One may wonder whether or not we need any new print reference books. The Internet can hold limitless amounts of knowledge without weighing as much as a cruise ship anchor. There may be questions of factual reliability but most major dependable databases have made the switch by now, wiki-sites are getting trustworthier, and, anyway, you should always double check.
A major downside to the Internet is that our conception of knowledge switches from having physical heft to becoming a great ambiguous blob. Maybe that’s what it always has been, but there’s something comforting about looking at a row of encyclopedias or the New York Public Library, and knowing what exists and what we’re up against. The web, with its twisting and unpredictable linking pathways, sometimes facilitates coincidental discovery but can also hinder it down maddening Byzantine channels.
The writers of The Rough Guide to Film make a happy case for the worthiness of their book in a number of ways, but the primary is that they cram enough information into the book so you find out what you want to know and where to get what you don’t find. They take advantage of our globalized availability and interest in information to present an even-handed—historically, geographically, and artistically—perspective of the cinematic landscape. Equal space is given to Gillo Pontecorvo, Ousmane Sembène, Clarence Brown, and Lynne Ramsay. The authors have worked hard to keep this as up-to-date as possible, with reviews and references to Into the Wild, Zodiac, and Mr. Lonely. Its flip browse fun rate is high, the potential for quality random discoveries assured.
Unlike many guides which limit themselves to DVD or video releases, the writers say “our film selections have not been dictated by availability”. I still found myself reading the book in front of a computer screen on Netflix, adding countless entries to my queue while cursing what is not yet available.
The subtitle, An A-Z of Directors and Their Movies, is a more true reflection of the book’s approach. It’s a guide to film as defined by auteur more than anything else. Over 800 directors are covered. Each gets an artistic biography followed by brief entries on one to five of their notable works. The writing in the biographical essays is pretty terrific for this type of book. The style is reminiscent of the reviews in Sight & Sound: concise, fair, and unfussy. It’s tight and focused, leaving just enough room to touch on larger ideas, as with the producer-director relationship in the entry on James Ivory and the push-pull between artistic and commercial demands in discussing Gus Van Sant.
There aren’t a lot of grand insightful statements, but a director is often nailed with succinct economy. Russ Meyer “was an artist almost despite himself.” “There is a watchful, feline air in [Jean-Pierre] Melville’s cat-and-mouse conflicts.” At times this can border on glib. I’m not sure that William Wellman is “the poor man’s Howard Hawks.” But they’re good at drawing you in with the first sentence: “An outwardly very straight, mild-mannered white gentleman who studied musical composition at UCLA and grew up in the film business, Jack Hill is responsible for some of the sleaziest, most depraved, lurid B-movies of the 1960s and ‘70s.”
I quibble over personal preferences. Not highlighting Mikio Naruse’s Floating Clouds and Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar, listing François Ozon’s 8 Women as one of his defining films. John Landis is undeservedly written off as a hack. Joel Schumacher is given way too much space and a few too many obscure British nobodies like John Glen are given entries. But these are enjoyable disagreements, an imaginary dialogue carried out with like-minded nerds. For the most part their opinions are reasonable without succumbing to bland accepted wisdom.
Two under-realized sections supplement the main text. A collection of “Top 5” lists at the beginning helps to organize the information and give the reader a sense of direction. But five is a limited number. Listing the great directors of comedy as Buster Keaton, Ernst Lubitsch, Harold Ramis, Preston Sturges, and Billy Wilder doesn’t get you much of anywhere. The “Lesser Known Gems” and other specified topics are much more useful.
About 50 sidebars are also sprinkled throughout the book. Some of them usefully plug holes in the director-centered gap of the main text, like the entry on Walt Disney. But most of them are either too random (“John Williams and Steven Spielberg”) or too broad to be of any use (the genre sections, which attempt to summarize the history of, say, sci-fi and film in less than a page). Though it’s nice to open the book to one of these unexpected segments, the sidebars are an odd lot, their conception not fully worked out in relation to the whole.
But the whole still holds. Reading this book was a pleasant reminder of my early days of film geekery, when my friends and I would sit with the VideoHound guide in our laps, testing our opinions against theirs on the Hollywood hits we’d all seen, looking for snarky capsules of cheap horror movies, and making notes to ourselves about “classics” we really should see while silently committing cast and crew names to memory.
The Rough Guide to Film makes you feel like there is no way you could ever learn all there is to know about movies, yet encourages you to try, anyway. Film enthusiasts of all degrees will find themselves engaged and entertained.