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Screening the new movie tomes

By Ray Pride

SEPTEMBER 14, 1998: 

Collecting recent film printings

Looking over any given year's box-office grosses, you wonder how anyone ekes a living out of this movie game.

A few monster hits, some middling recoupers, and a vast pool of movies making as little as fifty to a hundred thousand dollars. While the economics are different, the continuing rush of books about film seems strange as well: how many book-buyers are there reading about movies they never go see? Or do they wait for video, satellite, cable?

One of the punchier books I've read lately is Christine Vachon's "Shooting to Kill: How an Independent Producer Blasts Through the Barriers to Make Movies That Matter" (Avon, $12). As written with Slate film critic David Edelstein, the veteran low-budget producer offers up a raft of crunchy anecdotes about the making of movies such as "I Shot Andy Warhol," Todd Haynes' "Safe" and upcoming "Velvet Goldmine," and "Go Fish," "Kids" and "Swoon." Hair-puling headaches on set, hangover headaches at film festivals, a job she loves to death: These are the stories she chronicles in swatches of diaries through pre-production, the shoot, the aftermath of distribution and publicity.

Faber Books continues to churn out titles in its director-interview series, most recently "Sayles on Sayles," and have begun publishing older scripts alongside their contemporary collection of screenplays such as Hal Hartley's "Henry Fool." Three valuable new titles, all with fresh introductions are Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom," the crackling, bilious banter of "Sweet Smell of Success," and Billy Wilder's still-acidic "The Apartment" ($15.95 each).

Faber's Projections annual ($20), edited by John Boorman and Walter Donohoe, is in its eighth year, presenting "Film-makers on Film-making," and a few critics on criticism in this volume. The project of having the articulate filmmaker describe his concerns doesn't supplant the need for critics—bad critics do that. In a "critic's diary," English writer Jonathan Romney depicts himself as a careless, prone to burnout, forgetful, deadline-chasing hack, the results of which pursuit can be read in his "Short Orders" (Serpent's Tail, $16), a slice of a couple of years of what went out on release in the UK.

More compelling is an essay by the veteran novelist, essayist and occasional critic Gilbert Adair, who bemoans the lack of respect afforded today to those who try to watch films with even a slightly critical eye. "The critic criticizes; the artist, so to speak, artistizes; and that," he writes that many expect, "Should be an end of it." But he believes it should not be so. "Yet it is the critic's job to ask for more. It is his job not merely to comment on what is placed before him but equally to refuse it altogether, with indignation if need be. It is his job, in other words, to say yes or no."

The effect of the essays in Projections is always motley, like cafe conversation at a film festival, shot through with hubris and caffeine, telling anecdotes and quicksilver surmise. Yet the diversity of voices always makes the series invaluable, this year particularly Godfrey Cheshire's discussion of the working methods of Abbas Kiarostami and cinematographer Christopher Doyle's rich, funny diary of the improvisational shooting style of Wong Kar-Wai's "Happy Together." "Remarks are not literature, Ernest," Gertrude Stein tut-tutted Hemingway, but the writing of an intelligent artist brimming over with love for their work can be as valuable as the scrivenings of critics. Walter Murch, in a discussion of the editing of "The English Patient," quotes the cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, who suggests that after taking account of many voices, of the many forms of art that can go into making movies, it's time to listen for the "breeze blowing through the brain," that inexplicable waft of inspiration.

So much better, you'd think, than seeing another movie manufactured by the Hollywood middle-management types who studied "The Hero's Journey for Dummies" while on the toilet. The most inspired little book among those I've seen lately is the basis for the modest arthouse hit, "Love and Death on Long Island," a 1990 novel by Gilbert Adair (Grove, $12), only just published in the U.S. While the novella-sized book shows what an adept job Richard Kwietniowski made of his adaptation, Adair's force of concentration is on a par with John Hurt's stellar performance as a clique novelist obsessing over unlikely beauty. Adair is as infatuated with the beauty of language as of film, much as his hero Giles De'Ath with teen dreamboat Ronnie Bostock, star of movies like "Hotpants College 2" and "Skid Marks." In his essay in Projections 8, Adair writes, "I dream that the day will come when I am no longer asked whether being a critic... means that I am unable to sit back and just enjoy the film." He relates being asked this by a cosmologist, who generates models of the universe on a computer screen. Was he "capable of stepping into his garden on a summer night, gazing up at a star-studded sky and sighing, 'God, it's beautiful!' Without reflecting, he answered that of course he was. Very well, I said, it's exactly the same for a film critic." Books and movies are alike in one fashion: more good writing is required.

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