Penned by William Bayer, an independent filmmaker and writer on cinema, this lavishly-illustrated, thought-provoking coffee table book, composed of sixty films divided into twelve categories, is by all accounts currently out of print, and long ago forgotten. Or rather, long ago forgotten by most people (if they ever even made its acquaintance), but not by me. Somehow this book, published ten years before my birth, came into my possession in early childhood (I believe my father purchased it before I, along with my cinephilia, came onto the scene). It has had an inordinate influence on how I look at movies to this day. I still own it and have reproduced many of its pages in this post, as a tribute to all those glorious but long-neglected celebrations of the movies - the books which served to engage our curiosity, to focus our eye, to sharpen our intellect, and most of all to fire our imagination so that sights unseen became holy grails. A follow-up post will examine the many books that served this purpose for me, and then I will pass the baton on to my readers, but for now...The Great Movies.
By the way, Bayer's prose is quite good: erudite, informative, occasionally a touch haughty, but always involved in the work. Yet when you've read the book multiple times and seen the movies in question over and over, the writing is no longer the main attraction - the selection and the illustrations, always equally important, come to dominate your impressions. For my money, Bayer's best writing can be found in a book written one or two years earlier, a witty encyclopedic guide to filmmaking called Breaking Through, Selling Out, Dropping Dead, which - despite years of technological revolutions and other changes in filmmaking - remains relevant (often tragically, or at least tragicomically so) for anybody trying to make a movie from the ground up.Nonetheless, the writing in The Great Movies is engaging - and especially so for someone encountering these titles for the first time. Glenn Kenny has waxed eloquent on the subject of favorite movie books read as a child (books, incidentally, written for adults - wither/whither the argument that you have to talk down to your audience?). Like him, I recall running across unrecognized names as well as cross-references to various films, other artworks and cultural incidents which I did not understand - Bayer's book, along with others, made me want to catch up and play along and find out. His tone was often as informative as his explanations and comparisons.Between the lines, one can read both the author's own sophisticated attitude towards the film in question and the aesthetic and social context in which he authored the reviews. So the maturity of Citizen Kane is defended (in the wake of Pauline Kael's admiring but occasionally trivializing "Raising Kane", published a few years before The Great Movies), the inclusion of Easy Rider is justified by reprinting, as Bayer the author describes it, "a not-so-imaginary conversation" between admirer and foe of the sixties classic (then a new release), and the appreciation of On the Waterfront contains a fair-minded analysis of where Kazan's naturalism and specificity clashes with his sentimentality and generalization.As the above indicates, Bayer does not demand that a film be perfect for inclusion in the book. Many of his essays delve into the movie's flaws, its limitations, its various compromises and even butcheries (how could a book which includes The Magnificent Ambersons do otherwise?). This in itself was an essential lesson to learn at a young age: truly powerful and exciting canons are composed not of perfectly polished, officially sanctioned Art but of living, breathing works, warts and all. What's more, the "greatness" in question may not be the greatness of art or even entertainment...it could even be "great trash," a phrase the author uses lovingly in his chapter on Films About Films, that most decadent of genres.This "genre" approach is one of Bayer's most fruitful. The book's twelve chapters include nine devoted to fairly specific genres (albeit broadly enough defined that the Fantasy & Horror chapter can incorporate Godard's Weekend), with the remaining three chapters dedicated to catch-all classifications which are nonetheless focused enough to offer a guiding approach: Manners, Morals, and Society; The Cinema of Personal Expression; and The Concerned Cinema. All of this, in addition to Bayer's elastic approach to greatness, produces a rich diversity of films, enough to send the reader off on dozens of different adventures, following a chain of movies into the distance.I first perused the book when I was about eight or so, but I don't think I really read it cover to cover until I was about fourteen or fifteen. At that point I had already seen many of the "great movies" and was quickly catching up with those I hadn't. One movie which particularly caught my attention, unfamiliar from my previous readings and generally unavailable at the time, was Au Hasard, Balthazar. Thrilled by Bayer's descriptions, Bresson's Catholicism, those evocative photos, and the mystery of this hard-to-find film, I was intoxicated.Au Hasard, Balthazar became my first and greatest "Holy Grail" movie, and one which so gripped my imagination that upon finally seeing the film four or five years later, with full fanfare and press roll-out in a New York theater, I was inevitably and sorely disappointed with it (one recalls Godard's quote from Masculin Feminin: "It wasn't the film we had dreamed; the film we all carried in our hearts." I have since learned to appreciate Au Hasard, Balthazar for what it is.)In the end, when the prose has become familiar, the pictures remain. Indeed, as a young child what first drew my interest was the lavish illustration by stills and frames, snatched as they were from a movie history that spanned from silence to the seventies - all those changes occurring within a single lifetime. At times, pictures pop up which seem to elude their sell-by date or to reinvent the context of the particular movie: the two-page spread of widescreen epic Bridge on the River Kwai makes it look as gritty and naturalistic as a cinema verite; a grid-like array of colorful moments in Shane seems to view the Western's mythic haze from a point where deconstruction meets poetry.The book lists Albert Squillace as Art Director, Mark Liebergall and David Namias as Art Associates, and credits Doris Mullane with Art Production. On the title page, just beneath William Bayer's authorial credit, "Picture research by Marion Geisinger" serves as further acknowledgment. The pictorial layout is not always sophisticated and splashy; one has a sense of a drawer full of cinematic memorabilia spilling out onto the page. This is especially true on the introductory pages which make up for Bayer's lack of interest in star vehicles (coupled with an apathy towards non-silent comedies, and non-comedic silents) by shoveling in portraits of every major personality they can dig up. To wit: Garbo, Barrymore, Valentino, Grable, Lamarr, Grant, Davis, Flynn, Jolson, Crawford, Dietrich, Stanwyck, Turner, Colbert, Gable, Tracy, Harlow, Taylor (Robert), Hepburn (Katherine), Rooney, Garland, Cagney, West, Raft, Loren, Monroe, Brando, and Taylor (Liz), along with a few behind-the-scenes snapshots, a few stills from those much-maligned silent classics, and a couple pages of vintage posters.If the introductory pages are a bit of an alluring mess, the art department outdoes itself with the introductions to each chapter, which I have reprinted below (click on the image to see a larger version). For years I've flipped back and forth between these pages, dreaming of a kind of Cinematic Nirvana where movies past and present, of all genres and nationalities and styles, are beheld simultaneously, so that that the richness of the seventh art is illuminated as if in a vast panorama. Here's to great movies, and great books about them.
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