Sunday, June 23, 2013


Shockingly, there once existed a world where the ability to see any movie at any time was not at the touch of your finger. Yes, even before the VHS vs. Betamax intergalactic war. You may ask: "How did you even survive?”, “Did you just stare into nothingness?” and “Was there a good pants salesman nearby?” Well, for those times when we weren’t able to watch a movie on one of the three available channels and we didn’t have money for a matinee movie, we read books (no, not books on the history of slacks) but books on movies. Each successive trip to the Blue Earth County Library, I would always check to see if some new book on movies, Hollywood or one of my favorite actors would be available, and if not, I would just check-out (for the nth time) one of the huge coffee table books on, for example the history of United Artists or MGM. At the time, I was just fascinated with motion pictures and never really gave thought about ‘who, why or what’ were specifically and creatively behind the making or storytelling of these movies.

Within the last 30-40 years there has been an amazing output of books specifically focusing on a certain genre, film, director, writer or a particular behind the scene artist that were involved with film(s). For a film geek it’s wonderful to be able to delve into the back story, creative impulse or philosophies that went into making one of your favorite films, even if its a personal critical essay. It’s the ‘devil (god) in the details’ that is so delicious about these thorough works.

One of my favorite ongoing series of books is the ‘BFI Classic Film’ collection:

They describe there series as thus:

BFI Film Classics is a series of finely written, illustrated books that introduce, interpret and celebrate landmark films of world cinema. Each volume offers an argument for the film’s ‘classic’ status, together with a discussion of its production and reception history, its place within a genre or national cinema, an account of it’s technical and aesthetic importance, and in many cases, the author’s personal response to the film. The BFI Film Classics series now includes titles previously published separately in the BFI Film Classics and the BFI Modern Classics Series.

This series - which has two categories: ‘Classic’ and ‘Modern’ - appeals to me not only for the vastly different perspectives and wildly varied interpretations that the authors have, but mostly for the hardcore and thorough attention to detail. It is similar to the work that Criterion does with their films, only in book form. They are fun to collect and savor for their unabashed geekiness to the format. Coincidentally, some of the same people that have worked on the Criterion editions of DVD’s have worked on some of the BFI books, including: Geoff Andrew for Three Colors, Gary Indiana for Salò, Anton Kaes for M, Simon Callow for Night of the Hunter, James Naremore for Sweet Smell of Success and Michael Wood for Belle de Jour.

While some film studies books can be dry in their analysis of the subject, the BFI series is wildly diverse in presentation, ranging from the shot by shot analysis in Vampyr, which is helpful in understanding how Dreyer's complex image technique works, to Jaws with its stream of consciousness scene by scene examination.
As an example, there is this passage from Jaws:  The scene in the schoolroom where the citizens trying to decide how to handle the shark problem, and we cut to the back of the room showing a school chalk board and Quint (Robert Shaw) sitting in front of it.

Here is how BFI author Antonia Quirke in one paragraph describes the scene:

At the back of the schoolroom sits a man with a mouth full of biscuit. ‘You all know me, how I make a living’ he says. They do. Although they look at him as though he were a thing of legend. A creature of tar. Shaw elides his words with the occasional chew and makes the islanders an offer. He knows the skin and fat of this town, a place on which nature has always played a spendthrift game. Watch how Shaw sits and addresses his audience, his legs crossed, his hands very relaxed upon the absolute geography of his body..... Watch how he leaves the room with a stare that steals the glitter from the light through the window, and a smile so remote, so courteous. He’s a worker in a schoolroom by a blackboard on which he has drawn a shark with its jaws around a stick man. He is the reality instructor.”

Beside the joy of reading another ‘perspective’ on a movie, I really dig the creative attention to the front covers of these books. Some examples that are noteworthy:

I found this excellent BFI Book Collector blog that covers each release for both the ‘classic’ and ‘modern’ releases:  

It’s a great, up to date info site on upcoming releases, out of print releases and where to find individual books to complete your collection plus variant cover comparisons of 1st, 2nd and each succeeding edition.  The initial editions primarily used familiar ‘screenshots’ for the covers. In the last few years, they have been updating versions with more art inspired covers as seen here with the 1st and 2nd edition of ‘Vertigo’, ‘Wizard of OZ’ and ‘Vampyr’:

 I would show you the three different ‘Exorcist’ covers but I am just too scared! You will have to search them out yourself.

Here is the latest downloadable BFI catalog.  Check out that sweet cover!

Here is the ‘complete list of titles’ (periodically updated), including upcoming releases:

Bottom line:  These books are just cool.

Personally, I enjoy reading the specific BFI book right after watching its companion movie. I have read that others like to consult the book while they are watching the movie. Obviously there are numerous ways to enhance and enrich the viewing experience of movies we all love.  The best part is to be able to better share (geek out!) with our friends about them. BFI books are a great start.

~Scooter Polanski

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