's hundreds of photographs were taken by locals – and while they are not beautiful, they are powerful in the same way family snaps often are. What's so nice about the book is the way you get a sense of the flow and rhythm of a unique lifestyle. It's also a sophisticated take on how film production actually works. A lovely, one of kind book.

 

Monsters in the Movies: 100 Years of Cinematic Nightmares
Author: John Landis
Publisher: DK, 2011

Director John Landis is funny, smart and a brilliant raconteur. He's turned up as a featured commentator on a number of documentary films and DVD extra features of late, banging on, in an ever so gripping way, about B movies, Ealing comedy, and especially horror films. With Monsters in the Movies, Landis' erudition gets an apt vehicle. This is quite simply the near perfect coffee table book; hundreds of photos skillfully presented in a way that makes you want to sink into them. There's no grand theory or enterprise behind it. The text is pithy, insightful and to the point, and the scope and range of the films covered is vast. Landis describes the aim of the book brilliantly in the forward: “This is a book with a lot of photographs of monsters in the movies.”

 

Spielberg: A Retrospective
Author: Richard Schickel
Publisher: Thames & Hudson, 2012

Richard Schickel is a fine writer, distinguished historian and doco filmmaker. He's written books about Griffith, Brando, Eastwood and published an excellent interview with Martin Scorsese, one of the best of its kind. This new book Spielberg: A Retrospective isn't a critical biography. It's based on interviews with the filmmaker and Schickel – an acquaintance and fond admirer of his subject – has kept his editorial to a minimum as he maps the trajectory of Spielberg's career film by film frequently reminding readers that the filmmaker's success did not look a sure thing – especially in its early days, even if that's the myth. The book's credits indicate that most of its photos, many of them evocative and exciting, come from the Steven Spielberg Archive. Spielberg declares that it's the first book he's ever co-operated with, which probably explains why so many Spielberg 'tales' – debunked elsewhere – are re-told here in short hand (discover these for yourselves). All in all it's a classy package; but it is a package that stinks of official history. Still, it makes a fine companion to Joseph McBride's essential long-form bio, Steven Spielberg, which could have done with some nice pics.

Note: All books submitted by the publishers for review with the exception of Do the Movies Have a Future?