Books that look beyond film as fast food

Thought-provoking reads on Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch, and cinema

Look at the theater or music section of an average bookstore, and you'll see lightweight fare - star biographies, consumer guides to current hits - alongside more thoughtful works helping readers understand important issues, such as the complex relationships between culture and society.

Now look at the film section, and you're likely to find a more one-sided situation. Volumes on glitzy stars, hot trends, and the latest video releases will crowd the shelves. But more serious books sadly may be in short supply.

This doesn't mean film commentators have less to say than their counterparts in other fields. But bookstores often behave as if movies were the cultural equivalent of forgettable fast food - an ironic attitude, given the lip service frequently paid to the idea that films affect social life for good or ill.

It's important to remember that authors write thought-provoking books about this important art form every year, and that the best of them can be easily tracked down by moviegoers looking for substantial reading material. Many such volumes have recently arrived, spanning a spectrum of subjects and styles.

No single filmmaker is getting more current attention than Alfred Hitchcock, whose centennial year has sparked various events, including a new edition of what may be the best book written about the American phase of his career.

Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood (University of California Press) was written by film historian Leonard J. Leff, who covers everything from the genesis of Hitch's first US production, "Rebecca," to the fine points of "Spellbound" and "Notorious," tracing the creative personalities of a director and producer with very different approaches. Mr. Leff's lively prose makes this a hugely entertaining read as well as a revealing lesson in studio politics.

Moviegoers interested in Hitchcock's later career, and in the relationship between film's visual and literary sides, may enjoy Me and Hitch (Faber and Faber) by Evan Hunter, who argues that his screenplay ideas for "The Birds" were turned into mincemeat by the director's desire to trade his "master of suspense" label for newfound respect as a cinematic artist. Hunter's account is wryly amusing, but he seems oddly oblivious to the genuine artistry that Hitchcock did put into this daringly unconventional picture.

The dialogue between art and entertainment has also figured in the career of David Lynch, inspiring lots of debate and a couple of new books.

The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood (University of Texas Press) comes from film professor and former TV scriptwriter Martha P. Nochimson, who explores pictures as varied as "The Elephant Man" and "Lost Highway," finding there a unique interplay between the reasoning powers of the intellect and the volcanic emotions of the unconscious.

Especially fascinating for "Twin Peaks" fans is her account of the strains that pitted Lynch against some of his key collaborators - valuable information for viewers puzzled by the wildly shifting personality of that wildly popular show.

Lynch's most controversial film remains "Blue Velvet," deemed scandalous by some and a defining work of the 1980s by others. Michael Atkinson probes its explosive content and befuddled reception in his book Blue Velvet (BFI Publishing), a valuable resource for anyone wanting to understand the picture.

Moving farther from the Hollywood studios, French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard has returned to the front lines with the loudly cheered reissue of his classic "Contempt" and the anticipated arrival of "Histoire(s) du cinma," his video series about the history of film. Wheeler Winston Dixon's book The Films of Jean-Luc Godard (State University of New York Press) includes some careless writing and shaky information, but gives an efficient overview of the director's volatile career.

Deeper analysis of important films is found in Speaking About Godard (New York University Press), by scholar Kaja Silverman and filmmaker Harun Farocki, who illuminate the intellectual traditions behind Godard's work in a book structured as a dialogue between two viewers.

Readers who enjoy wrestling with language can turn to Gilles Deleuze's Time Machine (Duke University Press), by film theorist D.N. Rodowick, who sets out to explain a French philosopher's influential ideas about the tensions between cinematic space and time. This is the first book of its kind on Deleuze's studies of film, and readers with a philosophical bent should find it greatly stimulating; others may prefer to wait for a volume that isn't written even more intricately than Deleuze's own works.

If any recent book strikes an ideal balance between insightful analysis and graceful writing, it is The Material Ghost: Films and Their Medium (The Johns Hopkins University Press), by Gilberto Perez, whose interests range from the comedy of Buster Keaton and the humanism of Jean Renoir to the politics of the western and the compassion of today's Iranian movies.

His title refers to "the peculiar closeness to reality and the no less peculiar suspension from reality" that cinema gives us more vividly than any other art. Perez understands this productive tension to its core, and like the best film books, this collection of essays is a model of thoughtful criticism that treats the complexities of film and the sensibilities of readers with equal understanding, consideration, and respect.

*David Sterritt's e-mail address is sterrittd@csps.com

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