This ambitious, indeed sprawling, 945-page volume sets out to trace the history of American film, decade-by-decade. While it ostensibly focuses on 300 so-called blockbuster hits, its chapter-opening essays, sidebar notes and statistics provide an informed and impressive overview of changing trends in moviemaking—and moviegoing—throughout the 20th century and into the dawn of the 21st. While at first glance it appears that the book’s emphasis is on the business end of movies (providing revealing, inflation-adjusted statistics on admission prices, star and director salaries, production costs and box-office figures) it also devotes considerable space to artistic advances and milestones. The silent era is especially well served by contributions by such historians as Robert Birchard and David Kiehn.
Individual entries on the 300 films chosen by George Lucas—from D.W. Griffith’s silent epics and Gone With the Wind up through Jaws, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and The Chronicles of Narnia—include all the relevant facts and figures, and award recognition, as well as background information on the production (including last-minute cast changes and other “fun facts.”).
My favorite part of this jam-packed paperback is its opening survey of all-time box-office champions—adjusted to reflect fixed monetary values. Here, unlike the industry-standard tallies that favor newer films because of inflation and higher admission prices, the silent Ben-Hur actually made more money than Shrek and The Jolson Story was a bigger hit than Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Now, that’s my kind of book!
Formed by an act of Congress in 1988, and administered by the Librarian of Congress ever since, the National Film Registry has attempted to quantify a broad swath of American films. It would have been easy to simply adopt the entire works of D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, John Ford, and other acknowledged masters; instead, the Librarian has encouraged the voting members of the Board (like me) to acknowledge everything from home movies (like the Zapruder film of President Kennedy’s assassination) to works of the avant garde. Daniel Eagan has taken on the formidable task of chronicling and assessing each of the 500 films on the Registry.
For each film he provides a critical essay, fundamental facts and figures, and relevant information about archival sources and availability, which is crucial for any student or film buff who wants to take the next step and see the film in question. For instance, the earliest title on the Registry is W.K.L. Dickson’s Blacksmithing Scene, an actuality film produced for Thomas Edison in 1893. Eagan provides an informative, and critical, piece about the film itself and the background of Edison’s earliest work…and notes that it is part of a Kino DVD called Edison: The Invention of the Movies. The entries are arranged chronologically, so one can read through the book and trace the history of American cinema, or go dipping in at will to check out the classic jazz short Jammin’ the Blues, Our Gang’s Pups is Pups, Oskar Fischinger’s Motion Painting No. 1, the UPA cartoon Gerald McBoing Boing, or any number of classic features, from Intolerance and Foolish Wives to Sunset Blvd., The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, Harold and Maude, Apocalypse Now, The Terminator, and Groundhog Day. Eagan has done his homework well, and brings his own critical eye to each article.
A generous 818 pages long, America’s Film Legacy is a worthy survey of our homegrown film culture, as expressed by the selections of the National Film Registry; it also makes for good reading.
THE ANIMATORS’ SURVIVAL KIT, EXPANDED EDITION: A MANUAL OF METHODS, PRINCIPLES AND FORMULAS by Richard Williams (Faber and Faber)
No one is better qualified to provide practical tips for aspiring—and working—animators than Richard Williams, the Oscar-winning animator and director (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) who worked alongside—and even employed—many of the greatest practitioners of this unique art form. As an observer, rather than an artist, I can’t comment on the specifics of his step-by-step lessons and overall advice, but I do know that he speaks from a lifetime of experience and passion for animation. Following the success of this book’s first printing in 2001, Williams and his wife, Imogen Sutton, have updated the heavily-illustrated volume and produced an accompanying set of instructional DVDs—16 discs in all, running thirteen hours and based on a four-day master class that Williams held at Blue Sky Studios (creators of Ice Age), appended by more than 440 animated examples. Williams and Sutton designed these to be a ready-made animation course, and as the front cover copy indicates, the concepts in this course apply to “classical, computer, games, stop-motion and internet animators.”
For more information, and video excerpts, go to Williams’ website at www.theanimatorssurvivalkit.com.