EVERYONE WITH the merest glancing knowledge of contemporary art knows that "The Untilted Film Stills of Cindy Sherman" (Rizzoli, $37.50) are not film stills. They are remarkable pieces of '70s conceptual art from one of the founders of the Hallwalls Gallery -- frames from a brutally comic and devastatingly accurate feminist exploration of the female roles that used to be allowed in popular culture. Whether kitchen sex kitten, battered victim, elegant alien or playmate with mismatched underwear, Sherman posed for them herself, which skews the whole enterprise a few important feet in the direction of performance art.
In doing all that, though, Sherman homed in on the essence of film stills -- the disconnected melodramatic excess, the equally free-floating but yet haunted banality, the bland suggestion of meanings that couldn't possibly be intentional. You can't help wondering: What if they were film stills? "They all look as if they were directed by Hitchcock," says the ordinarily brilliant Arthur C. Danto in his introduction, to which one can only reply that it is a characteristic misunderstanding.
Not Hitchcock, but rather Truffaut or De Palma in the Hitchcock manner. Sherman's stills are the slavish, inept forgeries which can only affirm the original's value.
In their disconnection, there is a singular quality to film stills -- a mixture of hilarious asininity and poetic, even ghostly, evocation. That applies really to the whole constellation of Hollywood photography -- film stills, studio portraits, at-home casuals.
If, for instance, you look at Baird Searle's splendid and huge "Epic: History on the Big Screen" (Abrams, $49.50 until Jan. 1, $60 thereafter), you see the magical and absurd intermixed in equal proportions. Very little is more accidentally comic than Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth in "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex" or Paul Newman and assorted orgiasts in "The Silver Chalice"; very little is as inexplicably magical as the famous last shot of Garbo in "Queen Christina" or the Gish sisters overwhelmed by the 19th century French sets of Griffith's "Orphans of the Storm."
That same coagulation of poetry and hilarity can be found in Jonathan Sternfield's reasonably well-presented "The Look of Horror: Scary Moments from Scary Movies" (Courage Books/Running Press).
The unintentional comedy quotient of Ted Sennett's gaudier "Great Hollywood Westerns" (Abrams, $49.50 until Jan. 1, $60 thereafter) is a good deal less. In fact, one of the greatest things Hollywood ever did was to put human beings inside the American landscape in ways that revealed as much about this country as the complete works of Francis Parkman and Frederick Jackson Turner. One good look at a John Ford still from Monument Valley -- or even from a mediocrity like David Miller's 1941 version of "Billy the Kid" -- and you understand instantly why, in the divine scheme of things, movies were invented.
Harlan Lebo's studious and earnest "Citizen Kane: The 50th Anniversary Album" (Doubleday, $29.95) is -- unlike Pauline Kael's militantly heretical "Citizen Kane Book" -- as reverently pieced together as one of Susan Alexander Kane's jigsaw puzzles.
Though it is clear that atomization into stills doesn't begin to suggest "Kane's" genius, the book has a wonderful coda of vintage ads, reviews and press or film stills
coverage (John O'Hara's perceptive, prescient and militant review for the March 17, 1941, issue of Newsweek, for instance).
With Patrick Brion's "Tom and Jerry: The Definitive Guide to Their Animated Adventures" (Harmony, $40), you get that characteristic film book paradox: the wildest animated comedy, frozen and chopped into stills and meant for utterly serious homage. This is the Compleat Tom and Jerry on Film, from Hanna-Barbera's "Puss Gets the Boot" in 1940 to Chuck Jones' "Purr-Chance to Dream" in 1967 -- the book to turn to if you want to know, for instance, the name of the racially stereotyped maid in Tom and Jerry's abode (Mammy Two- Shoes).
With Barney Hoskyns' "James Dean: Shooting Star" (Doubleday, $40), you're into an area of iconography which can't help but be discomfiting in a democracy. Few American movie stars have had the international resonance of James Dean -- as much, if not more, from his presence in stills as the actual movies. He is the eternal suggestion of everything the world cherishes in American culture -- youth, rebellion, sensitivity, bedrock integrity. A huge portion of these stills -- especially the avalanche of candid shots of Dean hacking around on the set or living the Hollywood life -- has never been seen before.
In Sid Avery's "Hollywood at Home: A Family Album, 1950-65" (Random House, $30) and Roddy McDowall's remarkable "Double Exposure" (Morrow, $50), you get the weird and vibrant banality of Avery's Hollywood candids counterposed against a book by McDowall that resembles art. With Avery you get such marvels as Tennessee Ernie Ford and family in an outboard motorboat, Frankie Laine strumming a guitar and serenading his wife, Jack Palance and family singing at the piano, James Garner bathing baby daughter Gloria and Marlon Brando cracking up over his morning toast and coffee.
McDowall's original "Double Exposure" ("Double Exposure, Too" came out last year) was an astonishing cult favorite when first released. It wasn't McDowall's good but largely unremarkable photos of hordes of famous friends that distinguished it, but rather his incredibly simple but inspired idea of getting the celebrated to write about each other. The results are generally arresting, whether Katharine Hepburn on Lauren Bacall or Ruth Gordon by Thornton Wilder or Igor Stravinsky by Goddard Lieberson, Lena Horne by Joan Sutherland, Elaine May by Mike Nichols, Mike Nichols by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, John Gielgud by Peter Schaffer or Laurence Olivier by Noel Coward (the list goes on -- 98 pairings in all). There are no other books quite like this one and its successor. No matter how empty and vacuous some of the tributes are, others have poetry and an electric charge of rare insight. It's likely, too, that McDowall is the only one who could have put it all together.