The Books of Summer

On Film / The Daily — Jun 12, 2018

It’s that time of year when we start thinking about which books we might take with us on vacation, and for film lovers, the selection is vast. A glance at a few select reviews that have appeared so far this season may help seed your list. The titles range from a biography of David Lynch to critical studies of Ernst Lubitsch and Stanley Kubrick to the scholarly work of David Bordwell.

The Times Recommends

The New York Times has put together a whopping “Summer Reading” package, and Ben Dickinson recommends half a dozen titles in the “Movies & TV” section. He begins with Room to Dream, in which critic and journalist Kristine McKenna writes about the life and work of David Lynch, interviewing those who’ve worked with him and/or been married to him. Lynch himself then follows each chapter with his own commentary, and Dickinson finds that the “portrait that emerges is that of a protean talent who has pungently projected the nightmares of his unconscious into his creative work but who is impressively at peace with his personal demons.” At the A.V. Club, though, Sean O'Neal finds that “by the end of it all, Lynch remains elusive, even to himself.”

Among the other books Dickinson writes about are the “definitive” biography Bruce Lee: A Life by Matthew Polly, a Rhodes scholar who studied martial arts at the storied Shaolin Temple in China; Michael Benson’s Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece, the “most rewarding volume of this season’s crop of books about the moving image”; and How Did Lubitsch Do It?, which takes a close look at the work of the master of sophisticated comedy. Author Joseph McBride, who’s written well-received books about Orson Welles, John Ford, Frank Capra, and Steven Spielberg, has set up a site for the book, where you’ll find glowing blurbs from Molly Haskell, Jonathan Lethem, James Naremore, and David Bordwell.

The Prolific Dr. Bordwell

Bordwell, one of those rare scholars who writes lucidly about complex ideas, has just released the second edition of his 1997 book On the History of Film Style, in which he analyzes perspectives from André Bazin, Noël Burch, and others before outlining his own ideas about continuity and change in film style. Bordwell recently delivered a keynote lecture at a conference that’s prompted him to take another look at The Classical Hollywood Cinema, the book he wrote in 1985 with Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson about narrative and cinematic techniques in the studio years. With fresh insight, he considers both the praise and criticism the book has come in for over the years.

In the recent Cinema Issue of the New York Review of Books, Geoffrey O’Brien reviews Bordwell’s “magisterial” Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling, published last October. “Irresistibly drawn to the comparison of examples taken from as wide a field as possible,” O’Brien writes, “Bordwell collects specimens of filmmaking and lays them side by side with the alert eye of a natural historian. His sensitivity to the ways in which filmmaking has changed over time is informed by a feeling for the human element at both ends of the process: as he puts it baldly in Poetics of Cinema [2007], ‘films are made by human beings to provide other people with experiences.’”

Auteur Studies

A number of the season’s new titles offer fresh perspectives on vital filmmakers. In that same issue of the NYRB, programmer and critic James Quandt devotes the bulk of his review of Montage: Life. Politics. Cinema., a collection of writing by the Bengali director Mrinal Sen, to the unjustly neglected films: “His work urgently deserves reappraisal.” And in the current issue, Richard I. Suchenski argues that Stephen Prince’s aim in A Dream of Resistance: The Cinema of Kobayashi Masaki is “to move beyond the reductive political readings that have shaped Kobayashi’s reputation in the West, where he is often treated as an earnestly didactic opponent of authoritarian systems.”

For the Village Voice, Jordan Hoffman reviews Nathan Abrams’s “extraordinarily entertaining” Stanley Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual. “Everything the Bronx-born photographer-turned-auteur made (or even considered making) has, according to Abrams, rich seams of Jewish signifiers if you just know where to drill,” writes Hoffman. “Chapter by chapter, this book is an extended stay in Room Jew-37.”

Adam Nayman, author of It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls, which argues that Paul Verhoeven’s most derided film is actually a masterpiece, will have a new book out in September. The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together will present, as Nayman puts it, “some Grand Unified Theory of Coen-ness.”

Close Reads

Three cult favorites are the focus of new critical studies. Speaking of Verhoeven, Omar Ahmed’s study of RoboCop (1987) takes on the Dutch director’s first American film from a variety of critical angles.

Kier-La Janisse, best known for her 2014 book on female neurosis in horror and exploitation films, House of Psychotic Women, is raising funds to complete Cockfight: Silence, Ritual and the (De)Construction of Masculinity in Monte Hellman’s Cockfighter. The controversial 1974 film about the titular southern subculture stars Warren Oates and the late Harry Dean Stanton.

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the release of another controversial film, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, and at AnOther, we find an excerpt from James Munn’s This Is No Dream: Making Rosemary’s Baby, featuring startling imagery by set photographer Bob Willoughby.

Big Ideas

Two new volumes pull back for the long view. The new issue of Film Quarterly features Nicholas Baer’s conversation with Jennifer Fay about her new book, Inhospitable World: Cinema in the Time of the Anthropocene, in which she argues that cinema is essentially the “aesthetic practice” of our current geological age in which human activity is wreaking havoc on the planet. FQ is also offering free access to the first chapter, a study of Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), and more specifically, the elaborate (and expensive) sequence in which a storm destroys a set stretching a full three blocks, “a simulated environment that is most virtuosic in its unworking.” The chapter is delightfully titled “Buster Keaton’s Climate Change.”

Australian critic Adrian Martin introduces his new collection, Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982-2016: “It is a book of general, transversal reflections, clusters of associations, each time around a different center or theme. It is, as I would like to describe it, a book of threads.

Actors’ Lives

Biographies of on-screen icons are perennial favorites. Quintessential Jack: The Art of Jack Nicholson on Screen, though, is neither a biography nor a chronological walk through the filmography. Even so, Scott Edwards’s book, “though unorthodox, is glorious,” writes Louis J. Wasser for Film International. “It delivers on its subtitle’s promise by presenting a meticulous and elaborate analysis of Jack Nicholson’s film art.”

And finally for now, a podcast (94’27”). Peter Labuza, host of The Cinephiliacs, talks with Dan Callahan not only about his new book, The Art of American Screen Acting, 1912–1960, but also about about his two biographies, Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave and Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman.

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