December Books

On Film / The Daily — Dec 18, 2018
Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin on the set of Limelight (1952)

It’s hard to believe that the literary magazine n+1 has already been at it for fourteen years but, vital as ever, it carries on conducting symposia, reporting from the front lines of political battles and theoretical squabbles, and publishing books, all while putting out three issues a year. There’ll be a new one this week, and it features the latest film column from A. S. Hamrah, and as always, it’s written in the form of a string of succinct and incisive reviews of relatively recent releases and repertory screenings. If, for example, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Let the Corpses Tan is “a music video,” as Hamrah suggests, then Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy is “a whole doom-metal opera in poisonous Technicolor, with an album cover depicting a landscape of magenta, indigo, and golden-yellow ruins. The film is like that Bell Witch album that only has one ninety-minute-long track.”

Hamrah has a new book out, one of several cinephiles might consider picking for those quiet, in-between days of this holiday season. The Earth Dies Streaming is a collection of his writing on film from 2002 through just a few months ago, and Christian Lorentzen has rightfully included it on his list of the ten best books of 2018 in New York magazine. Hamrah’s writing on movies is “form-bending, disobedient, saturated with history, and at times deliciously nasty,” writes Lorentzen, and the new book is “a totem to the crucial role of scrutiny in the era of the fanboy and the recapper.” These are precisely the roles Hamrah has consciously avoided slipping into, as he explains in his introduction (freely available in full right here). The moment he saw his name attached to a blurb on a video release, he recalls, “I decided I would try to never include anything in my writing that could be extracted and used for publicity.”

Reviewing The Earth Dies Streaming for the Nation, Max Nelson calls Hamrah “the sharp-tongued, rain-lashed drifter of American movie criticism.” One of Nelson’s favorite essays in the book is “an appreciation of the brilliant critic Manny Farber, who in his late pieces emphasized the need to see movies as part of a historically specific environment and at the same time keep attending to the oddness of their rhythms and texture . . . This is Hamrah’s project, too.” Writing for Metroactive, Richard von Busack adds that Hamrah “practices the kind of acid criticism that divines the difference between gold and iron pyrite.” Talking to Anne Elizabeth Moore in the Chicago Reader, Hamrah says that his “main concern is not being right or wrong. It’s creating a valid description of the film that makes sense for contemporary readers in an unexpected way.”

Reviews

Jordan Mintzer’s Conversations with Darius Khondji gathers in-depth interviews with the renowned cinematographer and shorter talks with a few of the directors he’s worked with, including James Gray and the late Bernardo Bertolucci. Before turning to this impressively designed volume and its subject, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky opens his review for the Notebook with a brief but evocatively written primer on the evolution of cinematography from the 1970s to the present. As for Khondji, Vishnevetsky  argues that his “most consistent gift, as evident in early films like [David Fincher’s] Se7en and [Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s] Delicatessen as in his more recent work with [Michael] Haneke and James Gray, has been for lighting faces—an important point of distinction from his peer, the late Harris Savides, who followed the philosophy of the ’70s master of shadow, Gordon Willis, in placing characters ‘inside the picture.’ Scowling beatific, dirt-seamed, or wrinkled, Khondji’s faces glow.”

Reviewing The Music of Charlie Chaplin for the Atlantic, Tina Hassannia finds that the way author Jim Lochner “fleshes out the behind-the-scenes drama of Chaplin’s scores, his workaholism, and deficiencies (where they existed) can be riveting.” Chaplin worked his collaborators hard, and Hassannia argues that as Lochner recounts how Chaplin wore down a succession of composers and musicians, he “doesn’t contend sufficiently with how such stories (some of which reveal an artist’s ugly sadism) are normalized as a result of society’s positive perceptions of artists’ work and persona.”

Writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books, novelist and screenwriter Dan Wakefield shares a few intimate details of his dalliance with Eve Babitz, an artist and author of several books that draw on her experiences of growing up in Hollywood. “As Lili Anolik, author of the loving and perceptive new book on Babitz, Hollywood’s Eve, reports, I was ‘riding high’ when I met Eve,” writes Wakefield.

As Raquel Stecher emphasizes over and again, Sterling Hayden’s Wars is not a book about the acting career of the man who starred in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954), and Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1954) and Dr. Strangelove (1964). Instead, Lee Mandel’s biography focuses on Hayden’s service during the Second World War, his testimony before the House of Un-American Activities Committee (he’d regret naming names for the rest of his life), his struggles with alcoholism and depression, and ultimately, cancer. Hayden was an expert sailor, “always trying to get back to sea,” as Stecher notes, adding that she can “empathize with his disconnect between the career that paid and the passion that didn’t.”

The English translation of Jackie Chan’s 2015 memoir Never Grow Up has come out this month and, as Mike Cormack observes in the South China Morning Post, it’s both instructive and unusually frank. “He refines a ‘Jackie Chan film’ into a six-point formula,” notes Cormack. Straight from the book: “Common men; improvisa­tion; stunts!; starting with action; exotic setting, and posi­tive values.” At the same time, Chan “admits to gambling and visiting prostitutes as a young stuntman. He opens up about his difficulties being a father. And he reveals how he behaved like a tacky new-money star during his first flush of fame.”

In Lewd Looks: American Sexploitation Cinema in the 1960s, Elena Gorfinkel “effectively reclaims the act of looking itself (and thus gender politics more generally) from its dominant historical tethering to psychoanalysis, turning instead towards a deep, historical analysis (and the texts themselves) to reconceive and reframe the significance of movies from this particular historical moment,” writes Alexandra Heller-Nicholas for Film International.

For Bright Lights, Chris Stanton reviews It’s OK with Me: Hollywood, the 1970s, and the Return of the Private Eye, in which Jason Bailey focuses on the era’s “revisionist noir” in which “the once self-assured PI becomes an anachronism, adhering to an outdated code amid the moral squalor of Nixon’s America . . . For a short book, it covers a lot of ground.”

Interviews

In Making Sex Public and Other Cinematic Fantasies, Damon R. Young “revisits films from the midcentury onward that thematized the relationship between sexuality and liberal democracy,” writes Nicholas Baer, introducing his interview with Young for the new issue of Film Quarterly. Young adds that he’s seeking “to understand the prehistory of the fears and fantasies that animate the contemporary political charge around women’s and queer sexualities, which remain battlegrounds in an ongoing culture war.” And Duke University Press has made the book’s introduction freely accessible.

For the Los Angeles Review of Books, Scott Timberg talks with Peter Biskind about his new one, The Sky Is Falling: How Vampires, Zombies, Androids, and Superheroes Made America Great for Extremism. “My first book, Seeing Is Believing, had been about studio films of the 1950s as delivery vehicles for postwar bipartisan consensus culture,” says Biskind. “It was evident that, since then, mainstream culture had polarized into right and left. I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look.” Biskind’s also a guest on a recent episode of Filmwax Radio.

At the Literary Hub, we can listen to Jodie Foster talking about devouring books as she grew up and about her “favorite book of all time,” J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. And chatting to Dan Callahan about his new novel, That Was Something, for the Paris Review, Ben Shields asks him which was the greater influence, film or literature. “Everything with me is the cinema,” says Callahan. “I live, eat, breathe, fuck the cinema.”

Lists

By this point, nearly every major publication has put together a list of the best books of the year, and Jason Kottke’s gathered links to more of these lists than most of us will likely need or have time for. Here’s a shortcut: at the Literary Hub, Emily Temple has sorted through fifty-two lists from thirty-seven sources, “tallied up their picks, and figured out which individual books were the most often recommended.” Before moving on to the lists of books more directly related to cinema, let’s mention one more provocative feature. The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “New Canon” is a collection of answers from twenty-one scholars to the question, “What’s the most influential book of the past twenty years?”

LUX, an arts agency based in the UK, gathers links to its top artists’ moving image publications of the past year, a collection spotlighting work from figures ranging from Andy Warhol and Jonas Mekas to Barbara Hammer and Mark Rappaport as well as essays by Erika Balsom and contributors to the Evergreen Review.

Art critics for the New York Times have written about their favorite art books of the year, and Jason Farago has included on his list Paul Fonoroff’s “engrossing” and handsomely designed book Chinese Movie Magazines: From Charlie Chaplin to Chairman Mao, 1921–1951. As Fonoroff tells CNN’s Oscar Holland, “in China throughout the ’20s until the mid-’30s, you had covers that are just graphically beautiful.”

The Female Gaze: Essential Movies Made by Women, a collection of essays edited by Alicia Malone, is one of six titles that Leonard Maltin’s included in his latest roundup of new and notable film books. At the Film Stage, Christopher Schobert’s list runs to sixteen titles this month, including Lauren Wilford and Ryan Stevenson’s The Wes Anderson Collection: Isle of Dogs.

And in Vanity Fair, Julia Vitale briefly recommends four movie-related books, beginning with Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes Hollywood by Karina Longworth, a guest on the latest podcast from the Los Angeles Review of Books. Vitale wraps with Sally Field’s memoir, In Pieces, which Sean Smith, writing for the New York Times, calls a “somber, intimate and at times wrenching self-portrait.”

Forthcoming

When Laura Mulvey, the theorist known for her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” was giving a workshop a few weeks ago at Portugal’s Porto/Post/Doc Film Festival, Ela Bittencourt took the opportunity to talk with her for frieze about the book she’s currently working on. Mulvey will revisit the question of women as subjects and agents, “but instead of women visualized by male directors, it’s now women in the films made by women.”

David Bordwell’s announced that a new edition of the e-book he wrote in 2013 with Kristin Thompson, Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages, is in the works, and he adds that “in reworking the book and rewatching the films, I’ve come to extend my admiration for certain projects (The Prestige, Dunkirk) to others, especially Interstellar.

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