By David D. Robbins Jr. | The Fade Out
Every cinephile swears by their own particular set of ‘best books about film’. In fact, there are just too many to list here, and some books I didn’t include for sake of subject repetition or simply because the list had to stop somewhere. Peter Bondanella’s “Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present” is a fantastic guide through the world of Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti and Vittorio De Sica. Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” is a wonderful work on the American era of drugs, rebellion and counterculture that ushered in film heavyweights like director Martin Scorsese, actor Dennis Hopper, director Peter Bogdanovich, the films “All the President’s Men” and “Taxi Driver”, and the revolt that was BBS films. And no list is complete without at least mentioning a book about Charlie Chaplin. My favorite is Simon Louvish’s critical joy, “Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey”. Below are just few other books on cinema, or about film personalities, or celluloid history, or the effects of cinema that I find to be must-reads on all film-junkies’ lists. In part, I wrote this post for all those people who are always asking me, “What good books about film are out there?” Well, these are few to enjoy. The list is in no particular order:
“From Reverence to Rape” by Molly Haskell
The University of Chicago Press (1973)
This is a brilliant critical work that often gets mistaken as a feminist treatise on film. There aren’t many film critics with Haskell’s massive foundation for the great old-world of movies. She can discuss actress Jennifer Jones’ role in King Vidor’s Western “Duel in the Sun” as easily as she can discuss the technical cinematic skills of directors like Douglas Sirk, Frank Capra, or Preston Sturges and how they film their leading ladies. She is the master of revealing the misogyny that dares not speak its name, sometimes in the works of famed directors such as Nicholas Ray or Ingmar Bergman. Her book is part history, film criticism, sociology and a study on truly seeing what it is we are watching. She asks why admiration and respect appear to be indispensable to a woman’s love for a man in film, but the reverse is often barely a concern. (She notes that Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in films like “Adam’s Rib” and “Pat and Mike” are the rare exceptions of early Hollywood history.) But mostly there are gorgeous pieces of cinematic criticism here. Haskell writes that Marlene Dietrich, on film, was really the anima of director Josef von Sternberg. She described Greta Garbo’s acting irony as “conspiratorial” and a “secret — it darkened the room, excluded the world, and drew men, flattering them …” She writes about the dripping, saccharin crumbling of Frank Borzage’s film “Desire” with real disappointment, and the brilliance of films like “Sunset Boulevard” and “All About Eve”, movies she thought were sensitive to women, and yet revealed the anxieties of their directors.
“Goodbye Cinema Hello Cinephilia” by Jonathan Rosenbaum
The University of Chicago Press (2010)
Rosenbaum is one of the great critics of cinema, along with Roger Ebert, David Thomson, J Hoberman, and Stanley Kauffmann. This book consists of 53 essays on film. He writes about the brilliance of the much-overlooked director Jacques Tourneur (he was often overshadowed by producer Val Lewton who was a part of his films, “Cat People”, ” I Walked With a Zombie” and “Seventh Victim”) and his majestic western “Wichita”, a story of the pre-Tombstone Wyatt Earp. Rosenbaum’s gift rests in his microscopic appreciation for art-film like the works of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Nagisa Oshima and his film “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”, and Tati. Rosenbaum insists that some of the best film is coming out of Iran now, like the work of Abbas Kiarostami — and that it should receive its proper due. The beauty of Rosenbaum’s knowledge is that it doesn’t seem to have a limit. He is as comfortable in the old and new world cinema of Hollywood as he is in the foreign realm of Japanese yakuza or the world of Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “The Double Life of Vernonique”. He opens his book with a discussion of the perils of “the director’s cut”, and an essay defending the writing of spoilers in film reviews. He revisits “The Godfather”, which he determines has a “cowardly” sense of complacency toward remorseless murder and capitalism, and defines Pedro Costa as a filmmaker who deals in essence and mystery rather than bland storytelling. Film criticism doesn’t get much better than Rosenbaum.
“Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir“
St. Martin’s Press (1987)
Leni Riefenstahl is best known for being Adolf Hitler’s filmmaker. But that’s unfair if you believe what she’s written. In her recollection, she was more or less made to film scenes at the famed Nuremberg Rally, with Hitler telling her, “You can, and you will.” Her memoir is a treasure trove of stories, from her first meeting with Hitler before he was Chancellor of Germany, to seeing him give beer-hall speeches, to Joseph Goebbels’ pursuit of her as a mistress. She also writes delicately about her childhood, and her memories of director Josef von Sternberg, actress Marlene Dietrich, director Jean Cocteau, UFA, and her impressions of seeing American Olympian Jesse Owens run at the 1936 Berlin Games. (One tibit: She claims to have nearly injured him by accident.) In some ways her memoir also calls into question the notion of the definition of propaganda. In Riefenstahl’s view, “Triumph of the Will” isn’t propaganda because she says the Nazi Party never influenced what she shot. To her it’s all simply documentary. The veracity of the stories in this memoir is for the reader to judge. Her recollection of Hitler feels true, based on gut feeling and what I’ve read in Ian Kershaw’s two-volume magnum opus. She describes a man who could persuade with pure surety of purpose. In her private conversations she reveals a complex man, who could be both humble and charming, and then speak in uninterrupted 45-minute monologues of anger, without ever recognizing the other person in the room. Strangely, it’s almost as if Riefenstahl were the Forrest Gump of German history, finding herself entangled with the leaders of her country’s greatest cinema and darkest politics. It’s a book every film aficionado should read.
“Kubrick” by Michael Herr
Grove Press (2000)
Writer Michael Herr is best known as the author of one of the best works about Vietnam, “Dispatches” (1977), a memoir of his time as a war correspondent for Esquire magazine from 1967 to 1969. There’s nothing better than a master from one type of study spreading his wings and covering another. Herr was a friend of famed film director Stanley Kubrick (and also collaborated with Kubrick on the screenplay for “Full Metal Jacket”), and writes endearingly and honestly about the man in a book that doesn’t even reach 100 pages. This book is largely understood as a defense of Kubrick, after the release of “Eyes Wide Shut” and the director’s death, and after a number of articles and obituaries had been written that portrayed Kubrick as a strange enigma and recluse. Herr, without much regard for biography, writes about the Kubrick he knew and even speculates beyond the known facts. Herr takes time out to blast New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane’s review of the lesser-seen film, “Killer’s Kiss”. Herr also writes about Kubrick as a man who loved conversation, albeit generally from the confines of his own home. And he touches upon Kubrick’s internal battles to create art and yet still hold onto the Hollywood and popular culture he was fond of. “Kubrick” shows a man who is contrary in many ways. It may not be the massive tomes we’ve come to read, or contain the interview access of Frederic Raphael’s “Eyes Wide Open” — but it is an interesting fight to reclaim the life of a friend.
“The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties”
by J Hoberman
The New Press (2003)
It’s a tough call between this Hoberman work or his 2011 release, “An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War”. One thing is certain: Hoberman is in a master class when it comes to his knowledge of films made between roughly 1950-70, and he has a keen eye for finding things in history that defined the medium of cinema, as well as the reverse. In his mind, film is never present without culture. With Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch”, Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” and John Frankenheimer’s strange thriller “The Manchurian Candidate” also comes the very real Che Guevara, Ronald Reagan, the Black Panthers, and things we now find kitsch, like Coca-Cola bottles, the Sexual Revolution, or the absurdity of Nikita Khrushchev and the Camelot of John F. Kennedy. With the end of the Sixties came America’s “Night of the Living Dead”, Richard Nixon — and the explosion of counterculture violence that was mirrored in film. It’s a brilliant work, that shows how the nature of the U.S. citizenry ran parallel to what was being seen in the darkened rooms of its national movie houses. The chapters to Hoberman’s work read like ones you’d find in a history book: from “Lyndon Johnson’s Trip” and “Nixon Time”, to the clever “After the Orgy: From Blow Up to Blow Out”, referencing the films of Michelangelo Antonioni and Brian De Palma, like the bookends of yesteryear.
“The New Biographical Dictionary of Film” by David Thomson
Knopf (1975-updated in 2010)
Out of all the books in this list, no self-respecting cinephile can be without Thomson’s massive dictionary. It’s more than a simple, dry biographical background of cinematographers, actors, and directors that the title may suggest. It’s full of opinions, witticisms, humor, and perspective that can only be described as Thomsonian. You’ll find him being overly harsh with Federico Fellini: “… the question must be asked whether his films have made a sham of vitality in the process of smothering life with affectionate but self-indulgent egotism?” In other words, Thomson is saying Fellini may be a brilliant artist, but he has nothing to say. His book is a marvelous source of information, gleaning from his 35-plus years of sculpting. In truth, it’s difficult not to recommend everything Thomson writes. His book on “Nicole Kidman” is bizarre in its near stalker-like obsession, but brilliant and forthright. Thomson has virtually made himself the expert on all things Orson Welles, penning “Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles”. And his book, “The Whole Equation”, a work about the beginnings of Hollywood reflected through the lens of the 1974 American neo-noir classic, “Chinatown”, directed by Roman Polanski, is a tutorial on how to write simply about film.
“Fun In a Chinese Laundry” by Josef von Sternberg
Mercury House (1965)
You know someone’s memoir is going to be good when it begins with an introduction written by someone who doesn’t necessarily say glowing things about the author. Sternberg’s memoir begins with a foreword written by legendary actor Gary Cooper, who played the male lead role in the director’s classic film, “Morocco”, starring next to Marlene Dietrich. Cooper describes Sternberg as a showoff who liked to ride in limousines, and as a director who thought of his actors as puppets, and himself as the puppeteer. But Cooper also writes about his admiration for Sternberg’s cinematic style and how the director did respect the quality of his film stars in the broader sense. If Cooper’s foreword were a review of a film called “Sternberg”, it would be lukewarm, but with an overall appreciation. In a way, that’s how you can spot true genius. Just like with Orson Welles, genius can best be spotted by how quickly others forgive the foibles of an otherwise pain in the ass. The weight of worth in “Fun In a Chinese Laundry” rests in reading a director’s analysis of his stars. For example, Sternberg describes the great German actor Emil Jannings like this: “Like all actors, he was extremely shy, but unlike most of them he brought his shyness to face the camera … He was known for his trick of expressing emotion with his back turned to the camera, his back being more expressive than the facial mimicry of most actors.” How wonderful is that? And what a compliment, from a man who held his praise back, like a loving but tough father.
“The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact” by Colin McGinn
Vintage Books (2007)
This book makes McGinn the John Berger of film. He is interested less in the history or storylines of film plot than he is in how an audience or individual looks at a picture. It begins with the technical way an image is projected on a screen, to analysis of how films often play upon the mind like a dream. But McGinn does make very astute comments about particular movies. Take this interesting notion about viewing David Lynch’s dreamlike “Mulholland Dr.”, specifically the weeping/masturbating scene that is as emotionally raw as it is visual: “I am not saying here that the impulse to watch such scenes is necessarily immoral or shameful; it may indeed be argued that this kind of ‘voyeurism’ is essential to all dramatic art, displaying nothing reprehensible than the desire to know the deepest secrets of human nature. I am simply saying that the essential structure of voyeurism — the unreciprocated gaze into the private world of the other — is amply catered to by the cinematic medium.” It is a wonderful observation, also made and manipulated by films like “Man Bites Dog”, “Peeping Tom”, “Rear Window”, “The Lives of Others”, “Blow Out”, “Cache” and “Red”. There’s an interesting thing going on in all of cinema, the act of seeing or watching in the darkness nearly always has a voyeuristic element to it. It’s just one of a number of McGinn’s marvelous measurements of film. This book shows just how much endless capability exists in film to influence, and to allow audience members the chance to see and feel emotions they may not be able to otherwise.
“Pictures at a Revolution” by Mark Harris
Penguin Books (2008)
The concept behind this book is the key to its success. Harris begins his work by zeroing in on five films that were up for Best Picture in 1967: “Doctor Dolittle”, “The Graduate”, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, “In the Heat of the Night” and “Bonnie and Clyde”. Harris then breaks down the changing of American film tastes during the era, and how each one of those five pictures had something to tell in regard to the radical shift. For example, a film like “Bonnie and Clyde”, ushered in a new era of stylized violence. (It’s hard to image the films of Quentin Tarantino without it.) It signaled a quantum shift away from tired and formulaic westerns and what were deemed the prudish sex comedies of stars like Doris Day, who seemed to play the forever virgin. Harris is good at building a picture of an era that began to find a new type of star. In short, 1967 is the year Hollywood matured, and big movie-industry moguls lost touch as renegades and art-house took over — weened on a diet of revolutionary reading, and European New Wave film. Harris is also very good about showing just how tough it can be to make a film and actually get it produced, much like writer Peter Biskind showed in his fine read, “Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film”. It’s not about suggesting one way of film-making is better than another. It’s about documenting a period in time when five films seemed to perfectly encapsulate the death of big-studio thinking. A cinematic failure like “Doctor Dolittle”, and the embarrassing and superficially controversial “Look Who’s Coming to Dinner” naturally paled in comparison to the wonderful inventiveness of a work like “Bonnie and Clyde”.
“Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir” by Eddie Muller
St. Martin’s Griffin (1998)
I knew when that dame walked in the door that trouble came with her. There was just something about her. She was like Christmas in July. Just plain wrong. Well, my little introduction there is just how most of us imagine film noir. And you’d be partially right. It’s about characters with flaws, hiding in dark alleys. If there isn’t a scene with a gun in the first 15 minutes — then it ain’t noir. Okay, that last one isn’t necessarily true. Noir is so many things, and that’s what Muller’s fantastic book is about. For me, noir is the glimmer in Humphrey Bogart’s eye when Lauren Bacall gets sassy. Noir is Lizabeth Scott’s voice, so husky and grizzled it could be used to sharpen knives. It’s Robert Ryan and Van Heflin. It’s masterpieces that go well beyond the b-label, like Otto Preminger’s lovely pairing of the great Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons in “Angel Face”. It’s a wrecking ball named Ida Lupino. It’s the greatest of noir, “In A Lonely Place”. It’s the over-dramatized but wonderful b-picture, “Gun Crazy”. It’s Rita Hayworth flipping her hair back in “Gilda”, and the especially gorgeous in-color Gene Tierney sitting in a rowboat in the middle of a lake, wearing a pair of sunglasses, doing her worst while looking her best. If you’re a film noir egghead like me, then you can re-live its art through this book. For the novice, this is the best Noir 101 you can take.
“Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall” by Chris Fujiwara
McFarland & Company (1998)
Sadly, Tourneur has been largely overshadowed by Val Lewton, who produced many of his famed films, “Cat People”, “I Walked With a Zombie”, “Body Snatcher”, and “Seventh Victim”. His stories are about grave-robbers, Satanic worshipers, and other mystic oddities. At first glance, the titles to Tourneur’s films would make one think he was a director of decidedly b-rate horror material. But that would be far from the truth. His style of film-making might resemble some of Alfred Hitchcock, without necessarily leading to some grand reveal. His stories are psychological. Fear is conceptual in Tourneur films. A film like “Curse of the Demon” is more pocket Sigmund Freud than obvious Freddy Kruger. Yes, Tourneur’s tales are mostly fantastic, but they’re also built on real fears. Everyone has some fear of being alone in a dark woods, the branches creaking. Everyone fears the unknown, but it’s all a matter of management. That’s where Tourneur steps in. Lewton and Tourneur became a one-two punch for RKO back in the 40s and made a number of good films. But Tourneur was more than Lewton, and more than a horror director. He also created films like “Wichita” and “Berlin Express”, a mystery-thriller regarding the occupied zones in Germany after the war, and the intrigue that follows before a conference on unification. It’s a remarkable work that touches on international relationships, and the far-off possibility that we can exist in a world where nations just might stop killing one another. It’s one of the few books of criticism on Tourneur. This is a relatively small book (about 300 pages), and features an essay on every one of Tourneur’s films. Includes a forward written by Martin Scorsese.
“An Actor’s Handbook” by Constantin Stanislavski
Theatre Arts Books (1924)
“My Life In Art” is Stanislavski’s great writing achievement, but his actor’s handbook works as a small guide of aphorisms and brief suggestions for actors that he’d accumulated over the years. Why is this book in this list? Well, first of all, we get Lee Strasberg’s “Method” because of Stanislavski. Admittedly, the two men’s ideas about bringing forth great performances differ largely — but Stanislavski was the predecessor. Reading this work helps to understand the difficulties actors face, and what lessons have been passed down through generations of theater workers. Take for example Stanislavski’s advice on the weak acting practice of using cliched gestures to signify emotions: “There are special ways of reciting a role … with declamatory vocal embellishments … for expressing human … passions (showing your teeth and rolling the whites of your eyes when you are jealous … tearing your hair) … Some of these established cliches are passed down from generation to generation. They often rush in ahead of feeling and bar the road; that is why an actor must protect himself most consciously against such devices.” He goes on to say that actors often mistakenly think of the results before they think of the action. Stanislavski’s so-called ‘system’ (lowercase “s” was his) was a systematic approach to train actors by developing techniques to avoid pitfalls, and to enhance abilities. Many of acting’s most profound teachers can find their pedigrees traced to Stanislavski. He brought formalization and discipline to the craft.
“The Great Movies” by Roger Ebert
Broadway Books (2002)
There are many things we know about Roger Ebert. He’s without a doubt the world’s most well-known film critic. He was a huge critical supporter of the film “Do the Right Thing”. He is currently suffering from thyroid cancer. He has contributed vocal film commentary on two DVDs that I can think of over the course of his lasting career, one was Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane”, and the other is the science-fiction Bauhaus wonder “Dark City”. He has a habit for quoting Pauline Kael. He got into verbal fisticuffs with actor Vincent Gallo over his film, “The Brown Bunny”. But there is something that gets overlooked amid all of Ebert’s fame — he’s a damn good writer about film. There’s something charming and disarming about Ebert’s style of writing. He’s lean and informal in style, and can enjoy the art-house as well as the popular. Note how his first book featuring essays and reviews on great films features Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.”, followed in alphabetical order by Luis Bunuel’s dinner-party madness, “The Exterminating Angel”. Often, like in his write-up for 1946’s “The Big Sleep”, he opens with a great lede: “Two of the names mentioned most often in Howard Hawks’s ‘The Big Sleep’ are Owen Taylor and Sean Regan … Neither is ever seen alive.” Or take the intro to his essay on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s great “Ali: Fear East the Soul”: “The first shot set up the theme: them against us.” But my favorite bits of Ebert are when he allows himself to get carried away. No film critic has ever praised better. W.H. Auden once wrote, “In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise.” Ebert takes it to heart. How about this description of the beautiful Louise Brooks in “Pandora’s Box”?: “She carries her beauty like a gift she doesn’t think much about.” The same could be said about Ebert and his writing.
“Sergio Leone: Something to Do With Death” by Christopher Frayling
Faber and Faber Limited (2000)
Sometimes the sign of a good book about film is when it changes your perspective on the artist or his work. Frayling’s book on Sergio Leone will do that for you. This Italian mastermind created a number of good films, in a style that influenced countless filmmakers. He was also lucky enough to make use of composer Ennio Morricone, which turned masterpieces like “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964), “For a Few Dollars More” (1965), “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966), and “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968) into sweeping operas. Frayling covers Leone’s good and bad side too. He was a fiery and creative director, but one who embellished his own myths as much off-screen as he did with his characters onscreen. He made legends out of Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach. And through an act of clear plagiarism he brought Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” to the Western world through “Fistful of Dollars”. Frayling shows readers a talented directed who was less than learned, and sometimes a dullard. In fact, when Kurosawa sent Leone a letter which praised “Fistful of Dollars”, but then asked that Leone please send money because the story belonged to the famed Japanese director, Leone waved the letter around to show to his friends. He didn’t comprehend the legality of it all, and simply thought it was cool that the great Kurosawa saw his film and considered it good. Frayling opens this book with two literary anecdotes, one from Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” and the other from Franz Kafka’s “Amerika”. Why does he do this? And what do both shorts have in common? It’s that imagination can often supplant reality — and in some ways become it. The world is a crazy, bewildering and beautiful stage for the likes of Leone.