February Books

The Daily — Feb 18, 2021
Marcello Mastroianni in Luchino Visconti’s Le notti bianche (1957)

We began this short week with a look at the enthusiastic response to Mark Harris’s Mike Nichols: A Life, and opening this month’s round on new and noteworthy books, we turn to a few more biographies. For a New York Times profile of literary biographer Hermione Lee, widely admired for her books on Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, and Penelope Fitzgerald, Charles McGrath spoke recently with novelist Julian Barnes who recalled the day that playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard approached Lee and asked her if she might consider making him her next subject. When she asked why he’d set his sights on her, he replied, “Because I want it to be read.” When Tom Stoppard: A Life was published in the UK last October, Stefan Collini wrote in the Guardian: “It seems unfair that a man of such outrageous gifts should also have been allowed to magic up the perfect biographer to write his life.”

Stoppard, now eighty-three, has written dozens of plays, including Jumpers (1972), Travesties (1974), and Arcadia (1993), but he’s still probably best known for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which opened at the Old Vic in London in 1967 and ran for three years. In 1990, Stoppard directed his only film, an adaptation of Rosencrantz with Gary Oldman and Tim Roth, and he won the Golden Lion in Venice. His screenwriting credits include Despair (1978), an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel for Rainer Werner Fassbinder; Brazil (1985), cowritten with Charles McKeown and director Terry Gilliam; and Empire of the Sun (1987), an adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s novel for Steven Spielberg. Tom Stoppard: A Life has now arrived in the States, and it’s “estimable but wincingly long; it sometimes rides low in the water,” writes Dwight Garner in the New York Times. But it “entertains” because Stoppard “has had an opinion about almost everything, and usually these opinions are witty.”

Abraham Riesman’s True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee—you can read an excerpt at Slate—addresses the ongoing debates over the role Lee played in the creation of Marvel Comics, and by extension, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “Certainly, Lee helped build the Marvel empire through his work as a writer, editor, and publisher there,” writes Jillian Steinhauer in the New Republic. “But by the mid-’90s, his status as a trailblazing genius was in dispute.”

Why does this matter? “Americans who can’t identify Achilles or Botswana know Wakanda as a high-tech nation in Africa, Loki as a Norse god who’s up to no good, and Peter Parker as the original Spider-Man,” writes Stephanie Burt in the New Yorker. “Even as they dominate popular culture, superheroes—the flawed kind, the weird kind, the kind Marvel pioneered—can stand for exclusion, for queerness, for disability, for all manner of real or perceived oppression, marshaling enough power to blast their enemies into the sun. For decades, the title page of every Marvel superhero comic said ‘Stan Lee Presents’—no wonder we want to know who he really was.” What True Believer “does best is unfurl a Künstlerroman, a story about the growth of an art form and an artist who was also a director and a leading man, unable to admit that the show could go on without him.”

For the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, James Downs introduces his new book, Anton Walbrook: Uncovering a Life of Masks and Mirrors, the first biography of the actor born in Vienna as Adolf Anton Wilhelm Wohlbrück who then went on to make a new name for himself as the star of films by Powell and Pressburger and Max Ophuls. “It may sound perverse,” writes Downs, “but one of the most interesting things about the research was not so much the clarity that it brought to the facts of Walbrook’s life, but that it revealed a mass of complexities and contradictions.”

Eartha Kitt is, of course, an actor of an entirely different sort. “In her 1989 autobiography, Confessions of a Sex Kitten, she tells the epic story of her self-made life in poetic, precise prose,” writes Hadley Hall Meares for Vanity Fair. “During a dark period of unemployment, Kitt got wind that Orson Welles was in Paris and looking for her. In 1950, Welles cast Kitt as Helen of Troy in his stage version of Doctor Faustus. ‘I asked Orson at one point who this character was. What kind of woman is she?’ Kitt wrote. ‘“Don’t ask stupid questions, you stupid child,” Orson told me. “I chose you to play this part because you are the most exciting woman in the world. You represent all women of all ages. You have no place or time.” This confused me more than ever, so I just played myself.’”

Transatlantic Appreciations

In an excerpt from Luchino Visconti and the Fabric of Cinema now up at Film International, Joe McElhaney compares and contrasts the uses of various textiles in Le notti bianche (1957) with those in other adaptations of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1848 short story, “White Nights,” such as Robert Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971) and James Gray’s Two Lovers (2008). McElhaney notes that Visconti and the late cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno created the illusion of fog by hanging tulle from the rafters over the set. “Fog becomes fabric,” writes McElhaney, “but fog itself is capable of evoking fabric’s enveloping capacities. Unlike Dostoevsky, Visconti offers a twilight world of the demimonde in which sexual desires emerge and recede from the fog, hiding in darkened alleyways and doorways, the town itself veiled.”

Letters from Hollywood: 1977–2017 collects writing by Bill Krohn, who has been the Los Angeles correspondent for Cahiers du cinéma for over forty years, and it includes, as Jonathan Rosenbaum points out, “a fascinating twenty-five-page interview with Serge Daney (then the magazine’s editor) from 1977, entitled ‘The Tinkerers,’ and a brief 1992 obituary for Daney.” Rosenbaum notes that throughout the book, Krohn’s “recourse to literary models even when discussing nonliterary filmmakers (his appreciation of Joe Dante, for instance, teems with references to Romantic poetry) can undoubtedly be linked to the French tradition of regarding cinema as literature by another means—maintained today especially by Trafic, the film magazine Daney founded in 1991.”

Since Rosenbaum mentions that filmmaker and programmer Jackie Raynal “gave Krohn his start (and introduced both him and me to Daney),” this is as good a place as any to point to Raynal’s remembrance of Daney, written for Cahiers nine days after Daney died and appearing now for the first time in English at the Metrograph. “I met Serge in the summer of 1967,” writes Raynal. “He seemed to have walked right out of a John Ford movie, with his Irish cap and his elegant gentleman farmer gait: he smoked nonstop and talked a blue streak about politics, cinema, sports, and politics in cinema, and sports, and cinema—it was astounding.”

Taking Offense

1965 saw the publication of The Sioux, the first novel by Irene Handl, a character actor who appeared in more than a hundred British films. She was sixty-six, and the book “became a more or less immediate best seller,” notes Lucy Scholes in her Paris Review column on out-of-print books. Fans of the surprise debut included Noël Coward, Daphne du Maurier, John Gielgud, Fay Weldon, David Storey, Margaret Drabble, and Doris Lessing. The Sioux and its sequel, The Gold Tip Pfitzer (1973), track the lives of a French family, the Benoirs, who call themselves “The Sioux”—“on account of their fierce tribalism”—and “are among the most appalling and repugnant, monstrously overprivileged, egomaniacal psychopaths ever created,” writes Scholes. “To be absolutely honest, I’m not sure these books should actually be republished—the misplaced cultural appropriation of their chosen soubriquet is, if you can believe it, one of the Benoir family’s least egregious crimes—but, just like Drabble before me, now that I’ve read them, I simply haven’t been able to stop thinking about them.”

Grove Press has just reissued Terry Southern’s 1970 novel Blue Movie, “a farce about the making of Hollywood’s first big-budget, all-star, hardcore porno,” as Charles Taylor explains in the Los Angeles Review of Books, adding that “every page is likely to offend the sensitive; the book is designed that way.” Southern, who had a hand in writing a good number of landmark films of the 1960s, including Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), was a one-of-a-kind prose stylist. “Saying the right thing—even if it is the most outrageous or obscene thing—in exactly the right way is the only morality at work in his work,” writes Taylor. “Blue Movie is his best novel, the funniest, the most extreme, the most sustained narrative.”

Senses of Cinema and Alphaville

Much of the latest issue of Senses of Cinema is given over to its famously expansive World Poll gathering over a hundred lists of the best films of the past year submitted by “cinephiles, academics, critics, programmers, and filmmakers across the globe.” But we also find Holly Willis writing about Cinema Expanded: Avant-Garde Film in the Age of Intermedia, in which Jonathan Walley aims to “taxonomize the sprawling array of practices typically associated with the term ‘expanded cinema,’ which, depending on one’s perspective, may include everything from VJ sets at clubs and projection artworks in museums to physical objects made out of the strips of 35 mm film.”

Also in this issue:

  • Wheeler Winston Dixon’s piece on David Curtis’s London’s Arts Labs and the 60s Avant-Garde is as much a personal reflection on the scene as it is a review. “Curtis’s book captures the era perfectly, as a sort of ecstatic and thoroughly inclusive scrapbook of the period,” writes Dixon. “This is an essential book for an understanding of the artistic revolution taking place in London in the late 1960s and early 1970s.”

  • Reviewing R. W. Fassbinder: Film Stills, 1966–1982, a collection put together by Juliane Lorenz and Lothar Schirmer with an introduction by John Waters, Eric Gudas focuses on “six stills, six moments” that “belong to my own mental library of Fassbinder’s films.”

  • Cary Grant: The Making of a Hollywood Legend is not just “a superficial outline of a star’s career,” writes Tom Ryan. Mark Glancy “takes us backstage, behind-the-scenes, where he thoughtfully scrutinizes Grant’s private life and his off-screen relationships with a host of collaborators.”

  • Karthick Ram Manoharan argues that Stephen Prince’s A Dream of Resistance: The Cinema of Kobayashi Masaki is “significant not only because it draws critical attention to an important but under-studied filmmaker from Japan, but also because the book is a deep philosophical engagement with Kobayashi’s cinema.”

The book review section of the new Alphaville includes pieces on new titles on Stanley Cavell, North African film, and architectural space in cinema. A standout here is Flavia Brizio-Skov’s review of Fellini’s Films and Commercials: From Postwar to Postmodern, wherein Frank Burke “gives Fellini the visibility that he deserves.” Brizio-Skov explains why that visibility has gone lacking in the halls of academia, “where feminists dismissed Fellini’s works, disapproving of his construction of gender, even if a more careful analysis would have revealed the complexity of such a construction in his filmic universe. The hyper-intellectualism of French post-1968 semiological theory, in conjunction with a puritanical British counter-cinema that rejected cinematic pleasure, marginalized not only Fellini, but a good deal of Italian cinema. French-infused British theory was incapable of reading Fellini’s work in the light of his own culture, and of a vast sensual tradition of Italian visual art. Dismissing them a priori on theoretical grounds, the academic theorists did not pay close attention to Fellini’s films.”

Endnotes and Forthcoming Titles

In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Soham Gadre observes that the films of Amit Dutta are “enveloped in specific Indian experiences and histories: painting, fables, myths, and cultural traditions both ancient and contemporary. His movies take the form of chaptered novels and parables that may be told to children during bedtime.” In Modernism by Other Means, Srikanth Srinivasan “expands on his retrospective of Dutta, which was held at the Bombay Arts Society in 2017. Guided by his conversations with and further research on the filmmaker, Srinivasan sheds light on Dutta’s importance and cultural relevance, and how his career fits in a unique place between commercial and art cinema.”

Sylvia Townsend’s Bumpy Road: The Making, Flop, and Revival of Two-Lane Blacktop is “an accurate, extensively researched, but rather dry account” of the long and strange journey of Monte Hellman’s 1971 road movie, notes Tanja Bresan in Film International. And in Togo Mizrahi and the Making of Egyptian Cinema, Deborah A. Starr “convincingly argues” that the cinema of Mizrahi, who made dozens of features between 1930 and 1946, is “a subversive kaleidoscope of mistaken identities, pluralistic notions of nationalism, and comical class conflicts,” writes Giovanni Vimercati for the New Arab.

On March 1, Brookline Booksmith will launch Leslie Epstein’s new book, Hill of Beans: A Novel of War and Celluloid, with a conversation between the author and Baffler film critic A. S. Hamrah. Later in the month, a collection of interviews with David Cronenberg conducted by Amy Taubin, Gary Indiana, Dennis Lim, Nicolas Rapold, Gavin Smith, Carrie Rickey, Richard Porton, and others and edited by David Schwartz will be out. And May 4 sees the release of Films of Endearment: A Mother, a Son and the ’80s Films That Defined Us by Michael Koresky, the cofounder and editor of Reverse Shot.

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