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Book Reviews

The TV Almanac

by Louis Phillips and Burnham Holmes

The Film Encyclopedia

by Ephraim Katz

The Faber Companion to 20th-Century Popular Music

by Phil Hardy and Dave Laing

The Faber Book of Pop

by Hanif Kureishi and John Savage, eds.

alt.culture

by Steven Daly and Nathaniel Wice

We’ll Always Have Paris

by Robert A. Nolan and Gwendolyn W. Nolan

Seen That, Now What?

by Andrea Shaw

A few years ago, as far as mainstream critics were concerned, all of Western culture could be neatly divided into two camps. There was Art – “serious” poetry, painting, music, and film – and there was pop, a trashy grab-bag of the mass-produced stuff teenagers amused themselves with. Art was important, and it was studied, catalogued, cross-referenced with outright reverence. Pop, on the other hand – the efforts of a few eager Village Voice writers notwithstanding – just didn’t get that kind of scrutiny.

But as time went on, and pop refused to go away, some of the brighter lights in academia found themselves asking uncomfortable questions. Maybe, they thought, maybe those nutty kids are onto something important. And so was born Cultural Studies: the academic study, cataloguing, and cross-referencing of pop. There’s been a steady flow of pop reference volumes ever since.

Like pop itself, these books vary widely in both subject and quality. Some are exhaustive scholarly efforts; many are made up of consumer-oriented reviews. And the rest are, at best, bathroom reading: meandering, anecdotal collections of factoids held together by a broad theme.

alt.culture is one of the good ones. This self-described “A-Z guide to the ’90s” wanders all over the pop landscape – the entry for “Nickelodeon” (the cable channel) appears next to “nicotine patch” – yet never loses its focus or its dry sense of humour. The writing is uniformly clean and unpretentious, explaining the mind-numbing twists of modern hipness without resorting to inside jokes. That’s especially remarkable, I think, in a book that dares to include “child stars of the ’70s, fallen” (think Diff’rent Strokes) as a significant cultural phenomenon. There’s no serious scholarship here, but the book’s solid index and pointers to online information are ideal for readers who want more depth.

The TV Almanac isn’t nearly so successful. It’s terribly written, and it commits the bathroom book’s cardinal sin: it’s boring. Its take on Kojak, for example, is so limp it’s painful: “Along with the realistic portrayal of what police work is like, this perspective helps to account for the worldwide popularity that this show enjoyed.” Kojak was a quirky show; you’d expect the book to offer, at the very least, an anecdote or a few laughs.

The lists that close the book are even more tossed-off, and they’re often just plain wrong. In the “long-running series” chart, for example, we learn that Meet the Press aired for an 18-year period that ended in 1965. This will probably come as a surprise to people who watched the show last Sunday.

A good TV almanac would be great. It’s a pity that the name’s been taken.

We’ll Always Have Paris, subtitled The Definitive Guide to Great Lines from the Movies, nicely straddles the line between poppy fun and scholarly seriousness. The quotations are organized, thesaurus-style, by theme, and the two indexes (by movie title and actor) make it easy for speech writers and researchers to find what they’re looking for. But a leisurely browse through the book is also rewarding; great lines like “I bet your father spent the first year of your life throwing rocks at the stork.” (Groucho Marx in At the Circus) abound.

In their quest for comprehensiveness, though, editors Robert and Gwendolyn Nolan were less selective than they should have been. There are too many clunkers – too many lines like “I was kind of a strange child,” the opening line to Michael Moore’s Roger and Me. This is a solid, useful volume, but some aggressive editing could have made it much better.

Seen That, Now What? brings a remarkably fresh approach to the video-review formula. Rather than list movies alphabetically, or by broad areas like “drama” or “comedy,” Andrea Shaw offers a system of tiny categories, each containing a dozen or so films. Look up a movie you’ve seen, and you’ll find it grouped with others like it. The categories’ names – “L.A. Sick Soul of Modern Life” (Less than Zero), “Adult Psychodramas” (Damage), and so on – are helpfully evocative, as are the clear, witty film descriptions.

For example, “test-market dummies” like Doc Hollywood are, Shaw writes, “not dumb enough to be offensive, just more Hollywood feel-good formula.” In short, Seen That, Now What? is a helpful, practical, unpretentious video-rental guide.

The Film Encyclopedia, on the other hand, will do nothing for casual moviegoers. It’s too big, too detailed, and too dense; there’s an entry for everyone who’s been anyone in the past 100 years of Hollywood history. For all that, though, this book positively glows with affection for its subjects. Its compiler, Ephraim Katz, who died in 1992, clearly loved movies and the filmmaking process. He writes about Bela Lugosi’s drug addiction with a quiet sadness, and uses the formal “Miss” to refer to classic leading women like Marlene Dietrich.

But Katz isn’t just worshipping heroes here. His research is impeccable, covering technical film-production questions, obscure tidbits of history, and modern blockbusters with depth and care.

The Faber Companion to 20th-Century Popular Music aims for a similar level of scholarship, but seriously misses the mark for three reasons. First, it’s riddled with major factual errors. I won’t pretend to be an authority on punk music, but I do find it tough to trust a book that gives Sid Vicious’s real surname as “Ritchie” on one page, and “Beverley” on another (it’s Ritchie, by the way). Similar inconsistencies and misspellings mar a number of other punk and hard-rock entries.

Second, Phil Hardy and Dave Laing are badly out of touch with popular music, period. The Simpsons (as in Bart and Homer) get more than half a page for their 1990 novelty record, while many far more significant artists are ignored completely.

Third, most entries contain little more than dates and album titles; Hardy and Laing almost never describe any actual music. Their summary of New Zealand-based popsters Crowded House is typical: “Neil and Tim Finn are noted for their melodic Beatles-influenced sound.”

The Faber Book of Pop is everything that the Companion to 20th-Century Popular Music isn’t. It’s an anthology of articles and stories and essays – pieces first published in magazines or small-press books. It’s an eclectic collection: Bruce Bliven’s 1944 New Republic piece tells of early bobbysoxers swooning for Frank Sinatra, and Neil Tennant writes from the 1985 performance that ended the career of a drag singer called Marilyn. Dozens of others, too, tell their own little stories, each tracing a small part of the culture’s 50-year evolution. Much of the writing is still fresh, but every once in a while, a line like Nik Cohn’s appears: “The Stones were mean and nasty, full-blooded, very tasty, and they beat out the toughest, crudest, most offensive noise any English band had ever made.” The book has several spots like that, weird moments where once-street-wise rock criticism begins to sound impossibly quaint.

Readers won’t consult this book to settle arguments or to look up dates, but I’d still call it a first-rate reference for one simple reason: it’ll age well. In the lightning-quick world of pop culture, that’s no mean feat.