Books on Film: A List

north park

The problem of the young cinephile: what to see next? Growing up in movie-thin Buffalo, I had to consult the oracles: movie critics in bigger cities. Then there was the winnowing process – who to trust and who to ignore? Once I locked in on a kindred spirit, I followed in lockstep with their viewing and reading recommendations. Soon a whole network of informed writers radiated from my admiration of one critic, and opened up whole new vistas of learning. For me, that critic was Jonathan Rosenbaum, formerly of the Chicago Reader. Sure, I also gobbled up the words of J. Hoberman at the Village Voice, but Rosenbaum had a combative skepticism that suited my own tastes of the time, and I eagerly anticipated his work every week. His enthusiasms also led me to the work of Manny Farber, Joe Dante, Jacques Rivette, and a whole host of others.

Why the reminiscing? Well, the enigmatically named MovieMan0283 of The Dancing Image started a meme on his site, listing the ten film books that left the greatest impression on him. He encouraged other film bloggers to do the same, and it’s been all over the internet this past week. I noticed it first at Glenn Kenny’s Some Came Running. Below the fold is my contribution, all of them determining factors towards my questionable taste.

logo51. The Chicago Reader‘s Brief Reviews Archive: Admittedly, this is cheating, but ever since I discovered this vast trove of critical nuggets from Rosenbaum and Dave Kehr, I’ve considered it my go-to reference book, despite its mere virtual existence. With the click of my sweaty fingers, I could read the concise and informed opinion of my two favorite writers on just about any cinematic subject at hand. Need a recommendation for an upcoming pre-code series? Hmm…Me and My Gal was Manny Farber’s favorite Raoul Walsh, sez Rosenbaum, and that it’s “A small picture, but an ecstatic one.” Sold!  I’ve consulted the site more than anything bound in pulp, and I daresay I’m the better for it.

62mannynegspace2. Negative Space, by Manny Farber (1971, 1999): See, film critics can be great writers! Just read Negative Space, the only published collection of Farber’s work. His dense, allusive prose takes as much time to unpack as some of the films he adores (Scarface, Me and My Gal, Wavelength), and goshdarnit if he doesn’t have a cantakerously careening essay on Howard Hawks. On Scarface, and also not a bad description of his writing: “The image seems unique because of its moody energy: it is a movie of quick-moving actions, inner tension, and more angularity per inch of screen than any street film in history.”  (and is Amazon lying to me or is this out of print? A tragedy, if so, despite its Kindle availability)

Hawks_Robin Wood

3. Howard Hawks, by Robin Wood (1981, 2006):  Of all the words I’ve consumed about Howard Hawks, these were the first and the most influential. His introduction to the 1981 edition told me that “the distinction between ‘art’ and ‘entertainment’ was too rigid”, and that Mozart worked for an audience as much as Hawks. His thematic breakdown of the work still holds up, as does his enthusiasm (also see his excellent recent monograph on Rio Bravo). I’ll also always agree with him on this point: “If I were asked to chose a film that would justify the existence of Hollywood, I think it would be Rio Bravo.”

4. A Biographical Dictionary of Film, by David Thomson (1975-2002): If I could rewrite history, I would have told my youthful self to purchase Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema instead of this tome, but I can’t, so here we are. I’ve grown weary of Mr. Thomson and his inability to engage with contemporary cinema (see his lazy entries on Abbas Kiaorstami and Wes Anderson, for instance), but his elegant phrasing and embrace of Hawks (sensing a theme?) were definitely valuable, and it’s impossible to discount this book’s importance in shaping my young mind. The only thing that sticks with me from that book is his epic ode to Johnny Carson, both moving and mystifying for this Letterman-aged viewer.

this_is_orson_welles5. This is Orson Welles, by Orson Welles & Peter Bogdanovich (1992, 1998): Before Hawks, Welles was my favorite – and where Hawks was tight-lipped, Welles was expansive. An incredibly entertaining romp through Welles’ astonishing career, with the added benefit of an exhaustive career chronology, an appendix of the scenes cut from The Magnificent Ambersons, and the memo Welles sent Universal with his suggested revisions to Touch of Evil. A treasure trove of research material to please any budding Wellesian. Also plenty to throw back at those who say Welles declined after Citizen Kane, or similarly ill-informed gobbledygook.

6. Movie Mutations, by Jonathan Rosenbaum, Adrian Martin, et. al. (2003): My most obscure choice introduced me Movie Mutationsto a number of young cinephiles, and clued me in to the vibrant journals Senses of Cinema , Rouge, and Cinema Scope. It lent me a sense that I belonged to a community, not just a darkened living room. First published as a series of letters in the French magazine Trafic, it brought together Rosenbaum, Martin, Kent Jones, Alexander Horwath, Nicole Brenez and Raymond Bellour. These epistles were added together with a few essays on transnational cinematic exchanges: Jones on Tsai Ming-liang, Shigehiko Hasumi on Hawks (!), and an excellent tete-a-tete between Martin and James Naremore on academic film study (which I was about to enter). This volume was very prescient in regards to the bourgeoning online film community, and in a sense paved the way for my own modest entry into the online film conversation.

Who the Devil7. Who the Devil Made It, by Peter Bogdanovich (1997): Another superb book of interviews from Bogdanovich, this time chatting with a gaggle of the greatest talents from Hollywood’s Golden Age, from Aldrich to Walsh (Hawks is included, of course). Rich with production minutae and backstage anecodotes, it’s an invaluable resource, and I find myself always coming back to it. My recent infatuation with Leo McCarey led me to it recently, and his reticence at discussing one of his masterpieces, Make Way for Tomorrow, is palpable and moving: “It was the saddest story I ever shot; at the same time very funny. It’s difficult for me to talk about, but I think it was very beautiful.”

ozubordwell

8. Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, by David Bordwell (1988): This is available for free as a PDF at the link provided, so download it now. Got it? OK, this is the most in-depth auteur study I’ve ever read, exhaustively covering Ozu’s style (his 360 degree use of space, low-angle camera, etc.) as well as the culture he came out of. Definitive in every sense, and essential for an understanding of one of the greats. I came to it while writing a forgotten paper on An Autumn Afternoon, and its erudition, depth, and breadth are staggering. Read his blog, too!

Objects of Desire9. Objects of Desire: Conversations with Luis Bunuel, by Jose de la Colina & Tomas Perez Turrent (1986, 1992): Bunuel’s autiobiography, My Last Sigh, is phenomenal (I’ve never forgotten his poetic description of his lost sex drive), but the offhanded charm of this collection of interviews was too hard to resist. Full of important lessons, like, “Let’s put a little rum in our coffee like they do in Spanish country towns. It gives coffee a nice smell.”

10. Fun in a Chinese Laundry, by Josef von Sternberg (1965) & A Third Face, by Sam Fuller (2002): I cheated at athirdfacethe beginning, so it’s only appropriate I do so at the close. These cooly enigmatic (Sternberg) and riotously entertaining (Fuller) autobiographies are fascinating reflections of these directors respective artistic personalities. Von Sternberg is dry, ironic, and withholding: “The system of films can be a severe shock to anyone whose mind has made progress since childhood.” Fuller is blunt and hilarious: “If a story doesn’t give you a hard-on in the first couple of scenes, throw it in the goddamned garbage.” Both revelatory in their own way.

If anyone wants to contribute lists of their own, fire away in the comments section.

(TOP IMAGE OF NORTH PARK THEATER IN BUFFALO FROM FLICKR USER POPSCRATCH)

0 Response Books on Film: A List
Posted By Medusa : June 9, 2009 8:20 pm

I’ve got nothing as evocative as your choices, unfortunately — what a wonderful mix!

As a kid who was getting most of her movie catch-up viewing on television, Steven Scheuer’s “Movies on TV” was the movie book that I remember going through, page by page, to figure out Danny Kaye’s completely filmography when I was about 12. I have a copy of his first “TV Movie Almanac & Ratings 1958 & 1959″, which states “this new, handy guide for television movie fans describes, carefully rates and helps you pick out all the important movies you will want to see on your TV screen during the year.” “A Brand New Idea for the Millions Who Enjoy Watching Hollywood Movies On TV.”

Scheuer’s book, and later Leonard Maltin’s guides, were a straightforward listing that solidified my ability — which later became very handy when I had to evaluate movie packages for purchase — to quickly recall movies by at least two stars and a quick logline, and hopefully the year. These books were not a lot of theory and mostly utilitarian, but plenty of hard facts that fascinated me! No IMDB back then!

Posted By Medusa : June 9, 2009 8:20 pm

I’ve got nothing as evocative as your choices, unfortunately — what a wonderful mix!

As a kid who was getting most of her movie catch-up viewing on television, Steven Scheuer’s “Movies on TV” was the movie book that I remember going through, page by page, to figure out Danny Kaye’s completely filmography when I was about 12. I have a copy of his first “TV Movie Almanac & Ratings 1958 & 1959″, which states “this new, handy guide for television movie fans describes, carefully rates and helps you pick out all the important movies you will want to see on your TV screen during the year.” “A Brand New Idea for the Millions Who Enjoy Watching Hollywood Movies On TV.”

Scheuer’s book, and later Leonard Maltin’s guides, were a straightforward listing that solidified my ability — which later became very handy when I had to evaluate movie packages for purchase — to quickly recall movies by at least two stars and a quick logline, and hopefully the year. These books were not a lot of theory and mostly utilitarian, but plenty of hard facts that fascinated me! No IMDB back then!

Posted By chris tate : June 9, 2009 8:28 pm

Concerning book choice #5. What do you mean before Hawks there was Welles? I hope you’re talking about a personal discovery of Welles before Hawks or discovering books about the one or the other first. Hawks was making films way before Welles.

Posted By chris tate : June 9, 2009 8:28 pm

Concerning book choice #5. What do you mean before Hawks there was Welles? I hope you’re talking about a personal discovery of Welles before Hawks or discovering books about the one or the other first. Hawks was making films way before Welles.

Posted By moirafinnie : June 10, 2009 7:54 am

I enjoyed reading your list of books enormously. You make me want to read Von Sternberg’s autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry again, just to bask in his self-assured manner, (the man writes as though he sees the world through a monocle). Your comment on A Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson particularly amused me, RES.

Even though I can often disagree with Thomson’s quirky and informed choices in his eclectic compendium, sometimes the man captures a quality of a figure just perfectly, as he did in his description of Robert Flaherty as a man who “explored to escape” or describing a Diana Dors documentary as “a lovely tribute to getting it all wrong.” When I began reading him, it took awhile before I realized this is just one man’s lively, cultivated and highly subjective opinion about something that he passionately believed mattered–the influence of film on society and an individual, (himself, even though his words can read like “the voice of God”, not just another movie fan).

Maybe you’re right about his tepid approach to contemporary cinema. Perhaps he should add the word “Classic” before the film in the title?

Posted By moirafinnie : June 10, 2009 7:54 am

I enjoyed reading your list of books enormously. You make me want to read Von Sternberg’s autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry again, just to bask in his self-assured manner, (the man writes as though he sees the world through a monocle). Your comment on A Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson particularly amused me, RES.

Even though I can often disagree with Thomson’s quirky and informed choices in his eclectic compendium, sometimes the man captures a quality of a figure just perfectly, as he did in his description of Robert Flaherty as a man who “explored to escape” or describing a Diana Dors documentary as “a lovely tribute to getting it all wrong.” When I began reading him, it took awhile before I realized this is just one man’s lively, cultivated and highly subjective opinion about something that he passionately believed mattered–the influence of film on society and an individual, (himself, even though his words can read like “the voice of God”, not just another movie fan).

Maybe you’re right about his tepid approach to contemporary cinema. Perhaps he should add the word “Classic” before the film in the title?

Posted By Al Lowe : June 10, 2009 8:44 am

I’m going to give you my list but, first, I have to tell you that I disagree with you about Manny Farber. I don’t like his opinions or his writing. Interesting? Yes, but so is a traffic accident or being trapped in a cave with bats.
I own a paperback book, Movies, that collected his reviews and was published in 1971. Its original title was Negative Space.

Here’s my list:
1. Confessions of a Cultist by Andrew Sarris.
2. The American Cinema by Andrew Sarris.
3. The 50 Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood by Erza Goodman.
4. I Lost It at the Movies by Pauline Kael – and some of her other writings.
5. The Pyramid collection of small books about movie stars (Director Andrew Bergman wrote about Cagney, Jeanine Bassinger wrote about Shirley Temple, etc.)
6. The Portable Dorothy Parker.
7. The collection of 1970s books about movie stars written and/or edited by James Robert Parrish.
8. Easy Riders Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind.
9. Kings of the Bs, edited by Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn.
10. Books that various publishing companies put out that listed the films made by individual studios – The MGM Story, The RKO Story, The Universal Story, etc.

Some thoughts:
Goodman was a reporter who soured on Hollywood; his book has many wonderful stories about Hollywood. I’m not the Pauline Kael fan that I used to be; I once wrote and told her that and she sent me a gracious note back. Sarris, the studio books, Kings of the Bs and the books by Parrish have been essential in my learning about the movies.
The first movie book I bought was about Samuel Fuller. Sad to say, I don’t have it any more.

Posted By Al Lowe : June 10, 2009 8:44 am

I’m going to give you my list but, first, I have to tell you that I disagree with you about Manny Farber. I don’t like his opinions or his writing. Interesting? Yes, but so is a traffic accident or being trapped in a cave with bats.
I own a paperback book, Movies, that collected his reviews and was published in 1971. Its original title was Negative Space.

Here’s my list:
1. Confessions of a Cultist by Andrew Sarris.
2. The American Cinema by Andrew Sarris.
3. The 50 Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood by Erza Goodman.
4. I Lost It at the Movies by Pauline Kael – and some of her other writings.
5. The Pyramid collection of small books about movie stars (Director Andrew Bergman wrote about Cagney, Jeanine Bassinger wrote about Shirley Temple, etc.)
6. The Portable Dorothy Parker.
7. The collection of 1970s books about movie stars written and/or edited by James Robert Parrish.
8. Easy Riders Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind.
9. Kings of the Bs, edited by Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn.
10. Books that various publishing companies put out that listed the films made by individual studios – The MGM Story, The RKO Story, The Universal Story, etc.

Some thoughts:
Goodman was a reporter who soured on Hollywood; his book has many wonderful stories about Hollywood. I’m not the Pauline Kael fan that I used to be; I once wrote and told her that and she sent me a gracious note back. Sarris, the studio books, Kings of the Bs and the books by Parrish have been essential in my learning about the movies.
The first movie book I bought was about Samuel Fuller. Sad to say, I don’t have it any more.

Posted By Al Lowe : June 10, 2009 10:09 am

An afterthought to the message I sent:

I also enjoy these: the collected film criticism of James Agee, Robin Wood’s book on Howard Hawks and Saturday Afternoon at the Bijour by David Zinman. Books published by Leslie Halliwell and David Shipman have also been very helpful.

Agee once reviewed the Burt Lancaster vehicle I Walk Alone by saying it was one of a handful of films that deserved to walk alone, carry a little bell and cry “Unclean, unclean!”

Posted By Al Lowe : June 10, 2009 10:09 am

An afterthought to the message I sent:

I also enjoy these: the collected film criticism of James Agee, Robin Wood’s book on Howard Hawks and Saturday Afternoon at the Bijour by David Zinman. Books published by Leslie Halliwell and David Shipman have also been very helpful.

Agee once reviewed the Burt Lancaster vehicle I Walk Alone by saying it was one of a handful of films that deserved to walk alone, carry a little bell and cry “Unclean, unclean!”

Posted By Patricia : June 10, 2009 11:07 am

Hey, Buffalo Boy. Did you watch TVOntario’s Saturday Night at the Movies? I’m a disciple of Elwy.

Posted By Patricia : June 10, 2009 11:07 am

Hey, Buffalo Boy. Did you watch TVOntario’s Saturday Night at the Movies? I’m a disciple of Elwy.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : June 10, 2009 11:12 am

Chris: Yes, I meant Welles was a favorite of mine before Hawks was. Thanks for the catch, I’ll change my wording there. Hawks’s silent work is my white whale at the moment.

Medusa – I’m always fascinated how people become addicted to movies, it’s usually some dusty old reference book like you mentioned, instilling the urge to see everything! (and let me recommend TCMDB over IMDB. Sure I’m shilling, but it uses the AFI database, which is far more accurate).

Moira – Thomson is a strange case, such an elegant writer, but so closed off. I don’t feel I ever learn much from him (except about his taste).

And to each his own Al. But Farber is in the pantheon for me. I could’ve easily chosen the Agee volume too, though…

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : June 10, 2009 11:12 am

Chris: Yes, I meant Welles was a favorite of mine before Hawks was. Thanks for the catch, I’ll change my wording there. Hawks’s silent work is my white whale at the moment.

Medusa – I’m always fascinated how people become addicted to movies, it’s usually some dusty old reference book like you mentioned, instilling the urge to see everything! (and let me recommend TCMDB over IMDB. Sure I’m shilling, but it uses the AFI database, which is far more accurate).

Moira – Thomson is a strange case, such an elegant writer, but so closed off. I don’t feel I ever learn much from him (except about his taste).

And to each his own Al. But Farber is in the pantheon for me. I could’ve easily chosen the Agee volume too, though…

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : June 10, 2009 11:21 am

Patricia: I watched a little CBC, but we didn’t get TVOntario. So I’m in the dark here, unfortunately.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : June 10, 2009 11:21 am

Patricia: I watched a little CBC, but we didn’t get TVOntario. So I’m in the dark here, unfortunately.

Posted By Patricia : June 10, 2009 2:46 pm

I’m sorry to hear that. Starting in 1974 each Saturday night on TVO Southern Ontario (and some Western New York) viewers watched two uncut features hosted by former teacher Elwy Yost and interviews with directors, cinematographers, actors, set designers, etc. involved with the productions. A gold mind for inquisitive movie fans.

A typical night might be “Widmark After Dark” with “Kiss of Death” and “Panic in the Streets” featuring interviews with Widmark, Henry Hathaway and Coleen Gray. A look at set design followed “Dodsworth”. Jack Elam sat around talking about Sam after “The Wild Bunch”. Joel McCrea discussing Hitch and Sturges as we watched a double bill of “Foreign Correspondent” and “The Palm Beach Story”.

I’d say it’s right down your street.

Posted By Patricia : June 10, 2009 2:46 pm

I’m sorry to hear that. Starting in 1974 each Saturday night on TVO Southern Ontario (and some Western New York) viewers watched two uncut features hosted by former teacher Elwy Yost and interviews with directors, cinematographers, actors, set designers, etc. involved with the productions. A gold mind for inquisitive movie fans.

A typical night might be “Widmark After Dark” with “Kiss of Death” and “Panic in the Streets” featuring interviews with Widmark, Henry Hathaway and Coleen Gray. A look at set design followed “Dodsworth”. Jack Elam sat around talking about Sam after “The Wild Bunch”. Joel McCrea discussing Hitch and Sturges as we watched a double bill of “Foreign Correspondent” and “The Palm Beach Story”.

I’d say it’s right down your street.

Posted By Chris in Vegas : June 10, 2009 7:54 pm

What? No KISS KISS BANG BANG Pauline Kael fans?

And what of Stephen Kings’ DANSE MACABRE?

Hell, I’d settle for one of those pop critic omnibus tomes that give even a paragraph to the most obscure films ( be it dogbone or Ebert ).

For digging into obscurity read THEY HAD FACES THEN by Springer and Hamilton.

Posted By Chris in Vegas : June 10, 2009 7:54 pm

What? No KISS KISS BANG BANG Pauline Kael fans?

And what of Stephen Kings’ DANSE MACABRE?

Hell, I’d settle for one of those pop critic omnibus tomes that give even a paragraph to the most obscure films ( be it dogbone or Ebert ).

For digging into obscurity read THEY HAD FACES THEN by Springer and Hamilton.

Posted By MovieMan0283 : June 10, 2009 10:58 pm

Thanks for jumping in! Great list…I have the Bogdanovich book and though it did not make my top 10 or even my runners-up, it probably should have.

I love Thomson’s book (that did make my top 10) and I prize it for its cantankerousness and individuality…I wouldn’t like it nearly so much if it were more fair-minded and even-handed. And I share his curmudgeony frustration with contemporary cinema, though I’d like to think I am far more hopeful for its future than he is.

*A note to all your readers: I am planning to compile a master list of everyone’s favorite books, but to do so I need blog links – so if you have a blog, please put your personal list up on your blog and then I can link up to it when I comprise the “canon”…so to speak.

Posted By MovieMan0283 : June 10, 2009 10:58 pm

Thanks for jumping in! Great list…I have the Bogdanovich book and though it did not make my top 10 or even my runners-up, it probably should have.

I love Thomson’s book (that did make my top 10) and I prize it for its cantankerousness and individuality…I wouldn’t like it nearly so much if it were more fair-minded and even-handed. And I share his curmudgeony frustration with contemporary cinema, though I’d like to think I am far more hopeful for its future than he is.

*A note to all your readers: I am planning to compile a master list of everyone’s favorite books, but to do so I need blog links – so if you have a blog, please put your personal list up on your blog and then I can link up to it when I comprise the “canon”…so to speak.

Posted By Vincent : June 11, 2009 1:11 am

I must put in a good word for James Harvey’s “Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Struges” by James Harvey. A splendid book on my favorite film genre, very authoritative. I own the original version from 1987, and I’m not sure how much it was updated in later printings.

About the only thing Harvey really doesn’t cover in the ’87 book was the “pre-Code” era, because that term didn’t really exist then. I would suggest complenenting Harvey’s book with Mick LaSalle’s two volumes on pre-Cide, “Complicated Women” and the slightly less interesting “Dangerous Men.”

Posted By Vincent : June 11, 2009 1:11 am

I must put in a good word for James Harvey’s “Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Struges” by James Harvey. A splendid book on my favorite film genre, very authoritative. I own the original version from 1987, and I’m not sure how much it was updated in later printings.

About the only thing Harvey really doesn’t cover in the ’87 book was the “pre-Code” era, because that term didn’t really exist then. I would suggest complenenting Harvey’s book with Mick LaSalle’s two volumes on pre-Cide, “Complicated Women” and the slightly less interesting “Dangerous Men.”

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