Reel Ink is a new, hopefully bi-monthly column in which I’ll review a wide selection of recent books about film, covering everything from more scholarly tomes to biographies, film histories and lighter, fan appreciation type publications and whatever else of interest catches my eye.
The first column will be divided into two parts, as I’ve had such a great response from book publicists I contacted about the column that it is going to take me a little longer than anticipated to get through all the books I’ve acquired (and thanks to all who contributed review copies).
Part 1 includes a look at one of the greatest British films of the ‘60s, meditations on contemporary cinema from one of America’s most incisive film writers, an examination of some of the most troubled productions in film history, a loving photographic homage to Britain’s greatest cinema icon, the biography of a troubled Hollywood tough guy, and more.
Performance remains one of the most controversial British films of the late 1960s, a production steeped in stories of excess and debauchery that have added greatly to its mystique. In Performance: A Biography of The Classic Sixties Film (Omnibus Press), Paul Buck does an excellent job of placing the reader within the intellectual context in which the film was created, a cultural maelstrom characterised by intellectual pretension that was breath-taking in its scope.
The ‘60s marked the real ascendancy of London as one of the cultural epicentres of the post-WW II world, and in this heady atmosphere an astonishing cross-pollination of the arts occurred that was directly responsible for the freedom to create works like Performance. Buck repeatedly asserts that his intention is to create a mosaic portrait of the circumstances surrounding the film, and he succeeds in illuminating the panoply of social and artistic influences in play, from East London gangsters and rock aristocracy to playwright Antonin Artaud and painter Francis Bacon, and authors Jorge Luis Borges and William S. Burroughs. In the spirit of the era, co-directors Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg held nothing back in their efforts to cram the film with as many fully realised and half-baked ideas as possible, a feat that would almost certainly be impossible today in the modern era of filmmaking led by marketing departments (the film was funded by Warner Bros., desperate to grab the burgeoning anti-establishment youth audience); I can’t imagine a Performance inspired Xbox game or the sequel Performance 2: Another Performance.
Ben Taylor’s Apocalypse on the Set: Nine Disastrous Film Productions (Overlook Duckworth) examines some of the more notoriously difficult film productions of the modern era, including such troubled shoots as Heaven’s Gate, Apocalypse Now, Baron Munchhausen, The Abyss, and Fitzcarraldo. The book is a quick and engaging read, ideal for younger or perhaps less learned film fans who aren’t already familiar with these oft discussed cinematic fiascos, but for those of us who are already well versed in these stories of woe the book includes one account that isn’t as well known as the other eight. The story of North Korean monster epic Pulgasari, the culmination of Kim Jong Il’s attempts to build a national cinema worthy of his greatness (the pursuit of which led to the kidnapping and imprisonment of one of South Korea’s best known directors and his actress wife), is the most bizarre tale in the book, and falls firmly into the ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ camp.
One of the films that Taylor writes about, Heaven’s Gate, is presently enjoying a critical re-evaluation, thanks in part to a new digital restoration and release on Blu-ray and DVD by the Criterion Collection. I always felt that the details of its torturous production being as well-known as they were prior to release pre-disposed critics to savage it regardless of its merits, but there is much to like in the film despite the shortcomings of the plotting and some of the performances. Taylor’s accounts of these films would have benefited if he had examined in more detail how the films have come to be perceived and re-evaluated in the years and in some cases decades since their initial release, but it’s an enjoyable read nonetheless, and a good appetite-whetter on the subject.
J. Hoberman is one of America’s greatest contemporary film writers. He’s a learned critic who still cites Bazin and other seminal but unfashionable film theorists in his work, and he’s also a liberal who’s never afraid to show his political colours. The collection Film After Film: Or, What Became of 21st Century Cinema? (Verso) is a thought provoking examination of cinema in the first decade and a bit of the 21st century. The book is divided into three parts: an expanded version of an essay originally published in Artforum called ‘A Post-Photographic Cinema (Film After Film)’, in which he characterises and explores the ramifications of the shift from film to digital formats for the capturing and viewing of moving images; ‘A Chronicle of the Bush Years’, in which he brilliantly dissects filmmaking in the GW Bush era, with a particular focus on how Hollywood reacted to 9/11 amidst a culture subsumed by what Hoberman calls ‘The New Bellicosity’; and a compilation of 21 of his scintillating Village Voice reviews from his final decade with the publication, giving an overview of what he considers some of the most significant filmmaking of the decade.
Although he writes with serious intent, Hoberman is not without a sense of humour, particularly when directing his ire towards the absurdities of the U.S. political right and their relationship with Hollywood, as illustrated by this example: “Asked how he would deal with terrorists in the future, Reagan promised to consult his oracle: ‘After seeing the movie Rambo, I’ll know what to do the next time something like this happens’. The master of fantasy merged with the fantasy of mastery – Ronbo”. This is a book for those who want some robust content in their film reading diet – call it critical fibre if you like. It’s good for you, and it tastes good.
Actor Charles McGraw is unknown today beyond a devoted cadre of film noir fans, one of the many impressive actors of the ‘40s and ‘50s who never managed to move out of the ranks of supporting players. McGraw was however steadily employed for several decades, beginning in the waning years of the studio system, until alcohol ruined his health and effectively ended his career. He was under contract to RKO in its final days under the ownership of Howard Hughes, and he appeared in a number of memorable film noirs and westerns. The craggy, gravel voiced actor also worked with notable directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Aldrich and Stanley Kubrick, and acted alongside many screen idols including his pal Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, and William Holden.
In shining a light on this forgotten actor, Alan K. Rode’s Charles McGraw: Film Noir Tough Guy (McFarland) also illuminates an interesting ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’ milieu that is seldom written about, that of the hard living B and C list actors, stuntmen, and technical staff who worked together during the day and caroused together in various LA bars at night. This was a raucous crowd of heavy drinkers, many of whom died quite young due to their unhealthy predilections, and whose careers, like McGraw’s, were brought to a premature end in the post-studio system era when unprofessional behaviour was far less tolerated, particularly in the demanding world of episodic television.
There were no rehabs full of emotionally fragile creative types being nursed back to health, and then welcomed back to the entertainment industry in a blaze of publicity; the work simply dried up for those who were unreliable, who then had even more reason to drink. The studio contracted actors of that era who survived into old age have enjoyed renewed attention at screenings and festivals around the world in recent decades, but that was not to be the case for McGraw. He died, probably drunk, following a household accident at his home in LA in August 1980 at the age of 66.
Author Rode has a distracting tendency to let his prose veer into the hardboiled at times, as if he can’t resist giving McGraw a run for his money, and the book is marred by an unacceptable number of typographical errors, but Charles McGraw is a welcome addition to the biography section of any aficionado’s noir shelf.
Photographer Terry O’Neill, who began his career in a photographic unit at Heathrow Airport and went on to photograph many iconic ‘60s and ‘70s entertainers and members of the Royal Family, was present on many Bond sets, commencing with Dr. No, the first entry in the phenomenal series. All About Bond (Evans Mitchell Books), published to tie-in with the 50th Anniversary of the franchise, is a collection of mostly unseen O’Neill photographs that includes shots of many Bond girls, Bond cars, memorable supporting cast members and most of the men who have played 007.
In order to give the book structure, a number of essays and commentaries were commissioned on such subjects as Ian Fleming, Roger Moore, the Bond Girls, Bond’s sartorial style, and the Bond cars, with appropriate photos illustrating each; my favourite shots are of Connery mugging for O’Neill on the sets of Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever. There’s nothing in any of the essays that will be particularly new or revealing to the serious Bond fan, but it’s a smartly packaged volume which will make an ideal gift for any Bond collector.
In 1982, three Mississippi teenagers embarked on a project to occupy themselves during the summer holidays: a shot by shot remake/adaptation of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Incredibly, these enterprising lads managed to recreate almost all of the film’s stunts, almost burning down one of their homes and nearly driving themselves mad trying to solve the problem of how to re-create the film’s iconic giant boulder. It took Eric Zala and Chris Strompolos, along with Jayson Lamb, 7 years to finish the film, but finish it they did, complete with a world premiere in their home town. No one outside of their family, friends and members of their local community knew about their heroic endeavour until many years after it was finished and buried in their closets in boxes of childhood ephemera, when the hands of fate (a.k.a. Eli Roth and Harry Knowles) intervened and brought this little film that could to the attention of the world.
Alan Eisenstock has done a tremendous job in telling the story of the boys’ adventure in Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (Thomas Dunne Books/St Martin’s Press), which is equal parts funny, charming, and emotionally resonant. Written in collaboration with Eric and Chris, the book is both a detailed recounting of the trials and tribulations of their huge undertaking, and a touching story about adolescence and all the traumas that growing up entails; in the case of Eric and Chris, their summer holidays were dominated by an absurdly ambitious undertaking, the sort of project that many bored teenagers might begin but would quickly abandon when they realised just how difficult it was. Within the context of their all-consuming obsession, the boys bonded, had their first romantic encounters, and negotiated and battled with their exasperated parents, while grappling with the never ending logistical difficulties of trying to make an ingeniously scaled-down no-budget remake of a blockbuster filled with spectacular set-pieces.
The most moving part of Eric’s and Chris’ story actually takes place after their eventually strained friendship sees them drift apart and head their separate ways, Eric into a successful career and Chris into a netherworld of failed ambitions and substance abuse; in the end, it’s their beloved film that broaches the divide and brings them back together for a very emotional rapprochement.
I can’t recommend this one highly enough, and anyone who muddled through a film geeky adolescence will see a lot of himself in Eric’s and Chris’ story.