Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Words On Film

By Ray Pride

MAY 10, 1999:  The publishing industry loves the movies, if you count the shelves groaning with ill-edited, cut-and-paste volumes like Peter Bart's "The Gross" or gossipy typing like Peter Biskind's bitter rant, "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls."

I'd guess that about every other book published on movies and film production is as bad as the worst movie you'll see this year. Let's take "The Gross" (St. Martin's, $24.95) as an example. As compiled by self-regarding, oft-self-advertised former production executive and current Variety honcho Peter Bart, this overview of the 1998 summer movie season is the kind of lazy, useless tree-killer you cannot but hate with a swelling nausea. What are we to think when the head of a trade paper, given to empty statements like "'Star Wars' nonetheless carved out a degree of immortality," makes so many perfunctory yet egregious errors in something passing for a book - or book advance - between pasteboard covers?

Within three pages, "The Avengers" is an $85 million movie (p. 255) and a $60 million movie (p. 258); veteran director Sydney Pollack is renamed "Sidney"; New York's Angelika Theater is misspelled "Angelica"; the movie "Shooting Fish" is called "Shoot Fish"; on page 211, a movie becomes a "move"; and of last year's "Pi," this supposed expert trawls up this banality: "This represented quite a triumph for a small movie that raised its money from a variety of contributors."

What a joy then to open a package of fresh titles from Faber & Faber's ongoing film list (overseen by series editor Walter Donohoe, who also co-edits the multiform "Projections" annual). Projections, while dismissed last year by a couple of critics who found it Eurocentric and filled with too damn many men, has offered up the thoughts of interesting filmmakers like Hal Hartley and Michael Almereyda in the ten volumes so far, and passed along otherwise-unavailable material like cinematographer Christopher Doyle's rich, funny diary of the improvisational shooting style of Wong Kar-Wai's "Happy Together," which was astonishing in the original Hong Kong edition, packed with Doyle's own color stills, but prohibitive to most readers (including me) at a $70 import price.

The current month offers up four volumes typical of Faber's indispensable publishing program. Among the handsome uniform editions, several screenplays of recent ambitious movies are published each year, such as Todd Solondz's "Happiness" and Neil LaBute's "Your Friends and Neighbors," each augmented by brisk interviews. Or, in the case of John Boorman's "The General," a Boorman-penned introduction which continues his smart and self-aware self-chronicles, the best piece written about the making of that little-seen gem. May's title is Boaz Yakin's "A Price Above Rubies" ($14). Yakin drew on myriad influences, from Ibsen's "A Doll's House" to fabulist elements inspired by the novels of writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer, and it's always interesting to see the foundation that a well-written script lays for a film. Yakin's comments in the introductory interview capture the fiery young filmmaker's strenuous ambitions.

Faber also has a Classic Screenplays series, which has brought us Billy Wilder's "The Apartment," Leo Marks' script for Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom" and the unforgettable verbal rhythms of Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets' "The Sweet Smell of Success." May's reprint of "Brief Encounter" by Noel Coward ($14) includes a specially commissioned introduction by Coward's biographer, Sheridan Morley, which sketches in Coward's convivial collaboration with the film's makers, including director David Lean.

Reprinting valuable old titles that have fallen out of print does everyone but rare booksellers a favor; this month, Faber restores to readers' shelves P. E. Salles Gomes' invaluable 1957 biography "Jean Vigo" ($20). While Gomes' book takes longer to read than the entirety of Vigo's dream-like output to watch (about three hours of screen time), this portrait of the circumstances of the filmmaker is a book that reminds of both the vitality of art and the vitality of life, when each is taken with a firm hand and compromise is recognized as much an act of violence as of peace-making.

There was a Portuguese journalist named Rui Nogueira, who conducted a superb book-length interview of the French nouvelle noirist Jean-Pierre Melville, who believed that the highest form of film criticism was the extended conversation. Faber also supports that estimable pursuit. The current "Loach on Loach," edited by Graham Fuller ($16) joins a list of almost twenty titles, mostly newly commissioned, including "Lynch on Lynch," "Kieslowski on Kieslowski" and the expanded edition of "Sirk on Sirk." In each, the directors, who share copyright with their interviewers, speak with a kind of engaged vitality that's difficult to find in other forms. The always self-effacing Loach is surprised by Fuller's attention: "It's a bit egotistical, isn't it? I can't imagine anyone wants to hear me waffling on." With no biography taking up the struggles of this conscientious, political filmmaker's pointed work, Loach's own words convey his struggle to be direct and economical, to tell stories that enhance, rather than divert attention from, one's own life.

It all comes down to words: words on a page that reflect the light off the movie screen. Good writing is its own reward; perhaps it can even inspire better movies.

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