The Good, The Bad And The Censored
I regularly wrote the ‘Cinema Book Roundup’ column for the Independent on Sunday and can’t break myself of the habit, which clearly comes from spending so much time working in the industry. These days tell-all biographies have fallen from fashion, to be replaced by studio-sanctioned coffee-table volumes of photographs, but there are plenty of other unusual books around if you look.
Two explore the British independent horror film (taking in crime, SF and other once marginalised areas) from 1951 – 1983, when they virtually stopped production for a decade. Entitled ‘X-Cert 1 & 2’, they’re by John Hamilton, who has an excellent eye for the unusual and nails the reasons why these films are worth seeing, despite their low budgets and poor production values. It’s very easy to write badly about films (many do) but Hamilton’s studies are revelatory. He points out that the maverick British filmmaker Peter Walker is memorable not for his plots but their outcomes, which tackle head-on the social mores of the times and often caused moral outrage. The volumes are generously illustrated and worthy of any collector’s attention. Why they’re not more well known is a mystery.
One of my neighbours is the Oscar-winning film director and polymath Mike Figgis, who has written an intriguing self-help guide for film writers. In ‘The 36 Dramatic Situations’, he updates a 19th century French volume on theatre theory to apply to movies, providing a chart analysis of 150 films, and walks us through dramatic situations from ‘Dream State’ to ‘Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones’. It’s a simple, enlightening way of broadening your ideas when you’re stuck, and the version he gave me comes with a deck of drama cards that you utilise to create film treatments, although I understand the cards are now not sold with the book. The categories of the dramatic situations are surprising; many are not what you’d expect, and this only helps to make it a more useful tool.
It’s especially easy to write badly about bad films, and Rob Hill’s ‘The Bad Movie Bible’ comes a little too close to doing just that. While the range of dreadful celluloid crimes is wide-ranging the writing is rather prosaic and unilluminating, and Mr Hill allows a fascinating subject – the accidental creation of terrible art – to slip through his fingers. However it’s good for a laugh, and he has at least tracked down many of the makers and provided us with some illuminating interviews. These are films in which no-one set out to be deliberately awful, but achieved some kind of greatness by being so. ‘Killdozer’, anyone?
Kim Newman’s ‘Video Dungeon’ has been the only thing worth reading in Empire magazine for years now, and Titan have put out a massive volume of these collected reviews, which are perspicacious, dry, witty and has a wonderful eye for incongruous dialogue. ‘No, this isn’t right!’ cries the hero of ‘Army of Frankensteins’ – ‘You can’t go around sewing cannons to people!’ It’s all here, from man-eating cars to Dracula knock-offs (‘Stan Helsing’), divided into categories like ‘Found Footage Movies’ and films in which characters are imprisoned in small spaces. It takes Kim right back to one of his earliest books, ‘Ghastly Beyond Belief!’, in which he and Neil Gaiman looked at marketing hype for movies, and shows that his style hasn’t changed – only refined. A delight from beginning to end.
Finally there’s ‘Censored: A Literary History of Subversion & Control’ by Matthew Fellion and Kathering Inglis. How this volume doesn’t already exist is mysterious, perhaps because it’s usually subdivided into cinema, literature, theatre and so on. It’s an overview of chosen case histories in which specific art has been targeted for betrayal of the state and the corruption of morals and religious values. The book asks, whose morals? Whose values? It deals with some of the most contentious cases, like the 1950s persecution of ‘immoral’ comics, the writing of ‘Fanny Hill’ and legislation passed in present-day Arizona. Given the far-right crackdown going on in Russia, Africa, America and parts of Europe it’s a timely and powerful argument about free speech and censorship that I fear won’t be heeded – because of course, the book is too intellectual for those who set themselves up as our protectors to grasp. An important reminder published by the British Library that acts as a warning of what may yet be to come.