June Books

Orson Welles reads Mamma Roma in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s La ricotta (1963)

Writer and programmer Christopher Small, who runs the Critics Academy in Locarno, calls Doug Dibbern’s Cinema’s Doppelgängers “one of the best film books to come along in eons.” Naturally, this has to be the title that opens this month’s roundup of new and noteworthy titles. The book is now available to order in print or to download for free as a PDF. As Dibbern explains in his overture, Cinema’s Doppelgängers is “a counterfactual history of the movies” in which Alfred Hitchcock “never came to Hollywood, in which Orson Welles’s first film was his adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, whose financial failure prevented him from ever making Citizen Kane, and a world whose cinematic aesthetics and critical literature all evolved slightly differently because an obscure director named D. W. Griffith was killed by a speeding train in 1913, just as he’d begun preparing the script for an epic film based on Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansmen.

Why do this? Because, Dibbern explains, “an approach like this can serve a legitimate historiographic purpose. Embracing speculative fiction as a historical methodology will necessarily highlight the arbitrary nature of the past. It can underline how the trajectory of film—more than any other art form—has been determined by political, economic, technological, and bureaucratic forces.”

Another intriguing title published just a few days ago is Mémoires d’une savonnette indocile, the autobiography of the underrated, under-read, and underseen critic and filmmaker Luc Moullet. Moullet, who turned eighty-three last fall, began writing for Cahiers du cinéma when he was eighteen and shot his first film when he was twenty-three. “He was the first to write at length about Samuel Fuller and Edgar G. Ulmer and the first at Cahiers to champion Luis Buñuel,” noted Jonathan Rosenbaum in 2006, and his films “reflect some of the tenderness of François Truffaut as well as some of the boorish satirical humor of Godard.” Mémoires is only available in French for the time being, but Srikanth Srinivasan has translated three of Moullet’s books and is currently a little over halfway through a fourth, Cecil B. DeMille: The Emperor of Mauve, from 2012.

Critical Engagement

In Girl Head: Feminism and Film Materiality, Genevieve Yue “locates and describes a common motif in laboratory, editing, and archival practices: the disappearance of the female body,” writes Mackenzie Lukenbill, introducing an interview with the author for Film Comment.Girl Head tracks this theme from the films of illusionist Georges Méliès, in which women are made to vanish “on camera,” to contemporary works of both avant-garde (Barbara Hammer’s Sanctus) and popular cinema (David Fincher’s Gone Girl) where a woman’s disappearance is central to the form and function of the film.”

For the London Review of Books, Stuart Jeffries writes about Siegfried Kracauer, “a salaried flâneur, an analyst of the modern urban experience,” and the author of From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film and Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. The occasion is the English-language publication of Kracauer: A Biography, but Jeffries is less concerned with Jörg Später’s book than with Kracauer’s relationships with other theorists associated with the Frankfurt School, in particular Theodor Adorno. “By the late 1920s,” writes Jeffries, “Kracauer was writing more than a hundred pieces a year on film. Cinema, as he saw it, was the key to explaining the modern age.” Fleeing the Nazis in 1941, Kracauer readily adjusted to life in the U.S., and Jeffries notes that his “first review for the Nation was a critique of Dumbo in which he recommended that rather than making faux naturalistic fantasies, Disney should do what Chaplin did and transmute ‘everyday life into fairy tales.’”

Reassessing Oeuvres

Writing for Film International, Thomas Puhr welcomes the publication of ReFocus: The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky, a collection edited by Sergei Toymentsev. “Yes,” writes Puhr, “almost everyone would agree he was a supremely talented artist responsible for some of the most gorgeous sequences committed to celluloid. But let’s dig a bit deeper than that, the anthology’s eclectic contributors suggest; enshrining his work as pseudo-holy relics can stymy new interpretations. And that would indeed be a shame, especially since his films’ thematic and stylistic intricacies practically demand ongoing critical engagement.”

In an excerpt from American Twilight: The Cinema of Tobe Hooper published in Film International, Kristopher Woofter and Will Dodson argue that, while the hour-long television documentary Peter Paul and Mary: The Song is Love (1971) may be hard to track down, it’s “crucial to understanding Hooper’s technical and thematic development, and his role as a political artist.”

Talking Movies

Little White Lies has posted an oral history of Y tu mamá también (2001), an excerpt from The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema, in which Jason Wood talks with director Alfonso Cuarón, his cowriter and brother Carlos Cuarón, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and others who took part in or (like Guillermo del Toro) observed the production. “I think it’s the best script I’ve ever read,” says Gael García Bernal, who stars in the road movie with Luisa Cortés and Diego Luna. “The depth of the film is perhaps surprising, because it really comes from a very clichéd story. I mean, two guys taking a road trip with a woman—how B-movie is that?” For Lubezki, this is “the movie that I am most proud of, full-stop.”

In Scratches and Glitches: Observations on Preserving and Exhibiting Cinema in the Early 21st Century, curator Jurij Meden “engages numerous internal debates that rage within the international network of film archivists and programmers,” writes Light Industry cofounder Thomas Beard in an introduction to his fifty-minute interview, “yet Meden’s observations speak to questions that extend far beyond this particular community. Indeed, they’re highly relevant to anyone concerned with the fate of the moving image as an art form.”

Season’s Favorites

High praise is still coming in for a few titles we’ve been reading (and reading about) over the past few months. The stories Glenn Frankel tells in Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic “have an undeniable, page-turning appeal,” writes Adam Nayman in the Nation, “but as in The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, which excavated the violent nineteenth-century history behind John Ford’s epic, and High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic, in which a movie about principled, stand-alone heroism is juxtaposed against a backdrop of filmmakers either holding their tongues or naming names, Frankel is primarily interested in movies as superconductors that channel the larger cultural currents around them.”

Mark Harris’s Mike Nichols: A Life “will take its place as the standard single volume study of its subject,” writes Jonathan Kirschner in the Boston Review. “And the biography is not just well done, it is an absolute page-turner—even when talking about notorious fiascos such as Day of the Dolphin (1973). Harris moves deftly through the decades and avoids prurience while telling the key stories from a storied life.”

Billy Wilder on Assignment: Dispatches from Weimar Berlin and Interwar Vienna, edited by Noah Isenberg and translated by Shelley Frisch, is a “thrilling and valuable” collection of Wilder’s journalism that “lets us see the European roots of a director who made so many classic American movies, and how they were shaped in the tumult and horror of the twentieth century,” writes Peter Bradshaw for the New Republic.

Roundups and Endnotes

A couple of weeks ago, Marlon Brando’s personal library of more than three thousand books went up on the block, and for Literary Hub, Rebecca Rego Barry talks with Helen Hall, an entertainment and music specialist at Bonhams auction house. Brando naturally read books on acting by Stella Adler and Konstantin Stanislavski, but among “the most dog-eared and annotated” of the lot are “books on philosophy, psychology, and politics: Jung, Kant, Freud, Thoreau, Arendt, Rousseau, Hawking’s A Brief History of Time,” says Mann. “More than any film role or acting award, Brando desired to understand life and the purpose of living.”

In the New York Times, J. Hoberman introduces ten books published over the course of seven decades that “offer a prismatic view of what used to be called the Dream Factory.” David Bordwell focuses on newly published titles in his roundup of five books, including Ken Kwapis’s But What I Really Want to Do Is Direct: Lessons From a Life Behind the Camera, which “ranks with Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies and Alexander MacKendrick’s On Film-Making, the most acute personal reflections on Hollywood directing.” Bordwell has also been reading fiction by prolific crime writer and occasional screenwriter Donald E. Westlake. “Nearly all his work I know has a zesty playfulness,” writes Bordwell, and the novella A Travesty is “no different. It suggests that, after shooting down movies and destroying reputations, film critics have earned a chance to kill for real. They just turn out to be fairly bad at it.”

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