Book Review

Books About Cinema, Books About Film

books on film (to the tune of 'Girls On Film')

We all love the movies, in this weird culture we live in.

Some people love truly, truly, awful pieces of trash, some people like films that even I find boring, and some people will watch and kinda enjoy whatever is put on in front of them on their old fashioned broadcast television.

There are very few people who “don’t like films”. And I say that as someone who has met (and written about) people who “don’t like cake”, who “don’t like music”, who “don’t like being wasted” and who don’t seem to like or enjoy very much at all.

Film – whether it is in a cinema (“a movie theatre”), on a premium streaming service, a DVD, an old old VHS, a Blu-ray, broadcast TV, whatever – people watch it, people watch film. People consume visual video media; moving image captured by camera then edited then screened in a different place at a different time.

I decided to read a couple of books about film, because I haven’t seen an excellent film for a while and now things here are reopening I have less time to watch films (and probably less time to read, too, unfortunately (hahaha lololol there’s never a balance, is there?)

The Devil’s Candy: The Anatomy of A Hollywood Fiasco by Julie Salamon (1991)

I’ll be honest, I first learned about this book from a Guardian article a few months ago that basically functioned as a blog type review of it. This is a book about the semi-infamous production of the Bonfire of the Vanities, an adaptation of the 1987 Tom Wolfe novel that I read well over a decade ago.

Wolfe’s book was a critical and commercial success, so why not make a movie?

A producer bought the option, hired baby-faced romantic lead Tom Hanks to play the sleazy morally bankrupt banker protagonist and signed Brian De Palma (a horror slash thriller guy: he was the director of Scarface, Carrie and, later (as – unlike the rest of the crew, if my IMDb research can be trusted – this film’s massive failure didn’t tank his career) Mission Impossible) to direct.

They then proceeded to sign up Bruce Willis (to play a nuanced English journalist), Melanie Griffith (Tippi Hedren’s in-and-out-of-rehab daughter), Kim Cattrall (incorrectly viewed as a washed up femme fatale who was lucky to have got the part), and the just-become-a-star Morgan Freeman whose packed schedule caused millions of dollars worth of delays to the shoot.

It was a disaster. Financially and critically.

Expected to be as big a film as the book was book, the studio continued ploughing money into the project long after de Palma and his crew made clear their profligate love of spending and indecisiveness about shooting locations.

Salamon’s book – unlike the movie she wrote about – was a massive hit on its release, and it does do an excellent job of evoking the full production cycle of a major Hollywood film.

Salamon (the Wall Street Journal film critic) had unprecedented levels of access and numerous signed waivers allowing her to publish whatever she wanted. She was literally in the room when a lot of the film’s strangest and stupidest decisions were made, which makes the absence of a first person voice until the Afterword a jarring choice, tho maybe this book is just old enough that acknowledging personal bias was considered inappropriate for non-fiction. Maybe not, though.

De Palma, overall, comes across as humble, if a little sleazy (tho he is never presented as an aggressor in any of the interactions that would be considered (at best) “workplace-inappropriate”), and while Bruce Willis is presented as a fool, it is pleasing that Tom Hanks – with a false bonhomie – comes across as a prick too.

The book is interesting, funny, and surprising, and I will certainly watch De Palma’s Bonfire of the Vanities at some point soon (see below).

Malle on Malle edited by Philip French (1993)

One of the few good things that came out of the pandemic (for me) was my discovery of the unpopular streaming service called Mubi.

When I first logged in well over a year ago, the service was nearing the end of a two month long season of films directed by the prolific-ish French director, Louis Malle.

Malle’s varied career included Hollywood blockbusters, iconic film noir, fascinating cinema vérité type documentaries, as well as weird experimental films that, imo, didn’t really work. He also directed My Dinner with André, which is a film whose title is more famous than its content, tho – like most films involving Wallace Shawn – it’s wonderful.

I ordered this book of conversations between Malle and the British film critic Philip French when the last Malle films were removed from Mubi (that is it’s (now inconsistent) USP: films are/were only available for 30 days), tho it has taken me over a year to get round to reading it.

The book explores Malle’s oeuvre, with at least a few paragraphs on every film he produced, as well as the sources for his material. Almost all of his work was based on “ideas” he had had himself, but not in an “I do everything” auteur type way, he is very good at naming his cinematographers, his editors, his producers, his screenwriters, his actors, and he looks back (most of the interviews were conducted within a couple of years of his death) with a candid honesty about his successes and his failures, including his reactions (both pleasant surprise and disappointment) concerning critical and audience response to his films.

Malle worked with many iconic actors – and musicians – across his career, and tho there is an occasional chauvinistic edge to narratives and/or implied crew hierarchies reflecting trad conservative biases, Malle wrote and directed many powerful performers and performances from an array of people. He explored weighty and controversial topics (incest comes up a lot, but also grief and mourning, prejudice and abuse, betrayal and dishonesty, greed and discomfort)

His films are excellent, and he made far more than I realised and thus far more than I’d seen. I will definitely make a time to watch Atlantic City, for example: an early eighties thriller starting Susan Sarandon, and at some point I should watch his first feature, which was co-directed with Jacques Cousteau and won the Palme d’Or, an underwater documentary that I’m pretty certain is available in full on YouTube.

An interesting read.

Addendum: I tried watching Bonfire of the Vanities one evening earlier in the week and I had to turn it off after around fifteen minutes.

Unwatchable.

Even having read The Devil’s Candy, I was unprepared for how awful it was.

OK, time for me to go to work.

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