The BFI Screen Guides
Never trust a man who puts ‘Pretty Woman’ in his top ten movies; it tells you too much about him. Making a list of your favourite films always risks exposing your personality. While they create a satisfying sense of order, they also reveal your age, class, intellect, sexual orientation and whether you have any symptoms of OCD.
The British Film Institute notched the art of list-making up a gear with their stylish pocket books of around 100 films apiece, and there are now a great many of them to choose from. The screen guides explore genres and aspects of cinema in the kind of dense but revealing detail that listmakers love. They also examine individual films.
The series’ titles include ‘100 Shakespeare Films’ by Daniel Rosenthal. This volume covers a century of cinema, starting with a silent ‘Tempest’ (1907), one of a surprising number of mute Shakespearean films, through to Kenneth Branagh’s mysteriously vanished Japanese version of ‘As You Like It’ (2006). It’s surprising how many re-imaginings of classic texts there have been, from crime movies like ‘Joe Macbeth’, high school comedies like ’10 Things I Hate About You’ (a reworking of ‘The Taming Of The Shrew’) and even Shakespeare-based science fiction (‘Forbidden Planet’). ‘West Side Story’ famously added music to Romeo and Juliet, and ‘King Lear’ makes a natural western, but many of the entries are hard to come by, even with the availability of obscure internet sites.
The more constricting the subject, it seems, the better the guide. Jason Wood’s ‘100 Road Movies’ examines films about real and psychological journeys that range from ‘Vanishing point’ to ‘The Wizard Of Oz’. Road movies exploit the visual medium; they’re about landscape and humanity, freedom and choice, chance encounters and existential pleasures, but they do encourage pretentious directors to make statements about the psychic bond between man and road, and the curse of BFI writing can be a certain slavishness to films that a handful of academics consider to be good for us.
There’s a difference between films which are deliberately alienating and ones which are merely boring. At school it was always the art teacher who chose the Film Club movies, which limited his audience to fans of Wim Wenders and Jean-Luc Godard. If you expanded the concept of the road movie to embrace populist and even unfashionable films, you’d get an alternative but equally revealing list that would include everything from ‘It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ to ‘Clockwise’.
‘100 American Independent Films’ offers a mix of fashionable auteur movies like ‘Blood Simple’ and ‘Donnie Darko’, with a preface explaining the prerequisites for qualification. Strictly speaking, ‘independent’ means films financed by German dentists that feature stars who will work cheaply due to some recent career-demolishing scandal.
‘100 Videogames’ by James Newman and Iain Simons is a brave attempt to understand the appeal of interactive structures, because despite the pervasiveness of a global industry worth billions, little has been written about the games themselves. Their genesis, their effect on popular culture and on children in particular are all subjects for scrutiny, but here there are pleasures to be had from a nostalgic examination of forty years of game titles (has it really been that long?).
There are also BFI guides to Bollywood, documentaries, Anime and westerns, and one by Stephen Jay Schneider that looks at European horror films. Italy and Germany are key territories, with Spain siphoning the horrors of the Franco regime through a dark lens, bringing us films like ‘The Devil’s Backbone’ and ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’. Films with minimal gore and heightened suggestion leave the greatest impression.
I also enjoyed ’100 Modern Soundtracks’ by Phillip Brophy, because it requires you to single out a particular element in a film. ‘Soundscapes’ should perhaps have been the title, for Brophy is concerned less about music stings and themes than with the ambience of a film’s sound design and how it can transform emotional tone. When haunted houses are beset by deafening ghostly crashes, characters timidly ask if anyone heard a noise, but in such cases the sonic purpose of the film is not to describe reality or portray a psychological state, but to make viewers jump, thereby ending all attempts at plausibility.
Films can disturb more cleverly with the sound of silence; listen to the eerie longeurs in ‘The Innocents’ or ‘The Birds’. Neither Brian De Palma’s ‘Blow Out’, a film about the very essence of sound, nor Tobe Hooper’s ‘Poltergeist’, which virtually redefined aural effects in the 80s, make the cut here, but it’s the nature of all good lists to leave you with something to argue over.
Hopefully further volumes will throw fresh light into previously darkened corners of cinema. The guides can be obtained from good bookstores, online and from the BFI.