The Sticking Place

Wholly Experience

by Sheridan Morley

When I started to write on this page just over two years ago, the average film book tended to be a paperback account of the life of some middle-aged Hollywood star, compiled largely from press cuttings and written with all the perception, detachment, wit and charm of a studio publicity handout. In the past few months, however, books on the cinema, have, mercifully, improved almost beyond recognition – thanks largely to such series as Cinema One (monographs on Visconti, Godard, Losey), Movie Paperbacks (on Bunuel, Stroheim, Godard and the Heavies) and the International Film Guide collection (recently the Marx Brothers, Losey, and an index to the Western). This month a fourth series comes into its own, under the imprint of Lorrimer Publishing, a company formed by Peter Whitehead – the director of such films as Wholly Communion and, most recently, Tonight Let’s All Make Love in London – in partnership with the novelist Andrew Sinclair.

Lorrimer differs from the other series, though, in that their intention is to publish not books about films but the films themselves, in the form of the original scripts. This they have done so far with three of the films of Jean-Luc Godard, Alphaville, Made in USA and Le Petit Soldat, while their list for the next year includes one more Godard – Pierrot le Fou – as well as such classics of the foreign film as Potemkin, La Grande Illusion, Metropolis, The Blue Angel, Jules et Jim, Caligari, Les Enfants du Paradis, Rashomon and La Regle du Jeu, in all a total of eighteen scripts spread over the next twelve months. Their format is a simple one: the script itself, with detailed descriptions where action takes over from the words, published with a brief introduction and sideline notes where necessary – thus Made in USA also carries a resume of the Ben Barka affair. I asked Peter Whitehead, who, with Sinclair, is editing the series and preparing a good many of the scripts himself, what brought him into the filmbook business.

“It started really when I made Wholly Communion which, though I was happy with it as a film, struck me afterwards as being so unfair to the poems in it that I wanted to publish them separately and in their entirety. These included new poems by Alien Ginsberg, among others, and I discovered that publishing was so easy and enjoyable that I decided systematically to buy up film scripts and print them. I went first to Godard because he has always been my great hero, though, of course, he makes his films without any kind of a finalised script.”

Then where do the Godard scripts you’ve published come from? “I did them simply by sitting in front of a Movieola with the film and running it forwards and backwards until I’d written the whole thing down, word for word and action for action. But in most other cases we have the rights to scripts published in France by L’Avant-Scene, and our aim is to present in English a definitive version of the film; after all, any play put on in London is published afterwards, so why not any screenplay? They are seldom less literary, and read at first hand a script can bring back the feeling of a film in a way that no book of film criticism ever achieves.”

What kind of a market is there for scripts of this kind? “Essentially, I think, three different types of buyer: people who’ll buy them just to make their shelves look more impressive, people who want them as a record, a sort of glorified programme, and people who want to study them. In the old days filmbooks were almost guaranteed not to sell, mainly, I think, because they were always biographies or books of criticism which – because a film itself is so total in its impact – were bound to be a whole dimension away. Now the outlook is a lot more hopeful, though in our case we’ve got to be careful to describe, through the script, the whole film experience and not just the dialogue, which printed alone can be unbearably trite.”

Why has there been this sudden improvement in the whole standard of film books? “Only because of the French, who for forty years have accepted that the cinema is not just a factory churning out films like motor cars; they have always recognised films as a part of their general social, ethical and political life, as a serious art form, and they’ve always written about them accordingly. Now we’re just beginning to follow suit, but until recently it was the policy of those who monopolised our film industry not to treat the cinema as in any way a literary or artistic form – people were not expected to take it seriously. The legacy of this is still apparent even now, serious books on the cinema, published here or in America, deal almost always with foreign-language films.”

Films and Filming, 1966

© Sheridan Morley/Films and Filming
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