Books and films relating to every aspect of cinema. The ones I’ve loved and others…not so much.
THIS IS ORSON WELLES by Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich (HarperCollins; 1992)
Orson Welles knew how to tell a story. He was, by most accounts, a brilliant raconteur, boasting a withering wit. Marlene Dietrich was quoted as saying, “When I talk to him, I feel like a plant that’s been watered”. Bogdanovich catches Welles in a variety of moods but I don’t think he ever succeeds at catching him off guard (George Orson Welles was far too canny for that). In these recorded conversations Welles is clearly trying to set the record straight—the fiasco of “It’s All True”, the mangling of “The Magnificent Ambersons”—and Bogdonavich, a fellow director and passionate film buff, is a willing accomplice, rarely pressing his subject with hard questions. Instead, he lets Welles do what he does best, tell tall tales and namedrop shamelessly. After all, O.W. was on a first name basis with everyone from Harry Cohn to Winston Churchill. He also claimed to have met Hitler—ah, but here’s where I remind you that Welles was an accomplished magician and selling illusions his stock in trade.
CONQUEST OF THE USELESS: A Film Diary of the Making of “Fitzcarraldo” by Werner Herzog (Ecco Publishing; 2009)
This book lists all the reason’s you’ll ever need why not to shoot a movie in the jungles of South America. Herzog cites the daily tribulations: lack of money, the giant insects (including a tarantula the size of his hand, found secreted in his shoe), the problems with location, nature, natives, government bureaucracy and on and on. The German director’s sheer fortitude, the courage he exhibited to complete this mammoth undertaking, is inconceivable to ordinary mortals. The book fascinates and horrifies. This man is willing to risk everything for his dreams and that kind of passion can be daunting and disquieting. It is also easily confused with madness.
AMERICAN MOVIE CRITICS: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now Edited by Phillip Lopate (Library of America; 2006)
An overview of American film reviewers, from poet Vachel Lindsay’s appreciation of of Douglas Fairbanks in the 1924 production of “Thief of Baghdad” to A.O. Scott’s dismemberment of Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”. It’s a pleasure reading (or re-reading) pieces by Andrew Sarris, Stanley Kauffman and James Agee, the intelligence of the discourse (even when I didn’t agree with their conclusions). A nice, fat tome and relatively cheap; well worth looking up.
FOR KEEPS: 30 YEARS AT THE MOVIES by Pauline Kael (Dutton; 1994)
She was opinionated, brassy and played favorites. For decades, Pauline Kael was the doyenne of film reviewers, revered, feared and dismissed. This fat volume (1200+ pages) impresses with its scope and the persuasive power of the writing. Ms. Kael isn’t right all the time but her success rate surpasses anyone among contemporary reviewers. She’s also witty, bitchy, beguiling and very, very readable. One sometimes reads her reviews just for the pleasure of the writing. Ms. Kael was one of a kind and this book, as thick and weighty as it is, represents only a part of her significance to film scholarship. We still haven’t replaced her.
MAKING MOVIES by Sidney Lumet (Knopf Publishing; 1995)
Superb book on the process of designing and creating a movie. Everything from crafting a good script to the joys and pains of post-production; accompanied by examples from the director’s body of work, with candid admissions of failures and misfires. Lumet has been around a long time and directed everyone from Brando to Philip Seymour Hoffman. Think this guy hasn’t earned his chops? Read and learn…
THE NEW BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF FILM by David Thomson (Knopf; 2004)
I love big, fat reference books and this one’s a doozie. Thomson can be, alternately, amusing and annoying: he’s bang on about Hitchcock but utterly wrong in his dismissal of “Apocalypse Now”. I found his book-length study on Welles (ROSEBUD: THE STORY OF ORSON WELLES) flawed but his entry on Welles in this “dictionary” is sympathetic and even moving. A good resource for film mavens, though hardly definitive.
A HISTORY OF NARRATIVE FILM by David A. Cook (W.W. Norton; 1981)
A good primer for students of cinema. The various eras are well-documented, the writing clear and unadorned. There are breakdowns of national cinemas and the major artists are profiled with skill and insight. Should be read back to back with–
HOW TO READ A FILM by James Monaco (Oxford University Press; 2000)
This is the textbook they used to hand out to first year film students. Ah, yes, I remember it well…
IN THE BLINK OF AN EYE by Walter Murch (Silman-James Press; 2001)
A book on film editing by the best of the best.
NOTES ON THE CINEMATOGRAPHER by Robert Bresson (Green Integer; 1997)
Koan-like observations on the art of movie-making…and matters further afield. From a gentle sage of cinema, a master of framing and photographing moments of power and authenticity. A lovely book.
Nicholas Christopher is a brilliant novelist so it’s no surprise that his volume on film noir is literate, smart and thoroughly engrossing. Mr. Christopher knows his stuff and in the course of this book he touches on all of the acknowledged classics of the genre (“Kiss Me Deadly”, “DOA”, “Out of the Past”), while also calling attention, with the help of an exhaustive filmography at the conclusion of the book, to some gems we might have over-looked. A loving tribute to dark, bent avenues and empty, scary places the light can’t reach…the evening shade covering a multitude of enticing sins.
THE BATTLE OF ‘BRAZIL’ by Jack Mathews (Applause Books; 2000)
How Terry Gilliam defied the brass at Universal Pictures, shanghaied his own film, won some major awards and lived to tell the tale. Mathews’ retelling is a good one, all of the principal players giving their version of events. What emerges is a nerve-tingling story of studio interference and a courageous stance by a gifted and stubborn auteur. It is only due to Gilliam’s faith in the picture that “Brazil” was preserved and released in the form he intended. Posterity has proven the director correct but Hollywood has a long memory; to the bean counters who run the various studios, “integrity” and “genius” are watch words for “trouble” and “pain in the ass”. Young film-makers, take note.
EYES WIDE OPEN: A MEMOIR OF STANLEY KUBRICK by Frederic Raphael (Ballantine Books; 1999)
Raphael was brought in to collaborate on the screenplay of Kubrick’s last film, “Eyes Wide Shut”. The partnership wasn’t, er, altogether successful. Raphael’s scrutiny of his subject is up-close and not always flattering. Not an unbiased account but relentlessly fascinating.
STANLEY KUBRICK DIRECTS by Alexander Walker (HBJ Publishing; 1972)
Lots of images from Kubrick’s films reproduced throughout, a good source to begin examining Kubrick’s visual “style”, particularly in the early films (this edition only covers his career up to “A Clockwork Orange”).
KUBRICK: A BIOGRAPHY By John Baxter (Carroll & Graf; 1997)
A workmanlike bio of an enigmatic genius. Baxter is an outsider, looking in and so there’s a sense that he’s just passing along stories, more a recorder than an insightful investigator. A starting point, but that’s all…
GREAT SCOTT! The Best of Jay Scott’s Film Reviews by Jay Scott (McClelland & Stewart Publishing; 1994)
Scott, who passed away in 1993, was the primary film reviewer for the Toronto Globe & Mail and a very, very good one. Not prone to sentiment, hostile to over-earnest, self-important drek like “Ordinary People” and “Fatal Attraction”, and a champion of mad men like Peckinpah and Fassbinder. Scott’s description of “Apocalypse Now” as “Shakespearean” was absolutely correct; the remark reveals a mind that was well-rounded and literate, traits largely absent from most film reviewers, then and now.
THE PRIMAL SCREEN: A History of Science Fiction Film by John Brosnan (Orbit Books; 1991)
Lovely layout and lots of wonderful stills and I like the fact that the author is no fan-boy: he’s critical of some acknowledged SF classics and would be the last person you’d expect to find wearing an “I Grok Spock” t-shirt. I don’t agree with everything Mr. Brosnan says—he’s far too hard on little beauties like “Silent Running” and “Phase IV”, for instance—but I like an author with a clearly stated aesthetic and an unabashedly subjective take on a theme or topic.
AGEE ON FILM: Volume I & II by James Agee (Perigee Books; 1983)
Love him or hate him, at one time James Agee, preaching from his pulpit at both Time and The Nation, was the gold standard as far as American film criticism was concerned. You have to have some appreciation for a guy who, during the course of a review could come up with zingers like: “Watching ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’ is like drinking cup after cup of tepid orange pekoe at a rained-out garden party staged by some deep-provincial local of the English-speaking Union”. What can you say to that except Huzzah! Huzzah! Volume I contains his writings on film and Volume II five of the scripts he authored, including “The African Queen” and, natch, “Night of the Hunter”.
MOVIES by Manny Farber (Hillstone Publishing; 1971)
Selected reviews encompassing two+ decades (1949-70) of film writing. The blurbs accompanying the book are glowing but even amid the praise one finds qualifiers: eccentric, unorthodox, personal, irritating. There are points during his essay on Preston Sturges when his run-on sentences made me want to strangle Farber. His treatment of Samuel Fuller is, to my mind, nothing short of condescending. But his 1951 appreciation of the vastly under-rated Val Lewton is bang-on; respectful, concise and sharp. Farber makes his case without pretension or three-layer word salads. I wish he’d done that more often over the course of his career.
GUIDE FOR THE FILM FANATIC by Danny Peary (Fireside Books; 1986)
One of my favorite film guides and though it’s long out of print, if you can find a copy you’ll appreciate how much love and knowledge went into creating this volume. Peary selects and provides capsule summaries of “must-see” films, from the Silent era to “E.T.” There’s also a terrific checklist of 1600 midnight movies and cult faves in the back of the book. Great fun.
A SHORT GUIDE TO WRITING ABOUT FILM by Timothy Corrigan (Longman Publishing; 1998)
Short, helpful text; you want to write like James Agee and dissect a movie with the cunning and vigor of Andrew Sarris? This little beauty will give you a good start. It deciphers the terminology and demystifies the process. A worthy addition to your collection.
DESPITE THE SYSTEM: ORSON WELLES VS. THE HOLLYWOOD STUDIOS by Clinton Heylin (Chicago Review Press; 2006)
Hagiography, read as an antidote to Simon Callow and David Thomson’s bios on Welles. Mr. Heylin is a camp follower and acolyte and goes out of his way to portray Welles’ detractors as heartless bastards with chips on their shoulders. One-sided but not without interest.
“Night of the Demon” was a terrific B picture by Val Lewton’s favorite director, Jacques Tourneur. Mr. Earnshaw takes us behind the scenes and we are introduced to a boorish film producer, a recalcitrant screen writer and a director and star who enjoyed the bottle. Somehow they managed to collaborate on a supernatural thriller that still packs some wallop, even after more than 50 years. The unexciting prose, poor layout and wonky structure work against the book but the production sketches, location photos and interviews with surviving cast and crew are a big plus. Fans of the movie or the director’s uneven oeuvre will be especially intrigued.
MADCAP: The Life of Preston Sturges by Donald Spoto (Little Brown; 1990)
Noted biographer Spoto fixes his sights on a director who, like Orson Welles, was convinced of his own genius and determined to plot his own course. And, like Welles, Sturges ended up on the outside looking in, endlessly making the rounds, trying to secure financing for his projects. This is an illuminating and intimate portrait of the writer-director, Mr. Spoto’s sources include longtime associates and ex-wives of his subject. Sturges’s star burned brightly for about a decade and there were some first rate pictures, even a few Oscar nods. But Hollywood has never been kind to auteurs and his downfall was a predictable as it was spectacular. He deserved far better.
PRESTON STURGES by Preston Sturges (Simon & Schuster; 1990)
An autobiography, only partially completed at the time of the writer-director’s death in the famed Algonquin Hotel. Sandy Sturges, Preston’s last wife, helped supervise the editing of the unwieldy, chatty manuscript and did a fairly accomplished job. Sturges is a clever, witty narrator but, as is the case with most memoirists, his recollections are selective and, like any good storyteller, he isn’t always scrupulously honest with the truth. Pick up the Spoto biography (above) instead.
STRAUB by Richard Roud (Cinema One Book Series; Viking Press; 1972)
A hard-to-find text on an obscure and remarkable talent, French “underground” film-maker, Jean-Marie Straub. Have barely delved into this one yet (it was a fortuitous find at a used book sale) but it looks promising. Straub is still alive but his longtime partner and creative collaborator Daniele Huillet died in 2006.
A DISCOVERY OF CINEMA by Thorold Dickinson (Oxford University Press; 1971)
Another good film history—an overview of cinema since the silent age, highlighting the directors and visionaries who shaped the art form during the last century.
THE LIVELIEST ART by Arthur Knight (New American Library; 1957)
Venerable film book, derided in an essay by Paul Shrader I read recently. Definitely dated but not entirely devoid of merit. The early days of film-making get ample coverage and Knight’s chapter on “international film” champions the likes of Dreyer, Bunuel and Clouzot so clearly he was a man of some taste and discernment.
Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (Directed by Jan Harlan; 2001)
The only drawback to this portrait of the Master is the sound of Tom Cruise’s voice. He handles narration, doing his best to ride Kubrick’s coat tails for as long as he can. The film makers gained access to home movies, early photographs and gained the cooperation of the most most intimate with Kubrick, including his wife Christiane. It’s a warts and all depiction, his daughter complaining of his autocratic nature and footage shot on the set of “The Shining” exposing his inner bully as he dresses down Shelley Duvall. This is one of my favorite film documentaries and I recommend it to Kubrick fans certainly…but every film buff will appreciate a peek inside the mind of an innovative artist, a giant of cinema.
2001 & Beyond (Written and Directed by Michael Lennick; Foolish Earthling Productions)
A smart, affectionate look at the making of Kubrick’s masterpiece, augmented by interviews with some of the principal players, including author Arthur C. Clarke, special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull and actor Keir Dullea. Mr. Lennick has done a fine job taking us behind the scenes and the documentary is well-researched, the production values first-rate.
About John Cassavetes: American Masters (Written by Michael Ventura; Directed by Debbie Geller; 2000)
Hard to lay your hands on this one but if you do manage to snag a copy, you’re in for a treat. Cassavetes was a true independent and auteur. His films are stubbornly individualistic and centred around themes close to his heart. With shoestring budgets and an ensemble of favorite actors, including his wife, Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk, he explored human relationships, exposed raw nerve endings and probed notions like honour, friendship, loyalty, love and male bonding. At times one must endure a Cassavetes film but, then, good films should make demands on their viewers, don’t you think?
One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (Written and Directed by Chris Marker; 1999)
Brilliant look at the career of Andrei Tarkovsky–assembled by none other than the great Chris Marker. I found this film absolutely absorbing…and how appropriate that Marker is the one to put it together. He shared Tarkovsky’s fascination with memory and both viewed and used cinema as a means to express their most personal idiosyncrasies and obsessions.
Burden of Dreams: The Making of “Fitzcarraldo” (Directed by Les Blank; 1982)
Great documentary: we see the vision and courage of Herzog nearly over-matched by the insanity of making a film with as many seemingly insoluble logistical problems, not the least of which is dealing with the mercurial (I’m being kind) Klaus Kinski on a day-to-day basis.
Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography (Written by Todd McCarthy; Directed by Todd McCarthy & Arnold Glassman; 1992)
A look at great motion picture cinematographers, from Billy Bitzer (D.W. Griffith’s favorite collaborator) to the best of the modern era. Lots of interviews and, of course, amazing clips to highlight the work of Gordon Willis, Vittorio Storaro, Greg Toland and numerous others. This is one, as a film buff, you just have to see.
Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (Dir. Marina Zenovich; 2008)
Biography of Polish director, with particular emphasis on the legal woes Roman Polanski endured after a sexual encounter with a 13 year-old model. The personalities involved are fascinating, the legal wrangling compelling…and at the centre of it all, Polanski: a man who survived extermination at the hands of the Nazis, a savage bludgeoning from a multiple murderer, the horrific death of his beautiful, pregnant wife…Good Lord, what a litany. But his unlawful sexual dalliance with a minor was Polanski’s own doing and at the conclusion of “Wanted and Desired”, despite the apparent enmity of his judge, the unfairness of the process, I felt little sympathy for him. He took advantage of a young, under-aged girl and I do not condone that or absolve him from responsibility…and his due portion of blame.
Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies & the American Dream (Written and Directed by Simcha Jacobovici; 1998)
Early Hollywood and the men who built the major studios, a scrappy bunch who survived pogroms and escaped to America, where they founded entertainment empires. A well-researched and skillfully presented film. Based on a book by Neal Gabler.
Hearts of Darkness: A Film-Maker’s Apocalypse (Written & Directed by Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper; 1991)
Based on a journal Eleanor Coppola kept during the making of “Apocalypse Now” (released as a book, Notes on the Making of “Apocalypse Now”; Limelight Editions; 2004). We go behind the scenes of an epic movie, witness a production plagued by bad luck, ill health and natural disasters. Somehow Frances Ford Coppola survived the crushing pressure and brought forth a masterpiece. But he wasn’t the same afterward…
Overnight (Directed by Tony Montana & Mark Brian Smith; 2003)
This is what happens when you give a bartender-slash-writer $300,000, inflate his ego to Napoleonic proportions, then unleash him on the unknowing world. Troy Duffy had it all…and threw it away in an extended tantrum, sustained by the mistaken belief that he was more powerful than God (i.e. Harvey Weinstein) and destined to make the greatest movie since Welles jilted radio and eloped to Hollywood. Turns out he was wrong on both counts. “Overnight” is a cautionary tale and a riveting portrayal of the consequences of blind, arrogant stupidity. Not to be missed.
The Battle Over Citizen Kane (Written by Richard Ben Cramer and Thomas Lennon; Directed by Michael Epstein & Thomas Lennon; 1996)
A program that originally aired on “The American Experience”. A behind-the-scenes look at just how close “Citizen Kane” came to not seeing the light of day. Hearst and his minions pulled out the stops to destroy a picture aimed directly at his dark heart. Welles was young, assured, ruthless. But did his arrogance cause him to push his luck a bit too far…eventually finding himself on the outside, looking in, scrambling to raise money, shilling lousy wine to pay the bills. This is a good one.
RKO 281 (Written by John Logan and Richard Ben Cramer; Directed by Benjamin Ross; 1999)
Call it a “docu-drama” and it isn’t half bad. A recreation of the making of “Citizen Kane”, two mammoth egos confronting each other, the young lion vs. the old bull. Liev Schreiber doesn’t work as Welles but John Malkovich (as Herman Mankiewicz) and James Cromwell (Hearst) are solid in supporting roles. Definitely worth a look.
Best of Film Noir (Written & Produced by Christopher Case; 1999)
Rather dull and unsophisticated look at film noir. The writing is spotty and analysis and critical thinking hardly in evidence. The only thing missing is a smarmy, vapid narration by Leonard Maltin (Greg O’Neill does the honours instead). Serious film fans will find this one slight and hardly worth their time. Not recommended.