Movie Reel and Film

Peter Seth: Books about the movies

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I love books. I love movies. So it’s not surprising that I love books about the movies. The bookshelves around our house are filled with biographies, histories, critical studies, and picture books about the movies. For this blog, I thought I’d run down ten of my favorite movie books. Maybe I’ll turn someone onto something new, but most of my favorites are famous books. And they’re famous for a reason: they’re really good. (If I’ve missed one of your favorites, e-mail me and tell me.)

In no particular order …

THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF FILM by David Thomson – Now in its Sixth Edition, this book is opinionated, maddening, and absolutely indispensable. Named by “Sight and Sound” magazine’s international poll of movie critics as the “Best Movie Book Ever Written,” Thomson’s 1,000+-pager is brilliantly written and a pleasure to read, wherever you open it. You may disagree with Thomson – and I do, constantly (is Julie Christie really “lantern-jawed” and “callow?”) — his love and understanding of movies will make you love and understand movies, all the more.

HITCHCOCK by Francois Truffaut — Two masters of the cinema discuss film in general and the work of one of them in particular. I’ve read through this book a million times. Almost every time I watch a Hitchcock movie, which is pretty often, I consult this book. Truffaut, the humanist, was the perfect interviewer to get the chilly, evasive Hitchcock to open up. As Andrew Sarris (see below) said, “Alfred Hitchcock is the supreme technician of the American cinema,” and I think he’s right. I have learned so much from this book – not just about cinema technique – but story-telling, suspense-building, audience-holding, and character-building. And it’s just fun eavesdropping on an Old Master teaching and showing off for a Young Master.

I understand that there is a revised edition of the book, which I don’t have, where Truffaut covers Hitchcock’s later work – my original edition ends with “Torn Curtain” – so it might be nice to have the full edition that covers “Topaz,” “Frenzy,” and “Family Plot.” But frankly, those aren’t high on my list of great Hitchcocks … outside of an appearance by Barbara Harris.

HOW TO READ A FILM by James Monaco – Another no-brainer choice. If Monaco’s book isn’t taught in every film course in this country, I’d be very surprised. No movie book I’ve ever encountered brings together so much different material: the art of movies, its technology, language, history, and theory. It’s now in its Fourth Edition, which looks filled with a bunch of new goodies. I have an earlier one. This choice is as basic as it gets.

AN EMPIRE OF THEIR OWN by Neil Gabler – I only caught up to this book recently, and what a mistake I made, not reading this one years ago! It’s an essential history of the rise and fall of the studio system in Hollywood. I knew some of this material, but Gabler puts everything in order, showing how and why each studio – Paramount, MGM, Columbia, Warner Brothers, and Universal – developed its own style, according to the personalities of their founders. This book really should be read by anybody who cherishes the movies of the Golden Era of Hollywood.

ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE by William Goldman – This is the famous book by the famous screenwriter (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “All the President’s Men,” “Marathon Man,” “The Princess Bride,” etc.) where he pronounces his famous dictum: “Nobody knows anything.” (Page 39) Later he corrects himself, correctly, saying that he knows that “screenplays are structure,” but that’s another matter. Goldman is a very entertaining writer – duh – and this book is a sweet ride. Goldman also has a terrific, less-well-known book about writing for Broadway called THE SEASON.

ANYTHING by Pauline Kael – Today, when the power of the individual critic is basically gone, replaced by guys living in their parents’ basement and the aggregate scoring of sites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, it is hard to understand the power of Pauline Kael. The great critic Manny Farber once wrote that reading Pauline Kael about the movies was actually better than going to the movies. That’s only a slight exaggeration, considering how voraciously people read “Pauline” in those days. As Quentin Tarantino said, Kael was “as influential as any director was in helping me develop my aesthetic.”

Kael wrote about movies with great gusto and certainty. She ripped into movies with a knife and a fork and the sharpest wit around. OK, John Simon might have been better with the outright insult, but Pauline really knew and felt deeply about movies. She got you excited about what she was writing about, even if she hated the movie in question. (Of course, what people forget these days, and what helped make her great, is that Pauline reviewed for “The New Yorker” for only six months out of the year; the other six-months went to Penelope Gilliatt, no movie slouch either. This gave Pauline six months to rest, recharge, write books, and accumulate venom.)

She created a generation of young critics – “Paulettes” – and exerted an influence beyond film criticism, taking down highfaluting, pretentious “serious” art and elevating what had previously been seen as “low brow” material. I miss reading Pauline, but I think she’d be pretty dispirited about what’s being made these days.

THE PARADE’S GONE BY – Kevin Brownlow’s pioneering study of the pioneers of the silent film era. Based on interviews with the original players, this book is the essential first-book on the silents. It’s nicely illustrated, too.

SEARCHING FOR JOHN FORD by Joseph McBride. — John Ford is probably my favorite movie director. He’s made more films I love than anybody else. And he’s an extremely interesting man. Not a very nice man, with a couple of exceptions, but an exceptional artist. What he achieves in his greatest films – “The Grapes of Wrath,” “How Green Was My Valley,” “My Darling Clementine,” “The Searchers,” Stagecoach,” etc. – is what I strive for as an artist. Simplicity, character, centeredness, essence, the flavor of life. “My name’s John Ford. I make Westerns.” Hah.

(I don’t really read that many biographies, but I’ve read three about Ford. McBride’s is probably the best. I somehow find myself drawn to biographies of unpleasant and/or troubled but highly talented people I admire. Especially, for some reason tormented songwriters. Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, and Stephen Sondheim. Finally, the Saul Bellow biography was so unpleasant that I couldn’t go on with it. Better, by far, to read a Bellow book. As always, trust the art, not the artist.)

ROGER EBERT’S BOOK OF FILM – A big, juicy anthology of the best writing about film by the best writers of all-time. “From Tolstoy to Tarantino” as the cover says, with everyone else in-between, this book doesn’t have an uninteresting selection. And lots of goodies I had somehow never come across, like John Updike on Doris Day. A good gift for some movie buff.

MAKING MOVIES by Sidney Lumet – Lumet had a fabulous career from his first movie “Twelve Angry Men,” made in 1957 when he was twenty-seven. He went on to direct about one movie a year for the next fifty-four years, including such diverse goodies as “Serpico,” “Network,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Murder On the Orient Express,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” etc. And he did it his way: living in New York, rehearsing his casts for two-weeks, etc. I’ve read a lot of books by and about famous directors but I think Lumet’s book was the best on the pure subject of, as the title says, making movies. (The best all-around autobiography by a director is Elia Kazan’s A LIFE, no question, but he has bigger things on his mind than mere movies.)

THE AMERICAN CINEMA by Andrew Sarris – I read through this book so many times when I was young that it fell apart, and I had to reinforce the binding with duct tape. It stayed by my headboard and attracted dust for years. This book is the centerpiece of the “auteur” movement in America. I pored over Sarris’ pungent analyses of the great directors – the “Pantheon” directors, those “Less Than Meets the Eye, those on the “Far Side of Paradise” for hours on end, dreaming. In later years, Sarris admitted that he underestimated Billy Wilder and David Lean, but a lot of criticism is about creating and/or puncturing large reputations. Now I know that it takes more than a great director to make a great film … and here’s where I’d like to wedge in a mention of Richard Corliss’ TALKING PICTURES, which makes the case for the screeenwriter … and it is possible to make a great film without a great director (if the script, casting, etc. are perfect, i.e., “Casablanca”), but I’m still fascinated with the work of the great film directors. Once I wanted to be one. (Check out my baby steps with “Lunch With Louie.”)

(Yes, that’s eleven books. Just checking to see if anyone’s counting. And I could added eleven more.)

Peter Seth

Peter Seth is the author of What It Was Like. You can stay up-to-date on his blog posts at his website.

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On February 6, 2015
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