Critic's movie book is scattered but entertaining

Take 22: Moviemakers on Moviemaking, by Judith Crist. New York: Viking Press. 352 pp. $25. For every critic there's a credo, and film reviewer Judith Crist has an appealing one. She doesn't like laying down ``the ultimate truth'' in a ``godlike'' voice. Rather, she calls her criticism ``a conversation between moviegoers'' -- an effort ``to share discovered pleasures,'' to ``give the good a push and pass it on.''

Nice words, but does she mean them?

Yes, and literally. For 13 years she has been hosting weekends for filmgoers and filmmakers at a Tarrytown, N.Y., conference center. There she and her guests luxuriate in movie after movie, spiced with lively conversations about the works they've been watching.

``Take 22: Moviemakers on Moviemaking'' serves up transcripts of 22 such events chosen from the 100 or so held thus far. The idea was to capture ``not the glitz and glamour but the information and insight'' that the best sessions could provide.

The big names seem chosen almost at random: stars, directors, and producers ranging from Richard Dreyfuss and Burt Reynolds to Walter Matthau and Bette Davis. What links them is their seriousness about movies and their eagerness to share thoughts with critic and audience alike. The result is a readable, if scattered, collection.

``I was an elitist in my youth so that I could be a populist in my middle age,'' says Crist in her introduction, and yes, a mass-cult tone runs through the question-and-answer exchanges she presides over. Usually it's not the pro-trash populism of a Pauline Kael or the star-coddling of many lesser reviewers. But it doesn't always encourage film's higher aspirations. Quite reasonably, the director of several James Bond movies says, ``It's hysterical that an audience of intelligent people will discuss Bond seriously.'' Crist replies that ``if you're going to be a movie fan . . . you take Bond as seriously as you do the grand auteurism of Bergman.''

It's hard to tell if that's a prescription or a description, but either way it pushes populism to the limit.

Other remarks have odd ethical implications, as when Crist tells director Mark Rydell how much she likes the ``good old revenge'' in a movie like ``Death Wish.'' (If compelled to have a vigilante epic in my list of guilty pleasures, I'd at least make it the more dignified ``Walking Tall,'' which Crist attacks.) Nor does she blink when Peter Bogdanovich cutely tells how child actor Tatum O'Neal got hooked on lettuce-leaf cigarettes while playing a smoker in ``Paper Moon'' -- a minor but crass anecdote.

What's best about the book is the generosity of its celebrity guests, who discuss their work and colleagues with uncommon candor, evidently encouraged by the convivial atmosphere. I've never seen more entertaining explanations of what a producer does, how a star's career gets launched, why this actor chooses to work with that director. Or, for that matter, how you get a horse to do its tricks in 12 feet of snow.

While these are not ``press agent-sponsored interviews,'' as Crist points out, they aren't arranged from a critical perspective, either. But most of the conversation hinges on past projects rather than new ones, which filters out much of the hype that often mars celebrity statements. Especially revealing are the joint sessions with husband-wife teams, when interactions between spouses can be glimpsed beneath the professional relationships in the spotlight.

And just like a good movie, there are times when the book just takes off and soars. Asked how he shot the bicycles flying before the sun in ``E.T.,'' director Steven Spielberg explains that ``we waited for the sun to get very low, then we . . . said, `Ride like the wind, ride like the wind.' And wow -- they flew right across. . . .''

David Sterritt is the Monitor's film critic. -- 30 --{et

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