August Books

The Daily — Aug 17, 2020
Louise Brooks

As you scan this month’s round of notes on fine writing about books likely to be of interest to cinephiles, you may come across a title or two you’ll want to own. If your local independent bookstore hasn’t reopened yet, consider having that title (or two) delivered by the United States Postal Service, a government agency founded in the late eighteenth century, when Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first postmaster general.

Star Studies

In 1929, Louise Brooks created an indelible persona in back-to-back films directed by G. W. Pabst, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl. She then promptly headed back home to the States, where her career floundered before petering out altogether. In 1956, film curator James Card persuaded her to move to Rochester, New York, where she would have ready access to the George Eastman House collection. There, “Brooks developed into a prolific but fiercely self-critical writer who left behind volumes of unpublished notes, letters, and abandoned projects,” writes Maya Cantu for the Los Angeles Review of Books. “The most potentially impactful of these discarded works may have been Thirteen Women in Films, a book of essays on Hollywood icons including Joan Crawford, Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, and Clara Bow. Brooks’s conceptual groundwork and notes on Thirteen Women not only magnify her significant profile as a discerning feminist critic, but also frame her as a pioneer of star and celebrity studies.”

One night in the summer of 1963, poet John Giorno and Andy Warhol were sharing a room in a farmhouse in Connecticut, and Giorno kept waking up at all hours to find, each time, Warhol simply watching him. In a touching excerpt at Vulture from Great Demon Kings: A Memoir of Poetry, Sex, Art, Death, and Enlightenment—a book that, as Mark Dery points out at Literary Hub, Giorno spent twenty-five years working on and finally completed shortly before he passed away last year—Giorno recalls that Andy asked him if he wanted to be in his first film. Giorno’s reply: “I want to be a movie star!” Sleep, which premiered in January 1964, was a far more complex project than its reputation would suggest. “There were thousands of rolls of film, and Andy didn’t know what to do with them,” writes Giorno.

Reviewing Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger’s Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century for Vanity Fair, Hadley Hall Meares calls it “the definitive book about Liz and Dick.” Kashner and Schoenberger tell the story of “the couple’s torrid beginnings and their extravagant life as ‘doomed nomads,’ drinking their way through three continents, charming and challenging everyone they met—especially each other.” After their second divorce, Taylor is said to have told a friend, “I don’t want to be that much in love ever again.”

In Byron Lane’s debut novel, A Star Is Bored, Charlie Besson, twenty-nine, becomes an assistant to Kathi Kannon, fifty-six and known to fans around the world as Priestess Talara, defender of the planet in the sci-fi blockbuster Nova Quest. And yes, Lane was indeed an assistant to Carrie Fisher. This “wildly funny and irreverent” tale is “essentially a love story,” writes novelist Margo Robb in the New York Times, “except instead of the traditional Hollywood romance, it features two largehearted, misfit souls forming an unusual friendship.” It also wraps with “a conventional happy ending” that “could easily have turned ferociously ugly,” writes Peter Biskind in the Los Angeles Times. A Star Is Bored “has straight-to-series written all over it (Netflix, take heed), but Lane earns his happily ever after.”

Directors’ Views

For many of us, it’s been a while since we’ve done much thinking about Oliver Stone. His most recent feature, Snowden, based on the life of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, came out in 2016, and that same year, Abrams released Matt Zoller Seitz’s The Oliver Stone Experience, an extravagant volume packaged in such a way that it seemed like a summing-up. Until now, little has followed other than a four-part television series, The Putin Interviews. Stone is “often ridiculous but not entirely wrong,” writes Sean Burns in his North Shore Movies review of the “compulsively readable new memoir,” Chasing the Light: Writing, Directing, and Surviving Platoon, Midnight Express, Scarface, Salvador, and the Movie Game. The book “chronicles the first half of his career with the kind of grand, go-for-broke immediacy that defined his early films.” For Benjamin Svetkey in the New York Times, “the Oliver Stone depicted in these pages—vulnerable, introspective, stubbornly tenacious, and frequently heartbroken—may just be the most sympathetic character he’s ever written.” For more on the book and Stone’s thoughts on where we find ourselves now, see Mike Fleming Jr.’s interview for Deadline, David Marchese’s for the New York Times Magazine, and Elvis Mitchell’s for KCRW.

Reviewing Michael Haneke: Interviews, a collection edited by Roy Grundmann, Fatima Naqvi, and Colin Root, Jeremy Carr emphasizes in Film International that he appreciates the “exceptionally thorough introduction” which “sheds appreciable light” on the Austrian director’s early, lesser known work. He also notes that Haneke “does, it turns out, have quite the sense of humor, even if it veers toward the unconventional.” Also in Film International, Thomas Puhr recommends Joanna Hogg and Adam Roberts’s Chantal Akerman Retrospective Handbook, which gathers research, commissioned texts, and a foreword by Laura Mulvey, as “a testament to the enduring impact of one of cinema’s great auteurs.”

As a supplement to her new book, Lucid Dreaming: Conversations with 29 Filmmakers, Pamela Cohn has launched a podcast. So far, she’s spoken with Penny Lane (Hail Satan?), Ra’anan Alexandrowicz (The Viewing Booth), Kirsten Johnson (Dick Johnson Is Dead), Alexander Nanau (Collective), and Miko Revereza (No Data Plan) and Shireen Seno (Nervous Translation).

Bordwell and Thompson

It’s been a busy couple of weeks at Observations on Film Art, the blog that David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson launched back in 2006. At the end of July, the amiable scholars and regular contributors to the Criterion Channel posted their thousandth entry, and a few days later, Thompson added the fourteenth annual installment of “Is there a blog in this class?,” a series of guides to posts that have appeared over the past year that serve well as supplementary reading to several chapters in Bordwell and Thompson’s essential book, Film Art: An Introduction. 

On the occasion of a new Chinese translation of Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment, Bordwell has written a fresh postscript. “The tradition of powerful physical action, gracefully executed and forcefully staged and cut, was a genuine contribution to the history of film as an art form,” he writes, and “it’s a pleasure to report that the ‘ordinary’ action pictures of the last decade have by and large maintained that tradition.”

Over the weekend, Bordwell followed up with a series of responses—and responses to responses—in an ongoing debate sparked in part by the publication of Vittorio Gallese and Michele Guerra’s The Empathic Screen: Cinema and Neuroscience. In May, Malcolm Turvey, a professor at Tufts University, noted at Observations that since 1985, Bordwell “has drawn on contemporary cognitive psychology to answer questions about perceiving and understanding narrative films, thereby launching a new paradigm in film theory that has come to be known as cognitivism.” It’s a theory that “argues that some important questions about the cinema can be answered by science, not that all or even most can.”

As Gallese and Guerra see it, the current debate is “still oscillating between two positions which we could, just to be clear and simple, describe as ‘neuromaniac’ and ‘neurophobic,’ where in the first case the risk is seeing neuroscience as the right place for explaining and clarifying the secret of life, while in the second case the risk is not seeing the productivity of a confrontation with its theories and empirical findings.” Wrapping his own response, Bordwell writes that “it’s not yet evident to me that brain science will answer questions about form and style that can be considered with more nuance by research traditions inquiring into film craft and artistry.”

Moullet and Daney

With a final chapter on James Stewart, Srikanth Srinivasan has completed his translation of Luc Moullet’s 1993 book, Politique des acteurs. Moullet is particularly sharp on the way that Cary Grant lends the spotlight to Stewart in George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story (1940), and he lays out a gesture-by-gesture breakdown of Stewart’s use of his hands in a scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). Overall, the career tracks “a very surprising trajectory,” from the “naïve purity” of young Jefferson Smith in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), through the violent rage of Anthony Mann’s westerns, countered by the “adult passivity” in Hitchcock’s movies to “finally, around the age of fifty years, cynicism and venality” in films by John Ford.

The most critically acclaimed collaboration between Stewart and Hitchcock is, of course, Vertigo (1958), and with the help of Andy Rector, Laurent Kretzschmar has translated a 1984 essay by French critic Serge Daney on the film that knocked Citizen Kane from the top spot on Sight & Sound’s most recent “greatest films of all time” poll. Daney suggests that Stewart’s Scottie is “the last of Hitchcock’s alter egos.”

Kretzschmar has assisted Srinivasan in his translation of another excerpt from a collection of Daney’s writings, an interview with Satyajit Ray conducted in Calcutta in 1982. Daney calls the city “the conscience of Indian cinema,” noting that the theaters are always full and that tickets “for second-class seats are sold on the black market.” Ray adds that shooting on location inevitably draws a crowd. “I’m a kind of star here myself,” he says, “and when I shoot on the streets, I conceal myself in black clothes. But as soon as I get up, people recognize me since I’m very tall. I’m obliged to remain seated and shoot quickly. People’s curiosity for cinema is insane.”

Romero and del Toro

When George A. Romero died in the summer of 2017, his manager, Chris Roe, asked writer Daniel Kraus if he’d be interested in completing a novel Romero had been writing, The Living Dead. He was. Noel Murray, who talks with Kraus for Polygon, notes that the author had been “obsessed with Romero’s zombie oeuvre since his mother showed him Night of the Living Dead when he was six. ‘They’re my Star Wars,’” Kraus told him. During months of research, Kraus found two chapters from an earlier stab at a zombie novel, a short story, and several pages of notes. When he was finally ready to start fleshing out The Living Dead, “Kraus made a lot of the choices for where the plot would go, but always in service of what Romero wanted,” writes Murray. “Or, as Kraus puts it: ‘You get George on the first page, and you get George on the last page, and you get George spread all throughout.’”

Kraus has also worked on book versions of Trollhunters and The Shape of Water with their creator, Guillermo del Toro, whose most recent literary  collaboration is with suspense novelist Chuck Hogan. From 2009 through 2011, del Toro and Hogan wrote The Strain, a trilogy of apocalyptic vampire stories. Their latest, The Hollow Ones, interweaves three timelines, one set in the present, another in the Jim Crow south of 1962, and the third in the court of Queen Elizabeth in 1562. It’s “a swift, thoroughly imagined entertainment that looks back at the genre’s past while hinting, in the final pages, of future installments to come,” writes Bill Sheehan in the Washington Post.

Authors to Watch


Nerdette podcast host Greta Johnsen and novelists Andrew Sean Greer and Jane Smiley have all recently spoken with Charlie Kaufman about his debut novel, Antkind. Last month, we took a look at the first round of reviews, and there have been plenty since. Slate’s Laura Miller finds this 700-plus-page thumper “overstuffed, formless,” and “wearisome,” but quickly adds that “Antkind also has flashes of wit and even beauty.” In the New Republic, Ben Schwartz probes the similarities and dissimilarities between the narrating protagonist, B. Rosenberger Rosenberg, and New Yorker film critic Richard Brody. For more on Antkind, see Charles Bramesco (Playlist), Sean Burns (WBUR), David Ehrlich (IndieWire), and Holly Williams (Guardian), but first and foremost, Jon Baskin in the New Yorker.

Baskin—who, by the way, has recently written an essay for the New York Review of Books that, ping-ponging between Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle (2009–2011), Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935), and Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life (2019), traces an ongoing search for an antifascist aesthetic—sets Antkind against the backdrop of the literary and popular culture of the late 1990s. At the time, Kaufman was “one of the most successful ambassadors for what was sometimes known as the ‘third way’ in contemporary art. Like his slightly younger peer David Foster Wallace, his writing promised a path between the Scylla of postmodern nihilism and the Charybdis of consumerist kitsch. His films employed postmodern techniques like narrative fragmentation and meta-commentary—e.g., making himself a character in his own film—but did not employ them toward conventionally postmodern ends. Detachment, irony, and ‘critique’ were not their goal but their starting place; their ambition was to work their way, as ‘Charlie Kaufman’ does in Adaptation, to authentic expression.”

Further Reading

For yet more literary diversion during these dog days of summer, turn first to Ruben Demasure, who has put together another excellent and dauntingly thorough roundup for Sabzian. MovieMaker Magazine has gathered summer reading suggestions from Kelly Reichardt, Barry Jenkins, Sandi Tan, Alex Ross Perry, Ted Fendt, Andrew Bujalski, Adam McKay, and programmers Ashley Clark and Marie-Louise Khondji.

At IndieWire, Jean Bentley has put together an annotated list of classics of film criticism that ranges “from in-depth histories of specific films to exhaustive analysis of filmmakers and actors; from essay collections of famed critics to histories of film movements and eras.” And for those more in the mood to leisurely page through a handsome volume than to burrow into a dense text, Variety’s Celia Shatzman has selected ten of her favorite coffee table books.

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