October Books

The Daily — Oct 19, 2020
Pier Paolo Pasolini

Before turning to this month’s overview of new and noteworthy releases, I want to mention that since around mid-April, Wes Del Val has been conducting a weekly series of interviews for the Book/Shop that he calls One Great Reader. Interviewees have included such literary luminaries as Luc Sante, Susanna Moore, and Sasha Frere-Jones as well as magazine editors, artists, musicians, and so far, one filmmaker, William E. Jones. So it’s an honor and a pleasure to note that this week’s interviewee is me.

Italian Iconoclasts

The irrepressible spirit of Pasolini wafts in and out of this month’s round. In Against the Avant-Garde: Pier Paolo Pasolini, Contemporary Art, and Neocapitalism, art historian Ara H. Merjian “takes painting, which Pasolini practiced fitfully but whose history he studied passionately, as a key to understanding his work as a whole,” writes Barry Schwabsky for the Nation. At one point in the book, Merjian declares: “One is hard pressed to think of a twentieth-century figure—whether poet, artist, or director—who has galvanized a comparable range of artists in such diverse media and over successive generations.” To which Schwabsky adds a qualifier, noting that Merjian is “only right, I suppose, if one adds the disclaimer ‘except for Picasso,’ but to put the two men’s names together that way only attests to the protean nature of Pasolini’s cultural impact.” Schwabsky then freely riffs on links between Pasolini and the work of artists as varied as sculptor Richard Serra and multimedia artist Sharon Hayes.

Pasolini and poet-turned-screenwriter Tonino Guerra both worked on the screenplay for Gianni Puccini’s Il carro armato dell’8 settembre (1960), but the prolific Guerra is primarily known for his collaborations with Michelangelo Antonioni, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Theo Angelopoulos. In 1967, Guerra wrote a novella, Equilibrium, now out in a fresh reprint from Moist, a small publishing house based in Nottingham. “Guerra as a solo artist turns out to be every bit as talented, original, and challenging as the directors he worked with,” writes Jonathan Rosenbaum in the Notebook. Equilibrium, the story of a graphic designer in Milan coming to terms with the years he spent in a Nazi concentration camp, is “a disturbing and gripping mind-boggler, at once hilarious and nightmarish.”

The list of directors cinematographer Mario Masini has worked with is sparser but more eclectic: Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Francesco Barilli, Sergio Bazzini, Fernando Birri, and in Ethiopia, Haile Gerima. In My Films with Carmelo Bene, Masini looks back on his collaboration with the director he’s most immediately associated with, a poet and actor who appeared in Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex (1967) and a theater director known for his “un-staging” of productions of plays by Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Oscar Wilde. Masini and Bene’s work together might be best “understood as an almost instinctual, pre-linguistic affinity, or perhaps the elemental dependency of two explorers facing a particularly harsh mountain peak together,” suggests Celluloid Liberation Front, reviewing Masini’s book and Bene’s autobiography, I Appeared to the Madonna, for Cinema Scope. “In Bene’s cinema,” writes CLF, “montage is the dissolution of meaning: the signifier is excised, the signified is orphaned, and meaning is no longer a synthesis but a sensorial thump dealt to the spectator without warning.”

Masters’ Programs

On November 19, Farran Smith Nehme will be leading a virtual seminar on Fritz Lang’s M (1931) hosted by the Coolidge Corner Theatre. As it happens, Srikanth Srinivasan has begun rolling out his translation of Luc Moullet’s 1963 monograph on Lang—the book, by the way, that we see Brigitte Bardot reading in the bathtub in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963). “M is often considered Lang’s masterpiece, notably by Lang himself,” writes Moullet, “because it unites expressionism and humanism, which fit together here perfectly.” Meantime, we can also now read excerpts from Srinivasan’s own book, Modernism by Other Means: The Films of Amit Dutta, at Firstpost, the Indian Cultural Forum, and the Notebook.

For nearly an hour and a half last week, Jordan Cronk chatted with Adam Nayman about growing up in Toronto about a block away from a video store that would rent titles to underage kids if they had exact change—and about his new book coming out this week, Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks. RogerEbert.com editor-at-large Matt Zoller Seitz interviews Nayman as well, noting that the book tackles Anderson’s filmography “chronologically, not according to their release date, but according to when each story is set. This re-frames Paul Thomas Anderson's work in a new way. Then Nayman builds a career-spanning critical analysis on top of that, with still-frame images and frame-grabs sourced to discussions occurring in the main text and captions.” The Ringer is running an excerpt in which Nayman dissects Lancaster Dodd, “the founder and frontman of a controversial philosophical movement called ‘The Cause,’” and Freddie Quell, his “wayward disciple,” played, respectively, by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix in The Master (2012).

Nayman has also reviewed Glenn Kenny’s new book on the making of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) for the Nation. “What keeps Made Men’s inventory of interviews, production arcana, and interpretive analysis from feeling superfluous is Kenny’s commitment to examining the myths around a movie preoccupied with mythmaking and examining the terms of its acclaim,” writes Nayman.

Reviewing David Mikics’s Stanley Kubrick: American Filmmaker for the Washington Monthly, Eric Cortellessa argues that “Kubrick’s filmmaking life was marked by a fundamental contradiction. He was the consummate model of a rebel who succeeded, yet he spent his entire life making films about rebels who fail.”

Writers’ Rooms

Earlier this month, we posted Imogen Sara Smith’s conversation with Philippe Garnier about his book, Scoundrels & Spitballers: Writers and Hollywood in the 1930s, originally published in France in 1996 and now out in English from “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller’s Black Pool Productions. “Writers were the coal, the iron, the oil of this industry town,” Garnier tells Smith. “They were for the moguls a necessary evil.” Writing about Scoundrels & Spitballers for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Woody Haut calls it “a fascinating book grounded in a kind of anti-romantic romanticism that can’t help but appeal to film obsessives and anyone intrigued by the relationship between film and popular fiction.”

At RogerEbert.com, Craig D. Lindsey talks with Godfrey Cheshire, Matt Zoller Seitz, and Armond White, whose work is collected in The Press Gang: Writings on Cinema from New York Press, 1991–2011. “I think that this book captures something very special both in terms of film history and in terms of the history of film criticism,” says Cheshire. “Because the decade itself for cinema was a very, very rich one—and, I think, maybe the last that was so rich in the ways that it was.”

Old Hollywood

In her latest entries in Vanity Fair’s Old Hollywood Book Club column, Hadley Hall Meares writes about Everything and Nothing: The Dorothy Dandridge Tragedy, the autobiography cowritten with Earl Conrad and published in 1970, five years after the first Black woman to be nominated for a best-actress Oscar had died, and If This Was Happiness, Barbara Leaming’s 1989 biography of Rita Hayworth. Both of these women lived heart-wrenching lives, abused as young girls, prodded into performing by overbearing adults, and searching in vain for love from a merciless parade of domineering men. Hayworth’s second husband of five was Orson Welles, and during their four-year marriage, Hayworth would fly into rages as Welles threw himself into affairs with Gloria Vanderbilt and Judy Garland. “You know the only happiness I’ve ever had in my life has been with you,” she once told him. Barbara Leaming took the title of her book from a comment Welles made years later. “If this was happiness,” he said, “imagine what the rest of her life had been.”

David Fincher’s Mank, which sees a limited theatrical release next month before Netflix begins streaming it on December 4, tells the story of Welles’s collaboration with Herman J. Mankiewicz on the screenplay for Citizen Kane (1941). Sydney Ladensohn Stern’s The Brothers Mankiewicz: Hope, Heartbreak, and Hollywood Classics tracks the full lives of Mank and his younger brother, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the writer and director (All About Eve) and producer (The Philadelphia Story) who won six Oscars over the course of a career that spanned four decades. In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Alex Harvey writes that “by intertwining Herman and Joe’s overlapping and contrasting trajectories, The Brothers Mankiewicz takes on the epic form and density of a nineteenth-century European novel. Their dual biography has a rich, paradoxical texture; they were Jewish yet scorned Judaism as a religion and as an identity; they were intellectuals yet spent their lives working in a medium that distrusted the life of the mind; they were family men yet ended up harming those who loved them most.”

Baffler film critic A. S. Hamrah, who can be heard discussing Akira Kurosawa’s The Idiot (1951) on a recent episode of Oeuvre Busters, talks with David Lazar about his new book, Celeste Holm Syndrome, on the Skylight Books podcast. Lazar’s collection of essays focuses on the role of character actors from the 1930s through the 1950s such as Thelma Ritter, Oscar Levant, Martin Balsam, and of course, Celeste Holm in the evolution of his own cinephilia.

Midnight Reading

We can’t have a roundup in October without at least one or two scary books. The Living Dead is a novel in three acts pieced together and fleshed out by Daniel Kraus, working with drafts and fragments that George A. Romero left behind when he died in 2017. In Film International, Tony Williams explains why he’s convinced that The Living Dead “fully realizes the literary legacy Romero intended to leave.” He also talks with Kraus, who emphasizes that “it’s important to realize that, though this does end the zombie story in some ways, the zombie universe as he sketched it out remains expansive, and in theory, there could be more stories to tell inside it.”

Bruce LaBruce has made zombie movies set in Berlin and Los Angeles, and now he has a new collection of photographs entitled simply Death Book. Introducing his interview for AnOther, artist Slava Mogutin suggests that LaBruce’s “post-apocalyptic vision of the modern world is very much in tune with his aesthetic ancestors: Jean Genet, who worshipped and glorified sexual outlaws and social outcasts; Georges Bataille, who compared orgasm to death and has written extensively about this connection in his book Erotism: Death and Sensuality (1957); and Pasolini, who shortly before his brutal murder by an underage hustler condemned the western model of sexuality: ‘The sexual freedom of today for most people is really only a convention, an obligation, a social duty, a social anxiety, a necessary feature of the consumer’s way of life.’”

These Are Not Memoirs

Alan Arkin has a new book out, Out of My Mind, that he’s subtitled “Not Quite a Memoir” because he doesn’t want readers to expect any acting tips or Hollywood gossip. “He’d rather write about meditation, reincarnation, and Tibetan Buddhism,” notes the Guardian’s Xan Brooks at the top of his interview. “Acting is so ingrained in my physiognomy and the channels of my brain that I find myself missing aspects of the business,” says Arkin. “But I don’t need it any more. I should probably get over it.”

Matthew McConaughey’s Greenlights isn’t a straight-up memoir, either. He’s got stories to tell, of course, but he’s also got thoughts to share on the lessons he’s learned along the way. One of the notions he aims to dispel, he tells Dave Itzkoff in the New York Times, is that he’s simply cruised on his Texas charm all the way to the top. Itzkoff also talks with McConaughey’s mother, his publisher, and with the director who gave him his breakthrough role in Dazed and Confused (1993). “People underestimate the utter intentionality of what Matthew’s done,” says Richard Linklater. “He’s really good at going from A to B to C. He’s got a plan and he’s just brave enough and brazen enough to execute it.”

At Literary Hub in the meantime, Dan Sheehan is looking forward to February’s publication of a novel by another Linklater regular, Ethan Hawke. A Bright Ray of Darkness will center on a young actor making his Broadway debut in a production of Henry IV while his marriage flounders. Sheehan notes that Knopf editorial director Jordan Pavlin is promising a story “soaked in rage and sex and longing and despair, a ferociously intelligent evisceration of fame and celebrity, and a transfixing backstage glimpse into the magic of New York theater.”

Endnotes

Wrapping with a few quick notes, we need to flag this month’s publication of Duras/Godard Dialogues, Nicholas Elliott’s translation of three conversations between Marguerite Duras and Jean-Luc Godard conducted in 1979, 1980, and 1987. For Hyperallergic, Edward M. Gómez talks with the cowriters and coeditors of Japanese Expanded Cinema and Intermedia: Critical Texts of the 1960s. And for further reading recommendations, turn to Christopher Schobert at the Film Stage and the latest round from IndieWire.

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