Not so long ago, I moved into a new neighborhood. Before even attempting to settle in, I paid a visit to the local library which, despite its grand exterior, was fairly nondescript within. This was particularly true of the nonfiction section, located downstairs. Endless shelves of books stretched across a close-quartered white-walled basement, completely unadorned and giving off the aura of an abandoned filing room located deep in the bowels of some God-forsaken bureaucracy. There were no labels, cards, or indicators on any of these shelves so I had to scan the stacks by eye to find the movie section.
When I tracked it down (it was one of the first stacks, mid-row, between the circus and television) I was in for a thrilling surprise. Hidden away in this library was a treasury of great seventies film-book classics, many out of print. Consequently, over the past few months, I have read I Lost It at the Movies by Pauline Kael, The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book by Arlene Croce, Godard by Richard Roud, Confessions of a Cultist by Andrew Sarris, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema by Peter Wollen, The Primal Screen by Sarris, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang by Kael; at present, I have delved into three more film texts: Politics and Cinema by Sarris, Going Steady by Kael, and The Japanese Film by Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie.
I mention this not only to illustrate my passion for reading about the movies, but also to demonstrate that I am only just discovering many seminal texts of the cinema, and that the list which follows is not to be mistaken for a primer on essential reading. I make no claims for the greatness of the following ten books. Nor are they necessarily my favorites; indeed, some have outlived their purpose and I haven't looked at them in years. Many titles are obscure, so fame is not a criterion either. What all these books do have in common is their influence...on me. These are the books that informed me, excited me, provoked me, the ones that introduced me to The Wolf Man and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Taxi Driver and Celine and Julie Go Boating and Le Vent d'Est.
Beyond these ten, I will deliver honorable mention to another fifteen books which were not quite as crucial to my development. Nonetheless, they are highly noteworthy and in some cases, may have been even more constant companions than those titles in the top ten. I will (briefly) tell you why...and then the ball is yours. Run with it. I would love for everyone reading this list to compose their own personal top ten. There are no rules in how you chose to play this game, no guidelines save one:
YOU MUST CREDIT THIS BLOG AND LINK TO THIS POST IN YOUR RESPONSE!
Just a small matter (but one which was sadly neglected the last time I tried this!).
Also one very strong recommendation - please tag five more people so that we can keep this going.
The rest is up to you.
Here is my own list, titles followed by the stories of how we met...
1. Famous Movie Monsters series, by various authors
Sadly, I could not dig up the original covers from 20-year-old editions, when the books were bound in gloriously beat-up orange cardboard. Those were the books which, more than any other, turned me into a movie buff. Seven years old when I started borrowing them from the elementary school library, I recall thinking that my parents would not approve of me reading about the more human, and thus somehow more "adult" monster villains. Hence, when I graduated from Godzilla and King Kong to Dracula and Frankenstein, I made sure to hide the books in the rear of my backpack and perused them in secret. I suppose the fear stemmed from my parents having to deal with my frequent nightmares when I was a bit younger (due to Elliot Gould's and Joan Collins' performances as, respectively, Jack's giant and Hansel and Gretel's witch in Shelley Duvall's "Fairy Tale Theatre") - but ultimately my nervousness was a case of overzealous childhood paranoia, because my folks really didn't care. Still, the belief that I was harboring moral contraband of some sort only heightened my enjoyment of this series.
My enthusiasm also led to an elaborate prank, in which an older schoolmate convinced me and my friend that there was another book in the series, about an elusive monster movie called Mouse Guts. It was weeks before we realized he was pulling our legs, but nonetheless Mouse Guts became my first Holy Grail film, which I wrote about last fall. Meanwhile, over the years I slowly saw all the films written about in these books, but with no particular rush. Indeed, I only saw The Wolf Man last summer (it was one of the first films I wrote about for this blog), and The Mummy even more recently. Quite often, the actual movies disappointed me - an indication that, from the beginning, it was the imagining of movies which excited me as much as (and sometimes more than) the seeing of the damned things.
Each book began by describing the plot and then proceeded to go behind the scenes, telling the story of the filmmaking. Thus, from my earliest days, I was geared to wonder what went on behind the camera, not just what danced before my eyes on the magical screen. To my recollection, and with the assistance of the Internet, the books I read in this series were: Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Godzilla, King Kong, The Deadly Mantis, The Blob, The Mummy, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, It Came From Outer Space, Mad Scientists, and (perhaps) Zombies.
2. Academy Award Winners, by Ronald Bergan, Graham Fuller, and David Malcolm
(The back cover, as the front cover was long ago detached from the binding.) Quite possibly my first "adult" movie book. It was given to my father for Christmas in the mid-80s, but I'm certain I read it more than he ever did, even as a little kid. The book ended with the 1985 ceremony and I started watching the show in 1990, so for years there existed an Oscar Dark Age in my mind. I still recall my excitement upon finally discovering those winners after years of ignorance (to wit: Platoon, The Last Emperor, Rain Man, Driving Miss Daisy). Now, of course, I find it hard to regard the Academy Awards with little more than scorn and exasperation but that little kid obsessed with the golden trophies must remain deep down within, because I still watch the stupid show every year. Most importantly, this book served as my first introduction to a great many classic films, illustrated with tinted monochrome photo spreads laid out over glossy pages.
3. The Great Movies, by William Bayer
A huge influence on my thinking about and enjoyment of movies. I've placed it near the beginning of the list, since I discovered it (another one of Dad's books, this) around the same time as the Oscar text, but truthfully I only dove in years later, as a teenager. Still, even as a kid I regarded it from a slightly awed distance, reading bits and pieces and comprehending only in flashes. I do recall being quite startled by the author's description of how hippies in Godard's Weekend inserted a fish into the heroine's vagina and I may have put the book back on the shelf, deciding that perhaps this one was a little out of my league at eight years old...
If you want more on the book (including lots of great pictures), yesterday I devoted an entire post to The Great Movies.
4. Roger Ebert's Video Companion (1994 Edition), by Roger Ebert
And then, in the summer of 1994, I stepped out on my own. No longer content to ransack school libraries and dig through my parents' collection, I bought my own movie book. Up to this point, Roger Ebert was just the fat guy on TV who argued with the bald guy and stuck his thumb up in the air when he liked a movie. I didn't take him very seriously, to the extent that I took any critics very seriously at the age of ten. This book introduced me to a whole other side of the ubiquitous and much-parodied reviewer. Every review was so thoughtful, yet so easy to read, and I would find myself flipping through the book hungrily in an endless game of hopscotch...what did he think of this one? And this one? Did he like Star Wars? What's this Blue Velvet he seems to despise? The book opened many doors, not least of which was the one through which my own burgeoning critical sensibilities and style began to step. I still haven't figured out how to organize my thoughts as precisely, concisely, and yet richly as Roger, but he's still around - now active as a fellow blogger - to show the way.
5. Chronicle of the Cinema, edited by Robyn Karney
After years of gleaning bits and pieces of movie history, assembling a patchwork from the various books I read, the Chronicle put it all together. It was a thirteenth birthday present in 1996 and I would spend hours leafing through its pages, soaking in the progression of movie styles over the years, grooving on wild poster designs, and discovering who was born what year (some of the dates later proved inaccurate, but never mind...). Most of all, I remember being surprised how quickly I gravitated towards the early, adventurous years of the cinema. I think I had harbored a prejudice against those fusty, old-fashioned pioneer pictures which did not seem to capture the epic riches that movies were capable of. Yet here for the first time, I discovered the magic of those years of discovery, a sense of which has never left me since.
6. For Keeps, by Pauline Kael
And then there was Pauline. I didn't know much about her before acquiring this book, for free, when the town library (which had received it as an unwanted donation) passed it on to me. I had the vague impression that she was cantankerous and harsh, and for some reason my mind had her confused with the obnoxious "lady" (actually a man, writing in sardonic gender-disguise) who penned reviews for Premiere. I opened this book on a warm spring day, sitting outside at an outdoor family party ignoring relatives and my parents' friends as I was swept up in a rapidly rising tide of giddiness and sheer elation, hitching a ride to and fro across the breeziest 1,250 pages in history. I'd never encountered anything else like Kael's prose, and I still haven't. Beyond her admirable facility with the English language - a facility that expressed itself in clarity and passion rather than elaboration and polish, there was her ability to cut right to the chase - to write "aloud" what we'd all been thinking, hence justifying that ubiquitous "we" as more than just royal.
How can one possibly do justice to a great writer without the praise coming up noticeably short? Perhaps by quoting her. And so here's Pauline Kael comparing Intolerance to "an enormous, extravagantly printed collection of fairy tales," though she could easily have been speaking of For Keeps: "The book is too thick to handle, too richly imaginative to take in, yet a child who loves stories will know that this is the treasure of treasures."
7. A Biographical Dictionary of Film, by David Thomson
A birthday present which languished on my shelf for years before I fell deeper and deeper into its rabbit holes. Though Thomson's entries on actors are often celebrated and quoted, it was always his synopses of directors, less burdened by long filmographies than the actors, heavier on eloquent, heart-quickening celebrations and haughty, I-damn-three dismissals, which drew my attention. Flipping through the long tome, one is stopped cold, as by a bright light flashing in the inky black, by a name: "Mizoguchi." "Ozu." "Welles." "Ford." "Capra." "Rivette." "Godard." Each entry as unique as the auteur it celebrates...and this book embodies, to me, the Quixotic, deeply romantic notion of auteurism even better than Andrew Sarris' The American Cinema. No book I know of better justifies the conception of film history as a progression of names, each with a distinct personality and an entire unique world waiting to be unveiled. No two directors the same, no two of Thomson's entries the same either. What better tribute could there be - no matter the writer's view of the filmmaker in question?
8. Breaking In: How 20 Film Directors Got Their Start, by Nicholas Jarecki
Of all the books I've read about filmmaking, and about how one becomes a director, this is the one which has really stuck with me. Perhaps because it doesn't dance around the issue at all. The author is a recent NYU graduate, in the throes of angst as he looks around at all his friends who mope through industry jobs and warn him off of ever hoping to become a director. Yet, as he notes in his introduction, there must be some way to do it because, well, it's been done! And so he goes right to the source and discovers, of course, that no two stories are alike and yet, oddly enough, all the stories offer hope for those to whom it seemed, like Jarecki, "that [successful] directors were just 'geniuses' who were discovered one day, usually early in life, and from then on the world was their oyster."
The book is a series of interviews, ranging from respected veterans like John Schlesinger to, well, not-quite-so-respected directors like Brett Ratner to cult figures like James Toback (who so fascinated Jarecki that the young writer went on to shoot a documentary about the filmmaker). Some of the directors were whiz kids who nonetheless had trouble finding their big break, others (like Peter Farelly and his brother) were primarily writers who realized, in a hilariously described panic attack on the eve of their very first shoot, that they didn't even know what a director's job consisted of. All these conversations humanize the filmmakers and open up a walled-off area to those who are curious.
Among other things, the round-about path of John McNaughton, who describes a youth in which he didn't have anything to do with movies before deciding he was finally ready to direct, could explain why I'm sitting here at this computer right now scanning pages from old books instead of hopping around on the street outside, shooting my masterpiece. (I said these books were influential, I did not say for good or ill...)
9. Movies and Methods, edited by Bill Nichols
Though I attended film school, with a focus on production, my four years of college were spent mostly absorbed by music rather than the movies which had led me there in the first place. In 2006, shortly after I graduated I returned to cinephilia with renewed passion and vigor (it's so much more enjoyable when you aren't being forced). And this early 70s anthology served as a crash course in film theory...from first basic precepts to the hairy thickets of semiotics (sample sentence: "In fact iconic signs when combined into semes to form photograms (along a continuous synchronic line) generate concurrently a sort of diachronic depth plane, consisting of a portion of the total movement within the frame."). Even at its densest, there was something liberating and almost mystical about the headlong passion with which these writers tackled their subject. Or as I put it in a recent comment on another blog:
I once found an old, decaying yellow book in my family's garage - an early seventies collection of essays on film (edited by Bill Nichols). Its methods and subjects ranged from old-school historical and montage-centric readings to the passion of the early auteurists to proto-cultural critiques (with a section devoted to relatively nascent feminism) and eventually quite "difficult" semiotic analyses. The fact is, all of this - even the dense stuff at the end of the tome - was fascinating.10. American Movie Critics, edited by Phillip LopateSeveral years later, this book brought me back around from the wilds of theory to the gardens of criticism. I read it this past winter, and though it's a noticeably recent addition to this list, I think it brings things nicely to the present moment. In a way, it's the last of the anthologies for me, since I'm tending to read the originals rather than the excerpts these days. Reading Lopate's collection as I developed my own blogging voice, it opened up a world of criticism stretching from silent-era moonlighters with a facile pen to latter-day hipsters piling cultural commentary upon clever forms, reminding me of the variety of approaches one could take. I have said before that I don't really consider myself a critic, and that's still true. But I am someone who harbors and facilitates a critical sensibility along with a love of movies and a curiosity as to how they are made, all of which have been facilitated by this book and the others in my pantheon.
Even (perhaps especially) while weaving elaborate - and probably untenable - theories about signifiers, spectators, and the structural compounds of film form, the writing was engaging. One could sense a giddy twinkle in the authors' eyes, even as they penned jargon-heavy prose - ever-present was a sense that the cinema, and by extension film theory, was giddy, thrilling (perhaps even mischievous) fun.
Cut to the present day (or thereabouts). A roommate, upon departure from our apartment, offers up his film studies book: assigned reading for a long-finished course. Taking it in my hands, I flip through and encounter writing which is thorough, thoughtful, and dry as dust. I close the book and put it down. Later my roommate throws it away.
Why did this earlier collection hold such greater appeal? Surely there's some unseemly aesthetic pretension at work here - the old book looks like something you'd stumble across at a yard sale or in the corner of a musty used bookstore, while one can imagine the newer text being plunked down on one's desk, with an unimaginative teacher droning, "Read the first section by Thursday." Yet I submit that there really was an energy and a passion present in the earlier hodgepodge of essays, a passion which has been ironed out over decades of taking movies "seriously."
Now it's your turn. There are five people I especially want to tag, but don't think that lets you off the hook - when many bloggers have responded, I intend to compile a master list of all the books celebrated. As for my five, and their own ten:
1. Glenn Kenny, Some Came Running - In the past, he has written eloquently about movie books he buried his nose in as an infant, and I would love to know more about them and how they have shaped his own perceptions and sensibilities. (Here is a long quote from an interview where he discusses his preference for Sarris over Kael).
2. Tony Dayoub, Cinema Viewfinder - In his fairly regular comments on this and other blogs, Tony utilizes a strong sense of history and a passion for context in discussing a given film. I'm curious as to where this information came from; and for whatever reason, I have trouble guessing his favorite books (except, of course, for Guide for the Film Fanatic, which he explicitly mentioned earlier today when responding to my Great Movies post...).
3. Jeremy Richey, Moon in the Gutter - Jeremy's blog is always a treat to look at, and he has a taste for forgotten or even maligned movies. I can only imagine the wild and unpredictable readings which have fed his quests into the mists of movie marginalia and sharpened the perceptions of his roving eye.
4. Shahn, six martinis and the seventh art - Another blogger (recently discovered by me) with eye-catching images and an offbeat sensibility. I have a feeling her top ten would be fascinating.
5. James Hansen, Out 1 - James has a taste for the experimental; does it extend to books? What led him, like me, to that elusive yet enthralling hall of mirrors which lent his blog its name?
And, as promised, here are some more covers and titles worth mentioning:
A fascinating exercise by David Thomson, in which he elaborates on the lives of fictional movie characters by penning full biographies for them, inventing back stories, post-climactic downfalls, ignominious declines. All these stories unfold in an interlocking, noirish universe. This is dangerously close to the sort of thing I've done on my own, and I suspect I'm not the only one...
One of the few movie books in my library written expressly for kids. I recall being deeply impressed by a blurb on Hollywood: "Filmmakers could find locations close to Hollywood to represent the desert of the Wild West, the soaring Alps of Europe, or the gentle hills of England." Accompanied by a picture of one such diverse landscape. Whether this shaped, or merely crystallized, my own sensibility is hard to say.
Not as glib as you would think, given the source. Ty Burr's choices are quite good, and any book (or special edition of a magazine, if you must) which manages to squeeze in both Last of the Mohicans and Celine and Julie Go Boating is OK by me.
One of my first Top 100 list books. This one is not visually lavish - the pictures are in black-and-white, the pages are not glossy - but Norman makes up for splash with a lengthy introduction which chronicles the whole history of film. I'm fairly certain this was the book which introduced me to the concept of the auteur theory.
A thin large-size hardcover with candid black-and-white portraits of all the "American directors" (including Europeans who worked in Hollywood at one point, like Lang and Renoir) whom the photographer could find. It's really remarkable how, at a certain point in the seventies, so many of the pioneers were still living even as the Movie Brats were just emerging on the scene. In fact, this book might be worthy of a follow-up post. Stay tuned. I discovered it in a New York used bookstore on a hung-over Sunday morning many winters ago.
This too was purchased in a used bookstore. For some reason, like a child who asks his parents to tell him the same story every night, many film buffs love to read and re-read the history of the medium. I think it's the small variations - seeing what an author does with the grand narrative, much as one observes an auteur's touches in a genre piece.
Another unique film history. I'm a sucker for these. I almost avoided this one, though, because of the cover, which is one of the worst in the annals of movie books. Now I relish it because of its idiosyncrasy alongside all those dog-eared bindings on my shelf. A good reminder not to judge a book by its cover - Cousins' text is brimming with treasures of world cinema you won't find anywhere else.
There was a time when I followed weekly box-office stats religiously (in my defense, I was twelve years old). Back then, this was a kind of Bible to me. It's still fascinating as a reminder of how rarely the opinion of posterity and short-term popularity cross paths.
A breezy, witty little book in which the author, one Michael Gebert, hops and skips around his all-inclusive awards listings to comment on the worth of a given movie, share Critics Circle gossip, and pick his own winners with 20/20 hindsight. Quite an entertaining read - Gebert was a kind of print blogger, a man before his time (wonder if he blogs now).
Great history of the trilogy, but with particular focus on the first film. In-depth study of an extremely troubled and unhappy shoot which happened to produce a masterpiece.
Another great behind-the-scenes look at a classic, and the best book I've ever read about Golden Age Hollywood film production. The subtitle says it all: "The Miracle of Production #1060." Our knowledge of the film's classic status and everlasting psychological pull creates marvelous frission with Aljean Harmetz' scrupulous research and detailed look at the professionalism of the talents involved, for whom it was just another day on the job.
A marvellous analysis of form and narrative, and the way mainstream filmmaking captures a viewer's attention. Full of storyboards and production details. Two particular storyboards come to mind - the crucial scene in Sophie's Choice (without ever seeing the movie, these drawings greatly disturbed me as a child) and the ending of Notorious (which made it one of my favorite movies, again sight unseen).
Topic after topic, from the horse's mouth: the great directors who paraded themselves before the AFI in the 1970s offer their own perspectives on everything from writing to casting to managing the set to editing. Especially good for the night-and-day contradictions between different directors' approaches, often to be found in the space of a single page.
I finally started reading Sarris a few years ago. The tone of this book, with its serene celebration of a cinematic mysticism, warms me just to think of. It recalls My Dinner With Andre: Wallace Shawn's soliloquey on the joys of a fresh cup of coffee and newspaper in the morning, that wonderful contentment of an intellectual New York life, delivered in response to Andre's (read: Pauline Kael's) rapturous and passionate recounting of a life lived on the edge. Of course, Sarris and Kael could never have shared a dinner table for two minutes, let alone two hours, but we can dream, can't we?
A compendium of Voice columns spanning fifty years. In 2006, I attended a film screening mounted to promote the book. I was immediately struck by how closely each critic corresponded to my imaginings of them. J. Hoberman, looking slightly aloof and knowing, wore glasses and had a Tintinesque tuft of hair rising off his head. Andrew Sarris was short and round, with a mock-grumble and mischievous twinkle in his eye when his erstwhile (and late) rival's name was brought up. Jonas Mekas was scheduled to appear but, true to form, never showed up.
Anyway, the main reason I included this book is because of the inscription within, which is as good a closer as any...
(For a complete list of all the books chosen by bloggers in this exercise, visit The Movie Bookshelf.)
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