indieWIRE’s Bookshelf: Collette, Hoberman, Simonelli, Frumkes & More
by Brandon Judell
Like a classic flick or a fine wine, inspired film writing can bear repeated visits without wearing out its welcome. Take the following sample, written by a critic who noticed a film was issued in varied versions in different countries (not unlike “Pearl Harbor”):
“It’s becoming general practice to accommodate films to the suggestions and desires, sometimes judicious, of foreign distributors. Three different endings are not too many for the scenario. ‘Leave out the adultery for the English,’ they counsel. ‘Beef up the death scene for Italy, and let’s not forget a little nudity for Russia!’
“Will the film of tomorrow be a sort of Esperanto, as intelligible to the Eskimo as to the Argentinean, or will it be necessary to make an unhappy love story for Italy and Spain, an action film for New York, a sugary vaudeville for Rio de Janeiro?”
Well, “vaudeville” might give you a hint. The film that inspired this delicate rant was Thomas H. Ince’s “Civilization” (1916) and the writer was the incomparable Collette. The year: 1917.
Colette’s prediction of the Esperanto-ization of filmmaking was not her only prognostication to come true. Back then she was already carping about the encroachment of American cinema on French movie screens.
This review, additional criticism, and her screenplays are all lovingly collected in the now out-of-print “Collette at the Movies” (Frederick Ungar Publishing) but don’t despair. Amazon.com is selling a bundle of used copies, some as cheap as $3.95.
J. Hoberman’s latest accumulation of film writings will cost you a bit more and entertain you a bit less. “The Magic Hour: Film at Fin De Siècle” (Temple University Press: $69.50 in hardcover, $19.95 in paperback) uses as its uniting premise that the demise of the World Trade Center has transformed moviemaking forever.
First, it should be noted that Mr. Hoberman is a celluloid hero of sorts. In his weekly Village Voice columns, he often wrote about obscure, under-funded, underground, experimental, and/or outrageous movies when it seemed no one else in the country was. He was inarguably a champion of indie cinema long before the genre was even christened, and he still is a fighter. Just peruse his 10 best lists of the past decade, which are included in this tome, and you’ll find Takeshi Kitano’s “Kikujiro,” Arturo Ripstein’s “Divine,” and Stan Brakhage’s “A Child’s Garden” and “The Serious Sea,” alongside “The Cable Guy” and “There’s Something About Mary.”
Sadly, fine intentions don’t always make great reading. Poring over one review after another here, you’ll find Hoberman’s enthusiasms do not transfer. The book lacks wit and insight. Not once will you slap your head and holler, “Great balls of fire! Why didn’t I think of that?” Instead of bolting to the video store, “The Magic Hour” might have you sprinting to the refrigerator for a sandwich or a pear.
Take Hoberman on “Basic Instinct”: “This movie is so opportunistic it could be taking place in the brain of Donald Trump — this fantasyland is sprinkled with sleaze instead of Disney dust.”
On “Blade Runner”: “Visual rather than literary, blatantly post-authorial, the movie is a kind of natural effluvium, a ready-made metaphor, a treasure trove of vulgar postmodernist ‘jesgrew,’ that seems to have escaped human control.”
On Spike Lee: “Given the aggrieved anti-Jewish jibes that find their way into Lee’s films, I wish he’d adapt ‘The Merchant of Venice’ as a musical and get it out of his system.”
Hoberman’s jokes are nearly always flat. His perceptiveness, if on target, is worded in a pedestrian manner. As for his political asides, which are refreshingly frequent, Mao and Gandhi were better wordsmiths. Take this excerpt from his review of 1998’s “Pecker”: “These days, the President of the United States finds himself playing the Divine role in a real-life remake of “Pink Flamingos.” The spectacle of Bill Clinton eating shit may be enough to make even John Waters gag.”
Flushing on, Rocco Simonelli and Roy Frumkes both teach film at New York’s School of Visual Arts. They also wrote the screenplays for “The Substitute” and “The Johnsons.” Frumkes additionally helmed “Document of the Dead” (1989), a not-bad documentary about George Romero that embarrassingly compares the King of the Living Dead to Hitchcock and other masters with a straight face.
Now the duo have teamed up and scribed “Shoot Me: Independent Filmmaking From Creative Concept to Rousing Release” (Allworth Press; $19.95). This might be their most successful partnering. After all, every one of their students will have to buy copies, plus Wes Craven has already raved that the authors “know the film business like Dante knew hell.” Thankfully, Wes wasn’t bullshitting us.
“Shoot Me” has to one of the best books out there right now on making an indie film from scratch. We get to experience each anxiety-filled moment as Rocco and Roy put together their independent feature, “The Sweet Life.” We get to see an actual “collaboration agreement.” We learn how to budget a film (working in digital saved the project $750,000) and why storyboarding is so important.
But there are little tidbits of info you might not ever think of asking, like how to raise money to make an unprofitable short? For first-time filmmakers, offer “a potential investor points not only in your short thesis/independent project, but in the first feature you produce, so that for the money they invest in the short, they go along for the ride and benefit down the road of your career.”
There are also unpleasant surprises: “At least during production, shooting in digital video did not lessen the need for a full crew.”
Written in an acceptably “one-of-the-guys” lively manner, “Shoot Me” is a top candidate for being the filmmaking bible of the moment.
For those who are more fans than artistes, “Chicago: The Movie and Lyrics” (Newmarket Press; $40) fills the entertainment bill. Yes, you Roxie fanatics can now get the Oscar-losing screenplay with hundreds of photographs of Zellweger, Zeta-Jones, Gere, and Latifah letting loose. Even though numerous shots are at times blurry or poorly lit, more than a few are priceless. As a bonus, you get an introduction by director Rob Marshall and a foreword by screenwriter Bill Condon. If it took either of them more then five minutes to write these rudimentary pieces, they’re extremely slow thinkers.
For more depth, pick up Ronald Harwood’s Oscar-winning screenplay for “The Pianist” (Faber and Faber; $14.00), which is bundled together with his play “Taking Sides.” Then the University Press of Mississippi has added two more editions to its outstanding Conversations with Filmmakers series: “Carlos Saura Interviews” and “Brian De Palma Interviews” (both a steal at $18.00).