March Books

The Daily — Mar 18, 2021
Lee Kang-sheng in Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003)

Starting Friday, the Metrograph will be giving the new restoration of Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) a two-week-long run, and that leads us straight to the first title in this month’s round on new and noteworthy books. As a physical object, Nick Pinkerton’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn is beautifully compact, the first volume in a series that Fireflies Press is calling Decadent Editions—ten authors each take on a single film from one of the years of this century’s first decade. Between the smooth-skinned covers, though, Pinkerton’s text smartly yet unpretentiously splinters off in all directions.

An excerpt up at the Notebook, for example, offers a guide to the rituals of cruising in the Fu-Ho, the movie palace where Tsai’s film takes place, as well as in cinemas in New York and Paris. One moment, Pinkerton is setting Tsai’s oeuvre next to Antonioni’s, and in the next, he’s breaking down the wuxia, a genre “both ancient and relatively new, like so much in the popular culture of Greater China.” A passage from Roland Barthes eventually leads in a roundabout way to a line from Edmund White on the flâneur, “that aimless stroller who loses himself in the crowd, who has no destination and goes wherever caprice or curiosity directs his or her steps,” a definition that may well serve as a guiding principle to this wonderful little book.

The next Decadent Edition, out in June, will be Ten Skies, Erika Balsom’s book on James Benning’s 2004 film made up of ten ten-minute static shots. Balsom’s piece in the new Artforum on Benning’s latest work, Place, may offer a sneak preview of one of her arguments. “Any critical reception of Benning dominated by formalist paeans to cinematic specificity and slowness, while not entirely wrong, is woefully insufficient,” she writes. We should mention that Balsom wrote about Tsai Ming-liang last fall for Artforum, reviewing Days, the film that contributors to Reverse Shot voted to the top of their list of the best films of 2020. Days centers on Lee Kang-sheng, who appears as a projectionist in Goodbye, Dragon Inn as well as in nearly every other film Tsai has made since Rebels of the Neon God in 1992. “Tsai’s cinema is, among other things, a practice of portraiture unfolding over decades,” writes Balsom. “Mapping changes in the flesh occurring so gradually as to be invisible to the eye, he registers the beauty and the catastrophe of aging.”

To return to Nick Pinkerton for a moment, he’s been keeping busy, talking to Jordan Cronk about Goodbye, Dragon Inn and the origins of his own cinephilia and sending out his newsletter. His latest is a rewarding meander on and around the impulse to collect things and experiences that dips into the work of Todd Verow, Eric Rohmer, and Luc Moullet. Here again, it’s all about the tangents. Reviewing Glenn Frankel’s Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic for Bookforum—you can read an excerpt from the book at Vanity FairPinkerton notes that Frankel “takes extensive digressive detours into pockets of cultural history leading up to and beyond the watershed moment when a movie about a hunky piece of Texas trade making it with men and women in an increasingly dilapidated New York City could become a surprise hit and popular phenomenon.”

The new Bookforum also offers A. S. Hamrah on Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother: Memoirs of a Neurotic Filmmaker, “a tale of Jewish family dysfunction in the tradition of Neil Simon and Philip Roth (in that order), with a self-involved narrator who, despite his mother’s best efforts to pulverize his psyche, finds himself a great and unexpected success.” And Carl Wilson reviews Melissa Maerz’s Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, whose “prime appeal is its font of anecdotes, drawn from more than one-hundred and fifty interviews, on the one hand about the trials Linklater endured getting it made, and on the other about the blast its young cast—including then-unknowns like Matthew McConaughey (he of the titular catchphrase), Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, and Joey Lauren Adams, all getting their first big breaks—had in their ‘summer camp’ of shooting in Austin.”

More Excerpts

Jugend ohne Film is a German site that publishes in English about half the time, and the excerpt from a short story, “Days of 1978,” from the collection Last Evenings on Earth by the author that Garth Risk Hallberg referred to in the New York Times last month as “Chilean genius Roberto Bolaño” is one of those times. In the story, the sound of a friend’s voice “conjures up a silent black-and-white film in which, all of a sudden, the characters start shouting incomprehensibly at the top of their voices, while a red line appears in the middle of the screen and begins to widen and spread. This vision, or premonition, perhaps, makes B so nervous that in spite of himself he opens his mouth and says he has seen a film recently and it was a very good film.” B’s recollection of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966) guides the story toward an unexpected turn.

RogerEbert.com, in the meantime, has become a reliable resource of samplings from new books, including Tim Grierson’s This Is How You Make a Movie, a collection of lessons taken from films ranging from Citizen Kane to Elf, from Wonder Woman to American Honey. In Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, Scout Tafoya asks, “How did the man famous for creating some of the most endearing images of terrible things, who did for the hardware store what Jaws did for the beach, become someone in need of rescue?”

Speaking of terrible things, here’s Todd Melby in A Lot Can Happen in the Middle of Nowhere: The Untold Story of the Making of Fargo: “Carving up a corpse with a wood chipper is a bloody mess. Which is why Paul Murphy began with the idea of cutting raw chicken and pork into tiny pieces. The special effects coordinator figured the flying meat would look like human flesh when thrust out the side of the chipper. It didn’t work.”

A fourth excerpt is taken from Sarah Welch-Larson’s Becoming Alien: The Beginning and End of Evil in Science Fiction's Most Idiosyncratic Film Franchise​. “For a film that has been interpreted to be about fear, about fear of rape, and about the knots human beings tie themselves into in order to fit into an economic system that is not built to favor them,” writes Welch-Larson, “Alien spends very little energy explicitly talking about those issues. It is an elegant example of the old adage about showing, not telling. None of the crew are in love, none are homesick, none have anyone waiting for them back home; or at least, if they do, they do not waste their breath pining about it.”

Remarkable Women

More than just excerpts, entire books on women directors are being made freely accessible as part of the Edinburgh University Press series Visionaries: Thinking Through Female Filmmakers. Five titles have been made available so far—on Gillian Armstrong, Kathleen Collins, Marguerite Duras, Mia Hansen-Løve, and Ana Kokkinos—and further volumes on Habiba Djahnine, Joanna Hogg, and Céline Sciamma are on the way.

The first book from Terri Simone Francis, director of the Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University, is Josephine Baker’s Cinematic Prism, and writing for Salon, she explains why Baker’s films “grieve the star she might have been. She projected vivaciousness, glamour, and a uniquely womanist internationalism as she shimmied in bananas, performed in world capitals, and strolled with her cheetah, but her screen roles placed this extraordinary performer in a paradoxical space where she was both essential and incidental to the plot.”

Also out from IU Press is Love and Loss in Hollywood: Florence Deshon, Max Eastman, and Charlie Chaplin, a collection of correspondence between Deshon, a star of the silent era, and Eastman, a poet and activist who edited the socialist monthly The Masses. Most of the films Deshon appeared in have been lost, and she died of gas asphyxiation in her New York apartment when she was only twenty-eight. Interviewing the coeditors of Love and Loss, Cooper C. Graham and Christoph Irmscher, Jesse Pasternack notes that the exchange of letters between Deshon and Eastman are “by turns joyful and heartbreaking, witty and mundane.” Chaplin, with whom Deshon began an affair after Eastman introduced them, never wrote to her. Graham tells Pasternack that without Eastman’s memoirs, “there would be precious little to show that Chaplin inhabited the same universe as Florence.”

In her Vanity Fair column, Hadley Hall Meares revisits Lauren Bacall’s 1978 autobiography By Myself, which was reissued with new chapters in 2005 as By Myself and Then Some. “In these pages,” writes Meares, “Bacall—long painted as a difficult diva—recounts her life with a sense of humor, curiosity, and gratitude that’s miles from her icy, grande dame persona.” Meares also recommends William Donati’s “masterful” Ida Lupino: A Biography from 2013. “When not on set, Lupino was forever composing music, writing short stories, and dreaming up screenplays, while a menagerie of pets scurried about, and her mother tapped around the house to stay in shape,” writes Meares. “Her house, nicknamed ‘the Hotel,’ was thrown open at all hours to her tight-knit group of friends, known as ‘the chums’—including Ann Sheridan, Rex Harrison, Geraldine Fitzgerald, David Niven, and her occasional boyfriend Errol Flynn. Friends became used to their hostess’s peculiarities. Cocktails were often served at 3 a.m., and since there was no phone, all calls had to be made at the nearby Beverly Hills Hotel.”

Four Directors

A few more quick recommendations. Critic and programmer Geoff Andrew has just read Godfrey Cheshire’s Conversations with Kiarostami and notes that when “faced with interviewers who he felt weren’t familiar with his work or were simply asking him about abstract ideas,” Abbas Kiarostami “could sometimes lapse into—or, perhaps, would deliberately respond in turn with—laconic twaddle or lazy cliché. If he liked your questions, however, he could be very forthcoming, and Cheshire clearly asked the right kind, receiving for the most part lengthy, considered, revealing answers.”

For Film International, Tanja Bresan writes about ReFocus: The Films of Paul Schrader, “a comprehensive and accessible academic profile” edited by Michelle E. Moore and Brian Brems, and at Ultra Dogme, Maximilien Luc Proctor writes that in Modernism by Other Means: The Films of Amit Dutta, Srikanth Srinivasan “walks us through an extensive portrait of an elastic artist” with “rugged clarity and verve.” And Rajendra Roy, chief curator of film at the Museum of Modern Art, talks with Mark Harris about his very well-received Mike Nichols: A Life.

Forthcoming

Following books on the Coen brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson, Adam Nayman and Abrams Books are reteaming on another Massive Auteur Monograph, as David Bordwell calls them, and given Monday’s Oscar nominations, the timing couldn’t be better. David Fincher: Mind Games should be out in November.

Semiotext(e)’s collection of writing by French critic Serge Daney, The Cinema House and the World: The Cahiers du Cinema Years, 1962–1981, will be out next February with a forward by A. S. Hamrah. We can also look forward to Out of the Shadows, a collection on five Arab female film directors—Atteyat Al-Abnoudy, Selma Baccar, Assia Djebar, Jocelyne Saab, and Heiny Srour—put together by Courtisane, Sabzian, and the KASK School of Arts. And Flash Flaherty: Tales from a Film Seminar, a collection of over a hundred personal recollections from such attendees of the annual event as Jonas Mekas, Lynne Sachs, Su Friedrich, Ken Jacobs, John Gianvito, and Anocha Suwichakornpong may already be available.

Next Wednesday, Jonathan Kiefer will talk with David Thomson and celebrate the launch of Thomson’s new book A Light in the Dark: A History of Movie Directors. And April 5 will see the publication of Jay Glennie’s Raging Bull: The Making Of. In anticipation, the Guardian has posted a remarkable gallery of photos and other memorabilia such the mash note Al Pacino sent to Robert De Niro a few days after he saw Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film.

Endnotes

The new Film Quarterly is just out, and it features Bruno Guaraná’s conversation with Lúcia Nagib about her new book, Realist Cinema as World Cinema: Non-Cinema, Intermedial Passages, Total Cinema. Since 2006, says Nagib, she has “been insisting that different cinemas of the world have to be defined positively—by what they are, not by what they are not. The very term ‘world cinema’ emerged in opposition to Hollywood, or mainstream commercial cinema. Even though it acknowledged the existence of cinemas other than Hollywood, its negative definition created a distorted picture that ended up reaffirming Hollywood as ‘the’ cinema and all the other cinematic outputs in the world as ‘alternative’ to it . . . Theorists such as Thomas Elsaesser have already suggested that world cinema distinguishes itself from mainstream cinema thanks to its heightened degree of realism, but I wanted to go further into that line of thought.”

Finally for now, for more notes on more books, see Christopher Schobert’s roundup at the Film Stage.

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