'Conversations With the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood's Golden Age at the American Film Institute'
Conversations With the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood's Golden Age At the American Film Institute
edited by George Stevens Jr.
Knopf, 710 pp., $35
Maybe The Onion's "Commentary Tracks of the Damned" now owns the world of cinephilia, and we just live in it. So great is the apparent thirst for annotation of movies that one shudders to imagine the consequences had the director of Supercross not been obliged to elucidate its mysteries, or had The Pirate Movie's DVD not rated exhumation of auteur Ken Annakin for his declamations on the film's commercial failure and digressions as to the whereabouts of Amelia Earhart (she faked her death, absconded to New Jersey, and Annakin has the evidence to prove it). Luckily, auteurism's featurette-enabled devolution to its own cruelest parody has also afforded a welcome expansion of the market for fat anthologies of interviews with the legendary filmmakers of yore, perhaps filling in for the commentaries we really want while settling for Guy Ritchie's awe-inspiring defense of Swept Away.
Enter Conversations With the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood's Golden Age at the American Film Institute, with a title possessed of many words and nary an ounce of poetry, even as its covers enclose a veritable gold mine. George Stevens Jr.'s excellent collection of master classes with some of old Hollywood's greatest directors, writers, producers, and cinematographers (not to mention guest stars Jean Renoir, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and Satyajit Ray) ably fills out the bonus discs in that ideal Criterion Collection of the mind, with everything from James Wong Howe's reminiscence of fights with the Technicolor lab over low-light photography to Fritz Lang's idiosyncratically sweet take on Deep Throat as "a crime against youth" (young people should discover oral sex with each other, he persuasively argues, rather than "see it for the first time in a motion picture and say, 'Oh, let's try that'").
By now, there are many other books of its kind and if your personal library is already well-stocked with them, perhaps you could save the $35 but if you had to have only one, I'm not sure you could do better than Conversations. Certainly Peter Bogdanovich's essential Who the Devil Made It delves into its subjects' careers in a fashion both more personal and systematic, and where this volume overlaps (as in the Hitchcock and Howard Hawks chapters), it is not the Bogdanovich that suffers in comparison. Neverthless, it is refreshing and deeply illuminating to break the "directors only" habit with interviews taking the contributions of other craftspeople just as seriously. Here we can check writer Ray Bradbury's comments on the making of Moby Dick against director John Huston's, or cinematographer Stanley Cortez's thoughts on Orson Welles and The Magnificent Ambersons against editor Robert Wise's.
Additionally, the film-school setting of these interviews encourages an expansive, earnest generosity as these masters wax philosophical with widely varying degrees of humility to point toward things more important than the great and not-so-great movies to which they'd contributed. Conducted during that great age of movie love in the Sixties and Seventies, these conversations offer both the promised oral history of Hollywood and a snapshot at the birth of the commentary track ... or at least the idea of it. For much as I adore the audible bong hits on P.T. Anderson and Mark Wahlberg's special feature for our own era's beloved Boogie Nights, the substance and tone behind any one of these interviews makes part of me wonder if they in fact comment on the same artistic medium at all.