Thursday, 19 January 2012

Five Great Books About Film

Kim Newman's ridiculously comprehensive examination of the horror film since the 1960's, Nightmare Movies, is a book that occasionally feels like a list of all the films the writer has ever seen.  Since starting to plough my way through it's dense breadth, I've realised that it probably works best as a reference book.  Dipping in and out of it using the index would be extremely useful for anyone researching or writing about the modern horror film. 

The scope of the book is just phenomenal.  Newman's knowledge of the genre is breathtaking.  He has either seen every film you can think of (and many, many more besides) or he knows about it and can write enough about it to mislead you into thinking he has seen it.  I have no doubt Newman has seen every one of the films mentioned in the book.  His monthly 'Video Dungeon' page in Empire Magazine and appearances in things like Jake West's 'Video Nasties' documentary attest to his absolute commitment to watching and writing about all horror films; no matter how trashy, low-budget, or downright despicable many might find them. 

Newman is a connoisseur and as a result his book can be tough going for anyone not as familar with the genre as he is.  Sometimes you can feel swamped by all the obscure titles that Newman is listing, though his chapters and analysis do help the reader to see where all these films fit into the broader picture.  His chapters take in all the genre's usual suspects; the living dead, Hammer, the devil, rednecks, auteurs, psychos, ghosts, cannibals, vampires and many more.  If you love horror, it's a must read.

That said, it's not the most entertaining film book I've had the pleasure of reading.  So what books would I recommend to film lovers interested in boadening their knowledge and just having a bloody good read?  Here's my top five:

5. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (Peter Biskind, 1998)

Full of great bits of gossipy tittle-tattle about the movie brats (who was doing the most drugs, who was screwing who), more importantly it also chronicles the production of some of the greatest and most influential films of all time.  It predominantly details the 1970s, one of the greatest decades of cinematic history, starting with Easy Rider and ending with Raging Bull and taking in many of the greatest films ever made along the way, including The Exorcist and Star Wars.  As the old studio dinosaurs began to relinquish power to young auteurs, Biskind argues the last Golden Age of Hollywood was born.  If you love Spielberg, Scorsese, Jack Nicholson or George Lucas, it's a fascinating read. 

4.  High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess (Charles Fleming, 1999)

Like Biskind's book, this one is also full of scandalous gossipy bits but this time in a less innocent, free-love, experimentation-y kind of way and more in a hoovering down obscene amounts of nose candy, waving guns around like a lunatic and abusing prostitutes kind of way.  Simpson comes across as a heinous individual; just the kind of mad-as-a-bag-of-spanners lunatic that frankly deserved an early death.  If Fleming's book speaks the truth, then Simpson's screen output as one half of producing partnership Simpson/Bruckheimer is the least interesting thing about the guy.  Though responsible for many over-bloated blockbusters, there's also some classics on the resume that can't be ignored and Simpson made some smart decisions.  But read this book really for the seedy stories of Simpson's sadistic, coke-fuelled shenanigans. 

3. Dark Eye: The Films of David Fincher (James Swallow, 2003)

Probably the first film book I read from cover to cover, I snapped this up the moment it came out.  I might be biased as a devoted Fincher-fan but this takes the reader through the director's career from early music videos and adverts through feature debut Alien 3, to underrated thriller Panic Room in a hugely informative and accessible read.  Detailing the production of each film meticulously (and the meticulousness of the productions) and with some limited input from Fincher himself, it is always interesting and has been a good reference when writing an article on the collaborations of Fincher and Brad Pitt.  It also has a final chapter, 'Fincher's future' that reveals possible projects the director was potentially going to tackle on completion of Panic Room.  Interestingly, none of Fincher's actual output of films since 2003 are mentioned, but some of the projects that are there are still mouth-watering prospects that I hope Fincher might get round to now he's (hopefully) done making pointless remakes of perfectly good foreign films.

2. Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film (Peter Biskind, 2005)

Highly critical of Harvey Weinstein (who sounds like a slightly less demented, deranged and disturbed version of Don Simpson), this book combines details of Weinstein's monstrous behaviour (tantrums and tormenting) with an almost respectful account of how the Weinstein's commercialised independent film through their distribution company.  Brothers Bob and Harvey used festivals like Sundance to pick up and propel filmmakers like Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino to huge success, making independent film profitable and taking small films to Oscar glory.  From Redford's opening of the Sundance Film Festival through to 2002 and to be honest a bit of a non-ending, Biskind bemoans the commercialisation of the independent sector and picks away at Weinstein but nevertheless shows what an exciting time for cinema the period has been.

1. Blockbuster: How the Jaws and Jedi Generation Turned Hollywood into a Boom-town (Tom Shone, 2005)

Another utterly entertaining read that takes in all the greatest blockbusters since Jaws with interviews with all sorts of key people involved in their making.  Shone's writing is witty and well-informed with a fantastic argument and he is clearly more of a film lover than critic, analysing the success of these popular but often critically neglected films.  He acknowledges that blockbusters are sometimes out-of-control bloated messes (who could argue?) but ends the book with the optimism of the Oscar success of LOTR: Return of the King and a potentially positive future for the blockbuster.  It's easy to read and a brilliant tour through recent film history from the perspective of the box-office behemoths.  Their impact on the industry, like it or not, is undeniable and this book covers them with the respect they often deserve. 

But as always, that's just my list and after I finish Nightmare Movies (eventually!), I'll be looking for another film book to get stuck into.  I've already got my eye on Jason Zinoman's Shock Value but other than that, I'm open to suggestions!  Any recommendations?