Are movies "culture"? Midway through the annual summer run of brainless blockbusters, it's easy to catch yourself muttering, as Graham Greene did in 1936, "I cannot help wondering whether from this great moneyed industry anything of value to the human spirit can ever emerge." Yet at the opposite pole of cinematic experience can be found such classic films as Jean Renoir's "The Rules of the Game," which have as much to say about the human spirit -- and say it as eloquently -- as the greatest novels of the 20th century.
In between these two extremes can be found everything from smart shoot-'em-ups to frothy comedy. Such movies are the very air we breathe, but are they art? In the long run, just how good is "His Girl Friday"? Or "Citizen Kane"? Or "The Searchers"? Or "Chinatown"?
Thousands of books have been written about these and other related questions: A visit to the movie section of the corner bookstore will leave you gasping. But the closer you look, the less you'll like.
Film-related journalism tends to be trivial, while the branch of scholarship known as film studies is now completely dominated by the jargon-ridden theory-crunching of academic totalitarians.
Here's how one anthology of writings about "film theory" is described on the dust jacket: "The essays argue for the continuing need to engage in debate concerning cultural authority, canonicity, multiculturalism and radical pedagogy." (I'll take mine with butter, thanks.)
All is not lost, though. In between the Marx-was-right pseudo-scholarship and the Cary-Grant-was-gay trash, plenty of excellent books capable of enhancing the experience of moviegoing are yours for the buying. Some are easy to find, while others may take a little looking. But either way, there's life after "Con Air," and the following books will help you find it.
Let's start with some background. Many people take movies for granted, and know little or nothing about the complex and fascinating history of the medium. Among the best single-volume treatments of the subject is "The Oxford History of World Cinema," edited by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (Oxford University Press. 824 pages. $49.95). Unlike most such books, this one consists of separate essays about various aspects of film history (the studio system, film music, the rise of TV), arranged chronologically into a coherent narrative.
You can read the book straight through or pick and choose among the topics, which also include 150 mini-biographies of key figures ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Arnold Schwarzenegger. The essays are scholarly but intelligible, and usually avoid the trendiest excesses of film theory. What's more, "The Oxford History of World Cinema" really is a world history: It covers major developments in every country where movies have been made.
What about the inside scoop? As a rule, the only thing worse than a celebrity biography is a celebrity autobiography, and the two best Hollywood memoirs, David Niven's "The Moon's a Balloon" and "Bring on the Empty Horses," are out of print (though usually pretty easy to find at used bookstores). More recently, though, Charlton Heston has written "In the Arena" (Simon & Schuster. 592 pages. $27.50), which is skimpy on hot gossip -- one wife, two kids, no affairs -- but full of well-told tales about how movies are really made.
Of similar interest is William Goldman's "Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting" (Warner Books. 594 pages. $16.99. paper). Goldman wrote the screenplays for such popular films as "All the President's Men" and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," and his book is less a memoir than a frank, funny account of how Hollywood looks from a screenwriter's point of view, written in a brisk style lightly sprinkled with hard-earned cynicism: "Here is one of the basic lessons a screenwriter must learn and live with: Stars will not play weak and they will not play blemished, and you better know that now. ... Which is why I truly believe that if all you do with your life is write screenplays, it ultimately has to denigrate the soul. You may get lucky and get rich, but you sure won't get happy. Because you will spend your always-decreasing days doing the following: writing Perfect Parts for Perfect People."
Which leads us to criticism. Surprisingly (or maybe not), very few first-rate writers have had all that much to say about film. A notable exception is Graham Greene, who reviewed movies regularly between 1935 and 1940, and whose complete film writings (excluding his original screenplays) have been collected "The Graham Greene Film Reader" (Applause Books. 738 pages. $35).
Greene's perspective on film is idiosyncratic and thoughtful, and worlds away from the blurb-grinding of your typical American movie reviewer.
Alas, none of the major collections of film criticism by Americans is currently in print. In order to read James Agee's "Agee on Film," Otis Ferguson's "The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson," Dwight Macdonald's "On Movies," Charles Thomas Samuels' "Mastering the Film," John Simon's "Reverse Angle" or Robert Warshow's "The Immediate Experience," you'll have to visit the nearest library -- a trip I strongly recommend, since between them, these six books contain much of the best film criticism written in this country.
The only important American film critic to be treated decently by her publishers is Pauline Kael, all of whose books are in print. Of them, the most useful is the second edition of "5001 Nights at the Movies" (Owl/Henry Holt. 945 pages. $24.95. paper), a collection of thumbnail reviews Kael wrote for the "Goings On About Town" section of the New Yorker.
The coverage is sometimes spotty (what happened to "Vertigo"?), but as Spencer Tracy said of Katharine Hepburn in "Pat and Mike," what there is is choice. Here, for instance, is what Kael has to say about "All About Eve": "Ersatz art of a very high grade, and one of the most enjoyable movies ever made." If 16 more accurate words have ever been penned about a movie, I haven't read them.
Best and worst
"Roger Ebert's Book of Film" (W. W. Norton. 793 pages. $30), published earlier this year, contains critical essays by Kael, Graham Greene, Dwight Macdonald and Robert Warshow, but Ebert has cast his editorial net far more widely than criticism: His book, subtitled "From Tolstoy to Tarantino, the Finest Writing from a Century of Film," is a wide-ranging anthology encompassing everything from celebrity profiles to excerpts from novels about Hollywood.
Like all anthologies, this one is bound to provoke endless how-could-he-have-left-that-out arguments, but what's here is almost always worth reading -- among those present are Raymond Chandler, Joan Didion, F. Scott Fitzgerald, E. M. Forster, Christopher Isherwood, H. L. Mencken, Walker Percy and Tom Wolfe -- and while I can imagine a more focused anthology of writing about film, I can't imagine a more enjoyable one.
For dessert, pick up a copy of "The Critics Were Wrong: Misguided Movie Reviews and Film Criticism Gone Awry" (Citadel Press. 266 pages. $12.95. paper), edited by Ardis Sillick and Michael McCormick, a pair of film buffs dedicated to the proposition that the customer is always right.
This scattershot collection of excerpts from bad reviews of famous movies contains plenty of howlers, including a totally humorless attack on Mel Brooks' "The Producers" penned by none other than Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Read it and weep -- then go out and rent a good movie.
Terry Teachout, the music critic of Commentary, writes the "Front Row Center" column for Civilization, covers ballet and modern dance for the New York Daily News, and frequently reviews books for the New York Times and The Sun. He is finishing "H. L. Mencken: A Life."
Pub Date: 7/13/97