Sunday, May 31, 2009

My Favorite Books on Cinema

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.


Al said...

I just ordered the Rosenbaum book on your recommendation. Great post, Ed.

Some books I've enjoyed immensely:

Tarkovsky's SCULPTING IN TIME. I've found myself lingering on words from this book much as I have his images.

EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS (Biskind). Pure medicine for the American 70's movie junkie and a guilty pleasure of mine.

Joel Bocko said...

Wow...great stuff here.

As I said on Tony's blog, what I love about this list, perhaps more than any other I've seen, is that you can completely see the bloggers reflected in their choices. I had For Keeps on my list too, but I have only (at best) browsed your other choices.

Your point about Rosenbaum is an excellent one. Too often, critics and movie buffs, especially the more offbeat, hipper ones (a school in which I think Rosenbaum could comfortably swim) dismiss the values of canons or view them as some pernicious overhang of the evils of Western civilization. I think this semi-nihilistic attitude is extremely unfortunate, and have gotten into arguments with friends on the very subject! Canons and lists are by their nature extremely flawed, but they are also inevitable, important, and also, by the way, great fun!

I've had Truffaut/Hitchcock on my shelf but for some reason have not wanted to dive in until I've seen all the movies discussed.

As for the Rivette website, that sounds fantastic. I will have to check it out.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, guys. I agree that this list was a great idea, MovieMan, I'm glad you started this. And your point about canons is exactly how I feel, which is why I was so happy to find someone like Rosenbaum defending the idea of canons as a populist tool and a useful way of thinking about film. I don't always agree with Rosenbaum, but I like that he straddles the line between academia and the mainstream in ways like that.

I also want to add a few honorable mentions I forgot earlier, since I didn't have my bookshelf handy when writing this.

I'm especially remiss in forgetting:
CHROMA by Derek Jarman (not strictly a cinema book but one of the best windows into the mind and aesthetic of a filmmaker, as Jarman explains his thinking about the many associations he has with various colors, their meanings and uses and histories)

David Foster Wallace's essay about David Lynch
The issue of Film-Philosophy dedicated to Claire Denis & Jean-Luc Nancy

Tim said...

Conversations With Woody Allen is beyond essential for me.

Jeremy Nyhuis said...

Along with Rosenbaum's book, I would add Negative Space by the late Manny Farber and The American Cinema by Andrew Sarris as personal favorites as well as essential texts for any cinephile (along with, in certain respects, Sarris's Confessions of a Cultist). The extensive interview with Farber and his partner Patricia Patterson at the end of Negative Space ranks among the most illuminating discussions of cinema I've encountered.

Kent Jones's recently published collection of critical essays, Physical Evidence, is also a must-read. He's one of the best critics working today, IMHO.

Have you read any of James Naremore's books, Ed? I just recently discovered his writing via his wonderful book on Vincente Minnelli, and I've heard that his latest on Stanley Kubrick is quite good.

Marc Raymond said...

Thanks for linking this Ed, it inspired me to come up with a list for my blog. I like your selections, very much in keeping with your writing style. I enjoyed the inclusion of the heretic Kael, even if she never did much for me (a few pieces notwithstanding). I'm curious about the Sinclair book, and thanks for linking the Rivette site, will definitely check it out.

Sam Juliano said...

Hi Ed. A magisterial scholarly lis for certain, and your final choice and the Kael would contend for my own list. The Sinclair book sounds great, although I'll admit (unlike my colleague Allan) I have never been a big fan of that film. But fair enough, many people I greatly respect, including yourself do find it superlative. The Godard and the Rosenbaum are fantastic too, but I'm sorry to say I don't know anything about ORDER OF THE EXILE.
I haven't linked yet, but I'll simply list my favorite 30 choices in no particular order:

A World on Film (Stanley Kauffmann)
Dictionary of Films (French; Georges Sadoul)
The Passion of Ingmar Bergman (Frank Gado)
The Films of Robert Bresson (Amadie)
Agee on Film (james Agree)
The Silent Clowns (Walter Kerr)
On Movies (Dwight MacDonald)
1001 Nights at the Movies (Kael)
Ozu (David Bordwell)
The Japanese Films (Donald Richie)
Chaplin (David Robinson)
Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark (Lucas)
Nine American Film Critics (Pof. Edward Murray)
Ingmar Bergman Directs (John Simon)
Hitchcock's Films Revisited (Robin Wood)
Godard on Godard (Godard)
Hitchcock (Francois Truffaut)
Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror (Siegel)
Fellini the Artist (Murray)
Biographical Dictionary of Film (David Thomson)
American Movie Critics (Phillip Lopate)
Totally, Tenderly Tragically (Lopate)
The Citizen Kane Book (Kael)
The Art of Alfred Hitchcock (Donald Spoto)
Luis Bunuel: My Last Sigh (Bunuel)
The Ingmar Bergman Archives (Paul Duncan)
Confessions of a Cultist (Andrew Sarris)
Ford (Joseph McBride)
Satyajit Ray: An Intimate Master (Santi Das)
Guide For the Film Fanatic (Danny Peary)
Our Gang: The Life and Times of the Little Rascals (Maltin)
Living Images (Kauffmann)
The American Cinema (Sarris)

Of course there are so many more, but the above items must accompany me to my grave, in addition to the Criterion DVD of AU HASARD BALTHAZAR! Ha!
(i see I listed 33. Oh well I cheated again)

Tony Dayoub said...

Great list. I'm very familiar with Truffaut's Hitchcook from college (though I've regrettably lost it). I'm most intrigued by your selection of Rosenbaum's Essential Cinema, and I think I'll purchase it as well.

Derek Jarman is always of interest, and I can't agree more with you on David Foster Wallace's great Lynch essay which I read in Premiere way back when, and reread again after Wallace's death.

I think I'm also going to follow J. Nyhuis' recommendation and purchase the Farber and Jones books.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, all.

J, good recommendations there. I've read a bunch of Farber and I like him a lot as well. I haven't read any Naremore, but I do have his book about film noir on my shelf, since it's supposed to be great. I should read that soon.

Sam & Marc, I'm glad I could point some people towards the Rivette site; I thought everyone into Rivette already knew it but apparently not. Everyone should check out the great work they're doing over there.

Tony, thanks again for tagging me for this, it was fun. The Jarman book is excellent, it's an essential read for anyone who likes his films. As much as I like Farber, though, I might recommend holding off a while. Apparently later this year there's going to be a big book reprinting ALL of Farber's criticism. I never had the famous sampler Negative Space, but I've read a lot of his work anyway, and I think I'll hold off myself and get the complete Farber once it comes out.

Ebrahim Kabir said...

Great List, Ed gonna be ordering some of the books on the list.

Adam Hartzell said...

I've had that monograph of CRASH sitting on my bookshelf for a long time. I think I'll finally get around to reading it based on what you've said here.


Shubhajit said...

There's one book that would wholeheartedly recommend to you - Our Films, Their Films by Satyajit Ray. Ray wasn't just a legendary director, he was also a prolific writer - fiction as well as non-fiction. This book is a collection of various essays that he had written for various journals, newspapers & magazines. The first half (Our Films) deals with his movie-making experiences as well as opinions on a few Indian movies of his times. The second half (Their Films) deals with directors he admired (e.g. Chaplin, Godard, Kurosawa, John Ford, etc.) and their movies - essentially things that made him a cinephile and compelled him to try his hand at direction. Its a wonderful book filled with observations, insights, opinions and tidbits, and written in a lucid and free-flowing style. Do read it if you haven't already.

Also, if you are interested in Ray's movies and/or his various other talents as a novelist, illustrator, composer, screenwriter, critic, etc., you might read any of the two really nice biographies of his - Portrait of a Director by Marie Seton & The Inner Eye by Andrew Robinson. The books, though, deal principally with his cinema, though other aspects of his versatility have also been touched upon.

Expos 1983 Blog said...

great topic Ed!

some of my favourites (running the gamut from hard theory to American Studies to good old fashioned public intellectualism) are:

the Ray Carney troika---American Vision: the films of Frank Capra; The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism and the Movies; AND Speaking the Language of Desire: the Films of Carl Theodore Dreyer

Stanley Cavell-- The World Viewed; Pursuits of Happiness; AND Contesting Tears

Elizabeth Kendall-- The Runaway Bride: Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 1930s (with particularly great stuff on the early Capra-Stanwycks + George Stevens' Alice Adams & Swing Time)

all of Zizek's stuff on Hitchcock and Lynch

Ethan Mordden-- The Hollywood Studios, VERY engagingly written, and (without ever directly engaging the Cahieristas) one of the most persuasive arguments in favour of treating the studios as true auteurs

James Harvey -- Movie Love in the 50s

bill r. said...

If I ever get officially tagged for this, then I'll do it, but I'm not sure I have that many film books that are THAT important to me. I'll have to rummage through my memory and/or library. One thing I know: I haven't read any of the books you list, Ed. Though Truffaut/Hitchcock is very high on my list.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, all.

Ebrahim, hope you enjoy whatever you wind up reading from here.

Adam, I'm glad I could nudge somebody towards the Sinclair Crash book. He's an interesting writer in general, I love his books about London geography, too.

Shubhajit, I have to admit I don't know nearly enough about Ray, but that book sounds utterly fascinating. I'm always interested, especially, to hear what filmmakers think of other filmmakers' work.

Anagramsci, good choices. Zizek is someone I keep meaning to read since I think I'd probably enjoy him. Any recommendations?

Bill, I tagged everyone! So did Marilyn. So you're included. I love reading these lists and seeing what other people have been reading.

Sam Juliano said...

I have gotten some milage over the years with Danny Peary's CULT MOVIES volumes, as well as his ALTERNATE OSCARS. Peary is an effervesent and erudite film fan who sometimes offers a refreshing perspective of the true film fan. Even if you don't always agree with his choices and perspectives he's eminently readable and remarkably informed. When he took the Oscar away from GONE WITH THE WIND and gave it to THE WIZARD OF OZ, you applauded. And he sometimes agreed, as when he rightly upheld the Best Actor win in 1939 for GOODBYE MR. CHIPS in that shortlist of acting masterpieces that included Olivier, Stewart and Gable. His later picks, though were a little more difficult to agree with (like PRETTY POISON for example) but he's a lot of fun.

Dan C. said...

I see in Sam J's list Bergman's Archives, which I'm hoping to find affordably soon. It's precursor, also from Taschen Publishing, The Stanley Kubrick Archives, is magnificent & gorgeous. (The expensive edition comes with a 70 minute Kubrick interview on CD).

Additionally, I'd recommend: Burden of Dreams: screenplay, Journals, Reviews, photographs ; Edward Buscombe's Cinema Today (a beautiful book) ; Gary Crowdus' wonderful inexpensive encyclopedia A Political Companion to American Film ; and for lighter "reading" - any volume you can find of Bruce Hershenson's series The Illustrated History of Movies Through Posters.

Thanks all for the great recommendations - looking forward to finding some of these!