There's a new meme making the rounds, started at The Dancing Image, and I've been tagged by Tony of Cinema Viewfinder. The idea is to name the books about cinema that have inspired and influenced one's own thinking about films. Here are some of mine, all of them writings that have informed my understanding of cinema and the ways I write about it.
Godard On Godard by Jean-Luc Godard
This book, a compendium of some of Godard's crucial critical writings for Cahiers du cinema and other journals, many of them predating his film career, provides valuable insight into a director who has always viewed filmmaking as an extension of criticism, a point of view that reached its apex in the Histoire(s) du cinema. Godard's writing is often willfully obtuse and dense, and it's sometimes difficult to pick through his web of allusions and punning wordplay to figure out just what he's saying — in other words, it's as challenging and complex as Godard's films. And considering that much of Godard's 60s oeuvre was developed from the foundations of his fascination with Hollywood cinema, this book is virtually essential to a complete understanding of the ideas and background that went into those films. It's also enormously entertaining in its own right, with Godard's signature wit and playfulness every bit as much present in his writing as in his films.
For Keeps by Pauline Kael
Kael is an infamous and controversial critic for a reason, and any collection of her writing will doubtless give most cinephiles as much cause for angry argumentation as for agreement. She was a stubborn critic, and her hardline insistence that she would never go see a movie a second time was evidence of her essential view of cinema as an ephemeral pursuit, experienced in the moment rather than contemplated over time. Even so, she passionately advocated for what she liked in the movies, and argued just as fervently against what she didn't like. More than any of her actual opinions or insights, it's this passion that made her such an important critic, and her reviews are always at least fun to read. She's been of most use to me as a kind of mental sparring partner, someone to argue with, to hone my own critical thinking against her fiercely argued reactions.
Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons by Jonathan Rosenbaum
This collection of Rosenbaum's reviews contains some excellent essays, in-depth considerations of films and filmmakers that take into account the political and social contexts of cinema in addition to aesthetic considerations. But his book is of most value to me as a defense of list-making, and a defense of the ways in which critics and cinemagoers can use lists to enhance and expand their understanding of and exposure to various kinds of films. He gets at the ways in which I've always used such lists, certainly: as guides to film watching, as a way of discovering titles and filmmakers who would otherwise not have been on my radar. And the massive list he provides here is perfect for that purpose, an exhaustive year-by-year summary of the best that cinema has to offer according to one of the artform's better critics. I've been checking items off that list for years, and I expect that Rosenbaum's list will continue to provide me with new things to see for many more years to come.
BFI Modern Classics: Crash by Iain Sinclair
One of the most difficult tasks of criticism is to delve into the details and intricacies of a single film, to focus with single-minded intensity and verve on one film and draw out its meaning through a patient exploration of its nuances. This is exactly what Sinclair does in his admirable and eclectic book on David Cronenberg's Crash, and in the process he ranges even further by incorporating a discussion of the J.G. Ballard novel of the same name on which the film is based. Sinclair, best known for his dense, rambling, essayistic books, proves himself an interesting film critic here, tracing the connections between Cronenberg's film, Ballard's novel, the fascination with real-life car crashes, and all sorts of other pop culture phenomena and works of art. It's a quick read, but it inarguably enriches the film under examination by positioning it in a wider cultural and literary context.
Order of the Exile by Jacques Rivette & various
This website is not a book, but it's the closest thing we have to an English-language collection of writings by and about one of the greatest but most consistently overlooked directors of the French New Wave. This excellent site, curated by Daniel Stuyck and Ross Wilbanks, gathers together the first English translations of some of Rivette's seminal criticism (along with Godard, he was a key critic for Cahiers du cinema) along with interviews and critical essays about most of his films. It's a great resource, and among other things it reveals Rivette as much clearer and more precise in his critical prose than his contemporary Godard; his criticism is insightful and sharp. His tracing of the relationship between drama and comedy in Howard Hawks — doubtless an influence on his own improvisational style — is especially great. Also worth noting, among a treasure trove of rare pieces about Rivette, is a 70s essay by David Ehrenstein about the little-seen masterpieces Duelle and Noroït.
Hitchcock by François Truffaut
One of the things I really love about film books is the ability to trace a filmmaker's oeuvre as I'm exposed to it. Following up a screening with some reading about the film can expand one's understanding of the film, the context in which it was created, and its meanings and aesthetics. Truffaut's seminal book on Hitchcock, a film-by-film interview with Hitch himself, provides the perfect accompaniment for a trawl through Hitchcock's oeuvre. Canny as ever, the director often prefers to tell funny making-of stories and hint at his intentions rather than indulging in deeper analysis, but he nevertheless speaks a great deal about the technical aspects of cinema and his thinking about his own work. Few directors have had the opportunity to contribute to such a thorough and sensitive overview of their entire careers.
As usual, if you're reading this, go ahead and chime in — either here in the comments or at your own blog — with the film books that have influenced and inspired you.