Posted by moirafinnie on June 10, 2009
Thanks to my fellow Morlock, my attention was drawn by R. Emmet Sweeney to the “Reading Movies Meme” that started over on The Dancing Image blog, so I decided to take the plunge and mull over the movie books which had the greatest impact on me this week. I hope that readers will list their own faves as well.
While one of the pleasures of movie viewing is that instruction is not required and we can let a film wash over us without intellectualizing the experience at all, once you start reading a bit about the movies, it can be like eating potato chips. It may not make you healthier, smarter or a more joyous human being, but boy, is it addictive. And occasionally enlightening, even when you don’t agree with the writer.
Having grown up with The New Yorker magazine and Pauline Kael as practically household deities, I found myself having had more than enough of Pauline by the time I was in my teens, though her over-the-top review of Last Tango in Paris, which compared the premiere of that movie to the night in 1913 when Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” was first performed, certainly got my attention. Since it was rated X back then when dinosaurs roamed the land, I had to wait until the earth’s crust had cooled a bit before seeing the movie.
Maybe you had to be an adult when it was first exhibited in all (well, almost all) of Brando’s glory, but it somehow didn’t seem that “Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form” by the time I caught up with it. I still admire Kael’s audacity and her bravely subjective opinions. Even though I devoured her books once, no copies of Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, or Deeper into Movies or even 5001 Nights at the Movies would make it to the desert island with me–though I think I should go back and revisit her way of looking at the world. One other book that won’t find its way here is one that I wish that I could include–the fascinating collection edited by Philip Lopate, American Movie Critics: From the Silents Until Now. That will have to wait, though viewed from page 237, where I currently have a bookmark, it looks like a truly classic keeper.
Growing up in a very small town without much to do outside of school helped lead me to haunting the library some days, where the discovery of books on the performing arts reinforced my budding interest in those black and white studio era movies that flickered across the television screen. However, a few books on my parent’s shelf fed this interest as well. Here’s a list, in pretty much chronological order, of the books that made me realize the power and thought behind telling stories visually.
Agee on Film by James Agee
It would be years before I saw many of the movies that poet, novelist and journalist James Agee was writing about in these reviews, most of which were originally published in Fortune, Time and later The Nation magazines in the 1930s and 1940s. Fortunately for me, his words and his enthusiasm for the subject just jumps off the page. There were several lessons that I took away from this book. Among these are the following:
When you watch a film, you are being manipulated and when you are reading about it, you are as well. Agee, who went on to adapt fine screenplays for John Huston with The African Queen and for Charles Laughton for The Night of the Hunter didn’t claim to have a consistent film aesthetic. I believe that’s accurate, given his quirky comments and his rejection of many of the movies that audiences eventually found compelling over time. His comments and passions are still challenging. Reading Agee, even when I disagree with his views, has never bored me. He has frequently made me laugh out loud and even think. For example, writing about the film noir, I Walk Alone (1948) featuring Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster on screen for the first time, he said “the picture deserves, like four out of five other movies, to walk alone, tinkle a little bell, and cry ‘Unclean. Unclean.” Gets your attention, doesn’t it?
I’d never seen a Preston Sturges movie before reading Agee‘s description that compared watching The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek to “talking to a nun on a roller coaster”, but in retrospect, that may be a near perfect description. About the entertainingly mindless John Wayne-Laraine Day engineering-in-the-Andes film, Tycoon (1947), he wrote that several “tons of dynamite are set off in this picture–none of it under the right people.” At a time when the B films of Val Lewton were generally regarded as potboilers at best, the writer wrote lovingly about the magical, dark air of his movies, murmuring in print that “I arch my back and purr deep-throated approval of The Curse of the Cat People, which I caught by pure chance”.
Despite his gift for appreciation and for nailing a movie verbally, there was a streak of sometimes understandable snobbism in his evaluations. He regarded most of Hollywood’s product as junk, but dismissed movies that still strike a chord with some of us in the 21st century, notably National Velvet (1944) and Random Harvest (1942). The latter he recommended “to those who can stay interested in Ronald Colman’s amnesia for two hours and who could with pleasure eat a bowl of Yardley’s shaving soap for breakfast.” Even though you might vehemently disagree, you might find him funny.
Agee championed some films, such as Monsieur Verdoux, which he approached seriously, sometimes, I suspect, reflecting his own diffuse desire to read something significant into a movie. Even Chaplin, when faced with a tangled question from Agee at a press conference held when this movie opened to generally negative views, found it hard to know what the writer meant by his praise. But then, as he himself pointed out in a moment of clarity, “The mere attempt to examine my own confusion would consume volumes.”
Ultimately, I learned from Agee that to be enjoyable a movie hardly needs to be perfect, but can contain moments that make the experience worthwhile and so memorable. (Agee on Film Vol. II contains several of the author’s screenplays and are also worth reading).
The Parade’s Gone By by Kevin Brownlow
Few of the silent movies and filmmakers that Mr. Brownlow wrote about in this book were available to me as a kid. I think that I’d only seen Chaplin’s The Circus (1928), Griffith’s Orphans in the Storm (1921), and Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro (1920) before reading this account of the beginnings of the movies. It didn’t matter. Kevin Brownlow is a wonderfully vivid writer, who took the time to interview many of the actors, writers, cameramen and crew people who were still living when he wrote this valentine to the cinema in the ’60s. Filled with rare photographs, comments from various interviewees, from Francis X. Bushman to Adolph Zukor to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., it overflows with great anecdotes and the excitement of an emerging art form as Brownlow describes it with such love.
His adoration of his subject matter doesn’t blind him to the waste and folly of the period or the flaws and gifts of the individuals involved, but he writes with such appreciation for the incredible artistic and business flair that was unleashed in the movies, you can’t help but be infected with the author’s enthusiasm. I’ve recently re-read this book after many years, and if anything, I can appreciate it more now. One quibble: no mention of Clara Bow is made, which reflected the individual nature of the piece. (Louise Brooks chided Mr. B. heatedly for her absence from the volume). Another volume that is almost as thrilling to read is Kevin Brownlow’s The War, The West and the Wilderness, which for me is highlighted by his exciting account of such films as John Ford’s The Iron Horse on location with vast cast and crew reliving the construction of the railroad across the plains. Behind the Mask of Innocence: Sex, Violence, Crime: Films of Social Conscience in the Silent Era the author’s fascinating description of early accounts of the “ripped from the headlines” material that found its way into early films and ultimately led to forms of censorship. My favorite part of this book: the tales of Texas Guinan‘s checkered movie career. This trio of books remains among the most informative I’ve ever read on the subject of early movies. They are also great fun.
John Ford by Joseph McBride and Michael Wilmington
Writing with film critic Michael Wilmington, historian Joseph McBride brought out this slim volume before his monumental biography, Searching for John Ford. Like most kids, I’d grown up seeing John Ford films pretty regularly, with How Green Was My Valley (1941) an outstanding favorite in the Finnie household, (even if many of the Welsh characters seemed awfully Irish). This book made me realize that there was a singular way of looking at the world, sometimes quirky, sometimes profound, but colored by one man’s vision of the world, and especially history, both personal and human. Examining individual movies by looking at the conflicted nobility in rebels and outlaws in such movies as Wagon Master and The Searchers, the effect of war on the human beings experiencing it in Fort Apache and They Were Expendable and, of course, Ireland in The Rising of the Moon and The Quiet Man, the book made me realize the intricate understanding and contradictions that enriched Ford‘s films. Subsequent reading of the later, beautifully written full biography of the director by McBride and Scott Eyman‘s brilliant biography John Ford: Print the Legend have only taught me that you can never really stop learning about Ford’s films. Actually, every time I see one again or for the first time, something new can be learned.
Hitchcock/Truffaut : A Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut
Based on a series of conversations between the writer and filmmaker Francois Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock, the interviewer found the director at his most magisterial when this book was recorded from their meetings. The book may not be the definitive study it is sometimes claimed to be, (maybe the controversial but fascinating Donald Spoto analyses of Hitch belong in that niche), but the seamless style of Hitchcock’s movies unveiled in this book has only grown for me as the movies became more familiar. The fact that the book gave impetus to my curiosity about Truffaut’s work was a plus, and, even though there are many Hitchcock films I relish, Truffaut’s work, often created as a form of homage to the master, such as The Bride Wore Black (1968) and The Woman Next Door (1981) really mean much more to me emotionally than any film of Hitchcock’s after Rebecca (1940) I know that it may be a bit “sacrilegious” to say so, but this revealed to me the skill and hard work that the familiar Hitchcock put into his movies as well as into his image-building. I don’t recall being aware of this form of high level careerism or how one filmmaker influences another before reading this chatty, and revelatory book.
People Will Talk by John Kobal
Like his fellow countryman, Kevin Brownlow, John Kobal was a British citizen who appreciated American films and filmmakers. Lovingly writing this book over a period of about two decades, the author interviewed many of the usual suspects who began to reminisce in print interviews in the ’60s, such as Howard Hawks and Gloria Swanson for this 1986 publication. He also sought out people for his 41 interviews who, sadly, were rarely spotlighted, such as Ann Sheridan, choreographer Hermes Pan, and only one actor, Joel McCrea. The interviews are preceded by one of the author’s carefully chosen photos of the subject, his own assessment of the person’s career as well as his often droll impressions of the individual after meeting him or her, all of which is highlighted by the man’s encyclopediac insights into moviemaking. A renowned collector of vintage photographs by the likes of Clarence Sinclair Bull and George Hurrell, Laszlo Willinger, and Ted Allan, (some of whom were interviewed for this book and whose work was re-discovered by the public thanks to Kobal’s efforts), the author brought his own observant eye to these interviews. He looked at his subjects with respect when they deserved it, as well as wonder and affection. This was especially true when they were, like silent and early talkie exotics, the imperious Olga Baclanova or Dagmar Godowsky, proudly eccentric in their obscurity or deliciously naughty like Joan Blondell (read the section in Blondell’s interview on Leslie Howard–I don’t want to spoil it for you, but he was a rogue!). This did not prevent Kobal from assessing what time and life has done to them as people and artists. Arletty, the French actress who graced Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) was blind when he met her at 86 and she discusses with wry honesty, the complex wartime compromises in occupied France that led to her career fading far sooner than it should have in the postwar period.
Perhaps one of the best aspects of this book, which really doesn’t cease to be rewarding even after re-reading it, is the range of people active in pictures from the silents to the 1980s who are featured in the pages. This includes dress designers (Jean Louis, for example), directors who haven’t always received their due (Henry Hathaway) and even an occasional, legendary producer, (Arthur Freed).
Backstory 1 Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood’s Golden Age by Patrick McGilligan
This collection of interviews with screenwriters from the studio era is the first volume in this prolific writer’s four part Backstory series, beginning with the polished Charles Bennett, one of the more successful female screenwriters, Lenore Coffee, the legendary, enigmatic W.R. Burnett, James M. Cain, one half of the legendary team of brother-screenwriters, Julius J. Epstein, John Lee Mahin and Donald Ogden Stewart, among others. Though I’d read Andrew Sarris’ auteur “bible” American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929–1968 before reading this book, it always seemed odd that so little credit was given privately or publicly to the people who wrote the clever dialogue that we associate with actors we cherish. This, it turns out from some of the bitterly funny interviews McGilligan conducted, seemed odd to the writers as well.
The books, which go up to the 1980s by Backstory 4, chronicle the fun, the frustration and the friendships made and broken in Hollywood. They also outline the labor history of a profession that has rarely been fully appreciated by scholars, or, for that matter, by some of the practitioners, who are sometimes understandably jaded about their work. Reading the Backstory series is like seeing a mosaic from close-up. As you move back from it, you begin to see the heroic scale of their contributions, even if they were often confusingly credited, and their efforts did not always come out as originally intended in this highly commercial enterprise. You also learn more than you might want to know about the making of a sausage, (i.e. Frank Capra is described as having had a painting of Mussolini on his bedroom wall and Cecil B. DeMille allegedly had spies within the F.B.I. leaking him info). The writers are sometimes a crabby group, but good company. McGilligan, who has written wonderful biographies of Fritz Lang and Hitchcock as well, is a superb writer.
How to Read a Film: The World of Movies, Media, Multimedia: Language, History, Theory by James Monaco
Film, like poetry, is something that can’t be readily explained but the author puts into words the the aesthetic and technical processes that our brains’ experience when we watch a movie. When I first read this book, I was overwhelmed by it, but have come to appreciate it as a primer for understanding how such things that I’m normally oblivious too, (being a happy peasant), such as the aspect ratio, film stock, optical effects, and lighting really affect my experience as a viewer. Monaco also devotes a portion of the book to the defining the differences between expressionism and neorealism and what makes a movie a reflection of one school or another. The author writes about the experience of watching a movie in accessible, non-jargon that I find has continued to be useful to me as I keep trying to learn more about the art form.
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
This novel is concerned with the inner life of Binx Bolling, a well-to-do stockbroker and Korean war veteran, whose anomie is relieved by those fleeting moments when a moment of cinematic fantasy lifts him out of his bland existence. Over the course of the book, Walker Percy amusingly and beautifully describes moments in such seminal films as Stagecoach, The Third Man, Panic in the Streets, Red River, Holiday, The Ox-Bow Incident, All Quiet on the Western Front, Tarzan and even The Young Philadelphians that bring a kind of meaning to the lead character’s seemingly empty, absurd existence. Percy‘s quiet hero, who has felt unmoored from the reality around him since one singularly intense experience, gradually awakens to the world and the people outside the darkened theater, so much more vivid, messy and complicated than the fleeting, briefly transformative moments to be experienced at a movie. As Binx spends much of the novel trying to find a way out of what he increasingly sees as “a world of sameness”, the author, who clearly loved films, communicates how our intoxication with the cinema may distort our ability to see and act as our own hero or heroine in each of our lives after the lights come up in the theater. Though some people hate this book, I’ve read it more than once and find something new in it each time I read it. Perhaps you will too.
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