03 June 2009

The Movie Book Meme

Tony at Cinema Viewfinder has tagged me in a movie book meme, created by MovieMan at The Dancing Image.

Most of the film writing that has influenced me has come my way from Xeroxed pages, film theory books, and criticism anthologies. As such I almost feel I could avoid naming any books and simply say the names Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, Stanley Kauffmann, Susan Sontag, Richard Schickel, Leslie Halliwell, Jonathan Rosenbaum, J. Hoberman, Manohla Dargis, Kristin Thompson, et al. The Internet is no hardcover book in your hands, but the information is more abundant and loved just the same.

But I'll cite a few books. I'd love to have listed ten, but I couldn't make it; my exposure to film literature is admittedly limited, but here are five books that I've read in the last two years that I would consider influential and would recommend to any other film lover. I encourage as many participants as possible, and the creator of this meme has graciously promised to post a collection of the books on his website in the future. Many of my regular readers have been tagged so far by others, and I'm a little late to the game so I'd hate to be duplicative. If you're reading this and no one else has tagged you, I beseech you to join in. (Particularly you, DeeDee: any film noir books you could recommend would be great.)

Your suggestions will be very helpful to a guy like me who's always thinking about the next trip to the library or what should belong in my Amazon shopping cart.

The list:

Agee On Film (Part I), James Agee. He wrote for Time and The Nation, he helped audiences realize a previously unknown nostalgia for silent comedy, he passionately defended Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux over three weeks yet was capable of dismissing an entire film outright in less than five words (his entire review of You Were Meant For Me (1948): "That's what you think."). Agee wrote poetry, short fiction, screenplays (The Night of the Hunter and The African Queen), and his novel won the Pulitzer Prize posthumously. Andrew Sarris wrote that upon Agee's untimely death in 1955 at the age of 46, a vacuum was created that allowed for Sarris and the other rebel critics to break onto the scene. That Agee never lived to see New Hollywood and bless us with thoughts on it might be the reason he's less read today than those still alive or recently deceased. But his rigorous approach to classical cinema — he came to criticism after a love of movies, with demanding expectations that it function as modern art, and could lovingly praise you or savagely eviscerate you with his wound and eloquent prose — makes him one of my favorite critics. (Not to mention I have similar aspirations as critic and literary writer.)

Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, Patrick McGilligan. One of the most complete, objective (as can be), and passionate biographies of a filmmaker I've ever read. McGilligan chronicles the Master of Suspense through personal story, production details, critical assessments, and scores of interviews with those who knew him best. He pays a debt to those works that have come before (Spoto and Wood), and debunks many of the cultural myths that have spread about the director. Those of you who followed my Hitchcock retrospective are no doubt familiar with this name. (He's written on George Cukor and Oscar Micheaux as well.)

American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now, ed. Phillip Lopate. The best collection of sundry film writing out there, with extensive samples from the silent era through the contemporary era. All the usual suspects are here, from the critics to the theorists, and what Lopate has sampled many writings you'd expect and a few you might not into what culminates as a surprising crash course in Intro to Criticism 101.

Narration and the Fiction Film, David Bordwell. This book did more to make me appreciate the mere mechanics of film than any other, and the lessons I've learned from it have carried over into all the other narrative I work in. His chapter on classical Hollywood narration is the definitive look into the template utilized by nearly all directors in the 1930s through the 1950s. Plus, Bordwell earns immediate bonus points for using Rear Window as a template film to show how our brain processes cinema.

The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr. Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy: they're all here in this magnificent analysis of silent comedy. Kerr begins with a hypothesis that I believe wholeheartedly — that silent comedy doesn't suffer the baggage of silent drama — and sets forward a case-by-case analysis of how some of the most brilliant minds in early Hollywood made us laugh so hard in the 1920s and why you can still hear the echoes today.


Tony Dayoub 03 June, 2009  

Fascinating list, and you've got my interest piqued on the Agee book. I'm linking to your list now.

Sam Juliano,  03 June, 2009  

T.S. I like your choices a lot. And I agree that film criticism volumes comprise the bulk of any collection. I am a huge fan of Kauffmann, Kael, MacDonald, Sarris, Simon(he's a nasty one though!)Thomson and others, (and own them all) but some of the books you display here are definitive. Now how did I know you would favor THE SILENT CLOWNS by Walter Kerr? I think that's a Bible for the both of us! So well-written, a labor of love, much like Leonard Maltin's passionate OUR GANG: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE LITTLE RASCALS.
The Agee book is essential too, and I have owned it for a while, but sadly, no stranger to bad luck, he died in the 40's before the advent of Bergman, Fellini, Bresson, Antonioni, Bunuel, et al. But what a humanist he was, and he really loved Val Lewton.
I bought that Lopate gem only months ago.

T.S.: I always though Donald Spoto's book THE ART OF ALFRED HITCHCOCK was the best book ever on the director. Do you agree with this? I'm not meaning to downplay the Truffaut or the book you mention here of course.

And I'm sure you must adore David Robinson's CHAPLIN, right?

T.S. 04 June, 2009  

@Tony - Great! Thanks for the tag, again. As afraid that I was about being tagged (knowing far in advance I couldn't hit ten), I'm happy I sat down to write this.

@Sam - Ha! Yes, the Kerr book certainly seemed inevitable. His name will pop up much more in a few months when I shift gears and review the films of Buster Keaton. And you are right on Robinson; his biography of Chaplin is essential.

Agee is a tricky recommendation, but I see it as essential as recommending Murnau or Lubitsch — two other men who died too young and whose art never had the opportunity to respond to the directors who would have been their peers. When one reads Agee I think it is primarily the orientation and prose-style that is most significantly gleaned. Rather than inform my current criticism by comparing and contrasting, Agee informs my criticism as a standard of writing I should live up (but always fall short of) and high standard of art movies should live up to.

As for Spoto, his book may be the definitive take on Hitchcock. Certainly it's the most famous (with justification) and most widely circulated. I read large sections of it in a college course on Hitchcock, and naturally I think it's an important book. (It falls outside the window of the last two years for me.) The McGilligan book is fundamentally different from Spoto's in the sense that Spoto (perhaps rightly) focuses only on the BIG Hitchcock films; I found McGilligan's more rewarding in the way that it doesn't ignore the in-between films and gives enough context in Hitchcock's life and career.

Sam Juliano,  04 June, 2009  

Fantastic response to me T.S., and much appreciated clarification on Spoto-McGilligan.

That's real exciting news about Keaton being up next. I can't wait and I'll be here religiously!

Fraser Orr 05 June, 2009  

I have to recommend the work of Ray Carney. Especially "The Films of Frank Capra" "The Films of John Cassavetes" and "The Films of Mike Leigh". He goes against mainstream opinion a lot of the time, but if you're looking for something beyond thumbs up or down, he has some of the deepest insights into film that I've read from any critic.

Here's an except from his Capra book about "Mr Deeds Goes to Town": http://people.bu.edu/rcarney/capra/deeds.shtml

T.S. 05 June, 2009  

Fraser - Great recommendation, thanks for the tip. I was previously unfamiliar with Carney, but I'll definitely be checking him out in the future. Cassavetes and Leigh are certainly deserving filmmakers to have tome-length analysis, but I'm almost more interested in what he has to say about Capra. (It could just be that excerpt, though.) I'm capable of exuding bouts of sentimentalism so I frequently find myself going to bat for Capra when he's dismissed.

I'd be interested in any general thoughts you might have on Capra, and whether Carney's book either strengthened your admiration or made you see Capra in a new light?

MovieMan0283 12 July, 2009  

Thanks for doing this, T.S., though I'm only writing down my response now! Among other things, you and the other bloggers who sing Agee's praises have made him sound mighty enticing. Not that I didn't enjoy his writing before when I sampled it, but I'm with Tony...my interest is piqued in reading his work en masse.

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