May Books

On Film / The Daily — May 11, 2020
Marilyn Monroe in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959)

Before we turn to this month’s round of notes on new and noteworthy books, let’s take a moment to remember that this is the week that the Cannes Film Festival would have opened. Of course by this point, “a physical edition of Cannes 2020 is hard to envisage,” artistic director Thierry Frémaux tells Screen’s Melanie Goodfellow. Early next month, though, Frémaux and Cannes president Pierre Lescure will go ahead and announce this year’s official selection, the roster of films that would have premiered on the Croisette and will now head to other festivals bearing what Frémaux is calling a “Cannes 2020 label.” A Cannes hors les murs, or a festival “beyond the walls” will be extended to Toronto, San Sebastián, New York, Busan, and other events. “And with Venice,” says Frémaux, “we want to go even further and present films together.”

Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch was slated to premiere in Cannes, and Spike Lee, who was to have presided over the jury, would have brought Da 5 Bloods, marking Netflix’s “return to the red carpet, out of competition, of course,” says Frémaux. Speculating at IndieWire, Zack Sharf suggests that other strong contenders have included Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland with Frances McDormand, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria with Tilda Swinton, Leos Carax’s Annette with Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, and Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta, which producer Saïd Ben Saïd now says will open in France in May 2021. Andrew Dominik began shooting Blonde, his adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s novel, last August and could have been in the running, though Sharf now hears that Netflix plans to hold on to it until next year.

Blonde reimagines the inner life of Marilyn Monroe, who will be played by Ana de Armas. Jamie Lee Curtis, whose father, Tony Curtis, appeared with Monroe in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), recalls seeing de Armas’s screen tests while working with the Cuban actress on Rian Johnson’s Knives Out. “I dropped to the floor,” Curtis tells Sloane Crosley in Vanity Fair. “I couldn’t believe it. Ana was completely gone. She was Marilyn.”

When the novel was published in 2000, Elaine Showalter reviewed it for the Literary Review. “At 738 pages, it is a lavish, operatic narrative, which sees Monroe’s story as both an American and a female tragedy,” she wrote. “This is truly the Balzacian novel towards which Oates has been striving throughout her career.” In a new introduction to the twentieth-anniversary edition—an excerpt ran in the New Yorker last month—Showalter notes that Oates originally set out to write Blonde as a novella. “But as Oates watched all of Monroe’s movies,” writes Showalter, “learned more about her intelligence and humor, her determination to be seen as a serious actress, and the intersection of her career with multiple strands of mid-twentieth-century American culture—sports, religion, crime, theater, politics—she realized that she needed a larger fictional form to explore a woman who was much more than a victim.”

One Hundred Novels

Blonde is one of the hundred “great novels about cinema” selected and briefly reviewed by contributors to Sight & Sound for a walloping cover package back in August 2018. A few days ago, the magazine unlocked the feature with an introduction by editor Nick James, in which he sketches a quick overview of “a mutual love/hate embrace” between literary fiction and the movies. The collection includes top writers on established classics such as David Thomson on Vladimir Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark (1932), Kim Morgan on Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1939), Nick Pinkerton on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon (1941), Alexander Jacoby on Alberto Moravia’s Contempt (1954), Miriam Bale on Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (1961), Philip Kemp on Terry Southern’s “riotously scabrous” Blue Movie (1970), Sheila O’Malley on Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays (1970), Kim Newman on Theodore Roszak’s Flicker (1991), Erika Balsom on David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996), and Kieron Corless on Steve Erickson’s Zeroville (2007).

Given the breadth and depth of the list, though, there are bound to be at least a few titles here that will be new to any reader. Olaf Möller, for example, writes about Alban Lefranc’s Attaques sur le chemin, le soir, dans la neige (2005), which centers on the making of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and represents “a French author’s attempt to make sense of a people so close but so far away.” Farran Smith Nehme, whose own 2014 novel Missing Reels is recommended by Pamela Hutchinson, offers a few words on Darcy O’Brien’s “brief and delicious roman à clef” A Way of Life, Like Any Other (1977). To circle back to Blonde, film scholar Lucy Bolton finds that “the book’s overriding message is that Monroe was ‘a lost little girl in a whore costume.’”

Current Issues

Anyone looking for another fat list to browse might turn to S. M. Guariento’s lavishly illustrated Light Into Ink: A Critical Survey of 50 Film Novelizations, which Deborah Allison, writing for Senses of Cinema, finds is “written with consistent humor and panache.” The current issue of Senses also features Fabrice Ziolkowski’s review of Sam Wasson’s The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood, which we took a closer look at in February; Dominic Lash on Stanley Cavell and Film: Scepticism and Self-Reliance at the Cinema, in which Catherine Wheatley “not only clearly (yet without over-simplification) explains what Cavell has to say about film, but also conveys with passion (yet without myopic partisanship) why we should care”; and Tony McKibbin on Afterimages, in which the renowned scholar Laura Mulvey “shows a continuing fascination . . . for the moments filmed that become moments in another film or give another context that its original production could not have assumed.”

On Friday, we noted that the new issue of Film Comment is available in full and for free, and today we turn to the back of the book. In Music by Max Steiner: The Epic Life of Hollywood’s Most Influential Composer, Steven C. Smith “poignantly knits Steiner’s failing eyesight, ebbing financial prospects, and fraying familial bonds into a real-life third-act climax that would not be out of place in such Steiner-scored melodramas as Mildred Pierce or Dark Victory,” writes Bruce Bennett. Joe Bucciero recommends Video/Art: The First Fifty Years by Barbara London, the founder of the video program at the Museum of Art in New York: “Few could pull it off, combining memoir and survey. But London’s attention to material, discursive, and administrative practicalities demonstrates how she—alongside canny artists and patrons—really did shape video art as many know it, as an enduring inspiration for adapting nascent communication strategies.”

Gene Youngblood’s Expanded Cinema, first published in 1970 and now appearing in a new fiftieth-anniversary edition, is “a manifesto and a prophecy, at times clairvoyant in its claims for the future, at others ridiculous in its bumptious rhapsodies,” writes Nick Pinkerton. Writing in the March issue of Artforum, Light Industry cofounder Thomas Beard observed that Youngblood offers “an integrative approach to some of the most radical nodes of moviemaking in the 1960s, bringing together bodies of work that might otherwise be understood in contradistinction—Stan Brakhage meets Bell Labs—and elucidating them with ideas drawn from communication and design theorists such as John McHale, Marshall McLuhan, and Buckminster Fuller, who provided the introduction to Expanded Cinema’s first edition. And since the chapters are based largely on Youngblood’s columns for the Los Angeles Free Press, many sections have the feel of reportage, dispatches from the front lines of audiovisual experiment, frequently fleshed out by substantial interviews with their subjects.”

Let’s return to Film Comment one more time for Sheila O’Malley’s outstanding piece on the modernist poet H.D. and her fascination with cinema. She was not alone. “Virginia Woolf wrote about film,” notes O’Malley, and “so did Gertrude Stein and Marianne Moore. James Joyce was so intrigued that he opened and (briefly) ran the Volta, the first dedicated movie theater in Ireland.” H.D. cofounded Close Up, a film magazine whose “patron saints” were G. W. Pabst and Sergei Eisenstein, and in 1998, James Donald, Anne Friedberg, and Laura Marcus edited a collection, Close Up: Cinema and Modernism. H.D. admired Carl Theodor Dreyer, but in one of her most notorious essays, she explained why she felt that with The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Dreyer missed his mark. O’Malley reminds us that, while reading this piece, we have to keep in mind that it is “an eccentric in-real-time reaction to a now-famous film in its very first release, written by one of the most famous poets of her day. It’s a danger when film criticism becomes too insular, too consensus-driven in tone and opinion. Reading her work is sometimes a shock to the senses, it’s so fresh and immediate.”

Biographies and Filmographies

At her own site, O’Malley has posted an informally annotated list of around forty biographies—fine quarantine reading on Marlon Brando, Howard Hawks, Jean Renoir, Orson Welles, and more. Luc Moullet’s 1993 Politique des acteurs gathers his critical assessments of four Hollywood icons, and just in time for our Starring Gary Cooper program on the Channel, Srikanth Srinivasan has translated the chapter entitled “Gary Cooper: Immortality of the Sphinx,” an in-depth survey of the entire career. “Cooper’s artistic success has something immoral, scandalous, and unfair about it,” writes Moullet. The star “attains perfection without great effort, while some of his peers lose twenty kilos to suit the role or rehearse their character and their lines for a year, only to produce mediocre hysteria or soporific grandiloquence.”

Jacques Tati “constructed a world apart, with its own forms, language, and humor, a humor as mysterious as it is funny,” writes Geoffrey O’Brien for Harper’s. The Definitive Jacques Tati, a five-volume “superabundant compendium” edited by Alison Castle, is “almost heavy enough to require a forklift,” but the “level of detail throughout Taschen’s set is staggering—appropriate for a filmmaker who considered no component minor.” David Bordwell has posted a good, healthy round of notes on recently published books, including Play Time: Jacques Tati and Comedic Modernism, in which Malcolm Turvey “shows that in spirit Tati is an experimental filmmaker.” Turvey explores “the way that distinctively modernist conceptions of humor and comedy find their way into this vaudeville-inspired entertainer. From aleatory gags–apparently random synchronizations of noises and movements–to fragmented and incomplete or unconsummated gags, such as the precarious taffy that doesn’t quite plop off its hook, Tati intuitively reawakens the spirit of irrational laughter that inspired avant-gardists.”

Endnotes

From May 1967 to May 1968, John Gregory Dunne embedded himself at 20th Century Fox to observe every facet of the company’s operations. His full report was published in 1969 as The Studio. “More than anything,” writes Eric Marsh for Filmmaker, “reading The Studio in 2020 filled me with a sense of dread and despair, each page filled with harbingers of doom that connect this past to our current dystopian configuration of conglomerate oligopolies. By the time I closed the book after its climax with the star-studded Dr. Dolittle premiere I was ready to admit that the New Hollywood, like the First Gulf War and the 2020 Iowa Democratic Party Primary, never happened.”

Finally for now, we should note that Adrian Martin’s Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture is now out in an affordable paperback edition and that Glenn Kenny has a book coming out in September, Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas.

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