In spite of rumours of the demise of printed books and related ephemera, wondrous things continue to be delivered through my letterbox and my heart stirs at the thump on the mat when a padded envelope of unknown contents materialises. This month’s Cine Lit looks at three such recent deliveries.
David Thomson is one of cinema studies’ most prolific authors. By turns enthusiastic, irascible, grumpy, opinionated, personal, fair-minded and judgemental, he is above all deeply passionate, informed and honest. His writing is a joy to read and maintains a rare balance between populism and elitism. A critic and contextualist, Thomson is one of the best cinematic authors that we have. As the author’s modest rear dust jacket description has it: ‘David Thomson has a fair claim to be the greatest living writer on film.’ Can’t imagine who the greatest dead writer is – answers on a postcard please. At any event, it is obvious that any new book from Thomson is to be reckoned with and paid attention to. His propensity for magnum opuses – as evidenced by his authoritative Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Whole Equation, his history of Hollywood – now continues with The Big Screen. His polemical, probing style with its breezy narrative structure and insightful, often provocative, observations has been fashioned over many years. Thomson has been a sharp-eyed critic and writer on film for decades, his first publication arriving in 1967. The new book takes a God’s eye view of movies; it is international in scope and all-encompassing in theme. The reader is taken on a mighty journey from the beginnings of the film industry and through the succeeding decades with stops taken along the route to look at the rise and influence of academic film studies (pro and con) , cultural and social change before, during and after the wars and how these anxieties and pleasures were reflected on the screen and embedded in the textual codes. It ends with a wonderful epilogue reflecting on projection, screen and narrative, which, like the book, is suffused with misgivings about the present and future state of movie-going as a communal cultural experience. The Big Screen is a terrific ‘can’t put it down’ account written by an author who holds back few punches – all at once loveable, charming, irritating and unpredictable. A classic.
In an earlier column I enthused over the terrific CD box set of Jazz on Film: Film Noir and its accompanying booklet. How could this gem be bettered? Well… it has. Moochin’ About has just released a gorgeous new five-CD box-set with another informative 30-page booklet, Jazz on Film: Beat, Square & Cool. Featuring more lost or hard-to-get soundtracks remastered to a high standard, it includes such hipster efforts as The Connection, The Subterraneans (imagine A-Team’s George Peppard as Jack Kerouac! Score by Andre Previn), Shadows (a Cassavetes classic, score improvised by Charles Mingus no less), Paris Blues (score by Duke Ellington) and another wonderful four titles. Lovingly prepared and beautifully presented, this is a must-have set.
Finally, a rather unique title from a little-known publisher. Chaplin Books has released Françoise Schlitz’s The Future Revisited, an examination of Hollywood’s film versions of Jules Verne’s novels with a focus on Around the World in 80 Days, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, Mysterious Island and Journey to the Center of the Earth – a film seen in childhood which mesmerised me. Schlitz takes a multi-disciplinary view of the films and culture in which they were produced, with an emphasis on how Verne’s original novels launched readers into travels to imaginary places and provided them with newly imagined – but somehow plausible – experiences therein. She then goes on to deliberate how these spectacles and marvels intersected with, and were translated into, works that served the concerns of modernism, capitalism, notions of progress and consumption, all in aid of American post-war hegemony. Cinematic textual challenges to gender, politics, domesticity, innovation and science itself are winkled out of the films in question and an interesting account has been articulated. If at times the book has the whiff of a re-worked Ph.D thesis, what with its initial insistence on articulating methodologies and justifying certain contextual approaches before the unfolding of the narrative proper, it is nonetheless interesting for all that and provides a welcome perspective on a rarely examined aspect of film history.
James B. Evans
GONE… BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
You’ll pay a premium for securing a copy of this terrific title, Cocaine Fiends and Reefer Madness, Michael Stark’s illustrated history of drugs in the movies. It was a seminal study on the topic, and subsequent writers have borrowed generously from Stark’s research and thorough overview of the topic – though not always acknowledging him. The book was published by Cornwall Press in New York in 1982 and has long been out of print. It pops up on ABE and Alibris from time to time and I was lucky to pay £10 for it a few years ago on Charing Cross Road – you know the Charing Cross Road that used to have lots of used bookshops before the days of designer coffee shops and eateries. It is essential, along with Harry Shapiro’s out of print Shooting Stars: Drugs, Hollywood and the Movies (Serpent’s Tail, London) and the equally essential, though still available Addicted: the Myth and Menace of Drugs in Film by the ubiquitous Jack Stevenson. Save these books! JE