April Books

The Daily — Apr 20, 2020
Detail from Abbas Kiarostami’s cover for I've Got Something to Say That Only You Children Would Believe (1969)

The image at the top of the page is a detail from the cover of a book designed by Abbas Kiarostami, I’ve Got Something to Say That Only You Children Would Believe (1969), written by poet and author Ahmad Reza Ahmadi. Like Satyajit Ray, Kiarostami was a graphic designer before he became a filmmaker. Ehsan Khoshbakht, a filmmaker himself—his fascinating documentary Filmfarsi rescues the memory of an Iranian film industry that thrived before the 1979 Revolution—points us to a freely downloadable copy of I’ve Got Something to Say. “Combining photography, graphic arts, and painting,” some of the illustrations here “prefigure Kiarostami’s future films from Colors (1976) to 24 Frames (2017),” suggests Khoshbakht.

Jonathan Rosenbaum’s 2017 review of Mathew Abbott’s Abbas Kiarostami and Film-Philosophy for Sight & Sound, previously unavailable online, is essentially a recommendation, although he does warn that “for readers more accustomed to journalistic paraphrase than to the rigors of scholarly hair-splitting and jargony word-spinning, a bumpy ride is in store.” Rosenbaum has more engaging in a piece at the Chiseler in which he writes about the role of cinema in the novels of Thomas Pynchon. The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) in particular are works that define “cinema as the cultural air that everyone breathes.” Rosenbaum adds that “cinema is invariably a form of lingua franca in Pynchon’s fiction, an expedient form of shorthand, calling up common experiences that seem light years away from the sectarianism of the politique des auteurs.”

Their Own Stories

Since last month’s roundup of notes on new and noteworthy books, one of the biggest stories in publishing has been the rocky rollout of Woody Allen’s autobiography, Apropos of Nothing. To recap briefly, when Hachette announced on March 2 that it would be publishing the book, the decision was immediately condemned by Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, Dylan, who claims to have been sexually assaulted by Allen when she was seven, and by Ronan Farrow, son of Mia and Woody and the author of Catch and Kill, a chronicle of his reporting on Harvey Weinstein that was published last fall—by Hachette. Ronan Farrow declared that he would never work with Hachette again and around seventy-five Hachette employees staged a walk-out protest. On March 5, Hachette announced that it would not publish Allen’s book, and this decision was, in turn, severely criticized by many, including Stephen King and PEN America. Arcade Publishing stepped in and published Apropos of Nothing on March 23.

Reviewers are now approaching the book with varying degrees of trepidation. “Agreeing to write this review felt like signing up for a lifetime of social distancing,” begins Peter Biskind in the Los Angeles Times. When Dwight Garner told his wife and daughter that he’d be taking the book on for the New York Times, “they stared at me as if I’d announced my intention to find the nearest functioning salad bar and lick the sneeze guard.” Jonathan Kirshner, on the other hand, has greeted Apropos with “enormous, eager anticipation” and reports that it’s “a book essentially of four parts, which are in turn good, great, requisite but grueling, and satisfactory.” After describing his childhood in what Sam Wasson describes at Air Mail as “Dickensian detail,” Allen turns to his career as a writer for television, a stand-up comic, and of course, as a filmmaker. “Those looking for insight into the mind of the artist or illuminating anecdotage from the sets of his best movies will be better served by Eric Lax’s biography,” suggests Wasson.

The third section addresses the scandal. “These episodes are of an extravagant awfulness, giving Apropos of Nothing a shocking, lurid power,” writes Chuck Bowen at Slant. “Given this context, Allen’s bitterness is more than understandable, but it has curdled his empathy.” Allen then wraps by returning to his movies, and many reviewers find his own rankings puzzling. Kirshner notes that Allen is “not much impressed with Annie Hall, but loves Hollywood Ending.” Few would disagree with Garner’s overall assessment: “Like many of our fathers and grandfathers, Allen is a twentieth-century man in a twenty-first-century world.”

On to lighter fare. Miranda July, a chronological retrospective celebrating the multidisciplinary artist, “offers up a kinetic survey of work, hop-scotching from age eighteen to the present with archival tidbits and commentary led by peers and collaborators from Lena Dunham and Carrie Brownstein to Spike Jonze and David Byrne,” writes Anna Cofolla, introducing her interview with July for AnOther Magazine. The conversation touches on her debut feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), which we’ll be releasing next week; her most recent feature, Kajillionaire; the Covid International Arts Festival that July has been running on Instagram; and her short stories, performances, and apps. “This book makes concrete my life and work that no other institution is going to do for me, because I haven’t played by the rules that earn you that,” says July.

John Boorman’s Adventures of a Suburban Boy, published in 2003, is a “linear account of his directorial career that included not only his notable successes but the box-office catastrophe Exorcist II (1977),” writes Sukhdev Sandhu for the Guardian. Conclusions, the new memoir, “is more fragmented, a commonplace book that includes advice for budding screenwriters; tributes to the BBC where, as a young documentarian, he was given freedom to experiment and to ‘paint with light’; and fond recollections of the characters he has encountered in his years living in Ireland . . . The chapters teem with gossipy though never mean anecdotes.”

Literary Hub has posted an excerpt from Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother: Memoirs of a Neurotic Filmmaker, in which the cinematographer-turned-director recalls his first day at work: “Joel and Ethan Coen and I had never been on a film set before our first day on Blood Simple. I had never been a cameraman on a feature, nor worked in the camera department of a real movie in any capacity. Joel had never directed anything outside of student films and home movies, and Ethan had never produced. We simply declared ourselves filmmakers.”

Anyone looking for more Hollywood autobiographies should turn to Peter Bradshaw’s ranked and amusingly annotated list of the top twenty-five “most compelling” for the Guardian. And yes, Mia Farrow’s What Falls Away (1997) is on it, coming in at #19. Topping the list is David Niven’s “addictive and unmissable” The Moon’s a Balloon (1971).

Career Assessments

For Hyperallergic, Ela Bittencourt reviews Michael Snow, a collection of essays edited by the late Annette Michelson, whose own contributions are “the most illuminating,” and the poet Kenneth White. “The book situates Snow within the context of 1960s avant-garde sculpture and painting, whose primary practitioners were, like him, preoccupied with perception and framing,” notes Bittencourt. Proceeding chronologically, contributors then “investigate Snow’s break with notions of causality, his use of fragmentation in photography, and the role that new technologies, such as CGI, play in his later films.”

Critic and programmer Chris Fujiwara recently delivered a master class on Jacques Tourneur at the film festival hosted by the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and Eric Ortiz Garcia took the opportunity to talk with him about his 1998 book Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall for ScreenAnarchy. The French director best known for his work with producer and screenwriter Val Lewton (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man) but also for Out of the Past, the 1947 noir starring Robert Mitchum, “believed that there were parallel worlds,” says Fujiwara. “Tourneur thought that the past still existed on a parallel plane and that the future also existed on another parallel plane, and that it was possible from time to time for us to have access to this other worlds. I think some his films, especially Night of the Demon, are realizations of this kind of conception.”

Novelist and literary critic Adam Mars-Jones was the first movie reviewer for the Independent and has since written about cinema for the Guardian, the TLS, and the London Review of Books. Second Sight: The Selected Film Writing of Adam Mars-Jones is “a worthwhile selection of accomplished, if uneven, articles and reviews,” finds Jeremy Carr in Film International.

Big Ideas

Editor and animator Graham Daseler reviews three books for the TLS—Patrick Keating’s The Dynamic Frame: Camera Movement in Classical Hollywood, Gilberto Perez’s The Eloquent Screen: A Rhetoric of Film, and Robert B. Pippin’s Filmed Thought: Cinema as Reflective Form—and he has a clear favorite. “Keating, unlike many movie theorists, is just as well versed in film technology as he is in film technique, and one of the strengths of his book is that it is able to zoom in on specific filmmaking tools—dollies, deep-focus photography, CinemaScope—to show how they shaped cinematic storytelling,” he writes. “Cinema, more than any other art form—more even than modern music—is an art of technology, and since the technology is always changing, so too is the art.”

Having completed his translation of Luc Moullet’s 2009 collection Piges Choisies, Srikanth Srinivasan now turns to Politique des Acteurs, which was published in 1993 and gathered Moullet’s essays on Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Cary Grant, and James Stewart. “In short,” writes Moullet in the foreword, “what counts in the evaluation of a director is the artistic value of his films, and what essentially counts in the evaluation of an actor is the commercial value of products bearing his name.” Which is why “great actors of international renown are more cursed than supporting actors. The attraction they exert is based, most of all, on wrong reasons.”

Gregory Zinman’s Making Images Move: Handmade Cinema and the Other Arts is “formidable historiography,” writes Chuck Stephens in the latest issue of Cinema Scope. “Ten minutes after picking up the book I was noting the names of artists and filmmakers whose work I’d yet to explore, setting the book briefly aside to search for titles on Vimeo and discovering, for example, the ‘handmade Rorschach test’ abstractions of Josh Lewis’s Doubt films, and feeling cinema expand once again, page by fascinating page.”

Christina Newland, who has edited the just-published anthology She Found it at the Movies: Women Writers on Sex, Desire, and Cinema, has written an essay for Sight & Sound that could well serve as an opening argument for the book. “Confronted by an industry and an art form that has long excluded women’s perspectives,” she writes, “when we share our most deeply individual impressions, it puts us back where we belong: into the narrative of film culture.”

Still on the Table

Some books warrant discussing for months on end. We’ve made several mentions in these roundups of Chantal Akerman’s memoir, My Mother Laughs—translated in the UK by Daniella Shreir for the Silver Press and in the U.S. by Corina Copp for the Song Cave—and Daniel Fraser’s piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books warrants another. He finds Shreir’s translation “more effective, though, given the combination of syntactic eccentricity and lexical simplicity of Akerman’s writing, it is more a question of tone, tense, and cumulative effect than individual word choice.” Ultimately, “what makes the book one of the most interesting and vital works of literary nonfiction of recent years is a startling reciprocity of content and form that faces the paradox of illness and death presented by the loss of our most beloved, refusing both to simply take refuge in any restorative meaning or merely drowning in its void.”

It’s been nearly a year since NYRB Classics reissued Picture, Lillian Ross’s account of the making of John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage (1951), and Max Nelson, writing for the Nation, is the latest to recommend it. What Huston’s “wrecked production gave Ross was a tour through the film industry’s levels of influence and power: directors, editors, composers, actors and extras, producers and studio executives, countless peripheral hangers-on,” he writes. “She lingers over what they say and refuse to say. Unlike Come In, Lassie! (1948), Ross’s earlier report from Hollywood, Picture never mentions [the House Un-American Activities Committee] by name, but its background presence fills the book. It was as if Ross wanted to trace the unarticulated, invisible ways in which the investigations shaped a generation’s creative and professional compromises.”

Huston played what essentially amounted to a stand-in for Orson Welles in the latter’s The Other Side of the Wind, which finally premiered, reconstructed and restored, in 2018, nearly half a century after Welles began shooting it in 1970. Reviewing Marching Song, a play about abolitionist John Brown that seventeen-year-old Welles cowrote with his teacher and mentor Roger Hill, Matthew Asprey Gear, writing at Wellesnet, notes that Welles has been “dead for thirty-five years, but we’re still catching up with his oceanically ambitious—albeit frequently frustrated—creative life.” The rediscovered Marching Song was published last summer in what Glenn Kenny calls “a splendid, illuminating edition edited by Todd Tarbox,” and it’s a work that “that fully acknowledges Brown’s fanaticism but also is pretty blunt in its position that extremism in defense of liberty is at most a minor vice.”

Film Comment has posted an excerpt from the first volume of the late Jonas Mekas’s I Seem to Live. The New York Diaries, 1950–2011, which gathers entries from Mekas’s first two decades in the U.S. after arriving from war-torn Europe. As Nolan Kelly writes at Hyperallergic, the story that plays out is Mekas’s “gradual emplacement, from the social margins of a Williamsburg enclave to the center of an American avant-garde he helped engender. But the tone of the entries, counterbalancing these triumphs, is doubt; for these decades Mekas was constantly questioning his devotion to his perennially endangered and bankrupt projects—the American Film House, which would become Anthology, and Film Culture, a magazine he started with Adolfas that revolutionized an understanding of experimental cinema in the United States.”

The Earth Dies Streaming is a collection of writing on film, most of it for n+1, by A. S. Hamrah that came out at the end of 2018. The book serves as a jumping-off point for two recent interviews with the Baffler’s new film critic. Riley Mang’s conversation with Hamrah took place in early February, so their voices sound at times as if they’re echoing from a distant and forgotten world, but Hamrah’s account of growing up as a budding cinephile—he’d watch films by Stan Brakhage and Kenneth Anger on weekday mornings before running off to catch the school bus—would be engaging in any era. And scanning sets of data generated by 208,000 reviews by professional critics and 10.7 million user reviews pulled from Rotten Tomatoes, Andrew Thompson and Kyle Paoletta get Hamrah talking about what he sees as the strengths and weaknesses of such high-profile critics as Roger Ebert, Manohla Dargis, A. O. Scott, Richard Brody, and Anthony Lane.

Endnotes

For many, many more notes on new books, turn to the outstanding roundup that Ruben Demasure has put together for Sabzian. Here, we’ll wrap with a tip. The catalogue for Defiant Muses: Delphine Seyrig and the Feminist Video Collectives in France in the 1970s and 1980s, a recent exhibition at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, is now freely available to download.

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