December Books

Greta Garbo

Let’s open this month’s roundup of new and noteworthy books with two handsome volumes from Abrams Books. In 2013, the publisher found it had a hit on its hands with The Wes Anderson Collection. Matt Zoller Seitz’s critical overview of the filmography, paired with playful illustrations by Max Dalton, has since become a series. The Grand Budapest Hotel appeared in 2015, and The French Dispatch is all set for a February 2022 release.

Vulture already has an excerpt in which Seitz talks with key grip Sanjay Sami, “Anderson’s resident miracle facilitator,” about the construction of a seventy-second tracking shot in which a writer played by Jeffrey Wright discusses the challenges of preparing meals for a police unit while walking at a fairly rapid clip through various rooms of the station in Ennui-sur-Blasé. Sami pulled off a seemingly impossible shot aboard a train in The Darjeeling Limited (2007) and has been working with Anderson ever since.

Sami “speculates that the totality of shots like this, created in collaboration with [cinematographer Robert] Yeoman, production designer Adam Stockhausen, and myriad cast and crew members, are the ultimate expression of Anderson’s increasingly animation-influenced aesthetic,” writes Seitz. Sami admits that there are “moments where we’re like, ‘That’s it—with this request, he’s lost his block,’” but “when you finally sit down to watch the full cut and you get to one of those scenes, you invariably think, ‘Oh my God—he was right.’”

In 2018, Abrams teamed up with critic Adam Nayman and the British magazine Little White Lies to produce a book with a magnificent subtitle, The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together, and Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks followed in 2020. Nayman’s latest, David Fincher: Mind Games, completes what he, talking to Sydney Urbanek, calls “a weird, very circumstantial trilogy . . . and maybe not unfortunately, but maybe a bit dubiously, they’re kind of a broteur trilogy.”

Urbanek is especially interested in talking with Nayman about Fincher’s work in the 1980s and ’90s as an in-demand and multiple-award-winning director of television commercials and music videos. “With Fincher,” says Nayman, “you do have that question of, Did an adman become an artist or did he just become an increasingly artful adman?” Nayman also talks with critic, filmmaker, and Fincher champion Kent Jones on the Film Comment Podcast, and in another terrific conversation, he and Nick Newman agree at the Film Stage that Fincher has had “a huge impact on visual culture without necessarily being a household name.”

As a feature filmmaker, is Fincher “a subversive auteur, a hypocritical stylist selling faux rebellion to the multiplexes, or all of the above?” asks Chuck Bowen at Slant. “This is the question driving David Fincher: Mind Games, and critic Adam Nayman plumbs deeper into the subject than any writer before him.” In an excerpt from the book at the Ringer, Nayman calls Se7en (1995) “a series of precise strokes—its pace as finely calibrated as the metronome in [Detective] Somerset’s study, its shocks as carefully curated as a museum retrospective.” Literary Hub, too, has an excerpt: “In Alien 3 [1992] and The Game [1997], Fincher cloaked his anti-establishment attitudes in the vestments of genre, but Fight Club [1999] is so explicit about its provocations that they graduate from subtext to subject, with mixed if vivid results.”

Greta Garbo

For the Wall Street Journal, Emily Bobrow profiles Robert Gottlieb, the former editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster, Alfred A. Knopf, and the New Yorker. He turned ninety in April, and he has a new book out, Garbo. The Swedish-American star born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson in 1905 has been the subject of a good number of documentaries and biographies, but Gottlieb’s Garbo is “a particularly charming, companionable, and clear-eyed guide to her life and work,” writes Margaret Talbot in the New Yorker. Gottlieb “has no axe to grind, no urgent need to make a counterintuitive case for her lesser movies, and he’s generous with his predecessors. By the end of the biography, I felt I understood Garbo better as a person, without the aura of mystery around her having been entirely dispelled—and, at this point, who would want it to be?”

Reviewing the book for the New York Times, Mark Harris notes that Gottlieb’s “writing about [George Cukor’s] Camille [1936]—remembered, and often dismissed, for its over-the-top melodrama and death scene—is the first I’ve read that helped me understand the esteem in which generations of worshipers have held her performance. This is what we want film books to do—to send us to the work with sharper eyes and more open minds.”

Writing for Air Mail, Peter Bogdanovich, too, recommends the book but also passes along a story from Orson Welles. Marlene Dietrich was “an abject admirer” of the actor, so Welles invited her to come along to a party Clifton Webb was throwing for Garbo. “Orson said that Garbo was fairly late to arrive,” writes Bogdanovich, “and that when the two were introduced, Dietrich anxiously gushed out a few exceedingly warm and complimentary remarks. Garbo did not in any way reciprocate, but only nodded and moved on. Dietrich looked crestfallen, Orson told me. On the drive back from the party, for a very long time she said not a word. Finally, rather softly, she made just one remark: ‘Her feet are not soo big . . .’”

More Hollywood Lives

In an excerpt from Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge at Bright Lights Film Journal, Joseph McBride tells the story behind Hold Back the Dawn (1941), directed by Mitchell Leisen and cowritten by Wilder and Charles Brackett. Too often overlooked in quick primers and Wilder listicles, the film is “a gem,” argues McBride, “a deeply personal work for Wilder with its echoes of his struggle to surmount the roadblocks of the U.S. immigration system and become an American. A largely unsung classic of romantic comedy-drama, it can stand muster in the hierarchy of ‘Brackettandwilders’’s achievement with Ninotchka and their brilliantly witty script for Howard Hawks’s zany comedy about gangsters and philology, Ball of Fire (also 1941).”

If you’re looking to learn more about “actress, pioneering female producer, ski-resort impresario, painter, art collector, and groundbreaking inventor” Hedy Lamarr, Vanity Fair’s Hadley Hall Meares recommends Stephen Michael Shearer’s Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr (2010) or Richard Rhodes’s Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World (2012). But Meares’s focus in her latest Hollywood Book Club column is on a nasty little best seller, Ecstasy and Me: My Life as a Woman, ghostwritten by Cy Rice and Leo Guild and culled from around fifty hours of recorded interviews. “The book’s torrid passages are written like classic pornography,” writes Meares. “Once Lamarr actually bothered to read Ecstasy and Me, she knew her career was done.”

Mel Brooks

The Los Angeles Film Critics Association will present its career achievement award this year to Mel Brooks. At ninety-five, the comedian who wrote jokes for Sid Caesar in the 1950s, cowrote Get Smart with Buck Henry in the 1960s, and created the 2000 Year Old Man with Carl Reiner, is currently writing and will produce a variety series for Hulu. History of the World, Part II will be a sequel, forty years on, to his 1981 feature, History of World, Part I. As a director, Brooks was a comedic force to be reckoned with in the 1970s, scoring hit after hit as he spoofed westerns in Blazing Saddles and Universal monster movies in Young Frankenstein, both from 1974. Silent Movie followed in 1976, and in 1977—with Alfred Hitchcock’s eager approval—Brooks riffed on Vertigo in High Anxiety.

Vulture is running an excerpt from Brooks’s new memoir, All About Me! My Remarkable Life in Show Business, in which he recalls falling for Anne Bancroft, to whom he was married from 1964 to her death in 2005. The book “takes humor as an absolute value, something that ‘brings religious persecutors, dictators, and tyrants to their knees faster than any other weapon,’ something that can win over a classy lady like Bancroft,” writes Alexandria Jacobs in the New York Times. “Its 460 pages rattle along like an extended one-liner.” But for Jonathan Romney in the Guardian, unless you’re “a Brooks obsessive,” All About Me! is “not the most gratifying read. Go back to his best movies instead.”

Or listen to the man talk. He is, famously, a fabulous talker, and last week, he spoke with Fresh Air host Terry Gross. He’s also been talking to Hadley Freeman (Guardian), Donald Liebenson (Vanity Fair), and Michael Schulman (New Yorker).

The 1970s

The New York Review of Books has freed up from its archive a delightful—and occasionally delightfully wicked—piece by Joan Didion that ran in 1973. Ostensibly, she was reviewing two books, but most of the essay is given over to her own observations about Hollywood and an industry perpetually in flux. “To read David O. Selznick’s instructions to his directors, writers, actors, and department heads in Memo from David O. Selznick is to come very close to the spirit of actually making a picture, a spirit not of collaboration but of armed conflict in which one antagonist has a contract assuring him nuclear capability,” wrote Didion.

As for Figures of Light: Film Criticism and Comment, a 1971 collection from Stanley Kauffmann, Didion wondered: “What is there to be said about this particular cast of mind? Some people who write about film seem so temperamentally at odds with what both Fellini and Truffaut have called the ‘circus’ aspect of making film that there is flatly no question of their ever apprehending the social or emotional reality of the process. In this connection I think particularly of Kauffmann, whose idea of a nasty disclosure about the circus is to reveal that the aerialist is up there to get our attention.”

Writing for Bright Lights, Elroy Rosenberg recommends David Koenig’s Shooting Columbo: The Lives and Deaths of TV’s Rumpled Detective. “Koenig, a journalist who has previously written multiple books on Disneyland and edited a couple more on Laurel and Hardy, brings his substantive affection to bear on this most underexplored of subjects,” writes Rosenberg. “Columbo is by any measure a serious achievement in network television, a product of its inventive, uncouth, and decadent epoch, and fans have expressed a greatdeal of enthusiasm that its story is finally having its time in the sun.”

If It Bleeds . . .

The Austin Chronicle’s Richard Whittaker talks with Lars Nilsen, the lead programmer for the cinema run by the Austin Film Society, about Warped and Faded: Weird Wednesday and the Birth of the American Genre Film Archive. The book collects program notes on films screened in the signature series at the Alamo Drafthouse up to 2009. Week in and week out, the program was a “celebration of grind, sleaze, offbeat genres, and unique visions that defied categorization,” as Whittaker puts it.

Whittaker also chats with AGFA creative director Joseph A. Ziemba, who has overseen restorations of many of the 35 mm prints that have screened as part of Weird Wednesday—and of Terror Tuesday as well. Ziemba launched the popular site Bleeding Skull! in 2004, cowrote the book Bleeding Skull!: A 1980s Trash-Horror Odyssey in 2013, and has now released Bleeding Skull!: A 1990s Trash-Horror Odyssey, cowritten with Annie Choi and Zack Carlson. “Both Bleeding Skull books are dedicated to vaporizing the idea that these films are disposable,” writes Whittaker.

Clark Collis interviewed Edgar Wright and much of the cast and crew that worked on his first feature before writing You’ve Got Red on You: How Shaun of the Dead Was Brought to Life. The book “chronicles the highs and lows of production from swapping production companies before ever setting foot onto a set, long days covered in gore, in sweltering heat on old sound stages, to hostile receptions from the locals when shooting external shots,” writes Andrew Mack, who calls You’ve Got Red on You “essential reading” at ScreenAnarchy.


For the Los Angeles Review of Books, Giovanni Vimercati writes about three volumes dedicated to Mauritanian director Med Hondo from Archive Books. Hondo’s films “do not attempt to redress negative representations with positive images,” writes Vimercati, adding that “if anything, they undermine the whole rhetorical structure upon which those negative representations rest. Rather than focus on ‘educating’ Western audiences, Hondo’s films seek to connect with those that have been written out of history: African, Arabs, Asians, the oppressed and exploited.”

New Yorkers will likely want to read about what curators Matt Folden and Nick Pinkerton have planned for Metrograph’s newly reopened bookstore. Light Industry cofounder Thomas Beard, in the meantime, is starting up a used bookstore that will be open on Monday evenings.

Le Cinéma Club has invited directors, musicians, artists, writers, and friends to send in photos of their favorite film books. Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Arthur Jafa, Kim Gordon, James Gray, Rachel Kushner, Jim Jarmusch, Amalia Ulman, Dasha Nekrasova, Robert Eggers, and Wes Anderson are among those who have answered the call. If you are looking for more recommendations, turn to Milestone Films and Christopher Schobert at the Film Stage.

As for books not necessarily related to cinema, contributors to Bookforum, the New Statesman, the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and the TLS have been writing about some of their favorite books of the year. More best-of-2021 lists come from the Guardian,Literary Hub, the New York Times, the Washington Post,Laura Miller at Slate, and Michael Silverblatt at KCRW.

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