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Cinema Year by Year: 1894-2002
Robyn Karney, ed.
London: Dorling Kindersley, 2002.
£25.00, 995 pages, ISBN 0-7513-4969-0.

Nicolas Magenham

In his Foreword to this colossal book, David Thomson—author of the remarkable Biographical Dictionary of Film—addresses young people. With many photos and posters, as well as a concern for clarity, Cinema Year by Year is intended to appeal mostly to inexperienced viewers, and especially to young audiences who are not always acquainted with films released before the 1970s. According to Thomson, such films are far from being outdated, and in this respect, he tells a moving anecdote about Afghan children who recently discovered Charlie Chaplin's short films. Thomson relates that people in Kabul came up to the man who showed the films (Peter Scarlet) "with tears in their eyes, to thank him—because they had never heard their children laughing before!" [10]. This story demonstrates to which extent Chaplin's films (as well as other pre-New Hollywood films) have retained not only their emotional strength, but also their usefulness.

Accompanied by beautiful photos and film posters, Cinema Year by Year is made of imitation on-the-spot articles describing major films and events linked to cinema, presented as if they were taken from real newspapers. Even though the concept is original and engaging, these imaginary newspapers are not supposed to be specialized in cinema, and thus the articles are more often anecdotal than analytical. In a few passages, I even had the impression of reading a sensationalist magazine, as the article on Fernandel's death attests: "A few hours before his death, he drank his daily glass of pastis, ate a plate of bouillabaisse, his favorite dish, and then took a nap…" [608]. As for the headlines, even though they are sometimes inspired—see the title of the article on Babe, which wittily parodies the author of Animal Farm: "Some pigs are more equal than others"—there are also the inescapable and often facile puns about flops' titles (a tradition in film journalism): Wild Wild West is referred to as a "wild wild mess", for instance. In French, one of the most famous puns about a title concerns Marcel Carné's Les Portes de la Nuit, renamed "Les Portes de l'Ennui" by a disappointed critic (or simply a born joker critic who could not resist the temptation).

One may regret that Hollywood cinema is excessively featured in the book. For example, the Oscar is the reference award, and what are supposed to be the best films in the world are almost systematically Hollywood productions, with a disproportionate number of cartoons, strangely enough. However, it would be dishonest to say that the book does not refer to other cinemas at all—even if they remain in Hollywood's shadow. For instance, from the Lumière Brothers' determining films to Jeunet's Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain (2001), French cinema is examined with attention by the authors. Of course they refer to the New Wave (even though they do not use the expression to evoke the French phenomenon strictly speaking, but to refer to the global changes that the movie world underwent in the 1960s), and write about classics such as Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion (1937) and Marcel Carné's Hôtel du Nord (1938). Besides, if they praise the "brilliant cast" of Carné's film, they nevertheless fail to name the character played by the recently deceased François Périer in the list of the hotel residents. Périer's character may be minor in this film, but must be pointed out as counting among the very first gay ones in a big French production.

Of course, like all the books which encompass masses of information, Cinema Year by Year contains a few mistakes and approximations. For instance, Jacques Demy did not die in November, but in October 1991, and his death did not occur after the completion of Jacquot de Nantes (Agnès Varda's film about Demy's childhood), but during the very shooting of the film. There is also a mistake concerning Yves Robert's films based on Pagnol's childhood memories. It was not in 1963 that Yves Robert got the rights to adapt the books, but after the successes of Claude Berri's Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. In 1972, Pagnol informally said that he wanted Robert to make the films, but the latter did not acquire the rights before 1988. Furthermore, it is amusing to note that Pagnol was at first reluctant to let him direct the films, simply because of Robert's geographical origins. "Even though I come from Anjou and not from Provence, I was a child just like you", Robert told Pagnol to make him change his mind. "So you will do nicely", Pagnol replied (Yves Robert, Un Homme de Joie, Paris, Flammarion, 1996, p.364).

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is certainly its iconography, i.e. the posters and the stills. 1930s posters may very well offer the most appealing graphic style in the history of film posters, as the posters of Hell's Angels (1930)—with Jean Harlow who emerges out of a fire to kiss Ben Lyon—or I'm No Angel (1933)—showing Mae West in a marvelous Schiaparelli gown—attest. But posters are also appealing when they are deliciously tasteless, or unwittingly nonsensical. It is the case of the poster of the British comedy Upstairs and Downstairs (1961), whose painting is supposed to represent Mylène Demongeot whereas it actually looks like a caricature of Lauren Bacall! As for the stills, some of them are so superb (and sometimes rare) that they "may be worth the price of the book" by themselves, as Thomson has it, evoking a still from a Czech film representing a gorgeous actress named Hedwig Kiesler. In fact, the better-known stills of Marlene Dietrich in Morocco or Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest are equally convincing examples.

Although Cinema Year by Year seems to be the ideal Christmas present, it can be bought at any period of the year by anyone who wants basic information on films in an attractive and original way.

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