January Books

On Film / The Daily — Jan 21, 2020
Orson Welles directing Citizen Kane (1941), which he wrote with Herman J. Mankiewicz

Let’s open this month’s round on new and recent books with an odd little news item. On January 7, Harvey Weinstein appeared at a court in Manhattan in the run-up to his rape trial carrying a copy of The Brothers Mankiewicz: Hope, Heartbreak, and Hollywood Classics. Why? “I can’t imagine his choice was unthought,” author Sydney Ladensohn Stern tells Variety’s Gene Maddaus, who notes that Weinstein was flashing a biography of Elia Kazan when he surrendered to police in 2018. Given Kazan’s testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, which helped to put an end to a number of show business careers as well as several of his own friendships, Weinstein’s prop was interpreted, writes Maddaus, as “a shot at the media.”


Stern’s book is a dual biography of Herman J. Mankiewicz, the journalist and theater critic who headed out west to become one of Hollywood’s most prolific screenwriters, and his younger brother, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, also a successful screenwriter, but a director and producer as well. Herman is best known for working with Orson Welles on the screenplay for Citizen Kane (1941), while Joseph’s top credit—of many—is probably All About Eve (1950), for which he won two Oscars, best screenplay and director. Reviewing The Brothers Mankiewicz for Commentary, Terry Teachout finds that Stern “tells their tightly entwined stories thoughtfully and well, with a sympathetic but honest appreciation of their talents—and limitations.”

What would Weinstein believe he’s telling the world by drawing attention to this book? It’s possible, however improbable, that he may have been Googling himself one night and came across Stern’s brief piece for Air Mail about one of the worries tugging at her conscience as she began writing. “I didn’t need Harvey Weinstein horror stories to know I needed to dig deeply into the Mankiewiczes’ relationships with women,” she wrote in November, “but at the same time I dreaded discovering that either was actually a predatory monster.” Fortunately, neither was. Joseph was quite a womanizer, striking up affairs with the likes of Joan Crawford and Judy Garland, but Stern has found no evidence that he was ever a monster. “Several of the women considered him the love of their lives,” she writes.

The story of two brothers who achieve a considerable degree of success in the film industry but whose destinies part ways may have piqued Weinstein’s interest. Joseph’s career kept on soaring right on up to the final picture he directed in 1972, Sleuth, starring Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier. By 1953, Herman had drunk and gambled himself to death at the age of fifty-five.

Then again, there may be an explanation as simple as Weinstein deciding to read up on the Mankiewiczes in anticipation of Mank, the black-and-white film about Herman’s collaboration with Welles that David Fincher is making for Netflix. Mank is something of a passion project for Fincher—his father wrote the screenplay decades ago—which makes it one of the films we’re looking forward to most this year.

The “Book-to-Film Complex”

Another promising project in the works is Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, based on David Grann’s book about the murders of members of the Osage Indian nation in Oklahoma in the 1920s. I bring it up because Grann is one of the writers who take a hit in a thought-provoking polemic in the Baffler. “We are now in the mature stage of a book-to-film boom that is quietly transforming how Americans read and tell stories—and not for the better,” writes James Pogue. “This is because the book-to-film complex is bolstered by two imperatives that now govern our nonfiction almost without exception: foreground story as an ultimate good, ahead of deep personal insight, literary style, investigative reporting, or almost any other consideration that goes into the shaping of written work; and do not question too closely the aristocracy of tech and capital that looms over us, the same people who subsidize the system that produces America’s writing.”

Pogue argues that the current pipeline funneling nonfiction from writers’ desks to streaming services prioritizes work that “describes the world without having a worldview.” Fortunately, there are at least a few adaptations in production based on works of fiction that most definitely have a point of view. Barry Jenkins is wrapping a limited series based on Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad, and Johan Renck (Chernobyl) will direct a series based on Jonathan Lethem’s first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music (1994). And when the bookstore One Grand asked Lupita Nyong’o to list her ten favorite books of all time, the actress naturally included Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel Americanah. Lupita Nyong’o will produce and star in a ten-episode series, adapting the story of two Nigerians who emigrate, one to Baltimore, the other to London. Chinonye Chukwu (Clemency) will direct the first two episodes.

Legacies

In the late 1970s, Richard Brody studied under Princeton’s only professor of cinema studies at the time, Gilberto Perez. In the New Yorker, Brody remembers Perez, who died in 2015, and writes about the posthumously published The Eloquent Screen: A Rhetoric of Film, which Brody considers to be “a landmark in the history of cinema studies, or what I’d call the philosophy of cinema . . . For Perez, there’s no contradiction between a viewer’s awareness of watching a movie and being emotionally engaged with the movie’s characters, between noting brazen directorial interventions and getting carried away with the drama, between being inside and outside the movie at the same time. Not only is it no contradiction—it’s a constitutive dialectic of the cinema.”

Thursday will mark a sad anniversary. It will have been a full year since Jonas Mekas passed away at the age of ninety-six. In 1950, less than a year after he and his brother Adolfas arrived in the U.S., Mekas began keeping a diary. I Seem to Live will collect the entries the pioneering filmmaker, critic, and curator wrote through 2014. Spector Books has released the first volume, which covers the years the brothers spent in New York through 1969, from the purchase of their first Bolex 16 mm camera, through the founding of Film Culture magazine and the launch of Jonas’s weekly column in the Village Voice, to the laying of the foundations of what would become Anthology Film Archives. And all in just one thousand pages. “It may be daunting,” writes Conor Williams for Interview, “but it’s a welcome addition.”

Interviews

One of Werner Herzog’s favorite books is The Peregrine, a 1967 poetic memoir by J. A. Baker, a little-known British writer who closely tracked the comings and goings of a pair of peregrine falcons, day in and day out, and then ruminated on what he’d seen. “I keep saying to the Rogue Film School students that The Peregrine is a book that is the absolute must-read piece of literature,” Herzog told Robert Pogue Harrison, a professor of literature at Stanford University, in 2016, “because that’s how a filmmaker should see things: in loneliness. He or she or it should see the world with an incredible amount of human pathos and enthusiasm and rapture.” The Los Angeles Review of Books has posted both an audio recording and a transcript of the conversation in which Herzog also talks about a few more favorites—a 1546 edition of the Luther Bible, Livy’s account of the Second Punic War, and works by Virgil and the poet Friedrich Hölderlin—and about why he believes that his own writings will outlast his films.

The LARB has also posted Kate Wolf and Medaya Ocher’s chat with J. Hoberman about Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan, a book that rounds out his Found Illusions trilogy, a cultural history of the United States in mid- and late-twentieth century. Way back in the early 1980s, Hoberman coauthored Midnight Movies with Jonathan Rosenbaum, and now Rosenbaum has two new books out, Cinematic Encounters: Interviews and Dialogues and Cinematic Encounters 2: Portraits and Polemics. At the World Socialist Web Site, David Walsh talks with Rosenbaum about growing up in Alabama, his years in France in the late 1960s, and of course, about films and filmmakers. Rosenbaum has a touching anecdote about Jacques Tati as well as a remarkable observation regarding how Tati’s PlayTime (1967) has impacted his own life. It was “a film that didn’t grab me immediately,” he says, “but, as I got to know it better and better, it changed my relationship to living in cities. It actually made it easier or even possible to live in cities.”

New Yorkers

A few weeks ago, Deadline’s Greg Evans reported that Mel Brooks will produce Young Frankenstein Live!, a television musical based on his 1974 comedy with Gene Wilder. It’s slated to air in the fall. When he was starting out in television, “Brooks was bumptious, crass, effusive, disruptive, chronically late, and wholly undisciplined,” writes Jesse Tisch in the Jewish Review of Books. “He was also very, very funny and ferociously driven. Funny Man is, among other things, a rather ugly portrait of ambition as a deranging and disfiguring force.” Patrick McGilligan is “a shrewd biographer, if somewhat immune to Brooks’s screwball charm,” adds Tisch. “Too bad. A more appreciative approach might have better captured Brooks’s comedy.”

Brooks was born and raised in Brooklyn, while director Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, The Fugitive Kind, Network), born two years earlier than Brooks in 1924, grew up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “There was certainly enough dramatic sturm und drang in Lumet’s life,” writes Chris Nashawaty in his review of Maura Spiegel’s Sidney Lumet: A Life for the Washington Post. Nashawaty cites Lumet’s “formative years onstage and in the Far East with the Army’s signal corps during World War II; his involvement with the revolutionary Group Theatre; cutting his teeth behind the camera during the birth of live television in the 1950s; the ritzy, social swirl of his odd-couple marriage to tabloid heiress Gloria Vanderbilt; his close friendships with Marlon Brando, Marlene Dietrich, Truman Capote, and Marilyn Monroe, to name but a few. Unfortunately, the first biography to hit bookstore shelves delivers few new insights into the director’s films.”

Hollywood Memos

In the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan recommends I Lost My Girlish Laughter, a recently reissued roman à clef from the 1930s by Jane Allen—a pen name for Silvia Schulman, who was a private secretary for producer David O. Selznick—and Jane Shore. Turan finds that this “privileged glimpse into how the studios worked in Hollywood’s golden age” has “the wonderful tang of reality, echoing the spirit of genial madness found in such savvy fictionalizations as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Pat Hobby stories and the opening sequences of Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels.

Turan notes that while pseudonyms barely disguise the main players in the novel, stars such as Clark Gable pop in and out as themselves. In Letters from Hollywood: Inside the Private World of Classic American Moviemaking, a collection of letters, notes, memos, and telegrams edited by Rocky Lang and Barbara Hall, we hear from the likes of Greta Garbo, Alfred Hitchcock, Humphrey Bogart, and Katharine Hepburn in their own words. “Each letter is presented exactly as it sits in its archival folder,” writes Chris Yogerst in the LARB. “Letters from Hollywood compellingly shows why film historians love spending so much time in the dusty archives.”

Endnote

Let’s wrap with a quick heads-up. Next month sees the publication of Pamela Cohn’s Lucid Dreaming: Conversations with 29 Filmmakers, a collection of profiles and interviews with such artists as Karim Aïnouz, Khalik Allah, Barbara Hammer, Sky Hopinka, Roberto Minervini, Terence Nance, J. P. Sniadecki, Brett Story, Deborah Stratman, Travis Wilkerson, and Shengze Zhu. OR Books has posted a generous excerpt from Cohn’s conversation with Ja’Tovia Gary, whose The Giverny Document (Single Channel) picked up an award in Locarno last summer. “The works I’m creating are interior conversations I’m having with Black folks,” she tells Cohn. “That doesn’t mean that white or Asian or Indigenous people can’t access the work or learn something from it or have it resonate on an intellectual or emotional level. But this specific audience is important to keep in mind because that shapes the conversation.”

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