Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Warning Shadows: Home Alone with Classic Cinema (2010)

Like many people, my first introduction to Gary Giddins came through jazz, specifically his books on Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong. Later, I became more familiar with him through his appearances on Ken Burns’ Jazz. It’s only been recently that I discovered his books of film reviews for the Village Voice and various other publications in New York. Of course Giddins is educated, erudite, well read and well schooled in film history, and his reviews are a delight to read.

The reviews in Warning Shadows deal almost exclusively with DVD reissues of classics, thus the “Home Alone” subtitle. He starts the book with a nice essay on issues of technology and film history. Though not quite a Luddite, like most critics he mourns the diminished audience for films as well as the size of the screens. Then the book moves on to sections dealing with directors and stars, and an extensive final section on various film genres, including literary adaptations and biopics. With seventy-one separate reviews it’s quite extensive. And the emphasis on the DVD is nice because he focuses not only on the quality of the film, but of the medium itself, including extras and bonus features.

Giddins has a conversational style that is engaging, and yet he doesn’t talk down to his readers. One of the nice aspects to his reviews are the comparisons and contrasts that he gives when talking about single stars or directors, often discussing a wide range of various releases, box sets, and so on, for each artist. This is often quite insightful and gives him the ability to fit the current reissues into a larger context of an entire career. He is also quite opinionated--in a good way--about what film are poor and those that might have been a better choice for re-release. He is also unafraid of taking to task the production of the discs themselves, the film transfer, the sound quality, etc.

Gary Giddins is flat-out fun to read. The first book I read of his was a collection of LP reviews for the Village Voice called Riding on a Blue Note. He has written extensively on jazz, as well as popular music, including a biography of Bing Crosby. His most recent book, Natural Selection, combines his love for all of his interests and I’ll be reviewing that at a later date. But for a guide to reissues of great films of the past, you could do a lot worse than picking up a copy of Warning Shadows.

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