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So you want to read about movies?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Just as moviegoers can feel intimidated by the number of films that open each week, readers can be overwhelmed by the volume of movie books. From biographies of popular actors to scholarly books on the political implications of specific films to insider Hollywood exposes, finding books that are well-written and accessible but not superficial requires effort. The following releases are the result of our homework.

"You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet: The American Talking Film 1927-1949" by Andrew Sarris (Oxford University Press, 573 pages, $18.95, paperback ). It's unlikely any book could provide a better overview of the birth of sound pictures to the decline of the studio system. Sarris, one of America's foremost film critics, writes with passion and intelligence about Hollywood's greatest directors, actors and the major studios. What distinguishes this work is his personal vision of American cinema, which provides new insights into famous films and rich discoveries of lesser known material.

His chapters "The Musical" and "Film Noir" exemplify his ability to combine precise criticism with wit and charm. Sarris points out that director Vincente Minnelli's work has been underappreciated because of its overpowering images of his wife Judy Garland and their daughter Liza Minnelli. Sarris rescues director Otto Preminger from the critical scrapheap by uncovering the fascination with perverse psychology that pervades each of his examples of "film noir," beginning with the classic "Laura."

His essays on stars like Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis and Cary Grant are surprisingly fresh, but his views of lesser-known actors such as Louise Brooks, Irene Dunne and Mary Astor are even more delightful and informative. Sarris documents the best of the B pictures and indulges in some guilty pleasures such as Frank Capra's "Lost Horizon" and the 1949 weeper "My Foolish Heart."

Like Martin Scorcese's documentary "A Personal Journey," Sarris's book examines film history, but in the context of how it affected him. With his knowledge and insight, he takes criticism to another level.

"Celluloid Mavericks: A History of Independent Film" by Greg Merritt (Thunder's Mouth Press, 463 pages, $18.95). This comprehensive work explores the history of the "non-studio" film from the silent era to "The Blair Witch Project." Merritt distinguishes between "independent" and "semi-independent" productions, argues that a movie's vision is what determines if a project is independent and examines the differences between being independent in the 1940s and the 1990s.

Merritt calls directors Ida Lupino and Samuel Fuller the parents of modern independent movies. As Lupino's acting career declined after World War II, she forged a new career as a director/writer of small-budget films about realistic subjects -- illegitimate births, rape and racism. She was also the rare woman to achieve the power to direct. Fuller was a maverick who wrote and directed unglamorous and spare films about war, mental institutions and prostitution.

The book notes the legitimate contributions of B-movie mogul Roger Corman and soft-core porn director Russ Meyer to the independent movement as well as the influence of the French New Wave. Merritt connects the stark realism and improvisation of John Cassavetes's films to Andy Warhol's "Chelsea Girls" and documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman's groundbreaking "Titicut Follies." The author spends considerable time with John Waters's infamous "Pink Flamingos" and the rise of horror indepedents like "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Night of the Living Dead."

The recent independent boom was enhanced by the growth in the Sundance Film Festival and the influence of Miramax Studio, highlighted by Steven Soderbergh's "sex, lies and videotape," Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" and Billy Bob Thornton's "Sling Blade." Merritt's book works well for either the serious movie fan or the reader simply wanting to learn the basics about the most original and provocative films of the last 80 years.

"Kubrick" by Michael Herr (Grove Press, 97 pages, $18.95). This is not a biography but an essay/memoir about the director of "Lolita," "Dr. Strangelove," "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "A Clockwork Orange," a man often misunderstood by colleagues, critics and viewers. Herr, best known for his brilliant Vietnam memoir "Dispatches," became a collaborator and friend of Stanley Kubrick's in the early 1980s.

Herr describes Kubrick as a man of prodigious intellect and varied interests who "had a taste and a gift for the creative-subversive." The author debunks the media image of Kubrick as a megalomaniacal eccentric living as a recluse. Herr offers wonderful but unsentimental anecdotes that portray the director as a warm man who was completely involved in all aspects of the movie business. Indeed, Kubrick loved the movies and everything about them -- he simply despised Hollywood sentimentality.

Herr documents Kubrick's demanding work ethic and how his colleagues (actors, writers, cinematograhers) could be overwhelmed by his attention to detail and his deliberate pace. And yet most said they'd do anything to work with him again.

The book's final section is a detailed response to the critical drubbing of Kubrick's final film, "Eyes Wide Shut," released just weeks after his sudden death in 1999. Herr, a former film critic, believes almost every reviewer succumbed to the Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman hype surrounding the film and missed its artistry.

For Herr, Stanley Kubrick's work represents a pure form of art -- flawed but remarkably personal. Herr says Kubrick was seeking "the elusive quality of perfection." Whether he ever achieved it is in the eye of the beholder, but Herr makes a case that no modern film director came closer.

"Is that a Gun in Your Pocket? Women's Experience of Power in Hollywood" by Rachel Abramowitz (Random House, 494 pages, $26.95). This is an engaging and important book about the realities and struggles of women in the film business. Abramowitz interviewed more than 150 women about their lives in Hollywood and cross references their stories with one another to produce a compelling narrative about the "changing history of their consciousness."

From actor/director Barbra Streisand to studio chief Dawn Steel to super agent Sue Mengers to directors Nora Ephron, Penny Marshall and Elaine May, the author recounts their experiences (good, bad and ugly) over three decades. These tales of sexism, jealousy, fear, failure and success provide fascinating and long overdue insights into an important and mostly overlooked group of Hollywood principals.

The book's most insightful and interesting studies concern production designer Polly Platt, studio chief Sherry Lansing and actress Jodie Foster. Platt's career and talents were overshadowed by her collaborations with her ex-husband, director Peter Bogdanovich, and director James Brooks. Lansing's 25-year odyssey to the top level of major studios is a study in dedication, intelligence, flattery, guile and good timing. For Foster, her evolution from child star to college student to stalking victim to struggling actress to two-time Oscar winner to major Hollywood player is downright inspirational.

Abramowitz's superior reporting elevates what could have been a pedestrian book to essential reading for anyone interested in how Hollywood really works.

Paul Moore is Deputy Managing Editor/News at The Sun. He has recently completed a list of the best 200 English-language films from 1927 to 1999.

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