Sunday, May 15, 2016


I love a good collection of film essays. In particular, I like to curl up with the work of a single author, watching one mind as it travels through disparate works or genres or eras. As a kid, I was a Roger Ebert fanatic. I used to buy his huge Movie Annuals every year. (My mother: "Another one? Didn't you get one last year?" Me: "You don't understand.") As I got older, I discovered Pauline Kael and Peter Bogdanovich and Eddie Muller, revelations all.

My latest favorite is Gary Giddins' 2010 collection WARNING SHADOWS: HOME ALONE WITH CLASSIC CINEMA. The book has a brilliantly simple conceit. Giddins begins with an introduction that traces the development of cinema from the solitary experience of the earliest Edison nickelodeons to the Golden Age movie palaces to post-studio era multiplexes to the rise of home video and the DVD revolution. He stops just short of the latest earthquake in cinema distribution and exhibition, the era of digital streaming.

I'm glad that he stops at that point, because it allows the book that follows to focus almost exclusively on the act of watching classic cinema on DVD. As much as I think about film, I have to admit that I've never given much thought to the fact that I've seen more classics on DVD than any other format. Giddins--writing for outlets like The New York Sun, DGA Quarterly, and the Criterion Collection--is examining the films within their current context, as part of DVD packages like the Warner Bros. Signature Series which collects the work of a star like James Stewart or the Criterion Collection which assembles packages like THE COMPLETE MR. ARKADIN by Orson Welles. It's fascinating to consider these films not just as works of classic cinema (as if we were beaming ourselves into the past to watch them as part of a double feature at some long lost movie temple) but as works that exist largely as solitary home entertainments. Giddins has a particular insight into the way that this new context has affected the delicate charms of classic comedy. Chaplin and Keaton created movies to be seen by hundreds of people crammed together in the dark, their laughter a communal event. How haunting it is to see them play out in the relative silence of your living room.

The book itself covers a wide range of topics--from great directors (Welles, Hitchcock, Ford, Bergman, ect.) to great stars (Crawford, Davis, Bogart, ect) to genres like the biopic, the musical, and the film noir. Giddins is a deft and daring guide down these well traveled roads. At a certain point, a reader needs a writer to reject the conventional views of artists and works. The way Giddins reframes something like the career of Alice Faye made me want to revisit her work. 

And really a reader couldn't ask for more from a collection of writing on film. Giddins writes about movies that are sixty, seventy, eighty years old and makes them fresh candidates for tonight's movie viewing.

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