The American Society of Cinematographers

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February 2010
Americas Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide to the Landmark Movies in the National Film Registry Online
by Daniel Eagan
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

In 1988, Congress introduced the National Film Preservation Act, a bill aimed at stopping colorization and other mutilations of classic films. The bill authorized the Library of Congress to annually select 25 American films of cultural, historical or aesthetic significance and hold an archival print of each at the Library.… The wide range of important films in the Registry makes it a terrific starting point for anyone wishing to study the history of American cinema (as well as an excellent refresher course for veteran film buffs), and journalist and researcher Daniel Eagan’s America’s Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide to the Landmark Movies in the National Film Registry provides a lively guide to the collection. Eagan’s book takes the reader through the Registry films one by one, in order of release; the book starts with Blacksmithing Scene from 1893 and ends with the 1996 masterpiece Fargo.
The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron  Online
by Rebecca Keegan
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Long before he became the “king of the world” by directing the massively successful Titanic, James Cameron was a director around whom larger-than-life legends proliferated. Either a brilliant visionary or an abusive egomaniac (or both), depending on whom one talks to, Cameron is one of those filmmakers whose mythology has grown so large it obscures both his genuine achievements and his (relatively few) failures. What makes journalist Rebecca Keegan’s new book. The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron. so valuable is the way in which it strips away the hyperbole to focus on the specifics of Cameron’s process. Keegan first became intrigued by the director’s methods while visiting the set of Avatar for a Time magazine article; she quickly gained access to Cameron and his inner circle, and the interviews and set visits that followed allowed her to write this candid and insightful biography.
A Short History of Cahiers du cinma Online
by Emilie Bickerton
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Founded in 1951 under the guidance of editor André Bazin, Cahiers du cinéma took less than 10 years to become the most influential film magazine in history, thanks to a passionate and combative writing staff that included critics (and eventual directors) François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer (who would take over editorship upon Bazin’s death in 1958), Jacques Rivette and many others of note.… The core group began to splinter by 1963, when Rivette, believing the magazine had become too conservative in its perspective, ousted Rohmer and took over editorial duties. After the “putsch,” most of the original writers devoted more time to filmmaking and contributed only occasional articles to Cahiers; although the magazine has continued to survive in various incarnations, its post-1960s history is largely unknown to American cineastes.… Thankfully, journalist Emilie Bickerton has filled the void with her new book, A Short History of Cahiers du cinéma, a study of the journal from its origins to the present. A concise and impeccably researched volume, Short History is a straightforward guide to the positions and sensibilities of Cahiers in its various permutations and is a consideration of the ways the magazine influenced world cinema and its changes.

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Americas Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide to the Landmark Movies in the National Film Registry
by Daniel Eagan
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

In 1988, Congress introduced the National Film Preservation Act, a bill aimed at stopping colorization and other mutilations of classic films. The bill authorized the Library of Congress to annually select 25 American films of cultural, historical or aesthetic significance and hold an archival print of each at the Library. Selection would mandate each movie be labeled if shown anywhere in an altered form. In the decades since the bill’s passage, the National Film Registry has grown to include more than 500 movies — not only popular features such as Citizen Kane and It’s a Wonderful Life, but also avant-garde works by the likes of Kenneth Anger and Harry Smith, educational and industrial films, and animation and music videos. Propaganda films, travelogues and promotional shorts round out the collection, so that for every well known Hitchcock or Bogart movie, there is an obscure experimental or ethnographic work to be discovered. Films can be nominated by the public — an intense letter-writing campaign led to the 1988 basketball flick Hoosiers finding a spot on the Registry, but the final selection is made by scholars, critics and filmmakers on the National Film Preservation Board.

The wide range of important films in the Registry makes it a terrific starting point for anyone wishing to study the history of American cinema (as well as an excellent refresher course for veteran film buffs), and journalist and researcher Daniel Eagan’s America’s Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide to the Landmark Movies in the National Film Registry provides a lively guide to the collection. Eagan’s book takes the reader through the Registry films one by one, in order of release; the book starts with Blacksmithing Scene from 1893 and ends with the 1996 masterpiece Fargo. For each movie, the author lists credits, technical specifications, Academy Award wins, MPAA ratings and other pertinent facts. Best of all, Eagan provides information on availability, including online sources like the Internet Archive that provide free access to the films. After the vital statistics, Eagan moves on to an account of each film’s production, reception and legacy. These histories are riveting and extremely addicting — it is very easy to open the book looking for information on one film and then get lost for hours browsing among the various titles. Yet the book is best read from beginning to end because Eagan’s expertise as a film scholar is so vast; he constantly refers back and forth across the Registry to show the ways various careers, genres and technologies evolve, and to read his book as a continuous narrative is to grasp the history of American cinema as a whole.

One of the most entertaining — and maddening — aspects of Eagan’s assessments is how opinionated they are; this is no dry, overly reverent tribute. Rather, it is a highly subjective and often subversive perspective on the Registry’s collection of films and the men and women who made them. Several icons of cinema, from John Cassavetes to Stanley Kubrick, suffer surprisingly critical judgments: Eagan thinks Dr. Strangelove was Kubrick’s last completely successful film and is ruthless in his critique of Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence. The author is not afraid to point out what he sees as technical shortcomings in classics, including Adam’s Rib and All About Eve. At times Eagan’s contrarianism borders on the perverse — his assertion that, aside from Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s films were all commercial and artistic failures seems based in willful ignorance of accolades heaped upon films such as The Elephant Man and Mulholland Drive, but his criticisms are steeped in knowledge and passion and encourage plenty of healthy debate.

The minor editorial errors scattered throughout the text (Donald Sutherland is referred to as David Sutherland; Tim Robbins is incorrectly credited with the direction of Adam Simon’s documentary The Typewriter, the Rifle & the Movie Camera; Sidney Poitier’s name is misspelled, etc.) are more problematic. Perhaps such oversights are inevitable in a tome of this breadth and length, but there are a few too many of them in a book that aspires to be a definitive reference guide. Ultimately, however, the volume’s assets far outweigh its deficiencies, especially when it comes to exposing the reader to relatively unknown independent productions and numerous forgotten but culturally noteworthy propaganda films. If there is one thing that links Eagan’s treatment of these titles with his assessments of more popular entertainments, it is a sociologist’s awareness of the ways in which media both reflect and shape American values; thus, his book becomes a history not only of the movies we love, but also of the ways those movies have made us who we are as a country.

Editorial gaffes aside, America’s Film Legacy is as vital and indispensable a compendium as Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema or David Thomson’s A Biographical Dictionary of Film; in fact, in its breadth of scholarship is far superior to the others. Like Sarris’ landmark book, America’s Film Legacy finds a new way of organizing the history of American film, yet Sarris’ director-driven perspective and heavy emphasis on the mainstream seems myopic compared to Eagan’s approach. There is a history of great directors here, too, but also of great screenwriters, composers, production designers and directors of photography. Haskell Wexler, ASC, and Gordon Willis, ASC, are discussed on numerous occasions, and entries on many specific films — such as Days of Heaven, photographed by Nestor Almendros, ASC — focus on cinematography.

As the National Film Registry continues to grow with each passing year, one hopes Eagan will update his guide, broadening and deepening its overview of American film history. Already, America’s Film Legacy is one of the most complete and entertaining works of its kind and a recommended addition to the library of any cinema fan.

Continuum
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The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron
by Rebecca Keegan
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Long before he became the “king of the world” by directing the massively successful Titanic, James Cameron was a director around whom larger-than-life legends proliferated. Either a brilliant visionary or an abusive egomaniac (or both), depending on whom one talks to, Cameron is one of those filmmakers whose mythology has grown so large it obscures both his genuine achievements and his (relatively few) failures. What makes journalist Rebecca Keegan’s new book. The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron. so valuable is the way in which it strips away the hyperbole to focus on the specifics of Cameron’s process. Keegan first became intrigued by the director’s methods while visiting the set of Avatar for a Time magazine article; she quickly gained access to Cameron and his inner circle, and the interviews and set visits that followed allowed her to write this candid and insightful biography. The tone is pitch-perfect as Keegan rightfully acknowledges Cameron’s many innovations without becoming overly fawning and describes his managerial shortcomings and failed marriages without resorting to petty sniping or gossip. The result is a must-read not only for Cameron’s fans, but also for anyone interested in the determinants that shape a director and his career.  

The book begins with a brief but illuminating summary of Cameron’s life before entering the film industry, describing a variety of interests and jobs (from science and engineering to truck driving and pumping gas) that would come to inform the intersection between technology and working-class heroes in his movies. The chapter sets the tone for the rest of the book by being concise and thorough as well as highly entertaining. It is that rare film biography that can legitimately be labeled “page-turner.” Keegan moves on to a fascinating look at Cameron’s early days working for Roger Corman, with a particularly enlightening passage on his ill-fated directorial debut, Piranha II: The Spawning. Although the broad outlines of this early story are well documented, Keegan consistently introduces surprising new details on each page and gives the most comprehensive account to date of Cameron’s genesis as a filmmaker. The material is both informative and inspirational, particularly for aspiring writer-directors who will find hope in the account of Cameron going from B-movie poverty to Hollywood stardom in a few short years.

After her discussion of the Piranha II debacle, Keegan provides a film-by-film narrative of Cameron’s career. Starting with The Terminator, she examines the production history and commercial and critical reception of each movie, including Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2, True Lies and Titanic. There is even a fairly thorough chapter on Avatar, which was released just as this biography was hitting bookstores. Along the way, Keegan looks at Cameron’s documentaries and TV work, such as the series Dark Angel, along with several of his scripts (not only unproduced pieces, but also screenplays like Rambo: First Blood Part II, which Cameron wrote but did not direct). The only project that gets short thrift is the theme-park film T-2 3-D, but even that gets a few brief mentions in conjunction with Cameron’s later 3-D projects.

For each film, the author takes the reader from conception to release with exquisite detail, thanks to her access to Cameron as well as many of his actors, cinematographers (most notably Russell Carpenter, ASC), special-effects technicians and business partners. As one would expect, there is a heavy emphasis on technology, from the challenges of underwater cinematography in The Abyss to the celebrated motion-capture CG technique of Avatar, but there are also plenty of tales relating to the business of filmmaking, and it is to Keegan’s credit she makes Cameron’s deals and battles with Hollywood studios as riveting as tales of the director nearly drowning on the set of The Abyss or the crew on Titanic eating PCP-laced chowder. She also, as the “life and films” subheading of the title suggests, covers Cameron’s personal life (including his five marriages) and does so in a way that allows the life to illuminate the work and vice versa. Just as Cameron is a director who is also capable of writing, editing, camera operating and production designing, Keegan is a writer comfortable with every aspect of film journalism, and this allows her to explore Cameron’s career not only as a technician, but also as a storyteller and a businessman. She juggles all of these components within a relatively compact space: the tome is just over 250 pages), yet the book never feels cluttered or crowded. It is as tight, complex and involving as Cameron’s scripts for The Terminator and Aliens — a biography worthy of its compelling subject.      

Crown
$24.00 hardcover

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A Short History of Cahiers du cinma
by Emilie Bickerton
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Founded in 1951 under the guidance of editor André Bazin, Cahiers du cinéma took less than 10 years to become the most influential film magazine in history, thanks to a passionate and combative writing staff that included critics (and eventual directors) François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer (who would take over editorship upon Bazin’s death in 1958), Jacques Rivette and many others of note. Obsessed with American genre films, the critics of Cahiers would embrace Hollywood mavericks such as Samuel Fuller, Nicholas Ray, Budd Boetticher and, most famously, Alfred Hitchcock, excavating profound philosophical ideas from beneath the mainstream Hollywood surfaces of their films. The writers’ elevation of the director as the primary creator of a movie’s meaning would be popularized in America by Andrew Sarris as the “auteur theory” and would provide a new system of organization by which to analyze the history of film (and sparking an endless critical debate over the collaborative nature of making movies).

Of course, the writings of Cahiers contributors were not their only legacy; aside from more or less singlehandedly establishing the canon of important American directors, they were among the first critics to put their theories into practice via films of their own. The language of cinema was forever changed by Godard’s Breathless, Truffaut’s Jules and Jim and Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s, all of which influenced everyone from Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino to executives from the advertising and record industries who appropriated the French New Wave’s stylistic innovations for commercials and music videos. The core group began to splinter by 1963, when Rivette, believing the magazine had become too conservative in its perspective, ousted Rohmer and took over editorial duties. After the “putsch,” most of the original writers devoted more time to filmmaking and contributed only occasional articles to Cahiers; although the magazine has continued to survive in various incarnations, its post-1960s history is largely unknown to American cineastes.

Thankfully, journalist Emilie Bickerton has filled the void with her new book, A Short History of Cahiers du cinéma, a study of the journal from its origins to the present. A concise and impeccably researched volume, Short History is a straightforward guide to the positions and sensibilities of Cahiers in its various permutations and is a consideration of the ways the magazine influenced world cinema and its changes. The book begins with some context, providing background on the film culture that spawned Bazin and his protégés, and goes on to follow magazine growth throughout the 1950s. While that is the era most familiar to most American readers, Bickerton’s rigorous attention to detail supplies plenty of anecdotes and facts that will be new to all but the most learned French film scholar. She does a terrific job of choosing from the magazine’s many writings to use examples that best illustrate its polemics at each given point in its history, following the publication’s steady progress from a conservative celebration of mainstream Hollywood cinema to a more politicized journal inspired by the revolutionary spirit of 1968.

It is at that point Bickerton’s work becomes increasingly fascinating and valuable as she gives the post-1968 Cahiers its due and explains just how and why it lost its prominence. The magazine’s sales dropped considerably in the early 1970s, when it was under the editorship of Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni. Committed Maoists, Comolli and Narboni became determined to engage politically with their times; yet, as Bickerton explains, their politics became so all-consuming the journal became almost entirely detached from the act of considering film as an art form. In 1974, Comolli and Narboni left, handing the magazine over to Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana, whose differing points of view marked the possible directions Cahiers could take: Daney was a poet with a deep devotion to aesthetics (and politics), Toubiana was more of a nuts-and-bolts businessman. Together they managed to bring Cahiers back from the brink of extinction, but by the early 1980s Toubiana’s sensibility won out: the magazine became less and less argumentative, less radical and more of an industry monthly. Daney left in June 1981.
 
Bickerton traces all of these developments with the same insight and clarity she applies to the Bazin-Rohmer-Rivette years, providing a parallel history of French politics alongside her narrative of Cahiers and its evolution. The author contends that after Daney left, Cahiers was dead, and her final chapters perform a kind of autopsy on the magazine. Bickerton’s judgment on the journal’s recent years seems unjustifiably harsh; although the magazine certainly has been transformed from its more intellectually ambitious days into something superficially similar to Entertainment Weekly, Cahiers has never stopped running incisive, thought-provoking criticism. Its writers have penned extraordinarily intelligent analyses of Martin Scorsese, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Brian De Palma, among other significant directors, and independent and experimental work continues to receive coverage. Bickerton’s attack on the magazine’s celebration of the mainstream ignores the fact the directors the journal celebrated at its inception — Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawks, etc. — were considered just as “mainstream” in their days as most of the filmmakers who grace the covers of Cahiers today. Luckily, an English translation of the current incarnation of Cahiers du cinéma is available online; now readers can judge for themselves. Regardless of whether one agrees with Bickerton’s final evaluation of Cahiers, her scholarship and skill as a storyteller are beyond reproach.

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