December Books

The Daily — Dec 21, 2020
Jacques Tati at work on Mon oncle (1958)

Our final roundup of the year on new and noteworthy books opens with David Bordwell taking measure of a recent trend in publishing. The digital age has given rise to a desire for books that announce themselves from the shelf or a coffee table as books, handsome objects of substantial weight and heft. Combine that desire with a cult of the director rooted in the auteurist tradition, and an almost inevitable response would be a new publishing genre that Bordwell is calling the Massive Auteur Monograph. These are thick volumes with the sheen of coated paper, wittily captioned illustrations, and “a through-composed argument” for the significance of a filmmaker with a unique profile, and more than likely, an established fan base of potential book-buyers as well.

Prime examples would be Matt Zoller Seitz’s The Wes Anderson Collection (2013) and The Oliver Stone Experience (2016) and Adam Nayman’s The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together (2018) and Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks (2020), all of them published by Abrams Books. “However humbly the auteurist approaches the director, criticism remains partly a performance,” writes Bordwell. “Seitz, for instance, emerges from his books as a voracious, encyclopedically knowledgeable pop-culture maven. Nayman strikes a more academic tone, invoking in one page Freud’s oceanic feeling, the idea of structuring absence, and signifiers.”

From the early 1960s on, “auteur criticism always straddled belletristic writing (call it haute journalism) and academic studies,” adds Bordwell. “Nayman, like many ambitious critics, draws on academic ideas pointillistically, subordinating them to the tasks of appreciation.” Reviewing Masterworks for Bookforum, A. S. Hamrah notes that Paul Thomas Anderson is, “as Nayman points out, a one-film filmmaker, who gets an idea and follows it through from research to screenplay, and from casting to shooting and premiere, before he starts another. Alone among Hollywood filmmakers, he has apparently never been tempted to do anything else. He has found a way to make films the way they are supposed to be made.”

The most lavishly outfitted of the Massive Auteur Monographs Bordwell considers is The Definitive Jacques Tati, a five-volume set from Taschen edited by Alison Castle. “This homage to one of our most sprightly directors weighs nearly eighteen pounds,” notes Bordwell, “but the vaguely Bauhausian font and school-lunchbox packaging aim to lighten the tone.” In her review for the TLS, Muriel Zagha suggests that Tati himself “would have had fun wrestling inventively with this weighty piece of luggage.”

After a leisurely walk through The Definitive Jacques Tati, Zagha turns to Play Time: Jacques Tati and Comedic Modernism, in which Malcolm Turvey “examines how Tati was able to craft a genuinely popular and radically innovative modernism, capturing elite and mass audiences alike.” At Sabzian, Ruben Demasure includes another related title in the latest of his excellent roundups on new books. For the moment, Ce que je raconterai à Tati lundi is only available in French, but it looks to be a fascinating memoir from Marie-France Siegler-Lathrop, whom Tati hired to do some casting for PlayTime (1967) when she was only twenty-four. Even as she began making her own films, she stayed on as his assistant for another eighteen years.

Personal Accounts

Along with his thoughts on recent monographs, Bordwell also offers a brief history of books about movies, focusing in particular on France and England. One of the most impactful titles of its time was not actually a study of a single director. Peter Wollen’s Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (1969) “introduced a generation to semiology,” writes Bordwell. “Such was the sway of auteurism, though, that in one chapter Wollen tried to revamp that critical approach with a structuralist analysis comparing binary themes in John Ford and Howard Hawks.”

Wollen passed away almost exactly a year ago now, and in a moving remembrance at Hyperallergic, Chon Noriega recalls that at one point in the 1990s, “when I felt as if I had fallen down the rabbit hole of film theory, I asked Peter point-blank and with a bit of exasperation, ‘What is theory?’ I certainly knew X theory, and Y theory, and Z theory, and could apply each to a text, work, object. But theory itself had suddenly become an opaque belief system. Peter responded immediately in a cheerily incisive way. ‘Oh, that’s easy. Theory is the meta-language of descriptive discourses.’ Bam! And there it was.”

This Is Not My Memoir is a pretty catchy title for an autobiography. The Manhattan Project was one of the key companies in New York’s experimental theater scene in the early 1970s, and when it broke up, its founder, André Gregory, set off on a trek around the world in search of his true self. He ate sand in the Sahara with a Buddhist monk, allowed himself to be buried alive in Montauk, and studied with renowned director and theorist Jerzy Grotowski in a Polish forest. Stories from these wandering years, retold in the book Gregory has cowritten with Todd London, will be familiar to readers who have seen My Dinner with André, the 1981 film written by Gregory’s close friend and collaborator, Wallace Shawn, and directed by Louis Malle. “Anyone who has seen that classic art film will recognize the narrative voice in this book: part naïve seeker, part canny operator,” writes Phillip Lopate in the New York Times.

My Dinner with André nearly flopped, as Nathan Taylor Pemberton points out in Bookforum, but it became a surprise hit thanks to “glowing reviews from Siskel and Ebert, as well as Pauline Kael, who described the film as the ‘story of the search beyond theatre turned into theatre, or, at least, into a movie.’ Just the same, Gregory’s memoir, and his life, could be described as the story of the search beyond art turned into art itself.” Eighty-six now, and living a relatively contented life as a painter with his second wife, film director and video artist Cindy Kleine, Gregory tells the Los Angeles TimesCharles McNulty that he’s approached this book as if he were writing a novel. “Delivered in the confiding tone of a gifted dinner party raconteur,” writes McNulty, “it reads like an artfully transcribed oral history.”

Refocus on Directors

All too briefly in the current Artforum, Rachel Kushner reviews Me & Other Writing, a collection of essays by novelist and filmmaker Marguerite Duras translated by Olivia Baes and Emma Ramadan—it’s a “little book full of goodies”—and Duras/Godard Dialogues, translated by Nicholas Elliott. “Duras and Godard admire, antagonize, and hector each other,” writes Kushner. “She’s less repressed and more erudite than Godard, and he knows it. In response, he is taciturn and coy . . . He admired her as she was, as she admired him as he was: ‘impossible, ill-mannered, and all of that.’ ‘We’re both kings,’ she said, ‘brutes.’”

Lewis Milestone, who directed films as disparate as the classic war movie All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), the musical comedy Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933), and the Rat Pack vehicle Ocean’s 11 (1960), “was not an auteur,” writes Gary D. Rhodes for the Los Angeles Review of Books. Harlow Robinson’s biography, Lewis Milestone: Life and Films, is “as tight as most classic Hollywood films, and that deserves to be heralded.” It’s also “a model of what an ethical, well-researched, and thoughtful critical biography should be.”

Also in the LARB, Ben Shields talks with Dan Callahan about The Camera Lies: Acting for Hitchcock. “I had to think,” says Callahan, “what is this all about for him, the camera lying? I think maybe [Hitchcock] thought he could be Cary Grant, because Cary Grant wasn’t really Cary Grant. Cary Grant put together this thing for the camera and became Cary Grant. It’s this romantic hope. That kind of romance based in fantasy can be very destructive.”

Srikanth Srinivasan, in the meantime, has nearly completed his translation of Luc Moullet’s 1963 monograph on Fritz Lang, and on KCRW’s The Treatment, Elvis Mitchell talks with David Mikics about Stanley Kubrick: American Filmmaker, a book we took a first look at back in August.

Three Novels

Another book worth a revisit is Equilibrium, the 1967 novel by Tonino Guerra, the screenwriter best known for his work with Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Theo Angelopoulos. “Chapters alternate between contemporary Milan—where the narrator works as a graphic designer, fights with his wife, makes love to a woman on a revolving chair, and wanders the city talking to strangers—and wartime Italy, where he’s a prisoner in a German concentration camp, subjected to humiliation and interrogation,” writes Jessica Sequeira for Review 31. “In the introduction, Michael Bracewell writes that Equilibrium is ‘an account of a mind unravelling in its attempt to understand itself.’ His expectations and memories play tricks, in an intimation of paranoia and madness.”

Ed Park reviews two new graphic novels for the New York Times. London-based illustrator Katriona Chapman’s second book tells the story of two employees at an old movie palace in Brighton. “Masquerading as a quiet character study, Breakwater falls into place like a particularly satisfying tale of gothic horror,” writes Park. Pat Dorian’s Lon Chaney Speaks “serves as a sumptuous introduction to silent cinema’s most startling weirdo, for whom the torments of the body expressed what the voice could not.”

Points of Innovation

In Wild Minds: The Artists and Rivalries That Inspired the Golden Age of Animation, Reid Mitenbuler aims “to show us that the best cartoonists were not haphazard artisans but self-aware artists, working against the constraints of commerce toward a knowing end of high comic, and sometimes serious, art,” writes Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker. “The book’s governing idea lies in its heroes’ collective intuition that animated films could be a vehicle for grownup expression—erotic, political, and even scientific—rather than the trailing diminutive form they mostly became. A cartoon tradition that could seem child-bound, sexless, and stereotyped was once vital, satiric, and experimental.”

Particularly in light of Shuzo Azuchi Gulliver’s immersive moving-image artwork Cinematic Illumination, currently on view at MoMA through February, and last year’s More Than Cinema, a presentation of four film works by Motoharu Jonouchi and Keiichi Tanaami at Pioneer Works, Steve Macfarlane, writing in the new Brooklyn Rail, recommends Japanese Expanded Cinema and Intermedia: Critical Texts of the 1960s. The collection of essays and “other assorted texts” edited by scholars and curators Go Hirasawa, Julian Ross, and Ann Adachi-Tasch “does a brilliant job contextualizing disparate strands of protest and art-making without negating the approaches of individual participants nor inviting easy conflation across contemporaneous, but wholly divergent, cliques within Japanese art history.”

2020 and 2021

You’ve probably seen the lists of the year’s best books in the New York Times and the New Yorker, at Slate and Vulture, or from the staff and contributors at the Paris Review. Literary Hub’s Emily Temple has surveyed forty-one of these lists, and combined, they recommend “a whopping 952 different books.” Temple has whittled that number way down, ranking the top dozen or so titles that have been mentioned most.

The editors at Sight & Sound present an unranked list of ten books on film they were impressed with this year, while in the Guardian, Andrew Pulver recommends ten of the best books on cinema from any year. Le Cinéma Club, in the meantime, has asked filmmakers, artists, and curators—Josh Safdie, Mati Diop, Ari Aster, Yorgos Lanthimos, Janicza Bravo, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Chloë Sevigny, Luca Guadagnino, Garrett Bradley, Léa Seydoux, and many more—to send in a photo of a film-related book they love. It’s quite a gallery.

Looking ahead to next year, we find an exciting development on the horizon. Fireflies editors Annabel Brady-Brown and Giovanni Marchini Camia are branching out into book publishing, and starting in March, they’ll be launching Decadent Editions, a series of ten books, each of them a deep dive into a single film from the first decade of the century. In first volume, Nick Pinkerton writes about Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), and subsequent releases will include Erika Balsom on James Benning’s Ten Skies (2004), Dennis Lim on Hong Sang-soo’s Tale of Cinema (2005), Melissa Anderson on David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006), and Rebecca Harkins-Cross on Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman (2008).

March will also see the release of Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic by Glenn Frankel, the author of books on John Ford’s The Searchers and Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon. Then in April, we can look forward to Billy Wilder on Assignment: Dispatches from Weimar Berlin and Interwar Vienna, a collection of more than fifty articles translated into English for the first time by Shelley Frisch and edited by Noah Isenberg. But before either of those books are out, February 2 will see the release of Mark Harris’s highly anticipated biography, Mike Nichols: A Life.

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