Who needs an entire book on Jaws? No one. Damn thing runs every three hours on the USA network anyway, so why not just catch the best chomps next time around? For that matter, what is left to say about Apocalypse Now, or what was there to say in the first place about Goldfinger? In view of the density of commentary that swamps us from every direction these days, sometimes it would be a relief if commerce could just stay that way.
But if you're the sort of creative viewer that cultural-studies scholars crave--you fantasize, nail shortcomings and inconsistencies, insert alternatives where the narrative leaves you cold--the Bloomsbury Movie Guide series, which began publishing in early 1998, is as necessary, and as obsessive, as the Internet Movie Database. Sure, these books can't spin crap into Kane, but they're a hell of a lot goofier and more fun than the British Film Institute's sober film-studies series.
Organized into A-to-Z encyclopedias dealing with everything from "America" to "Zippergate" (this in the Blue Velvet volume alone), they serve up more than $100 will buy at Old Country Buffet. Pig out on Lynchiana and wonder if there might possibly be anything that remains unsaid about this film, or nibble on a theme that you string together. How about sampling T.S. Eliot, Harrison Ford, and the semiotics of eating in the movies from the Apocalypse Now smorgasbord? Whatever you choose, these books proffer a Nabokovian banquet of delights.
Admirably balanced, these guides never mistake good films for great ones--an absurdly easy intellectual sleight-of-hand with a project like this. Given sufficient critical massaging, any text under consideration can come to seem flawless, its every artistic compromise really an integral component of some larger modernist design. Yet the enormous success enjoyed by each of these films precludes hermetic auteurist celebration (all these flicks did significant box office, save for Performance, a far more important artifact in England than in the U.S., and perhaps Blue Velvet, which still inaugurated the mass phase of David Lynch's cult).
These authors--all of them prominent British critics or film historians--write as both fans and scholars, noting where the films fail and acknowledging the commercial considerations that helped determine their fates in the marketplace. Familiarity has bred not contempt, but comfort: "Apocalypse Now is an absurdly ambitious film wanting to tackle the same issues as Heart of Darkness and more," writes Karl French. "It addresses the morality of war, imperialism, the struggle between good and evil, weaves in sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll...[but] the conclusion is almost willfully inchoate....You can't forget that it is an overweight Marlon Brando as a lean fighter, twittering on in his mercifully abbreviated attempts to lose himself in a characterization of pure evil." For a pithy, and eminently fair-minded, summary of a film alleged by its maker to contain "forty-seven different levels of meaning," this is hard to beat.
To encourage readerly foraging, the strictly encyclopedic volumes deliberately scatter their charms: French begins his discussion of Apocalypse Now with a Gulf War novel called The Aardvark Is Ready for War, since "the aim of any self-respecting alphabetically arranged guide is to begin with an entry for aardvark." Later he includes entries on "pretentiousness" and "Disneyland," the latter of which seems to argue that a quest to escape the Magic Kingdom (Kurtz's first name is, after all, Walt) forms the hidden core of the movie's symbolism. French also, it must be noted, hips you to both the fake porn spinoff Hard in Darkness, which appeared in Duckman, and the real one, Apocalypse Climax.
Among the Shadean joys on display in Turner's discussion of Goldfinger: how Maj. Gen. Henry Knox, for whom Fort Knox was named, anticipated his megalomaniacal descendant Goldfinger in girth and high style; how Shirley Eaton, more than 30 years after being murdered in the film by being painted gold, was plucked from a crowd mourning Princess Diana's death to be interviewed and identified, still, as a "golden girl"; and how Sean Connery mocked the feats of strength planned to build up Oddjob, Goldfinger's massive henchman. ("You can't crush a fooking golf ball. It's fooking stupid.") Oh yes, and the complete review from the Daily Worker, which unmasked in Goldfinger "a vast, gigantic confidence trick to blind the audience to what is really going on underneath."
Nigel Andrews's brilliant take on Jaws touches on everything from its literary, mythical, and cultural precedents (Melville and Géricault get their due) to its contemporary referents (Vietnam and Nixon come under scrutiny) and even its consequences (did Spielberg destroy Hollywood? Andrews thinks not). Or, if you prefer, track the course of boy Spielberg's jealous revenge on those who did him wrong: He saddled a dishonest military man in Close Encounters with the name of the insufficiently reverent Jaws author Peter Benchley and exiled editor Verna Fields from the crew before starting his next production, believing she'd gotten too much credit for the first picture.
David Thomson, whose Johnsonian Biographical Dictionary of Film every buff should own, so far has ventured the only real departure from the encyclopedia format. He scampers scene-by-scene through every installment of the Alien series, taking brief intermissions to track the films' fortunes in the marketplace and the slow grind of industry to make another. Every ten pages or so, regular as a monster attack, he springs a creepy aperçu on the reader: "[T]he basic forms of life so easily slip over from one species to the next." Lance Henriksen "is one of a type of actor who could be robots, and who have seen some limits to 'human authenticity.'"
Although he controls himself quite impressively through the increasingly unsatisfactory first three films, by the fourth Thomson can stand it no longer and is off, riffing in the style of his novel Suspects, which webbed his favorite film-noir characters into one giant family plot. The version of Alien Resurrection he dreams is far more intellectually and narratively fertile than the barren specimen that ended up onscreen.
Perhaps the most entertaining aspect of these books is their weirdly mimetic conveyance of each film's zeitgeist: Goldfinger an unexpectedly profitable bit of piecework for British journeymen; Jaws pure product touched by magic; Performance an intermittently successful labor of love. Most appositely, after wading through French's 251 pages on Apocalypse Now, you slacken into surrender to the breadth and exhausting ambition of his vision--just as Coppola longed to communicate the experience of the war itself. French frequently lets you glimpse his own (mostly) willing servitude to a film he admits to having watched more than 40 times. Sometimes such fanatical precision leaves him cold, sometimes faith is its own reward: "This final section [Martin Sheen, Dennis Hopper, and Brando chewing through thickets of myth at Kurtz's compound] makes more and more sense the more often you see it, and this process of repeated viewing, existing somewhere in the realm between thorough research and obsession, leads to some odd conclusions," the author confesses.
Really, why bother if you're going to waste time being sensible? The madder these books get, the better they are, approaching that hapless infatuation that seduces every film geek early on. For the most part, they present not one reading but many--trailing clues for the reader but ultimately leaving most questions open. Unless you're dangerously in thrall to a single film, nobody needs this much detail. But that's no reason you shouldn't have it.