Monday, March 17, 2014

One of the things I love about living where I do is having access to the nearby (less than a ten minute walk) university library. Even if you're not a student, you can still use it - a library card for local residents costs all of one dollar.
In passing I should mention that my wife and I have availed ourselves of some of the great DVDs they have it the library - things like East German westerns and sci-fi films from the 1960s - but the focus for me is on all the books there. So many books, so little time! Being that I read non-fiction almost exclusively, this is just about the best recreational resource I could imagine. I can, and do, indulge all my personal obsessions there - I mean, the North Korea section is huge.
In any case, they also have a large and fairly deep film section, one with inherent appeal to a movie geek such as myself. I am slowly working my way through it, shelf by shelf. That's one of the great things about a library - you can take your time, it's probably not going to go out of business, and it doesn't cost anything (other than a little of your time) to take a chance on books that might not seem so interesting at first glance.
So I wanted to share a few thoughts on a few of the books that I've read lately. Like the films I review here, these books are from different periods of time. To me, films are fairly timeless, and therefore so are books about films. A film from 1933, or a book on films from the 1930s, is still current to me.
First up is a book I was a little leery of, but ended up finding very enjoyable. It's Night of the Living Dead by Ben Hervey (2008), and it's part of the BFI Film Classics series. Coming, as it does, out of the British Film Institute, and promising to be an "illuminating study" of Night of the Living Dead (1968), I was initially suspicious that this might be a bit too high brow for such a down and dirty film.
They're coming to get you, Barbara!
And the book does get kind of academic at times, with Cold War connections, Vietnam references, racial messages and all manner of (possible) deeper meanings to be extracted from the film and/or its script. I found these ideas interesting without being conclusive or especially illuminating. Even the film's director, George Romero, was apparently surprised at all the things that people read into the film. To paraphrase - sometimes a zombie is just a zombie, and sometimes a horror film is just a horror film. (Or even just a commercial venture.)
But, as a fan of the film, I found the fairly detailed background on the making of the film, and the people involved, very interesting. There are moments of inspiration, humor, and heartbreak captured here, and I suspect that it's this behind-the-scenes material that would appeal to most readers. As a profile of what was involved in the making of a groundbreaking and iconic horror film, this slim little book really delivers the goods.
Of course, Night of the Living Dead came out in 1968, and that turned out to be a pivotal year for movies in many ways, especially when it came to onscreen representations of violence. Roger Ebert attended a Saturday children's matinee of NOTLD, and his review captures the sense of how things were changing: "...they'd seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else. This was ghouls eating people up...This was little girls killing their mothers...Worst of all, even the hero got killed."
This is the bloody end of the line surveyed in Stephen Prince's 2003 book Classical Film Violence - Designing and Regulating Brutality in Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1968. Prince attempts to both explore and explain the many rules, regulations and "don'ts and be carefuls" that were in place during the period in question, as well as how they all came crumbling down at the end of the 1960s. He goes into the often conflicting desires - artistic, financial and moralistic - that were at play in the Hollywood system prior to 1968.
Bang, bang! Read, read!

Breaking with what is the mainstream view of the Production Code restrictions in place, and those who were charged with enforcing them, Prince argues that the people who have been historically viewed as censors were, in fact, much more concerned with helping filmmakers and studios avoid potential troubles with state censorship boards. Thus, those who have been viewed as barriers to artistic expression, were really simply most concerned with the financial wellbeing of the film industry as a whole. It's an interesting view, and one that Prince makes a good case for.
In any case, as a history of Hollywood seen through the prism of permissible violence, this is a pretty thorough and satisfying book. Anyone interested in the Golden Age of Hollywood is likely to find many items of interest here. However, those same film fans would also doubtlessly spot the small but numerous errors throughout the book. As an example: We all know in our dark little noir hearts that Richard Widmark made his screen debut playing Tommy Udo in 1947's Kiss of Death. Prince refers to the character throughout the book as Johnny Udo. Errors like this could easily have been avoided by simply checking the iMDB, or any number of film books, and their presence here dulled my enthusiasm for this book a little bit.
Finally, I read the director Edward Dmytryk's 1978 autobiography, It's a Hell of a Life But Not a Bad Living. Written in a frank and straightforward style, this is a filmmaker's autobiography written for those who love movies. Rather than go into great detail about Dmytryk's childhood or upbringing, it pretty much jumps right into the start of his film career, and continues on from there, working in bits and pieces of his youth and background as needed.
Aside from having directed many great, iconic or noteworthy films - such as Behind the Rising Sun (1943), Murder, My Sweet (1944), Crossfire (1947), The Sniper (1952) and The Caine Mutiny (1954) - Dmytryk will also always be remembered as one of the "Hollywood Ten," the ten Hollywood artists blacklisted due to the efforts of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Dmytryk was also sent to prison as a result of the HUAC hearings, an experience he also talks about candidly in this book.
Edward Dmytryk made some very fine films.

Laid out essentially in chronological order of his films, and presented in a brisk manner, this may not be the most in-depth autobiography ever produced, but it is a valuable and engaging story of one man's place in both the history of American cinema, and politics. It was a quick read, and one I can recommend without hesitation.
And finally, finally...I also read parts of the Best Film Plays of 1943-1944 (1945), which consists of the shooting scripts of ten films from 1943-44. Some are pretty much forgotten (Wilson), some are now considered racially offensive (Dragon Seed), while some that were financial failures (The Ox-Bow Incident) are now considered classics. I skimmed parts of several scripts, but read the two scripts by Preston Sturges (The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero) all the way through, with a special interest in the parts in the script that didn't make it into the finished film.
I guess you have to be a pretty hardcore movie geek to do something like that. But if that's your thing, and you can find a copy of this book, have at it. You can make your own photoplay with Eddie Bracken in your head, just like I did.
The sp-sp-spots!

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