Mar 21, 2010


Books every movie lover should own.
Everything I ever needed to know, I learned at the movies. A nice idea, but sadly not true. Learning about movies doesn’t just mean watching them, it sometimes also means reading, and there are many, many great books about the cinema out there, ranging from the scholarly to the scandalous. I could write a much longer list of recommended reads, butt I’ve decided to boil it down to five that I’ve found both entertaining and (sometimes) instructive. I’ve tried to keep to slightly lesser known titles (hence, for example, no William Goldman), and the list is alphabetical by authors name.

Final Cut
By Steven Bach
Heaven’s Gate effectively marked the end of the New Hollywood, that auteur driven period (chronicled in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) in which studios seemed to hand control over to edgy young talents like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola, and allow them to make groundbreaking, intelligent movies that were then marketed to mass audiences. Bach’s insiders account (he was an executive at United Artists, and heavily involved in Heaven’s Gate) of the disastrous hands off approach of the studios, and how the combination of that with Michael Cimino’s rampaging ego meant that the budget for his magnum opus went from a predicted $7million when the script was delivered to nearly $50million by the time the marketing was paid for effectively killed both a production model and, in its contemporary incarnation, United Artists, is both scary and laugh out loud funny.

What really impresses is the absolute wealth of detail that Bach is able to go into one every subject from the budget, to attempts to control Cimino, to the long debates over the casting of Isabelle Huppert, to the disastrous screening of Cimino’s first assembly, which ran five and a half hours and, he suggested, was ‘about fifteen minutes too long’. The personalities of all involved jump off the page, and provide perhaps the most lucid insight I’ve ever read into the internal politics of a Hollywood studio. Most of all, it makes Heaven’s Gate a fascinating proposition (though I still haven’t been able to sit through the film). Like the excellent documentary Overnight, Final Cut is a sobering insight into how NOT to behave as a filmmaker.

Projections 10
Edited by Mike Figgis
The Projections series, while often interesting in fits and starts, can be a bit dry for my tastes, but this entry, largely a series of interviews conducted by the filmmaker Mike Figgis, presents a fascinating and wide ranging picture of Hollywood in the late 1990s. Figgis talks to actors and directors, of course, but also to critic Kenneth Turan, to agents, studio execs and actors managers. The interviews aren’t very formal, instead having the feel of a free flowing conversation (undoubtedly helped by the fact that Figgis knows several of his interviewees well, having worked with them).

There’s great insight into the way the business can be rather cruel, especially from the frank contributions of actresses on the lower rung of the stardom ladder, like Ming Na-wen and Elisabeth Shue. With Boogie Nights only just completed, a young Paul Thomas Anderson is full of energy and passion for movies (and rants about the fact that his movies are often released with colour wrongly calibrated). Sylvester Stallone comes across as genuinely cerebral, Jodie Foster as the most intimidatingly intelligent person you could ever meet, and Robert Downey Jr, between brushes with the law, as troubled but fascinating. Also intriguing are the answers to Figgis’ repeated questions, asking for books, pieces of music, movies, actors and actresses that have made an impression on his interviewees. As a snapshot of varied Hollywood experiences, they really don’t get better than this.

With Nails
By Richard E Grant
Richard E. Grant’s film diaries are frequently much more entertaining than the films they’re about. He chronicles, in excitable, often CAPITALISED prose the fulfilment of his long held dream of being a Hollywood actor (if not really a star) and getting to work with the likes of Altman, Coppola and Scorsese in quick succession.

With Nails is a fast and very funny read, sharp as its title and packed to the gills with hilarious anecdotes from both on and off set. Meetings with Sharon Stone, Madonna and Demi Moore (“You sound like a rusty carburettor”, says Grant) are hilarious, as are the tales of the nightmarish making of Hudson Hawk, rehearsals for Warlock (on whip practice “Feel as though my arm has been hooked up to an artificial wanking machine”), and Coppola’s Dracula.

This is a look at Hollywood from a wide-eyed, admiring outsider turned wide-eyed, admiring insider (on his way to a premiere, gazing out the window, Grant’s companion asks what he’s doing and he replies “Gawping”). It’s a great book to dip in and out of, because almost every page features some hugely funny incident co-starring someone exceedingly famous.

See No Evil
By David Kerekes and David Slater
Kerekes and Slater’s exhaustive study of the ‘video nasties’ is outstanding on the films themselves (even if its comments on availability are now mostly outdated), but where it really excels is as a social history of the relationship between audiences, the press and controversial films. Each of the 70 odd films on the official nasties list is given a full appraisal, with comments about each one’s quality, history with the censors, and various releases and there is excellent coverage, in the first couple of chapters, of how cheap horror films came to dominate the early days of video in the UK.

Even better is a history of the way that the media engaged with (or, rather, refused to engage with) these films and the moral panics surrounding films like Child’s Play 3 and The Evil Dead and cases like that of ‘The Fox’, Michael Ryan, and the Columbine killers. It’s a riveting and persuasively argued read, exposing the tabloids for the smear printing liars they are. See No Evil built on my interest in censorship, and was thee thing that really turned me on to horror films in a big way. I still refer to it regularly when writing about censorship and as well as being a first class work of research on censorship it is a thoroughly entertaining read. An essential if you’ve even a passing interest in horror films or censorship.

A Year at the Movies
By Kevin Murphy
Kevin Murphy was part of the writing staff and cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and wrote this book, in which he travels the world, seeing at least one film at a cinema of some kind every single day for a year (2001) at a time when the show had finished and he thought, having seen such a lot of crap, that he might be falling out of love with movies. A Year at the Movies is a great book because it unashamedly celebrates and loves cinema, from the thrill of taking a kid to his first film (Monsters Inc, a fine start) to the odd experience of seeing a short film in a cinema in a hotel made of ice.

Given the timing of Murphy’s trip, 9/11 also intrudes, and, happily, coincides with one of Murphy’s favourite films of the year, one that really reaffirms his faith in cinema. He’s a genial host too, funny and enthusiastic, making points about what he thinks cinema is and should be, but without seeming to lecture (much, anyway). It’s a warm, involving book that reminds me why I love (and sometimes hate) movies, and makes me want to embark on a similar trip.

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