December Books

Anna Magnani in Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City (1945)

We begin this month’s overview of reviews of and excerpts from some of the most notable new books with NeoRealismo: The New Image in Italy 1932–1960, a collection of photographs, film stills, posters, and essays edited by Enrica Viganò. Writing for the London Review of Books, J. Hoberman notes that the movement that arose just as the Second World War was coming to an end “was in some sense a negation of both Fascism and Futurism.” Its “aim was to give a presence to those who had been invisible and a voice to the voiceless: the poor, the dispossessed, the unemployed, peasants, children and ordinary people subjugated by circumstances, political or social, they could not control.”

Neorealism “was further distinguished in being a twentieth-century-ism in which the cinema took a leading role,” Hoberman continues. “The Surrealists were great, if eccentric, cinephiles, but the leading Neorealists—Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti and Vittorio De Sica—were professional filmmakers.” And it was Rossellini’s Rome Open City (1945), “the first movie made after the war to represent the recent Italian past, that planted the flag.”

Philosophical Approaches

With The Philosophical Hitchcock: Vertigo and the Anxieties of Unknowingness, Robert B. Pippin offers “a remarkably lucid, stimulating, and enlightening foray into the aesthetic, philosophical, and moral complexities of Hitchcock’s masterwork,” writes Robert Sinnerbrink for the Los Angeles Review of Books. “Recognized internationally for his work on a ‘non-metaphysical’ approach to German idealist philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, and for his books and essays on the philosophical problems of modernity, modern art, and culture, Pippin brings a philosopher’s eye to the moral dimensions of Hitchcock’s work, and a cinephile’s passion to reflecting on Vertigo’s cinematic achievements.”

For Artforum, Felix Bernstein talks with Masha Tupitsyn about Picture Cycle, a collection of essays in which Tupitsyn “combines criticism, philosophy, and autobiography to create pathways out of our current melancholic replay and media narcissism.” In one of the essays, Tupitsyn notes that in Marie Nyreröd’s documentary Bergman Island (2004), “Ingmar Bergman makes a list of his demons and then reviews each one on camera.” And if we pay attention, we’ll “find a Bergman film for every single of one of his fears. You’ll find a film in every demon and a demon in every film.”


In a passage from Where Histories Reside: India as Filmed Space on Jean Renoir’s The River (1951), Priya Jaikumar writes that the film’s “slipstream of characters, images, and stories yields a history of how the West has related to the East, art to reality, objects to symbols, and people to places in the process of filming on location.”

Fatima Bhutto’s New Kings of the World: Dispatches from Bollywood, Dizi, and K-Pop is “part memoir, part ethnography, and part cultural analysis,” writes Shiva Balaghi at Hyperallergic. “Mass migration, hyperconnectivity, and global branding have created both the means and the need for a new kind of cultural production. Increasingly, global audiences find Turkish TV serials, Bollywood films, and K-Pop more relatable, more attuned to their lived realities, their values and aspirations.”

Introducing his conversation in the new issue of Film Quarterly with Gustavo Procopio Furtado, the author of Documentary Filmmaking in Contemporary Brazil: Cinematic Archives of the Present, Bruno Guaraná writes that given “the growing recognition of the late Eduardo Coutinho as a master of documentary filmmaking, [José] Padilha’s bombshell of a film [Bus 174 (2003)], and works by a new generation of filmmakers such as Adirley Queirós and Maria Augusta Ramos, documentary production appears as one of the most exciting media practices in Brazil. It is indefensible, frankly, that the first English-language monograph on the subject is appearing only now. Yet Furtado takes on the task with great deftness, dutifully paying off the delay.”

Actors’ Lives

Reviewing Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge for Bookforum, Rachel Syme argues that Sheila Weller, “a Vanity Fair contributor who grew up in Fisher’s neighborhood as the daughter of a movie-magazine writer and the niece of the owner of the buzzy Hollywood restaurant Ciro’s, is exactly the right showbiz insider-outsider to shepherd Carrie Fisher’s story to the masses.” In the Washington Post, Celia Wren finds the book to be “engrossing, gracefully written, occasionally hagiographic”; it’s a collection of “numerous tales about how Fisher, who struggled with mental illness and addiction, managed to find the funny in it all—and share that with audiences, both as an actress and a writer.”

In the 736-page biography The Contender: The Story of Marlon Brando, William Mann “persuades us that Brando was so confused and contradictory that a tidy story would be a cheat,” writes David Thomson in the London Review of Books—which, by the way, has just launched its newly redesigned site and lifted its paywall for one month. The entire archive of over 17,500 reviews, essays, and more will be freely accessible until January 15.

Garry O'Connor’s biography Ian McKellen “makes no claim to be an exhaustive account,” notes Simon Callow at the top of his review for the Guardian. The paradox explored in the book is McKellen’s “duality, his paradoxical capacity to be both/and. He is simultaneously ‘deeply secretive, intensely private,’ as his former partner Sean Mathias says, and perhaps the most open and accessible personality British theater has ever produced.”

Talking to Jeff Bridges about his new collection of photographs snapped on movie sets, Jeff Bridges: Pictures: Volume Two, Bill Shapiro notes in the Los Angeles Times that the actor “uses a quirky panning camera, a Widelux, which relies on a lens that moves on a turret, rendering pictures so wide and with so much ‘peripheral vision’ that they almost wrap around his viewer. The effect nudges us to the center of the chaotic scrum that is moviemaking.”

Mike Nichols

Last month, when theater and film critic John Simon died at the age of ninety-four, New York magazine’s Christopher Bonanos wrote that “John was, in his prime, probably the most notorious critic alive.” And if you’re at all familiar with Simon’s work and reputation, you’ll appreciate the understatement. Earlier this month, the New York Times ran a review—a rare upbeat one—by Simon of the oral history Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols, as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends. “Ash Carter, a writer and editor, and Sam Kashner, the author or co-author of several books, have skillfully handled things in fourteen chapters and a coda,” wrote Simon, who admired Nichols and his work.

Carter and Kashner talk about their book on a recent NYT Book Review podcast: “Elaine May was the dangerous genius that entered Mike Nichols’s life and changed him,” says Kashner. And Carter adds: “She was kind of the combustion engine, and he was the steering wheel.” A few weeks ago, Michael Schulman gathered Cynthia Nixon, Christine Baranski, Glenn Close, and Whoopi Goldberg, all of whom are interviewed for the book, to reminisce a little more about their time with Nichols for the New Yorker.

Werner Herzog

In an excerpt from Say What Happened: A Story of Documentaries at Literary Hub, Nick Fraser argues that when, in 1999, Werner Herzog declared that he hoped to be “one of those who bury cinéma vérité for good,” he “was right to rail at what had become the mechanical orthodoxy of documentary filmmaking, in which subjects were routinely processed for captive TV audiences. He took filmmaking from its rich-kid doldrums. His own fiction films contained a powerful dose of non-fiction, often seeming to veer into a highly sophisticated equivalent of reality television, in which the actors suffer in Herzog’s search of ultimate authenticity.”

Literary Hub is also running Krishna Winston’s translation of Herzog’s scenario for Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979). “The flitting shadows of the flames are joined by two large fluttering, flitting bats. Slowly, very slowly the vampire approaches.” Literary Hub suggests that this sort of thing will be most effective if we read it aloud in our best Werner Herzog voices.

Scary Movies

Film Comment has posted Jordan Peele’s notes on two crucial scenes in his 2017 breakout debut feature excerpted from Get Out: The Complete Annotated Screenplay. “The Sunken Place is not a magic spell,” writes Peele. “It’s a manipulation of someone’s own psyche. Chris’s portal is a square like a television for a reason.”

In Pan’s Labyrinth: The Labyrinth of the Faun, Guillermo del Toro, the director of the 2006 film, and Cornelia Funke, his cowriter, “remain faithful to the script,” writes Rick Yancey in the New York Times, “but I don’t recall this fabulistic story of a princess trying to return to her kingdom during a brutal war being so unremittingly dark, despite all the bloodshed and grotesque violence that saturated the tale.”

In an essay taken from Musings, a two-volume collection of pieces that originally ran at Oscilloscope Laboratories’ site, David Roth explains why Larry Fessenden’s The Last Winter (2006), “the only good genre movie about climate change that has been made during the decades in which that phenomenon has shaped and threatened life on earth,” never found its audience. “The most obvious reason why there have not been any good, scary movies about climate change also happens to be the most compelling: it’s just too fucking scary.”


Jeanine Basinger is “one of the most acclaimed film historians of her generation,” writes Noah Isenberg in the New York Times, and her new book, The Movie Musical!, is an “exquisitely detailed, loving history of the genre.” In the Washington Post, Louis Bayard suggests that “anyone looking for a consistently bracing critical intelligence like Arlene Croce or Molly Haskell will find Basinger’s approach too rangy and scattershot.” But the “real value of The Movie Musical! may just be to call the roll, invoking, yes, titans like Gene Kelly and Vincente Minnelli but also the host of ancillary talents who’ve diverted us through the years.” In an excerpt from the book at Literary Hub, Basinger spotlights the “great African American singers and dancers whom movie audiences saw nothing of in musicals, or saw very little of.”

On a recent podcast, José Arroyo talks with Martha Shearer about New York City and the Hollywood Musical: Dancing in the Streets, her book that “brings genre studies into dialogue with urban studies.”


For the Nation, Eliza Levinson reviews Daniella Shreir’s translation of Chantal Akerman’s memoir, My Mother Laughs. “In this loving, tortured, unflinching portrait of a mother’s final illness and its devastating effects on those she leaves behind,” she writes, “Akerman transforms daughterhood into a generative force in its own right.”

The Belgian site Sabzian, which rolled out an excellent and thorough overview of new publications last month, carries on posting Sis Matthé’s translations of selections from Éditions Macula’s recent edition of the collected works of critic and Cahiers du cinéma cofounding editor André Bazin. Television was an entirely different beast in 1956, particularly in France when, as Bazin wrote, “the single channel imposes one single program on the viewer, which, in its diversity, extensively covers cultural values. We can be critical of our programs, and we do not fail to do so, but hardly, with a few rare exceptions, for being stupefying and vulgar.”

Also Notable

Joan Didion: The 1960s & 70s is the first of a three-volume edition of collected works from with the second and third due to follow in 2021 and 2022. Talking to the Library of America, editor David L. Ulin notes that Didion’s debut novel, Run, River (1963), “is essentially looking backward at the world from which Didion has come—which is often the territory a first novelist occupies—whereas Play It As It Lays [1970] is looking out at the world in which she now lives. That world is Hollywood, and it is also the unmoored landscape of the late 1960s and early 1970s, with its collapsed or broken narratives.”

Last week the cléo reader: 2013-2019, a collection of feminist film criticism gathered from the pages of cléo journal, whose six-year run ended this summer, became available to order.

The Observer’s Killian Fox talks with Tony Nourmand, whose French New Wave: A Revolution in Design gathers more than three thousand items including posters, photographs, press books, and magazines.


Being John Malkovich screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has been working on his debut novel for eight years, and as David Canfield reports for Entertainment Weekly, Antkind will finally be coming out in May 2020. The story centers on B. Rosenberger Rosenberg, a “neurotic and underappreciated film critic” who discovers a forgotten movie that takes three months to watch. When the film is destroyed, B. scrambles to recreate it—thereby, of course, saving all of civilization. “There are no budgetary limitations in a novel,” says Kaufman. “There is no studio oversight. There are no focus groups. In fact, this book is in part about that; it’s about an impossible movie.”

Annie Atkins, who has designed graphic props for Steven Spielberg (West Side Story), Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel), and Todd Haynes (Wonderstruck), has a book coming out in February, Fake Love Letters, Forged Telegrams, and Prison Escape Maps.


It’s not just film critics. Literary critics, too, can’t resist drawing up lists of the best works of the year—and the decade. Literary Hub has been running a series of annotated lists on the best books of the 2010s, the most recent being the top ten movie adaptations. The staff’s selections, listed chronologically, range from Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (2010), based on Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 novel, through Todd Haynes’s Carol (2015), based on Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (1952), to Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name (2017), based on André Aciman’s 2007 novel. On a related note, writing for the Quietus, Thomas H. Sheriff considers the sorts of books that cannot—or at least should not—be adapted.

As for the best of 2019, you can scan lists of favorites from the A.V. Club, the Guardian,  Hyperallergic, Lucy Feldman (Time; fiction and nonfiction), Dan Kois and Laura Miller (Slate), Literary Hub, the New York Times, Katy Waldman (New Yorker), and the Washington Post. Among the publications asking contributors and other writers for their thoughts on the best books of the year are the Guardian, the Irish Times, the Los Angeles Times, the New Statesman, the Paris Review, and the Times Literary Supplement.

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