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Thursday 24 December 2015

10 Books about Movies, Part 2

Here's the second tranche of favourite movie books from my bookshelf. It was supposed to stop at ten, but... well, what can I tell you? Maths O level grade 4.

You may notice that there are no books on screenwriting here. I've read a few but the only one I ever recommend is Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade, which isn't a how-to and may now seem dated to someone who's only just starting out.

If you want to write for the screen, I'd recommend you study screenplays for layout (production scripts, not published versions) and finished product for structure. See how minimalist and on-point screen dialogue actually is, how stripped the descriptive prose. Then put that together with a sense of how the big, broad strokes of a narrative usher you toward closure. All else, as they say, is housekeeping.

There was a loose network connecting many of the British novelists marketed as horror writers in the '90s. We knew each other through fandom, through Fantasycon, or through each others' publisher events, whether a panel at the ICA or a reading at Runcorn Shopping City. If we went to each others' homes I reckon there was a 90% chance of spotting Denis Gifford's Pictorial History of Horror Movies on the bookshelf. That distinctive Tom Chantrell wraparound cover (its influence perhaps surfacing in this) was immediately recognisable. Gifford was a fan of old-school horror cinema, his compendium a treasure trove for initiates. I reckon it hit a generation at just the right moment. We'd move on to David Pirie's Heritage of Horror and Kim Newman's Nightmare Movies, but this was our foundation document.

I had the privilege of conducting an onstage interview with Val Guest at Manchester's Festival of Fantastic Films, and it's a landmark memory for me. He was 91 at the time, hale and dapper and sharp as a tack. He'd started out as a gag writer on Will Hay films and worked solidly through the decades until his swansong with episodes of Hammer House of Horror. Along the way, The Quatermass Xperiment, Hell is a City, The Day the Earth Caught Fire... classy jobs on tight budgets, interspersed with the kind of journeyman work I referred to in Part 1. Our conversation made for a fascinating, detail-packed hour, and when I subsequently picked up the autobiography I imagined it would be a recap covering the same ground. In fact, all that we'd talked about was dealt with in the first half-dozen pages of Guest's introduction. Everything else was new. I've a number of such British director autobiographies, many of them from niche-interest small presses, and I've found them all fascinating. Ken Annakin, Lewis Gilbert, Bryan Forbes, Roy Ward Baker, Jack Cardiff... theirs is the work that ran on television throughout my childhood, and their accounts feel like my personal cultural history. It's as if the child in me finally got to step through the TV.

A recent addition. David Hughes writes for Empire magazine and brings this fascinating set of film-industry narratives to life with journalistic skill. It's insider material made accessible by the clarity of Hughes' style and the fact that most of the properties, from Superman to Star Trek, will already be engaging to the target readership. Some of the projects have since made it to the screen; this book concerns itself with the versions that didn't. You'd think that with so much trouble, so much money, and so many talented people involved, the most likely outcome of each extended movie development process must surely be a well-honed masterpiece. Except that the quest for perfection mostly plays out like a series of train wrecks. One dumped script after another, one supplanted creative team after another, rewrites piled upon rewrites... and often, somewhere along the way, a fleeting glimpse of a superior version that quickly got stamped on. In so many cases the movie we get is not what they ultimately achieve, but what they finally settle for.

Time and technology have rendered the book largely obsolete, but throughout my 20s this volume rarely left my side and its attitudes and philosophy ("Dust is a part of life, and will not harm your film,"*) stay with me to this day. Where the likes of Movie Maker magazine were for the amateur enthusiast, Independent Filmmaking, born out of San Francisco's underground film scene, treated you as a pro with no money. Through Lipton I learned how to handle a 16mm camera, to cut and mark up a workprint, to lay and mix multiple soundtracks, and to deal with the laboratory process from raw stock to answer print. I still maintain that cutting film taught me more about writing film than anything else, and nothing's been wasted - when I made the switch to video cutting, the program's workstation was recognisable as a virtual version of the editing bench. Trained as a physicist, Lipton holds patents in stereoscopy and wrote the lyrics to Puff, the Magic Dragon.

*Not a recommended philosophy if your job is that of a negative cutter

Maybe it's not for everyone, given that it's more a business book than one for film fans, but if you've an interest in the dynamics of the entertainment industry then Hello, He Lied is an indispensible read. Hollywood regimes come and go and the movie/TV quality balance has changed in the last decade, but Obst's account is a lesson in how to rise, survive, and keep going without losing one's perspective or sense of humour. At the time of writing she'd been involved with big-screen successes including Contact and The Fisher King, along with disappointments that she charts with with open honesty. Her credits since then include Hot in Cleveland, Helix and Interstellar. Perhaps I should recommend it as a companion piece to The Last Tycoon, for its more up-to-date insight into what film company executives - so often the philistine cartoon villains of creatives' more self-serving narratives - actually do.

The BBC4 documentary based on Matthew Sweet's book was a semi-surreal piece, a fever dream narrated by the voice of a creepy uncle from a wax cylinder (OK, it was Charlie Higson, but check out this short clip and tell me I'm wrong). The book itself is as thorough and absorbing a 'secret history' of the British film industry as one could wish, featuring many familiar names while resurrecting shadows of our forgotten ancestors. Sweet followed the Brownlow method of collecting first-hand reminiscences from old-timers who probably thought their stories held no interest for the modern world. It's the period Britishness of the enterprise that makes it unique; I'd devised a rather painful closing gag about Sex and Drugs and Henry Hall, but I think perhaps I'll spare you that.

Tuesday 22 December 2015

10 Books about Movies, and another 2 (and 2 more)

Well, it was going to be ten, but it's so hard to narrow down the choices. Last week I browsed through a similar list online and immediately leaped to order Kirk Douglas' I Am Spartacus, which had somehow slipped by me before. It's exactly my kind of thing, a personal memoir mixing craft and business in the context of films that I have reason to love.

At least, I hope it will be. Right now it's sitting unread under the Christmas tree.

Douglas apart, my interest is less in the megastars and A-listers than in the journeymen and women who've travelled far and have more interesting tales to tell. I'm still kicking myself for passing up on a nice old John Paddy Carstairs memoir spotted in Keswick's second-hand bookshop a few years ago; by the time I'd relented and returned, someone less tight-fisted had swooped.

What follows is an entirely personal selection, not a ten best (with a couple more added to the dozen since I wrote the header), or a list of essential books, so don't go arguing with my picks. They're all from my own shelf, all part of my personal journey, each one an eye-opener for me in its way.
Agel's Making of Kubrick's 2001 is the first book of its kind that I bought, a dense scrapbook of information, essays, interviews and insights, all crammed into a thick Signet paperback with an extensive low-res photo section in the middle. There's something a little bit hippy-trippy Whole Earth Catalog about the book which makes a great match for both its subject and its era. Editor Agel collaborated on projects with Buckminster Fuller, with Marshall MacLuhan, and with Carl Sagan, but he gets sole credit here. I own at least three other books on the making of 2001, but this one gets all the love.

I picked up John Baxter's Stunt around the same time as John Brosnan's analog-era fx study Movie Magic, which is why I tend to think of them as companion pieces even though they aren't. It was published in '73 and so predates the modern blockbuster, but it's strong on the silent era and later B-movies and charts the development of the stunt performer from nerveless daredevil to careful technician. I guess the true companion piece would be Stephen Farber & Marc Green's Outrageous Conduct: Art, Ego and the Twilight Zone Case, where the conflict between safe practice and the pressure to deliver onscreen danger has never been more thoroughly explored.

I wouldn't say I'm a fan of The Emerald Forest, though I do consider it a well-made and good-looking movie. Of the Boorman ouevre it's Point Blank and Deliverance that I most relate to, but this real-time diary of the setting-up, shooting, and post-production of a specific project gives you a genuine insight into the hustle, graft, and shoeleather involved in the making of a feature.

Boorman provides the afterword to Karl Brown's autobiographical memoir, described by Kevin Brownlow as "the most exciting, the most vivid, and the most perceptive volume of reminiscence ever published on the cinema (it is also one of the few that bears no trace of a ghost writer)." Later a distinguished cinematographer in his own right, as a teenager Brown wangled a job as assistant to Griffith's cameraman Billy Bitzer and so was a first-hand witness and hands-on participant in the making of Birth of a Nation, and later Intolerance. Brownlow's correct in his description. It's a great book. Brown is a natural storyteller with warmth, wit, and a deceptively easy command of detail.

Brownlow again, and this one's the monster. My Desert Island Book. The chapter on the 1926 Ramon Navarro/Francis X Bushman Ben Hur alone would be worthy of inclusion here, but there's so much more. Fascinated by silent cinema at a time when it was an unfashionable interest, aware that so much material had been lost and that the living memories were about to follow, Kevin Brownlow set out to interview as many participants and practitioners from the early industry as he could track down. The result is a bittersweet panorama, impressive in its depth and range. The chapter on Abel Gance would eventually lead to the reconstruction and revival of Gance's Napoleon, and the book as a whole is counterpointed by Thames TV's somewhat awesome documentary series Hollywood, produced by Brownlow and David Gill.

I've had Charles Davy's Footnotes to the Film for so long that I can't remember a time when I didn't own it. I think I unearthed it on a market stall when I was a teenager. Published in 1938 (long before I was a teenager, thank you very much), it's a selection of fairly lightweight essays aimed at the general reader. Which may not sound too promising until you see the list of contributors - Alfred Hitchcock on direction, Robert Donat on film acting, Graham Greene on subjects and stories, John Grierson on realism... along with Alexander Korda, John Betjeman and Sidney Bernstein (then an exhibitor, later the founder of Granada Television). Also - and this is important - it's a nice old book.

I've come late to Fitzgerald, and I'm catching up. For a while I avoided The Last Tycoon, knowing it to be incomplete and unrevised. But even without revision it's an accomplished piece, and in lieu of an ending we get the author's working notes - for a writer it's like an anatomy lesson from a master. Though it's a work of fiction, I'm including it here because, in my opinion, its observations on the dynamics of Hollywood, status and power circa 1940 continue to resonate to this day.

The Vikings, Fantastic Voyage, The Boston Strangler... looking at Richard Fleischer's extensive and eclectic filmography it's clear that the studios regarded him as a safe pair of hands for their more expensive, if not always their most adventurous, projects. More crowd-pleaser than auteur, Fleischer nevertheless brought style and craft to his assignments. From Soylent Green to 10 Rillington Place, his was the guiding hand behind many a well-remembered movie. The book is mainly anecdotal, but what anecdotes... he tells of learning the best way to handle Kirk Douglas. When Douglas would find something to be unhappy about in every scene, Fleischer realised that if he staged it to put Kirk at the centre of the frame then his concerns would magically disappear. In terms of tone and sheer enjoyment I'd put this alongside Don Siegel's A Siegel Film.

Wednesday 9 December 2015

Coming Attractions

A note from the Management...
Remember those horror portmanteau movies of the past, such as Tales from the Crypt, From Beyond The Grave and Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors? They’re back and now on stage! 

Five passengers meet on a train and agree to tell each other monstrous stories of possession, hauntings, devilry and science gone wrong. Each tale is inspired by a classic monster - vampire, ghost, Frankenstein, the Devil, mummy, ventriloquist’s doll. Each actor plays multiple roles within the tales, and as is traditional in the form, the framing story builds to a suitably macabre climax.

The Ghost Train Doesn’t Stop Here Any More is a follow-up to The Hallowe’en Sessions, which played at the Leicester Square Theatre Lounge in October 2012, selling out its run and garnering great reviews. Now we’ve gathered a fresh group of genre writers to craft a deliciously dark all-new tribute to the portmanteau movies, madder, badder and scarier than ever. 
Given the continued popularity of horror theatre such as Ghost Stories and The Woman in Black, we’re confident that there’s an eager audience for productions such as this. After positive response to our last show we expect a healthy return attendance, and this time around we’re targeting a wider crowd with a longer run and heavier PR. We’re looking forward to scaring the wits out of our audiences all over again…