HANDICAPPING videotapes is no problem for someone who makes a living writing about the movies, but most people won't and can't spend thousands of hours in darkened theaters learning to sort out what's on their video emporium's shelves. How do you tell whether Johnny Guitar is worth your two bucks? (It is.) How do you tell the difference between The Orchestra Conductor and Orchestra Wives? (One is Andre' Wadja's pensive portrait of exile; the other is a Glenn Miller musical.) How do you find out what Black Narcissus is? (The most gorgeous color movie ever made, many would say, and my current favorite film.)
"What's your favorite film?" used to be the question asked most often of reviewers. Now it's: "Can you suggest a good guide to videocassettes?" Lots of people want to cash in with the answers or even sell you the tapes. Where once there were one or two general interest guides to movies, now there are a dozen or more, some specializing in kiddie video and some in "adult" titles or foreign films. Intrepid VCR owners not only need a guide to the movies, they need a guide to the guides. No one book will answer all needs, but there are definitely some bests and worsts.
If you're only having one, TV Movies and Video Guide (Signet, 1,150 pp. $4.95) is it. Film historian and Entertainment Tonight reporter Leonard Maltin has gone annual with the best single volume reference to film titles. The 1988 edition covers movies released as little as six weeks before the book hit the stores, and you can rely on Maltin to give the right information and to get it right. He supplies the running time (an important matter when cut versions of films are marketed for home use), the historical context, the cast, the director and the awards. He also rates the films from "four stars for the very best to 1 1/2 for the very worst." The very, very bottom of the barrel get the rating "BOMB" and no stars.
The only error of fact I've been able to pin down in the current edition is exceedingly obscure, the description of Anne Baxter in Carnival Story as a high-wire artist. She plays a high diver. Maltin also spells Nicolas Cage's name wrong once.
Maltin and his staff (which includes critic Mike Clark of USA Today) cover 17,500 movies, summarized with snap and fast-moving quips (the note on Lucille Ball's agonizing flop Mame concludes with the plea, "Calling Fred and Ethel Mertz.") Ratings are mainstream, although the writers usually seem to know the drift of critical currents on a film. Also included are made-for-television movies (though these are not star-rated), and some foreign films. Videocassette availability is indicated by a symbol, but not the name of the manufacturer. The handiest improvements Maltin could make (besides splitting his book into two more easily handled volumes) would be to include MPAA ratings and to add cross-referenced indices by actor, director and genre. Be sure you read Maltin's introductory notes about his new, computer-oriented alphabetizing method. It takes some getting used to.
The oldest of these guides is Movies on TV and Videocassette (Bantam, 909 pp, $5.95), a volume slightly smaller than Maltin's, but similar in format and in the information it contains. The book carries a credit scrawl worthy of Hollywood contractual disputes: "Conceived and edited by Steven H. Scheuer. Edited and reviewed by Robert J. Pardi." This could mean they're lifelong pals or have mined each other's hot tubs. Like Maltin, critics Scheuer and Pardi also indicate videocassette availabilty and omit MPAA ratings. They rate films from one-half to four stars. Information on running times is not as comprehensive as Maltin's, and I could find half a dozen mistakes in the 1988-89 edition, suggesting somewhat sloppier quality control.
On the other hand, Scheuer and Pardi have greater depth in foreign titles, and their critical notes are frequently more thoughtful. They even sell any video title listed, and provide a toll-free number for mail orders. This guide is, like Maltin's, produced with a fast turnaround, and the current edition covers several mid-1987 releases. However, it comes out every two years, which is not often enough, especially now that Maltin updates yearly.
ALSO BIG (14,000 titles) and biannual is Halliwell's Film Guide, currently available in paperback in its fourth edition (Scribners, 1,585 pp, $19.95). A well-known reviewer and film programmer for years in Britain, Leslie Halliwell is best known here for his Filmgoer's Companion, a venerable and opinionated one-volume encyclopedia. The Film Guide is equally opinionated, some might even say fussy, and it cares not a whit for such details as videocassette availability, though the publisher touts it as "ideal" for video users. It's certainly handy, especially for anyone interested in British film (such as Washingtonians who have discovered Channel 50's splendid British collection), which is covered in exhaustive depth.
Halliwell is of average factual accuracy but spotty on dates; he provides amusing quotes from reviewers and an informative essay on television's distortion of the theatrical image. He thinks they don't make 'em like they used to, and is extremely stingy about handing out stars (he rates films from no stars to four stars) to anything but acknowledged classics.
Mick Martin and Marsha Porter's Video Movie Guide (Ballantine, 1,453 pp. $4.95), also issued biannually, covers only 5,000 movies but is valuable for its novel organization. Instead of listing films alphabetically, it is divided into genres like comedy, westerns and children's films. This can be particularly handy when you're in the mood for science fiction, but don't have a title in mind. The back of the book also contains extensive cross-referenced lists by cast and director, and a master alphabetical index. Its other virtue is the inclusion of video releases most movie guides ignore, such as re-packaged television series and video comedy tapes. But these conveniences are all that recommends Video Movie Guide, which rates movies from "turkey" to five stars.
There are several errors of fact, the critical comments are vague and uninformed, and the writers often seem at a loss for words (The Left-Handed Gun is "weird," and so is The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. Johnny Guitar is "positively weird"). Martin and Porter should invest their royalties in film study and writing courses.
It may be too late for remedial study to help the collective authors of the People Magazine Guide to Movies on Video (Macmillan, 464 pp., $9.95). The title claim notwithstanding, it covers movies released since 1977, when the weekly magazine began running "Picks & Pans." Ratings and video suppliers are listed but no running times, and the writing is flip, painfully trite and muddy ("artfully grueling" is a compliment in People parlance). Wondering where Timese went after even Time magazine became embarrassed? Look no further than the review of Agnes of God, a convent drama beset with "cloisterphobia."
Pre-1977 films are included in the Best and Worst lists following the 1,400 short reviews, but the tallies reflect no particular critical acumen and sport several careless errors, as in mis-identifying Gene Kelly and and Alan Hale (who isn't even in the movie) as two of Three Musketeers in the 1948 version of the film that the editors' pick as one of the best adventure films of all time. Apparently Ralph Novak and Peter Travers never bothered to look at the movie, or notice that the competition in this field puts such a lazy tome to shame. The People Magazine Guide to Movies on Video doesn't even bother to rate films by stars. The avid videophile may hunger for more than review by committee after a while.
IF IT'S personality you want, head for the top of the critical pantheon and try Pauline Kael's 5001 Nights at the Movies (Holt/Owl, $12.95), published in 1985 and in need of an update, though there is none in sight. Kael still has her blind spots and her love-it-or-hate-it style, full of colloquial bravado and astounding attention to detail. When she's right, however, nobody does it better, and for that reason this collection, based on her front-of-the-book notes from The New Yorker, is invaluable, even though there is no concession to practicality; no running times or videocassette availability are indicated.
Considerably more dispensable is Roger Ebert's Home Movie Companion (Andrews, McMeel & Parker, 703 pp., $10.95). Ebert is a one-man industry of criticism, and his success on television with Gene Siskel spawned such unholy alliances as Rex Reed and Bill Harris, and Jeffrey Lyons and Michael Medved. Ebert's pioneering of the Tweedledum and Tweedledee critical format will probably overshadow his Pulitzer Prize for newspaper work, but perusal of this collection of columns, both reviews and features, suggests it's not a great injustice. With a few auxiliary essays about what he likes and why, an informative plug for LaserVision and notes on such stop-the-presses issues as colorization and the ratings, Ebert makes a feeble effort to expand what is basically a cut-and-paste job.
The 700 films reviewed never stray before 1970 (except for the 1983 restoration of the 1954 version of A Star Is Born), despite Ebert's avowed aim to stimulate viewers' interest beyond the usual video hit list, so why not call the book an installment of Ebert's collected works and be done with it? On that level, it's also a thumbs down. He rates from no stars to four stars, and his reviews are bland and self-satisfied, his taste critically unadventurous and occasionally sanctimonious. The myth of Ebert's talent is overdue for some scrutiny.
A much better job of bringing personality and a thoughtful structure together is done by Danny Peary, whose Guide for the Film Fanatic (Fireside, 521 pp. $12.95) makes a daring attempt to educate as well as inform. He has compiled provocative lists backed up by intelligent commentary that doesn't ignore any corner of the film world. He does have the odd habit of including among his 1,650 must-sees films he doesn't particularly like, which won't exactly encourage readers to seek them out. He does not rate the films. Nevertheless Peary knows his stuff, and has assembled a quirky program to acquaint the beginning film enthusiast with the best and the worst, the most controversial, the milestones, the mindblowers and the cause ce'le`bres of moviegoing. Keep Maltin by your VCR, but put Peary on your bookshelf.Pat Dowell writes about movies and videos for Washingtonian magazine.