Meet the Reader: Bookshelf

I’ve finally had a chance to do some reading purely for pleasure lately and so have managed to catch up with a few of the many film-related books that have piled up on my nightstand over the last year. Some of them weren’t so hot, but here are four that I enjoyed and would recommend if you like reading about movies, the people that make them, and the places they’re made.

1. You’re the Director … You Figure It Out: The Life and Films of Richard Donner by James Christie (Bear Manor Media, 2010).

Working from a series of original interviews conducted with Donner himself, Christie has crafted a solid biography of this prolific but often under-appreciated director. This detailed volume chronicles the helmer’s life from his boyhood in New York to his early days making commercials and long career as a well-respected television director before the success of The Omen made him a major force in the feature world. The book offers up a great deal of information about Donner’s personal life – including the development of his long-lasting and very happy relationship with his wife Lauren Shuler-Donner – and the making of his most popular films, including The Omen, Superman, The Goonies, and the Lethal Weapon series. The book explores Donner’s professionalism and his impeccable craftsmanship and also provides an interesting look at the sensitive side of a filmmaker who is often dismissed as being an impersonal technician. It discusses the emotional investment Donner makes in all of his projects, as well as the disappointment he felt when some of his more personal projects, including the barfly drama Inside Moves, the dark fantasy Radio Flyer, and the romantic fairy tale Ladyhawke, failed to catch on with audiences. Ultimately, Christie presents a well-written and engaging portrait of a warm-hearted (if occasionally gruff) man who can justly be considered the modern equivalent of Victor Fleming and Michael Curtiz – a highly talented, professional director of motion pictures who has thrived in the studio system and made some pretty good pictures to boot.

2. The Making of The Empire Strikes Back by J.W. Rinzler (Del Rey, 2010).

This sequel to Rinzler’s excellent 2007 book on the making of Star Wars does not contain as much original material (Empire recycles a lot of information and interviews from Once Upon a Galaxy, a paperback “making of” book written by the film’s unit publicist Alan Arnold that was issued at the time of Empire’s original 1980 release), nor does it answer the one question that Star Wars (and movie fans in general) really want to know about this film: How and when did George Lucas come up with the idea to make Darth Vader Luke Skywalker’s father? (Lucas continues to insist that this was part of his master plan from the very beginning. It wasn’t, and, while I respect the man’s right to keep his secrets, I was hoping he was finally going to go on the record, since this book is intended to be the final, definitive word on his brilliant sequel and so would have been the perfect forum to provide some genuine insight into the creation of one of the greatest plot twists in movie history.) Still, even with these reservations, Rinzler has written a very comprehensive book full of fascinating information and detail, as well as with hundreds of behind-the-scenes pictures, most of which have never been published before. It’s also a good-looking volume that is very well laid-out and designed. At $85, this hardcover (apparently no more-affordable paperback edition is planned) is a bit pricey, but it’s still an excellent companion to a beloved film.

3. John Landis by Giulia D’Agnolo Vallon (M Press, 2008).

Essentially a book-length interview (supplemented with a number of appreciative essays by some longtime collaborators) with the director of National Lampoon’s Animal House, The Blues Brothers, and An American Werewolf in London, this volume provides a solid overview of and some intriguing insight into the ouevre of another under-appreciated filmmaker. Highly-skilled, extremely intelligent, and possessed of a wicked (and at times subversive) sense of humor, Landis is one of the few modern-era directors who can successfully realize farce and slapstick on film. He also has the ability to scare the bejesus out of us at the drop of the hat and he’s sometimes been able to do both things at the same time. He also has a terrific knowledge of and respect for film history that seeps through on every page of this occasionally fawning, but generally worthy volume.

4. MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot by Steven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester, and Michael Troyan (Santa Monica Press, 2011).

Simply put, this is a wonderful book – perhaps my favorite film book of the last five years. It is a virtual guided tour – presented through stunning photos and extensively researched, fact-laden text – of the Neverland that was MGM during the studio’s fabulous heyday. The book presents a detailed history of every inch and every area of MGM’s three main parcels — Lot 1, which housed the company’s offices, departments, and soundstages; and Lots 2 and 3, which together contained an amazing collection of faux jungles, deserts, castles, antebellum mansions, big cities, small towns, and dusty Western streets — as well several smaller satellite properties. It not only describes all of the various lots’ sets, natural areas, and facilities, but also provides a pretty comprehensive list of all of the movies shot in each spot over an almost 60-year period. The last section of the book – which chronicles the closing and destruction of all of the studio’s lots, with the exception of Lot 1 (which these days is home to Sony Studios), through a combination of changing times and tastes, corporate greed, mismanagement, and short-sightedness; a lack of appreciation for historical value and preservation; and some plain, simple stupidity – is simply heartbreaking. Leo the Lion’s massive, wonderful celluloid playland is no more, but thanks to this book, we can understand why Hollywood was once called the Dream Factory – by showing us the factory, the authors help us rediscover the dream.

Oh yeah, I’ve got a couple of new books out too – one on the making of Amadeus and one on the making of A Hard Day’s Night – but I’ll let you check those out on your own.

Happy reading!

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