By Ty Burr
Updated March 17, 2020 at 03:07 AM EDT

Hollywood: A Celebration!

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Books that celebrate movies suffer from a built-in insecurity complex. They don’t move, for one thing. They merely refer to movement. Come, gaze upon manifold magic moments of cinema! their glossy pages proclaim, but a whisper in the background insistently asks, What are you doing here? The multiplex is that way.

None of which has stopped anyone from buying books that suggest the best films to rent, that spill off-the-set dirt, that sternly deconstruct the feminist underpinnings of postwar monster flicks, or that simply mix a lot of pretty photos with a little text and exist primarily for the placement beneath them of coffee tables. We welcome them all because they’re fun, and because sometimes a hardbound overview can draw connections between those two-hour waking dreams, each one as different from the others as a cat from a battleship.

When coming to a film book, it’s useful to figure out its organizing gimmick. Three new tomes serve as illustration. TLA Film, Video & DVD Guide 2002-03 bills itself as ”The Discerning Film Lover’s Guide” — i.e., it wants to be Leonard Maltin for movie snobs. Movies of the 90s is an aggressively hip, photo-driven analysis of key films from the last decade; published by the edgy German imprint Taschen, it comes on like a Cinema 101 course led by Dieter of ”Sprockets.” And then there’s Hollywood: A Celebration! from British publisher Dorling Kindersley, which on the surface is merely a photo dump for the archives of the Kobal Collection.

Gimmicks that run the gamut from high to low, no? Once you examine the follow-through, though, judgments get revised. Take the TLA Guide, for instance. A side project of Philadelphia’s TLA Video chain, it aims to winnow out the chaff that completist video guides must contend with and concentrate only on the worthy. Like, uh, the certifiably bad Steven Seagal action flick The Glimmer Man. While the editors may lead renters to such offbeat delights as Celine and Julie Go Boating and Trees Lounge, they also feel the need to stack the book with recent releases, good, lousy, and indifferent. Exactly how discerning do you have to be to know about Titanic? And how come it seems like every film here gets three stars?

Movies of the 90s covers everything from All About My Mother to You’ve Got Mail but ends up offering much more cohesive insights, if only because editor Jurgen Muller and his writers have focused on a specific slice in time and then laid out key films of the decade — commercial and artistic — in year-by-year fashion. This supports the introduction, which, in its droll, stiltedly translated auf-deutsch fashion, correctly identifies sped-up pacing, ironic quotation, and nonlinear narrative as the hallmarks of ’90s cinema (with Pulp Fiction thereby the Rosetta stone of the entire decade). You see those qualities develop and take root as the pages turn and the films pass by — when you’re not sucked in by the photos.

Hollywood: A Celebration! would seem to be nothing but photos and the shallowest item here. It even brings on David Thomson, author of A Biographical Dictionary of Film and one of the most erudite critics around, to pen itty-bitty photo captions, which is like hiring James Agee to write fortune cookies. Against the odds, Thomson turns his captions into deft, analytic haiku — that pensive shot of a young Walt Disney shows ”not just a pioneer of animated film [but] the source of a special attitude to merchandised fun, and an inventor who has changed our sense of childhood” — and the photos are not only glorious but unfamiliar enough to revivify American film history for even jaded movie fans. The shot of a feather-bedecked Louise Brooks in itself is enough to produce audible gasps. Squint just right and you may even see her move.

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Hollywood: A Celebration!

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