June 9, 2009
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.
1. 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.
2. 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)
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.
5. 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 to 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.
7. 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.”
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!
9. 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 the 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.