Thursday, August 24, 2006

What Am I Reading?

Last night, while listening to Bill Evans cut loose with Scott La Faro and Paul Motian on one of their classic Riverside label recordings, I decided to open my copy of THE PENGUIN GUIDE TO JAZZ ON CD and read all the entries on Evans, and then several other entries chosen at random. As someone who loves jazz but hasn't ventured too far afield of the great pillars of the music (Satchmo, Duke, Basie, Miles, Coltrane, Monk, Ornette), I must say that having the knowledge and experience of tasteful and articulate jazz scholars like Richard Cook and Brian Morton at one's disposal is a priceless gift. This hefty book has never steered me wrong, and it has steered me toward some of my most fulfilling adventures in my life as a listener. Furthermore, it collects some of the best concise music criticism I've read in any genre; indeed, it's been a more useful model for my own critical writing, over the years, than any film criticism I've read.

In going over to Amazon to provide a shopping link for you, I discovered that my own Fifth Edition copy of this important tome is a few years out of date. There is now a Seventh, and an Eighth (tipping the scales at over 1700 pages!) is due on November 7. Whichever edition you choose, I recommend this book whole-heartedly to my fellow jazz buffs, and perhaps even moreso to my fellow film scribes. Amazon offers a "Search This Book" feature on the Seventh Edition, so go on over there and check it out.

Speaking of books, I've also had the pleasure recently of reading new books written by my friends and colleagues Alan Jones and Maitland McDonagh. They share the distinction of being two of the best-known authorities on the films of Dario Argento, but they both have new books on the market that extend their expertise into the wider range of world cinema.

Maitland's MOVIE LUST: RECOMMENDED VIEWING FOR EVERY MOOD, MOMENT, AND REASON (Sasquatch Books, 290 pp., $16.95) is a clever, personality-driven overview of all kinds of movies, bracketed according to theme or creator or raison d'etre. The idea is to know yourself, to isolate your yearnings or symptoms, and pick the movie that's just what the doctor ordered. Before you can say "popcorn," allow me to fine-tune that remark to "popcorn drenched in dark, decadent, velvety-smooth chocolate with a soup├žon of pepper, a headiness of hashish, and an aftertaste of lipstick."

MOVIE LUST is a book as much for lovers of language as for film hipsters; most every paragraph is like a carefully-crafted bon-bon that can be quickly sucked down to a rich bon mot center. The book opens with a fascinating autobiographic sketch (I actually wished it was a good deal longer) detailing how Maitland became interested, engrossed, and finally obsessed with movies, nailing down a viewpoint that guides us through the observations to come like a steady compass. "If Pauline Kael lost it at the movies, I found it," she writes -- and maybe she did; much of this book channels the high-spirited candor and color one associates with the best of Kael's writing. And, truth be told, I agree with Maitland more often. Don't judge this book by its cover, which looks like a remote control ad designed by the agency that services Westinghouse appliances. This is a clever approach, a sophisticated piece of work, and an engaging testimonial to the author's omniverous appetite for anything moving at 24 frames per second. MOVIE LUST has a street date of August 28, but I'm told it's already available in some bookstores now.


Back in the 1960s and '70s, a number of hardcover histories of the horror film hit the market, usually distinguished by terrific color plate signatures and usually written by Englanders. These were predominantly picture books but, once you got around to reading the text, it turned out to be equally of interest. There's been a lot of water (and blood) under the bridge since those days, so you'd imagine it would be terribly hard, if not impossible, to write a manageable history of horror cinema today. And yet Alan Jones has almost done this with his softcover THE ROUGH GUIDE TO HORROR MOVIES (Rough Guides, 278 pp., $14.99). That cover photo, let me tell you, is so Alan.

One expects a book this concise to be slight in one respect or another, but Alan has done an admirable job of compressing a wealth of information and insight into these profusely-illustrated, dual-columned pages. The book opens with a history of the first hundred years of horror cinema, then follows through with an admirably balanced selection of 50 outstanding horror films (everything from THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI to HIGH TENSION); bios of the genre's leading actors and creators, each followed by a capsule review of a representative work (oddly, he follows the entry on Peter Cushing with one of his worst films, CORRUPTION); a look at "Horror Movies Around the World," documenting the different ways in which most world countries have contributed uniquely to the genre; and finally, a conclusive list of places on-line and off where you can learn more (such as VIDEO WATCHDOG, about which Alan is very complimentary). And scattered throughout the text are eye-catching sidebars about such related topics as Fog ("the quintessential horror movie weather condition"), Ballyhoo, and beloved horror movie locations like Hammer's Black Park.

You see Rough Guides piled high on their own little tables in bookstore chains, and you might assume from the way they look that they're a bibliophilic variety of Christmas stocking stuffer. But, regardless of topic, these books are usually surprisingly substantial. (At the same time I picked up Alan's book, I bought THE ROUGH GUIDE TO CULT FICTION. Though I'm incredulous at its omission of cult figures like Anthony Burgess, Baron Corvo, and Alexander Theroux, I must say I enjoyed it, as well.) Like Maitland McDonagh, Alan Jones has taken advantage of his publisher's general mandate to deliver the kind of book he would enjoy reading himself -- something as useful for seasoned film buffs as it will be for the nephews and nieces they may have on their Halloween gift lists. As always, Alan writes with the ebullience and enthusiasm of a recent convert, and his stance throughout is commendably modernist and cosmopolitan, eschewing the Universal or Hammer biases found in many such books. I'm tempted to call it the best entry-level book on the subject written to date.

Keep these books handy for those nights when all the titles in your DVD collection look alike and you can't decide what to watch. They're sure to remind you why you've given yourself over to all this, body and soul.

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