LIGHT YEARS

by Tom McDonough

Grove Press. 258 pp. $17.95

While I was working as an editor at American Film a few years ago, a cameraman named Tom McDonough sent in a wonderful story of life behind the lens. It was a vividly written and introspective view of a craft whose practitioners are seldom articulate about what they do.

We published it, and then came another just as good, and another after that. We finally began to say no, joking in the office that the magazine was becoming the collected works of Tom McDonough. Now there is a collected works, called "Light Years." It's one of the most unusual movie books of the year, part autobiography, part tall tale of the movies' technical nether world, part metaphysical essay on the art of seeing with a camera.

But then this is an unusual cameraman, one who has published a novel ("Virgin With Child") as well as shot such documentary films as the Oscar-winning "Best Boy." He's a compulsive writer, a man who always thinks in literary terms about what he's doing, whether it's fly-fishing, schlepping through India on a shoot for the United Nations, or going on location for a star-studded Hollywood production with his pal Teddy Churchill, technocrat supreme and ace operator of that amazing device called the Steadicam, a high-tech harness that allows the "hand-held" camera to move smoothly.

McDonough can be contemplative about such magical machines, but he also writes with flash and wry humor, and a kind of restless bravado that recalls Hunter Thompson. Two technicians "exchange silences." A man is "giddy with precautions." Movies use "cameras the size of refrigerators, not to mention studios and egos the size of airplane hangars" to produce an illusion of refinement. And in a hospital in India, McDonough spies a cockroach "enormous enough to be mourned as a pet." This occurs during a catheterization without anesthesia, "on the assumption that Americans, something like fish, did not experience pain." McDonough's headlong pursuit of every last impression of every experience -- the way he wrings a story out of all he does -- makes him the gonzo journalist of film.

But McDonough, whose nom-de-camera is in fact Duke, is frequently trapped in his own excesses. Streaking along from one colorful observation to the next, he sometimes seems glib and in need of a second thought about whether it really is best, for instance, to call Abraham Zapruder's home movie of the Kennedy assassination "the ultimate snuff film." Trite, not to mention tasteless.

In reading all his essays together, I felt again what I noticed back at American Film: that there's a slippery sameness to them, taken all at once. Cameramen are "the only true private eyes" in "DuffyVision," a chilly portrait of a mobster who wants McDonough to re-create and shoot a scene that proves the cops couldn't have seen the drugs they arrested his courier with. They're instinctive deconstructionists in another essay, their craft "the last of the romantic cowboy trades," and voodoo, and a matter of massive flirtation. This helter-skelter search for all the metaphors that apply dilutes their bracing effect. The first one seems brilliant; five or six later, you begin to wonder. There is a sense of one story endlessly transformed.

Nevertheless, reading "Light Years" is an exhilarating ride. Most writing about film today is either so dusty it won't go down or so lathered by Hollywood's public relations experts that it slips through without making a ripple in the brain. McDonough presents the thoroughly enjoyable spectacle of an actual mind engaged by the making of movies.

At home with references to Don De Lillo as well as James Wong Howe, McDonough catalogues the styles of today's camera masters with the same ease he brings to the mechanics of the Panaglide. He writes as pithily about the art and the business of movies as anyone since James Agee, and reveals a good deal of the life of a modern movie vagabond in the process.

McDonough also has a novelist's sure-footed way with characters and situations (though not necessarily geography -- he says the Kennedy Center is upstream of Key Bridge in a story about shooting in Washington). Horsehead the electrician, Genghis Fabulous on the Titan Crane and cameraman OK Freddy are part of that anonymous fraternity of film technicians no one ever writes about. Their world is close-knit and atavistically masculine. McDonough makes a convivial guide to its rituals and bonds, writing in a conspiratorial whisper, like an amused, admiring and alarmed anthropologist.

McDonough is a writer who makes his art look easy, the same way the great practitioners of the camera always have made theirs. He reports that the legendary cinematographer of "Citizen Kane," Gregg Toland, modestly assured Orson Welles that anyone could be taught the rudiments of his art in a few hours. "This is rhetorically true: you can learn to drive a car by studying a motor vehicle manual," McDonough continues. "The issue of course is not how cameras work, but how Gregg Toland works." Or how Tom McDonough works. I eagerly await the collected works, Volume 2.

The reviewer writes about movies for several publications, including The Washingtonian magazine.