Books: Shelley, Wenders, and More

The Daily — Feb 5, 2018

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, the occasion for Jill Lepore’s outstanding piece in this week’s New Yorker:

Frankenstein is four stories in one: an allegory, a fable, an epistolary novel, and an autobiography, a chaos of literary fertility that left its very young author at pains to explain her “hideous progeny.” In the introduction she wrote for a revised edition in 1831, she took up the humiliating question “How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea” and made up a story in which she virtually erased herself as an author, insisting that the story had come to her in a dream (“I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision,—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together”) and that writing it consisted of “making only a transcript” of that dream. A century later, when a lurching, grunting Boris Karloff played the creature in Universal Pictures’s brilliant 1931 production of Frankenstein, directed by James Whale, the monster—prodigiously eloquent, learned, and persuasive in the novel—was no longer merely nameless but all but speechless, too, as if what Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley had to say was too radical to be heard, an agony unutterable.

A bit further in, Lepore argues that an “enduring condescension, the idea of the author as a vessel for the ideas of other people—a fiction in which the author participated, so as to avoid the scandal of her own brain—goes some way to explaining why Frankenstein has accreted so many wildly different and irreconcilable readings and restagings in the two centuries since its publication.”

More Books

For the Guardian, P. D. Smith reviews Wim Wenders’s new collection of essays, The Pixels of Paul Cézanne: And Reflections on Other Artists: “Many of the essays explore the German director’s filmic influences. Wenders confesses that ‘I bawled my eyes out’ after watching Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers. He describes Blow-Up by Michelangelo Antonioni as ‘one of the great modern classics,’ and in a moving piece recalls the director’s death on the same day as Bergman’s. Douglas Sirk is ‘the Dante of soap operas’ and Samuel Fuller ‘the greatest storyteller I ever met.’ A heartfelt essay celebrates the westerns of Anthony Mann, such as Man of the West, which convinced Wenders to give up art and turn to filmmaking in the 1960s: ‘They opened up a new world for me.’”

And by the way, the exhibition Instant Stories. Wim Wenders’ Polaroids is on view at the Photographers’ Gallery in London through Sunday. Sara Semic for AnOther: “Much like his peripatetic, Polaroid-obsessed protagonist in Alice in the Cities (1974), Wenders’s love for the Polaroid form stems from his early twenties, when he was exploring the medium while still fine-tuning his craft in film-making. From the age of around twenty to thirty-five, Wenders used the polaroid camera almost exclusively, treating it like a visual notebook and way of playfully testing out frames and ideas, which is felt in the images’ raw, unstudied quality. But it was also a way of taking a one-of-a-kind picture that was ‘not multipliable, not repeatable,’ as Wenders comments.”

The French Cinema Book, a survey ranging from the 1890s through the 2010s edited by Michael Temple and Michael Witt, first appeared in 2004. Now a revised and greatly expanded edition has just come out with contributions from Nicole Brenez, Noël Burch and Geneviève Sellier, Ian Christie, Jean-Michel Frodon, Ginette Vincendeau, and many, many others.

More bookish news: Andrew Davies, who’s adapted Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, and yes, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, is set to take on John Updike’s four novels about Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, reports Peter White for Deadline. Rabbit, Run appeared in 1960, followed by Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1990). Revisiting the novels in 2009, Julian Barnes wrote in the Guardian: “Any future historian wanting to understand the texture, smell, feel and meaning of bluey-white-collar life in ordinary America between the 1950s and the 1990s will need little more than the Rabbit quartet. But that implies only sociological rather than artistic virtue. So let’s just repeat: still the greatest postwar American novel.”

“Dave Kehr, who began his critical career in the 1970s, wrote extended, considered pieces, often of a few thousand words, about how movies move, how essential elements of directorial and design craft conveyed not only an author’s voice in the classical American studio system, but also a reflection of a larger culture, and even the world at large,” writes Ray Pride in Newcity. “Those pieces came and came again from 1975 and into the eighties, taken for granted weekly as part of Chicago’s vital sea of cinephilia. . . . That storehouse of phantom essays was tapped for 2011’s When Movies Mattered, and now in Movies That Mattered, Kehr’s second assemblage of pieces from the Chicago Reader between 1974 and 1986 (and latterly in Chicago magazine). Clarity is the abiding virtue.”

For the New York Times, John Williams talks with Isaac Butler and Dan Kois about The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America, their oral history of Tony Kushner’s landmark play. “Both of us, in our late teens or early 20s, came out of Angels in America transformed politically and artistically,” says Kois. Butler: “I think if you’re trying to figure out how to weave together 250 people’s different memories, and arrange them, there’s no better model than Errol Morris’s filmography. We almost found ourselves asking: ‘What would Errol Morris do?’” Happy seventieth, Mr. Morris.

I somehow missed Kimberly Lindbergs’s annotated list of “Favorite Film Books of 2017” at the end of last year. Among the titles she writes about are Tom Mes’s Unchained Melody: The Films of Meiko Kaji, Naum Kleiman’s Eisenstein on Paper: Graphic Works by the Master of Film; Roberto Curti’s Italian Gothic Horror Films, 1970-1979, Steve Massa’s Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy, and Rebecca J. DeRoo’s Agnès Varda between Film Photography and Art.

José Arroyo recommends Allan R. Ellenberger’s Miriam Hopkins: Life and Films of a Hollywood Rebel: “If Ryan Murphy wants to do a prequel to Feud this would provide very good material.”

During the period covered in Hungarian Film 1929-1947: National Identity, Anti-Semitism, and Popular Cinema, “the narrative of Hungarian victimhood attained the force of a national cult,” writes Gábor Gergely. Reviewing the book for Film International, Robert Buckeye considers five films the book covers as examples.

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