Eye for books

We look at the Shoot It! story of independent film, plus three volumes in the Queer Film Classics series.

by Jennie Kermode

Shoot It! Hollywood Inc. and the Rising of Independent Film, by David Spaner, ISBN 978-1-55152-408-5, £16.99 ($22.95)

Any book on film that features original insights from the likes of Catherine Breillat, Gus Van Sant and Woody Allen is going to have no trouble attracting readers; but can it live up to the standard those readers will expect? In fact, Spaner acquits himself remarkably well, writing with confidence and authority on a vast range of topics. Ostensibly about the development of the Hollywood studio system and its increasing focus on marketability at the expense of quality, product rather than art, this is also the story of a global ideological clash. As Hollywood's output thrives on the back of the globalisation agenda, Spaner argues, independent film is inherently internationalist, focused on cooperation and development rather than dominance. Yet his economic perspective ultimately sees the little guys as triumphant. If the studios keep making more of the same, they leave gaps in the market that independent productions can fit into nicely. Rather than being crushed by the might of the studio machine, the independents are growing stronger.

Backing up this central thesis, Spaner dedicates the second half of the book to a series of case studies. The UK, France, Canada, Mexico, Romania, South Korea and the US itself (outside Hollywood) are all examined in detail with historical overviews, introductions to key figures and analysis of the significance of key films. Whilst they are by no means comprehensive they provide a good introduction to diverse industries with enough individual insights to be interesting to those who have travelled these roads before. There's a look at the importance of film as a medium for social and political comment, often enhancing the importance of localism, and stars and directors discuss their reasons for making a creative commitment to independent work rather than moving and reinventing themselves in pursuit of the big money.

There's nothing really radical being said here but it's a thorough, one might almost say encyclopaedic take on a core consideration in modern filmmaking. Recommended to aspiring filmmakers everywhere, with plenty of interest to film fans besides.

Zero Patience, by Susan Knabe & Wendy Gay Pearson, ISBN 978-1-55152-422-1, £10.99 ($14.95)

It's hard to think of many films that have posed a more forthright challenge to conventional thinking than Zero Patience, so it's good to see it included in the Queer Classics series despite its niche-within-a-niche appeal. Indeed, its political impact has created an interesting opportunity for Knabe and Pearson to subject it to the kind of analysis films developed on this scale rarely receive. In that regard, this is an unusual critical work that will be of particular interest to film scholars whether they personally connect with the film or not.

For mainstream film fans, whose only familiarity with the concept of a musical about AIDS is likely to come from Team America: World Police, this book amounts to being thrown in at the deep end. The radical politics behind John Greyson's vision are carefully delineated but may be so alien to many readers that they'll struggle to understand on the basis of this book alone. An in-depth examination of the social context within which the film developed goes some way toward alleviating the problem. The humanity of Greyson's approach and the anger that sometimes underscored it come through well but are sometimes undermined by the quotation of some of the film's weaker lyrics, which give the impression that it doesn't really bear up to sophisticated analysis. For those already familiar with it, however, this book offers lots of fascinating background detail and teases out the complexity of its central conceit in a way that will undoubtedly add to the viewing experience.

Death In Venice, by Will Aitken, ISBN 978-1-55152-418-4, £10.99 ($14.95)

Unlike some of the other films covered in the Queer Classics series, Death In Venice, for all its difficult subject matter, has received widespread critical acclaim within the mainstream. This clearly presented author Will Aitken with a challenge, and it's one that he has overcome through the sheer breadth and quality of his research, as well as offering a personal perspective that places the book firmly within a queer context. This is one of the most accessible books in the series and you won't need to be familiar with queer cinema to enjoy it, yet it does manage to bring something unique to the assessment of Visconti's work.

Perhaps the most notable thing about it - and appropriate, in its way - is how long it takes to get to the point. We are almost halfway through before Aitken begins talking in detail about the film itself. Preceding this is a richly detailed account of the director's life and other works, full of famous names and scandalous anecdotes, written with tremendous joie de vivre. It is almost a history of the twentieth century, with Visconti caught between his aristocratic heritage and left wing ideals, and it sets the stage nicely for an analysis of the conflict between licit sexual desire and transformative love that lies at the heart of the film. Here the author's own voice comes in more strongly and he is perhaps just a little too forgiving in his interpretation, threatening to disrupt that fine balance, but his technical and artistic assessment of the work cannot be faulted. Death In Venice is already a rich film that bears numerous viewings; this book makes it more so.

Word Is Out, by Greg Youmans, ISBN 978-1-55152-420-7, £10.99 ($14.95)

If you were assembling a list of great films, how many documentaries would you include? Some of the most impressive to watch don't bear much analysis, as their strength is in their subject matter. Word Is Out may not have made a huge splash in the mainstream when it opened back in 1977, but its staying power hints that there's more going on beneath the surface. This book attempts to tease out its complex back story, to situate it in a shifting historical context and to elucidate that context for the general reader.

It's an ambitious idea and hard to do justice to within the confines of a slim volume like this, but Youmans' considered approach reaps considerable rewards. By arranging it alphabetically (E is for Editing, F is for Feminism etc.) he sidesteps conventional narrative and is able to leap between ideas in much the same way as the film does, enabling him to draw the reader into a many-layered story almost without them noticing. It's a book that can easily be dipped in and out of but it also works well if read straight through, as apparently scattershot ideas build into a thesis that, whilst celebrating the film, also problematises it and is at times deeply critical of the editorial approach involved. As well as film fans and documentary makers, this book will be of interest to historians and to gay and lesbian people (bisexuality doesn't get much of a mention) interested in finding out more about the development of diverse approaches to being.

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