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August Books

Delphine Seyrig in Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

This month’s roundup on new and noteworthy books opens not with a fresh release but with the revival of an old debate. To what degree should screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet and director Alain Resnais have acknowledged the debt they owed to Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares’s 1940 novel The Invention of Morel when they made Last Year at Marienbad (1961)? Writing in full throttle “j’accuse!” mode for Bright Lights Film Journal, Ann Manov stakes out her position in her very first sentence. The film, she argues, is “an adaptation that became a theft.”

In his introduction to the first edition of The Invention of Morel, Casares’s close friend and collaborator, Jorge Luis Borges, ranked the novel with such major twentieth-century works as Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and Franz Kafka’s The Trial. Jacques Rivette was more than happy to own up to the novel’s influence on Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974), and as Manov notes, Chris Marker “claimed that the human race could be divided into those who had read Morel and those who hadn’t; he said that if he could bring only one book to a desert island, he would bring Morel.” During a conversation that took place in the virtual world of Second Life in 2008, Marker asked his interviewers, Julien Gester and Serge Kaganski of Les inrockuptibles, if they had read the book. “No, neither of us have read it. Shame on us?” Marker: “Well, it’s nothing to be proud of. In any event, it’s exactly the world of that masterpiece that I came to find in SL.”

The Invention of Morel is written in the form of a diary kept by an unnamed fugitive who has washed up on what at first appears to be a deserted island. Tourists waft in, dressed in attire that seems to date back to the 1920s, and the fugitive is drawn to one of them, Faustine, a woman who bears more than a passing resemblance to Louise Brooks—Casares was a devoted fan. Eventually, the fugitive learns that Faustine, the tourists, and much of the flora and fauna on the island are three-dimensional projections recorded and reproduced by a machine invented by Faustine’s companion, a bearded tennis player named Morel.

Connecting the dots between the novel and Marienbad, Manov finds it implausible that “Robbe-Grillet just happened to make a film about neither-dead-nor-alive 1920s French tourists wandering around and repeating themselves in a mysterious, baroque palace and garden with bizarre climate disturbances, either identified as Marienbad or strongly resembling Marienbad, where a Latin stranger stalks a beautiful woman with a bob while her menacing husband looks on, artificially creating a past where they loved each other but trapping her in his own imagination.”

Crucial to Manov’s argument—a rich and rewarding read, regardless of whether you are as eager and willing as she is to incriminate the screenwriter—is the assumption that Marienbad is a film by Robbe-Grillet. Resnais, whose masterly mise-en-scène gave form and rhythm to Marienbad—who realized the screenplay—claimed to have been unaware of the novel until journalists brought it up during his and Robbe-Grillet’s well-orchestrated press tour leading up to the film’s premiere. Even Manov presumes that this is likely.

Of the many essays and blog entries on the linkage between Morel and Marienbad, let me recommend three: Thomas Beltzer’s for Senses of Cinema from 2000; a 2014 entry from Dan DeWeese; and another from David Auerbach, written in 2004. “I imagine Resnais seeing Robbe-Grille’s oblique script and taking it as a blank slate, overlaying a formalist visual approach that does not gibe in the least with the original source of the script,” wrote Auerbach. “I imagine Resnais as the main character of The Invention of Morel not interacting with the buried meaning of Robbe-Grillet’s script, but inserting himself and his visuals among its surface features and crafting a new meaning from it.”

Hollywood Memoirs

Rachel Syme has been carrying on a “romance with Hollywood memoirs” for years, and in a dazzlingly designed piece at the New Yorker, she recommends thirteen of them, including books by Louise Brooks, Bette Davis, Eartha Kitt, and Lauren Bacall. “The sooner you accept that star stories are full of embellishments and omissions, invented quotes and one-sided recollections dictated to patient ghostwriters,” writes Syme, “the sooner you’ll come to appreciate them as the grand and eccentric performances that they are.”

At Vanity Fair, Hadley Hall Meares recommends Rosalind Russell’s “breezy” 1977 memoir, Life Is a Banquet, and samples a few stories. There’s one in which Russell tricks Carl Laemmle Jr., Universal’s head of production, into letting her out of her contract and another about the prank she and her husband of thirty-five years—Freddie Brisson, who got Cary Grant to introduce him—pulled on Frank Sinatra.

Mel Brooks has announced that his memoir, All About Me! My Remarkable Life in Show Business, will be out on November 30. “It was joyous and at times bittersweet writing this book and reliving the peaks and valleys of my incredible journey from Brooklyn to Hollywood to Broadway,” says the ninety-five-year-old comedian and filmmaker.

Cultural Histories

Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles, California is a memoir of a different sort, a collection of reflections on Hollywood and the culture at large by Matthew Specktor. Literary Hub is running an excerpt from one on Tuesday Weld, who is probably still best known for her lead performances in Noel Black’s Pretty Poison (1968) and Frank Perry’s Play It as It Lays (1972). “In a way,” writes Specktor, “the very ambiguity of these movies, their ambivalent split between a mainstream cheer and a subversive violence, mirrors Weld’s own position: too sunny for the burgeoning counterculture, I suspect, and too sour for the suburbs. Yet there is such delight in them. A near-total absence of vanity, and a superabundance of joy . . . The problem was never that Weld ‘didn’t get the parts she deserved,’ nor even that she turned so many of them down. The problem was that the movies barely deserved her. She could make even the technology that created her, somehow, seem common.”

Reviewing A Uniquely American Epic: Intimacy and Action, Tenderness and Violence in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch for Film International, Jeremy Carr notes that several of the essays in the collection “are written in revealing first-person, including subjective narratives and memories to illustrate how The Wild Bunch affected the respective writer on a particular, individual level. This informality, which does absolutely nothing to take away from the ‘academic’ class of such a compilation (published by the University Press of Kentucky as part of its estimable Screen Classics series), in fact testifies to how profoundly the film—and Peckinpah’s work in the main—can impress the emotional and private sensibilities of the viewer.”

In his new book on British television from the late 1950s to the late ’80s, The Magic Box: Viewing Britain through the Rectangular Window, Rob Young revisits programs that “in their tang and texture as much as in their subject matter,” writes Sukhdev Sandhu in the Guardian, “were spells against forgetting—reanimating pre-Christian Britain in Alan Clarke and David Rudkin’s Penda’s Fen (1974), British imperialism in Colin Luke’s citric The Black Safari (1972) and Molly Dineen’s Home from the Hill (1987), the Highland Clearances in John McGrath’s extraordinary The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil (1974), directed by John Mackenzie. If, as the cultural theorist Mark Fisher has claimed, postwar public broadcasting represented a form of ‘popular modernism,’ this was often a modernism against modernity.”


In his two most recent Writers on Film conversations, John Bleasdale talks with Paul Cronin, who has edited collections on the work of Abbas Kiarostami and Alexander Mackendrick and conducted a book’s worth of interviews with Werner Herzog; and with Mark Harris, the author of Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood,Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, and Mike Nichols: A Life.

Kim Morgan, who has been working with Guillermo del Toro on the screenplay for his forthcoming adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel Nightmare Alley, joins Pure Cinema Podcast hosts Elric Kane and Brian Saur to delve into Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the first novel by Quentin Tarantino. “From stem to stern,” writes Ray Pride for Newcity Film, “the $9.99 drugstore spinner-rack-sized pocket expansion of Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, in its scope shared with the movie, is probably the most personal (and perverse) thing Tarantino has shared with a public.”

New and Forthcoming

Once Upon a Time tops Christopher Schobert’s latest round of recommended reads at the Film Stage, and if you’re really looking to thoroughly replenish your shelves, turn to the spring and summer roundup at Sabzian. Of the dozens of titles cited by Ruben Demasure, one of the most tempting is Vitalina Varela: Caderno de Rodagem, a collection of photographs taken during the making of Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela (2019).

For decades, copies of The Total FilmMaker, a 1971 collection of lectures that Jerry Lewis gave at the University of Southern California, were so rare that they were going for hundreds of dollars. Now the Jerry Lewis Estate and Michael Wiese Productions have released a new—and quite affordable—fiftieth-anniversary edition.

Inland Empire, Melissa Anderson’s book on David Lynch’s 2006 film, will be out in November. This will be the third of Fireflies Press’s Decadent Editions after Nick Pinkerton’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn and Erika Balsom’s Ten Skies. Reviewing Balsam’s book on James Benning’s 2004 film for Hyperallergic, Katherine Connell writes that it “demonstrates that rigorous criticism isn’t necessarily diluted by warmth, humility, and wonder.”

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