(UN)POPULAR CULTURE

The home of writer & author A. J. BLACK

Hello film fans!

So thanks to the lovely folks at Running Press, I’ve been reading a whole bunch of film books in the last couple of months which I thought I’d badge together in one post, as I wanted to recommend them to any of you who have an interesting in learning more about cinema.

Here are some deeper thoughts on what I’ve been reading…

DYNAMIC DAMES: 50 LEADING LADIES WHO MADE HISTORY

Who run the world? Dames, in this case, thanks to TCM’s vivid and colourful tome which celebrates fifty of cinema’s legendary women, without whom movies in the last hundred years would have ended up much less enticing.

Dynamic Dames: 50 Leading Ladies Who Made History is great fun. Given the output arising from Turner Classic Movies, you would be forgiven for imagining Sloan de Forest’s book might square its focus on actresses of yesteryear, bringing to bear names and faces who may have faded into legend in the recesses of time, but she balances the historic and contemporary neatly through a variety of categories which rather than dividing the women involved by decade or era, rather instead celebrates the areas of cinema they proved themselves in, and the key characters they played while doing so.

Clara Bow, for example, stands out as a singular force within silent film, while Sigourney Weaver stands apart in her role as Ellen Ripley in Alien as a key transformative figure for women in the action and science-fiction genre. De Forest equally pays tribute to women who are in danger of being forgotten – Dorothy Dandridge, for instance, who in the 50’s and 60’s stood out as the first African-American leading lady to the point Halle Berry would later dedicate her Academy Award to her.

Along the way, a balance of interesting facts about the actresses and careful analysis of their signature roles make each profile fulsome while never outstaying its welcome. A fine, classy, illuminating book.

HOLLYWOOD BLACK: THE STARS, THE FILMS, THE FILMMAKERS

The black experience and how it relates to cinema is a fascinating, unexpected journey brought to life richly in Donald Bogle’s TCM tome Hollywood Black: The Stars, The Films, The Filmmakers.

When the motion picture industry began back at the turn of the 20th century in America, the black experience post-slavery as they awkwardly assimilated into American life was reflected on screen in silent films. They would be cast as servants or illiterates, often figures of fun, in films with such racially-charged, to our eyes unforgivable names as The Wooing and Wedding of a Coon (from 1905). Actors such as Stephen Fetchit began breaking that mould, not to mention pioneering directors behind the camera such as Oscar Micheaux, who challenged the very notion of what black people could achieve in cinema.

Bogle captures the journey to acceptance, stardom and respect very well as he works through the decades, as pioneering stars such as Dorothy Dandridge, Ruby Dee and particularly Sidney Poitier break through in the 50’s and 60’s as black actors begin appearing in roles in which they are not primarily defined by colour. This helps pave the way for black cinema to truly emerge, in the 70’s with Blaxploitation and stars such as Pam Grier, Richard Roundtree and Rudy Ray Moore with his Dolemite character, and then later auteurs following in the footsteps of Micheaux – John Singleton & Spike Lee, raging against the white machine to define black people in the latter half of the century.

As it should be, Hollywood Black is supremely optimistic, ending with a piece on Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther and how black creatives in front of and behind the camera are helping to define cinema’s 21st century future. Bogle acknowledges there is still some way to go but his book beautifully, replete with a vibrant range of glorious images, depicts how far culturally black cinema has come.

FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD: THE PRE-CODE ERA (1930-1934) – WHEN SIN RULED THE MOVIES

Despite how conservative interests still nip at the heels of modern cinema, we live in liberal times as to what celluloid can display, particularly when it comes to sex. Mark A. Vieira’s Forbidden Hollywood: The Pre-Code Era (1930-1934) When Sin Ruled the Movies reminds us of a distant age when this was also the case.

You have be a true cineaste in this day and age to know much about early cinema, the silent age which gave way to initial ‘talkies’ and helped define entertainment for the 20th century, and many wouldn’t know much about the legendary Hays Code. Created in the early 1930’s but not enforced until halfway into that decade fully, the code defined what was deemed acceptable for cinema to show audiences for the final decades of the traditional Hollywood studio system, until the counter-cultural liberalisation of the 1960’s onwards. Forbidden Hollywood focuses in on the sweet spot between when the first talkies transformed cinema and the code was enforced, and just how radical and risqué early American cinema got away with being.

Vieira’s book is a mixture of painstaking research and glorious replicated images of early pictures and seductive, glamorous early films stars such as Norma Shearer or Jean Harlow or John Barrymore. Forbidden Hollywood charts the formation of the code, and the Christian and conservative forces—many drawn from other practices and businesses—who lined up to crush the immorality and corruption of cinema by moviemaking pioneers such as Howard Hughes or Irving Thalberg. In the shadow of the roaring 20’s, a decade of post-war social repression thanks to prohibition, and the spectre of 1929 Wall Street Crash and subsequent Great Depression, these filmmakers fight against crusading visual repression and global economic downturn to produce groundbreaking pictures, from salacious boundary pushers like The Divorcee to Universal monster movies such as Dracula or Frankenstein, and the early gangster pictures like Little Caesar and Scarface.

Lovingly rendered, with a great attention to detail, Forbidden Hollywood beautifully captures a vivid, vibrant and shocking period of American cinema in which innovations happened without which the later revolutions in filmmaking, and some of cinema’s greatest masterpieces, simply never would have happened. My favourite book of this grouping and a real triumph.

ROTTEN MOVIES WE LOVE: CULT CLASSICS, UNDERRATED GEMS AND FILMS SO BAD THEY’RE GOOD

Ask any fan of movies, or indeed any movie critic, and you may find the website Rotten Tomatoes divides opinion. Some may champion it while others denigrate, but no one can deny the website’s influence on film culture over the last decade or more.

Rotten Movies We Love is not the work of one author but, as representative of Rotten Tomatoes as a concept, a curated collection of essays and thoughts about movies which are rounded up into various sub-categories – all of them unappreciated and unrecognised for what they offer audiences. As director Paul Feig states in his foreword, it is a book designed to shine a light on movies which otherwise could slip through the cracks and be ignored, given their low Rotten Tomatoes aggregated score based on years of critical ratings from movie reviewers and fans.

The book therefore presents a staunch defence, written by some of the most experienced and recognisable critics in the film business, of movies you may already have written off long ago. Bilge Ebiri talks about how Event Horizon is a strong science-fiction horror picture driven by pure terror; Terri White makes a case for The Craft; David Fear reminds us why The Way of the Gun is a classic and in the most charming piece, legendary American movie critic Leonard Maltin talks about why Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla from 1952 was such a personal experience for him and became one of his most beloved movies.

With some skilled, nuanced writing from people you already most likely regularly read online, Rotten Movies We Love absolutely will send you back to films you didn’t think, and curated scores will have convinced you, aren’t worth a damn and chances are, you’ll add some surprising new favourites to your collection as a result.

All of the books above are now available from Running Press, with Rotten Movies We Love on release from November 14th.

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