The BFI Film Guides: A Guide
The British Film Institute shop continues to be the best destination I know of to find serious works on cinema. Its booklist includes the BFI Screen Guides, the International Screen Industries series and the prestigious BFI Film Classics, in which an academic conducts a study of a single film over 100+ pages. The BFI site lists them all, and they are enlightening reads for writers. A few thoughts to encourage you.
Never trust someone who puts ‘Pretty Woman’ in their top ten movies; it tells you too much about them. 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. The screen guides explore genres and aspects, of cinema in the kind of dense but revealing detail that listmakers love.
The titles I have include ‘100 Shakespeare Films’ by Daniel Rosenthal, covering 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’. Sadly Wood takes the expected route and uses Chris Petit’s unbearable ‘Radio On’ as his road movie benchmark.
‘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, but there are enough surprising inclusions to keep the subject fresh.
There are BFI guides to Bollywood, Anime, westerns, and hoorah – European horror films. Italy, Germany and Spain are key territories for new terror. Spain siphoned the horrors of the Franco regime through a dark lens. Films with minimal gore and heightened suggestion hark back to the classics and leave the greatest impression, so it’s surprising to find the British Gothic tradition under-represented. Certainly, many Italian films owe a debt of style to early Hammer films. The lists are personal recommendations, of course, primarily linked by intelligent writing, and should not cause too much anxiety about what’s been excluded.
A favourite of mine is ’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. Brophy brings a welcome lightness of touch to his subject, noting that when haunted houses are beset by deafening ghostly crashes, characters timidly ask if anyone heard a noise, his point being that 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.
This piece was not paid sponsorship, sadly. BFI, you could at least give me a discount!