Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Writings on Cinema

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Writings on Cinema

I've always meant to talk about this, and thanks to MovieMan0283, of The Dancing Image, now I get my chance. In discussing books that have influenced his exploration of cinema, he tagged me to do the same, saying:
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...).
I post this quote because it speaks to the way I look at all film. If one looks at cinema as art, whether its a crappy flick like Drop Dead Fred (1991) or a shining instance of world cinema like The Conformist (1970), then one must never forget to look at it in context. Art does not exist in a vacuum, and so, neither does cinema. A cinematic work is an expression influenced by the forces extant at the time of its creation. It is always a reaction to the current politics, economy, cinematic movements, or artist's biographical circumstances. Often times, this reaction does not reveal itself to the film's creators. It can even evolve with the passage of time. Hindsight has definitely changed the regard for many a film, and still continues to do so. But it is a rich area for those of us who "read" films to mine. So in perusing the documents that I've chosen - because they have held the greatest sway over the way I look at movies - consider that all of these have something to offer in the way of contextualizing cinema. Guide for the Film Fanatic by Danny Peary (1986) - This is the book that never leaves my side. Better known for his Cult Movies book series, Peary is into sports writing now (he is a writer-researcher for The Tim McCarver Show), but I just found some recent film-related posts by him at Brink. Film Fanatic has a bit of a cult following around the intertubes, and with good reason. Peary's concise reviews are illuminating in a scholarly way while excising the pretentious language that readers often get mired in when reading a journal. His often quirky takes on well-dissected classics may sound eccentric at first, but he is usually able to back up his claims with some persuasive points. Here's his take on Taxi Driver (1976):
Film is a reworking of John Ford's The Searchers, with De Niro assuming John Wayne's Ethan Edwards role. Again we have a war veteran, a social misfit, an outcast, who is obsessed with rescuing a young girl (after failing to rescue a young woman) from her long-haired lover - although she is happy where she is - in order to purify his own soul (on the pretext of purifying the girl's soul). Like Ethan, he was on the non-victorious side in what he believes was a war of liberation. That's why they are so fanatical about liberating young girls from foreign camps.
And his humor can be devastatingly acute, evident in his very positive - yet mildly sarcastic - review for The Terminator (1984):
Still, the film has appeal to the soldier-of-fortune crowd and guys who like to crush beer cans on their head. They consider the Terminator their (fascist) hero, enjoy the spectacular gunplay, and are aware that the film is punctuated by pain.
Peary's best quality is to treat all films democratically. Be they the cult films he specializes in (Pink Flamingos), porn flicks (Deep Throat), or canonical cinema (Citizen Kane), all merit a slot in his book - which covers over 1600 titles. Film Comment (1990-2000) - Though I still pick up the occasional copy (the latest one has a great piece on Jarmusch's The Limits of Control by Kent Jones), the high point in this journal's lifetime is the 10 years in which Richard T. Jameson was the editor. Published by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the issue pictured above (July-August 1991) is a great example of the quantity of greatness one could find in each square inch of this seminal magazine. Here's a short rundown of some of the stories found in this issue's pages: An analysis of Delusion (1991) by Donald Lyons; a tribute to Billy Wilder by Andrew Sarris; an exploration of Graham Greene by David Thomson; a Brando appreciation by Richard Schickel; Nestor Almendros on Sergei Eisenstein; Scanners' Jim Emerson on Hanna Schygulla. And I only randomly picked this issue up from my basement. Under Jameson's watch, the magazine's annual roundup of the best films and notable performances (as put forth by numerous critics polled) was frequently upstaged by "Moments Out of Time," a roundup of the best cinematic moments of the previous year, by Jameson and Kathleen Murphy (both now contribute to Parallax View) which they now publish over at MSN Movies. The 100 Best Films to Rent You've Never Heard Of by David N. Meyer (1997) - Well, the title may be a bit of an overstatement if you are a serious film buff. The style in which the book is presented, in which each film is sub-categorized by attitude and mood, is a little too EW for me (Meyer, in fact, did write for Entertainment Weekly). But the films recommended in this book are spot-on in terms of their cult appeal. From foreign classics like Godard's Contempt (1963) to American neo-noir like Mann's Thief (1981), his choices run the gamut of cinematic genres. And he focuses on details others miss, as when he discusses the latter film, "Caan's thief is as American as can be: He distrusts language, derives his identity from his work, and has a chip on his shoulder the size of Mount Rushmore." Currently Meyer posts film reviews at The Brooklyn Rail. Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman (1983) - Academy Award-winning screenwriter Goldman describes how one should approach screenplays:
I write screenplays to be read. So does Jo Jo, The Dog Face Boy, obviously. What I mean is that, from the very beginning, I've tried to make my screenplays reading experiences, much like a book or play. So I don't mess around much with intricate camera instructions. (At least i don't think I do. I talked to a star once who said, "You goddam screenwriters - putting in all that camera crap - trying to direct the picture is all you're doing. I hate all that camera crap. Just put down the words, I'll do the rest." I later had occasion to read a screenplay this star had done. It was so full of "camera crap" you could throw up.)
Goldman's sage advice, dishy anecdotes, and practical writing instruction merge to form a helluva read. And makes you long for the days when screenwriters were actually conversant with the English language rather than just spitting out reconstituted scenes from films they have watched. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind (1998) - Did I say Goldman was dishy? Biskind, a former executive editor at Premiere and former editor in chief of American Film, offers more gossip in one page than Goldman does over the course of his entire book. Some may have a problem with this, but I find it relevant to establishing the evolving mores of the time while covering the close camaraderie of the film school generation:
Brian [De Palma] brought his friends over, and others came as well. On any given weekend, [Actress Jennifer] Salt found herself cooking for De Palma, [Steven] Spielberg, [Peter] Boyle, [screenwriter Jacob] Brackman, John Milius, Richard Dreyfuss, director Walter Hill, Bruce Dern, writer David Ward, and so on. Even [Bob] Rafelson occasionally came to the beach. They grilled steaks, ate spaghetti, tossed salads. Recalls Salt, "I was always thinking, Should it be chili and the three-bean salad and the cheesecake, or should we barbecue chicken - Oh, Steven doesn't like it when I cut up zucchini in the salad, Marty [Scorsese] likes the chili - that was where I was at. I cooked for these boys, gave lots of parties, made them take drugs and take their pants off and get down." Adds [Margot] Kidder, "The reality was that we always got the drugs and we always got the food and we basically served our guys, the whole time putting down the notion that we as women would do that. There was a real contradiction in what we perceived ourselves to be doing and what in fact we were doing."
Enlightening and gripping, Easy Riders brings the seventies American film movement into focus by revealing how the changing times left their mark on the new Hollywood. Pictures at a Revolution by Mark Harris (2008) - In the age of "New Media," where trained journalists are losing ground to many of my fellow bloggers - some of who are quick to print unsubstantiated rumors - EW writer Mark Harris' book stands as a paean to the rewards of good research. His meticulously footnoted volume looks at the beginning of the New Hollywood through the prism of the Best Picture-nominated films of 1967, the year in which many say the release of Bonnie and Clyde launched "the seventies" if not literally, then in spirit. Here, Harris sets the record straight on Pauline Kael's "discovery" of the film:
Kael's statement that "the whole point of Bonnie and Clyde is to rub our noses in it, to make us pay our dues for laughing," her understanding that "we don't take our stories straight anymore - Bonnie and Clyde is the first film demonstration that the put-on can be used for the purposes of art," and her awareness of the "eager, nervous imbalance" in which the movie intended to hold its audience all seemed uncannily in synch with the intentions of Robert Benton and David Newman. It was no accident. Though she didn't disclose it in the piece, she had taken the screenwriters out to lunch before writing her essay and gotten an earful of their motives, their admiration for the French New Wave, and their storytelling strategy. Her remark that "though one cannot say of Bonnie and Clyde to what degree it shows the work of Newman and Benton... there are ways of making guesses" was deeply disingenuous but very much in line with her pooh-poohing of "the new notion that direction is everything." Unsurprisingly, she made it clear that she didn't see the movie as Arthur Penn's accomplishment, although she praised him for the staging and editing of the dance-of-death sequence, which she called "a horror that seems to go on for eternity, and yet... doesn't last a second beyond what it should."
Pictures at a Revolution is a great book to read before you move on to Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Catching the Big Fish by David Lynch (2006) - Here we get a glimpse into the artistic mind, from a film director whose very impenetrability seems to be part of his allure. Through his exploration of transcendental meditation, and the effects it has had on his own creativity, Lynch reveals tidbits of interest to any of his longtime admirers. On his first film:
Eraserhead is my most spiritual movie. No one understands when I say that, but it is. Eraserhead was growing in a certain way, and I didn't know what it meant. I was looking for a key to unlock what these sequences were saying. Of course, I understood some of it; but I didn't know the thing that just pulled it all together. And it was a struggle. So I got out my Bible and I started reading. And one day, I read a sentence. And I closed the Bible, because that was it; that was it. And then I saw the thing as a whole. And it fulfilled this vision for me, 100 percent. I don't think I'll ever say what that sentence was.
Well the guy has to preserve some of his mystery. But who knew the Bible had ANY influence on Eraserhead. A quick read, this seeming trifle ends up being deeper than it looks. Anyone can join in with their own lists, either on their own sites or the comments section. Please link to myself and The Dancing Image if you follow up with a list at your own site. I would like to tag the following folks: Campaspe the Self-Styled Siren who, in all honesty, I'm most excited about if only to find out where she gets so many of her wonderful Old Hollywood anecdotes from. Ed Howard at Only the Cinema. Ed is a prolific writer, and I'm willing to bet, an avid reader. Fletch at Blog Cabins, because I can never predict what his reaction to a movie will be. Sometimes it's right in line with mine. Other times he is on the opposite side of the spectrum. Jon Lanthier at The Lanthier Powerstrip, whose eclectic tastes and articulate form of expressing himself always lures this writer to his site. T.S. at Screen Savour, a silent movie and Hitchcock devotee that has an astute sense of what goes into great cinema, regardless of genre or era.

7 comments:

Brandon Colvin said...

I would choose the following books for my personal list:

NOTES ON THE CINEMATOGRAPHER by Robert Bresson

MOVIE JOURNAL: THE RISE OF THE NEW AMERICAN CINEMA 1959-1971 by Jonas Mekas

FILM THEORY AND CRITICISM edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen

LYNCH ON LYNCH by Chris Rodley

And David Bordwell, just generally, but especially POETICS OF CINEMA.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for tagging me, Tony, you have some good choices here. I've posted my own list now, as well.

Fletch said...

Tony,

I'm flattered that you'd choose me, and like your reasoning (never good to be predictable, right?), but I'm afraid the tag is pretty much wasted on me. Although I'm a devourer of film (and writings on film), the number of books I've read on the subject could probably be counted on one hand. My experience in the matter is usually limited to either magazines (alas, Premiere) or critical writings on pop culture in general (a la Chuck Klosterman), but outside of scholastic reading, I can't think of much else.

Though with this meme, I'll surely be given plenty of good options to choose from. Thanks.

MovieMan0283 said...

I loved reading this post, Tony. What I love about this is that everybody's list seems to be different from mine, yet I recognize and admire a lot of the titles. And you can always (I say always even though a few people have done their lists so far, though it seems to be taking off pretty quickly) see the blogger reflected in his/her choices, which I love.

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls
I have not read this whole book though I've read it in bits and pieces over on bookstore visits. I love (and own) the movie of this - what did you think of it? I've heard a few people, in praising the movie, put down the book, saying they like the movie better since it's less gossipy. But, as often happens, I've watched the deleted or extra scenes on the DVD and gotten them mixed up with what's in the movie in my memories, so by my recollection it's still pretty gossipy.

Pictures at the Revolution. Loved this book. At one point I considered including it on my list though I ended up (except for the monster movie series) only including books which I had on my bookshelf. But this one was really great, one of the best historical film books I've ever read. It's a great conceit and, better yet, marvelously executed.

Catching the Big Fish
Another one I read on bookstore excursions, though this time I managed to get through the whole book that way. Fascinating, as you allude to. I love that, even as he's disclosing his secrets, Lynch leaves behind more mysteries than he solves. Though I'd really like to know what the Biblical verse was...



Brandon,

No such thing as "would." Put up your list!

Tony Dayoub said...

Brandon,

I almost put up Lynch on Lynch, but for me, it didn't shape the way I see film holistically as much as it shapes how I see Lynch's work in specific. The Lynch book I did put up touches on aspects of filmmaking and the world outside of his Lynchverse. Still Rodley's book is one I recommend to any cinephile.

Ed,

Thanks for your quick response. I don't know how you turn these pieces out so quickly. This one kicked my ass for 2 days. But I also had my wife and 2 kids at home, and helped my sister-in-law move this weekend. I look forward to reading your list, and will comment at your site.

Fletch,

Magazines and indeed any writings are allowed in this meme. Film Comment wasn't listed second on my list by accident. But gathering my thoughts on these books was a bit daunting I must admit.

MovieMan,

Curse you. This turned out to be much more difficult than I thought after I first jumped into it. What I was hoping would be a breezy jaunt down memory lane became an effort to show the proper respect and deference to each of these writers, who I admire as much for their ability to express themselves as I do for the content.

Regarding each book you mention:

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: Gossip can sometimes illuminate. Biskind seems to like it too much, but this was an informative book nonetheless, and I say this as someone well-versed on Seventies American film.

Pictures at a Revolution: what impresses me is how much he is able to inform us about the collapse of the studio system, the birth of the film school generation of filmmakers, and the shift in censorship practices even though he maintains a narrow focus, concentrating strictly on five films nominated for Best Picture in 1967.

Catching the Big Fish: I actually have 2 copies of this book. One that I bought upon its release, and the other was given to me by Mr. Lynch himself, autographed during an appearance he made last year in New York when I happened to be there covering Tribeca. He was speaking about Transcendental Meditation at a lecture, and was very self-effacing. I'll post a picture I took with him above, that sadly came out pretty blurry (I could lie and say it was meant to evoke a Lynchian feel).

J.D. said...

Good call on FILM COMMENT during those years. I loved the mag back then as well, esp. their in-depth interviews with Tim Burton and Quentin Tarantino for ED WOOD and PULP FICTION, respectively. Another great article from that time period is the piece they did on BARTON FINK including a Coen Bros. A to Z, which still holds up.

Dean Treadway said...

Gosh, what a good list. I wish I would have thought of the last decade of Film Comment...that's certainly some terrific film writing! Makes me wanna go back and revise my list. I really wanna get that Lynch book--it seems really concise and heartfelt. Oh, and thanks for the update on what Peary is doing these days. It was a mystery for me, until now. Great stuff!