November Books

On Film / The Daily — Nov 11, 2019
Milicent Patrick and her Creature from the Black Lagoon

The past few years have seen welcome recognition of the contributions of such filmmakers as Alice Guy-Blaché and Lois Weber to the early rise of cinema as both an industry and an art. But the vital roles that women continued to play during Hollywood’s golden age, those mid-twentieth-century decades following the advent of the talkies, continues to be overlooked. We begin this month’s round of new and notable titles with a piece in the New Yorker on four recently published books in which Margaret Talbot argues that “there is a cost to such forgetting. Without a history, there seemed to be less of a future.”

In Nobody’s Girl Friday: The Women Who Ran Hollywood, film historian J. E. Smyth “tots up an impressive array of women film editors, costume designers, talent agents, screenwriters, producers, Hollywood union heads, and behind-the-scenes machers whose titles—executive secretary to a studio head, for instance—belied their influence,” writes Talbot. “It’s little wonder that studios of the era catered to female audiences, with scripts built around the commanding presence of such actresses as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and with stories thought to reflect women’s prevailing concerns.” Talbot finds Mallory O’Meara’s The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick, a book about the woman who designed “the memorable fish man” in the 3D monster movie Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), to be “an intermittently entertaining and exhausting work about rediscovering the stylish life and scary art of its heroine.”

In her passages on Nathalia Holt’s The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History and Mindy Johnson’s Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation, Talbot notes that in the 1930s and ’40s, Disney “seems to have been a fairly rewarding place for women to work.” And she quotes Disney himself: “The girl artists have the right to expect the same chances for advancement as men, and I honestly believe that they may eventually contribute something to this business that men never would or could.”

Hollywood Men

The Los Angeles TimesSusan King talks with Tom Sturges, who has cowritten Preston Sturges: The Last Years of Hollywood’s First Writer-Director with Nick Smedley. Tom Sturges last saw his father when he was one year old. “I imagined that he would have been a great dad and loving guy,” he tells King. “We would’ve sailed boats and played baseball and all that stuff. As I got to find out who he was, that probably wasn’t going to happen.” Following the astounding string of critical and commercial successes at Paramount in the early 1940s, Preston Sturges set out on his own and made four flops. “Although Preston Sturges makes a significant contribution to film scholarship, its downbeat portrait of a self-saboteur can be hard to take,” writes Dennis Drabelle in the Washington Post. But in his conversation with King, Tom Sturges chooses to accentuate the positive. While his father was hardly a feminist in his own life, the female characters he created were. “If you look at the roles he gave to these women—Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve and Remember the Night, Jean Arthur in Easy Living, Claudette Colbert in The Palm Beach Story—these are woman who have taken control and made it their own,” he says. “Whether they are making millions or swindling somebody or whatever, they are smart, funny, and sexy women.”

For the Washington Post, Michael F. Covino reviews William J. Mann’s The Contender: The Story of Marlon Brando, “a big, sprawling, meticulously researched and, for the most part, compelling biography that tells us everything we ever wanted to know about the man and then some. Brando lived a messy life, so maybe it’s appropriate that his biography is somewhat messy, too.”

Noir and Neo-noir

In the latest issue of Film Criticism, Annie Berke recommends Jans Wager’s Jazz and Cocktails: Rethinking Race and the Sound of Film Noir, which offers close readings of such films as Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (1958), and Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959). “While the idea that film noir represses racial tension and anxiety is not new,” writes Berke, “Wager’s approach to making subtext text through the study of sound is where this monograph shines.”

Sam Wasson, the author of books about Blake Edwards and Bob Fosse who has written for us most recently about Robert Altman’s The Player and Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, will have a new book out in February, The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood. The cast of characters in this tale of the making of an American classic includes not only director Roman Polanski and stars Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway but also screenwriter Robert Towne and the late producer Robert Evans.

Essays and Arguments

On Cinema, the first English-language collection of film criticism by Glauber Rocha, a key figure in Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement during the 1960s and ’70s, is “a delirious memoir of the golden era of arthouse film distribution,” writes Steve Macfarlane in the Brooklyn Rail, “but it also bombards the reader with breathtaking manifestos from one page to the next.”

Tony Conrad: Writings, a collection of essays by the late artist, filmmaker, and composer, is “a heady read—as eccentric, cerebral, quick-witted, and occasionally baffling as its creator,” writes Geeta Dayal for 4Columns. “The book encompasses everything from Conrad’s theories on art and music to abstruse mathematical equations, anti-establishment treatises, hilarious asides, and voluminous notes on the development of his own work.”

Bill Krohn, who has been the Los Angeles correspondent for Cahiers du cinéma since the late 1970s, will have a new collection out in March, Letters from Hollywood: 1977–2017. Blurbing the book for SUNY Press, Adrian Martin writes that it “offers one of the very best examples I have ever encountered of a fertile space intermixing popular-journalistic and intellectual-critical modes of writing about and analyzing cinema.”

Each time we rewatch Casablanca, “we can accept that characters have changes of mood, morality, and psychology from one moment to the next, that conspirators cough to break off their talk when a spy approaches, and that ladies of the night weep on hearing ‘La Marseillaise,’” writes Umberto Eco in “The Cult of the Imperfect,” an essay up at the Paris Review from the new posthumous collection, On the Shoulders of Giants. “When all the archetypes shamelessly burst in, we plumb Homeric depths. Two clichés are laughable. A hundred clichés are affecting—because we become obscurely aware that the clichés are talking to one another and holding a get-together. As the height of suffering meets sensuality, and the height of depravity verges on mystical energy, the height of banality lets us glimpse a hint of the sublime.”

Laura Mulvey’s “ideas of the male gaze, the woman as spectacle, the destruction of pleasure, and ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ remain omnipresent,” writes Lucy Bolton for Viewfinder Magazine. Mulvey’s new book, Afterimages: On Cinema, Women and Changing Times, is “a frank, personal, and critically adroit work, which reinvigorates many of the questions with which she was concerned and demonstrates how films—even those that have received the most critical attention—continue to challenge, reveal and provoke.”

On the latest episode of The Cinephiliacs, Peter Labuza talks with Racquel Gates about her book, Double Negative: The Black Image and Popular Culture. “Designations of positive versus negative with regard to representations of blackness and black people can be frustrating,” writes Gates in her introduction. “At their worst, to invoke these categories uncritically reinforces racist ideologies that use discourses of black exceptionalism to further marginalize black behaviors and people that deviate from white, middle-class, heterosexual norms.”

Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow (2017) “aestheticizes the refugee crisis,” argues Curtis White in an excerpt from Living in a World that Can’t Be Fixed up at Literary Hub. In Faces Places (2017), on the other hand, Agnès Varda and JR “enact compassion and solidarity. They are one with their subjects.” Their film is “art engagée, as Sartre put it. Its pleasures are transformational. It creates a powerful sense of the Ought, without which no revolution can begin.”

Of all the films in a language other than English released in the U.S. this year, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite has come out on top at the box office. Bong’s Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000) and Memories of Murder (2003) will be screening in New York as part Relentless Invention: New Korean Cinema, 1996–2003, a series running at Film at Lincoln Center from November 22 through December 4. In his new book on South Korean films made in the immediate wake of the country’s credit and currency crisis and the International Monetary Fund’s bailout in 1997, Joseph Jonghyun Jeon devotes chapters to Memories, Bong’s The Host (2006), Jeong Jae-eun’s Take Care of My Cat (2001), and Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003). Reviewing Vicious Circuits: Korea’s IMF Cinema and the End of the American Century for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Chang-Min Yu notes that Jeon addresses “how a film works out the relation between node and network in terms of economics and historiography” and “how cinema consciously interrogates the rupture in the fabric of a society.” Yu finds that “the seamless transitions between personal and imperial, material and ideological, are what makes Jeon’s critique truly dazzling; he has mastered the art of scalar leaps and dives.”

Notes and Memories

The first volume of On the Back of Our Images gathers entries from the diary Luc Dardenne kept from 1992 through 2005 along with his and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s screenplays for The Son (2002), The Child (2005), and Lorna’s Silence (2008). The Talkhouse has posted a selection of entries stretching from late August 1995 to late April 1996, written as the brothers were making La promesse (1996). “We’re coming to realize just how much the failure of Je pense à vous [I’m Thinking of You, 1992] was a blessing,” writes Dardenne. “If not for that, we would never have experienced the loneliness that allowed us to ask the single question that contained all the others: Where to position the camera? Which is to say: What am I showing? Which is to say: What am I hiding? Hiding is clearly the most essential thing.”

Reviewing Daniella Shreir’s translation of Chantal Akerman’s memoir My Mother Laughs for the Guardian, Lauren Elkin notes that, in her introduction, Eileen Myles calls the book a “sneeze.” “I would say that it’s more like a sneeze that never arrives, the sort that lingers, unbearably feathering your sinuses, until it clears,” writes Elkin. “Akerman says she experiences the same kind of frustration in writing; it is never the catharsis she wants it to be; she is never happy with the results. ‘I read through everything I wrote and I feel very disappointed. But what can I do. I wrote it. It’s there.’”

Scenarios III collects Werner Herzog’s screenplays for Stroszek (1977); Nosferatu, Phantom of the Night (1979); Where the Green Ants Dream (1984); and Cobra Verde (1987). Another Man has Krishna Winston’s translation of Herzog’s character descriptions for Stroszek. “You can tell from looking at him how often Bruno’s been beaten,” he writes of Bruno S., who plays the title character, “and it’s also clear he has spent years behind bars. He has the look of an abused animal. But behind this exterior lurks a person of deep feeling, as you can tell when he paints or fools around on the piano.”

Next year will see the publication of Carole Viers-Andronico’s translation of I Appeared to the Madonna, the first in a series of three separate volumes of writing by Carmelo Bene, the actor, poet, and filmmaker who collaborated with Pier Paolo Pasolini and Gilles Deleuze. Contra Mundum Press calls the book “less factual autobiography and more autobiographical poem.”

And a Novel

After Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger amicably dissolved their partnership in 1957, Pressburger, the Hungarian émigré who had worked as a screenwriter in Germany before fleeing from the Nazis to London by way of Paris, began writing novels. His first, Killing a Mouse on a Sunday (1961), was a modest success, but his second, The Glass Pearls (1966), the story of a Nazi war criminal hiding in plain sight in London, all but immediately disappeared upon publication. Writing for the Paris Review, Lucy Scholes argues that The Glass Pearls, reissued in 2015, “deserves to be recognized both for its own virtuosity, and as an important addition to the genre of Holocaust literature. Indeed, I’d go as far as to declare it a master class in rendering the banality of evil. In the same way that the brilliance of Powell and Pressburger’s very best films wasn’t recognized until the seventies, when critics like Ian Christie and filmmakers like Martin Scorsese began to champion the work, the audiences of the mid-’60s simply weren’t ready for the disturbing complexity of The Glass Pearls.

For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.