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April Books

Marguerite Duras

Starting this weekend, New York’s Metrograph will screen four films by Marguerite Duras as part of its Left Bank Cinema series running through April 21. Duras adapted her novel Destroy, She Said (1969) for her first feature as a solo director. In 1972, she directed Lucia Bosé, Jeanne Moreau, and a young Gérard Depardieu in Nathalie Granger, and in 1975, she cast Delphine Seyrig and Michael Lonsdale as French diplomats in India Song. In Le camion (1977), Duras and Depardieu discuss an unrealized screenplay about a truck driver and an older female hitchhiker.

As Dina Pokrajac notes at desistfilm, Duras once said that she considered Jean-Luc Godard to be “the biggest catalyst of world cinema, but at the same time, she emphasized that they do not understand each other.” In these monthly book roundups, we usually focus on new titles, but Pokrajac’s excellent piece is sparked by Duras/Godard Dialogues, a collection of three conversations conducted in 1979, 1980, and 1987 and published in 2020.

Pokrajac suggests that Godard “shares the same obsession as Duras—to make the invisible visible—but at the same time resorts to completely different tools—for her there is no film without words, and for him there is no film without image.” Cinema is “a massive and seductive image production industry that went hand in hand with the technologization of society, genocides, and tyrannies. Still, Godard is trying to redeem the images . . . Unmasking the guilt of cinematic art to prove its innocence and sacred mission is something [philosopher Jacques] Rancière calls ‘the most intimate melancholy of Godard’s achievement.’”

Long before Breathless, his 1960 directorial debut, Godard was a critic writing most notably for Cahiers du cinéma, the hotbed of the politique des auteurs. Following the uprisings of May 1968, the magazine took a radical editorial turn to the left. “Althusser and Marx replaced Hitchcock and Hawks as Cahiers icons,” wrote Dave Kehr in Film Comment in 2001. Reviewing The Red Years of Cahiers du cinéma (1968-1973) for Film Comment, Paul Grant notes that Daniel Fairfax “divides his project thematically, with volume one dedicated to ideology and politics, and volume two tackling ontology and aesthetics. While this bifurcated tome is somewhat intimidating at first glance, with upwards of 800 pages of engagement with a notoriously difficult period of film theory, Fairfax has written an eminently readable and enjoyable text.”

Feminist Critique

If auteurist criticism is simply “writing which treats the director as the true artist and unifying voice of a film—the king of the castle, master of his domain,” then Nancy M. West isn’t having it. Her piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books is inspired by two recent books, New Wave, New Hollywood: Reassessment, Recovery, and Legacy, a collection edited by Nathan Abrams and Gregory Frame, and Liberating Hollywood: Women Directors and the Feminist Reform of 1970s American Cinema, in which Maya Montañez Smukler writes about the careers of sixteen women filmmakers, including Lee Grant, Barbara Loden, Elaine May, Joan Micklin Silver, and Claudia Weill. “Zigzagging between positive and dismal accounts gives Smukler’s book a mercurial rhythm,” writes West, “instilling in the reader a deep admiration for the women she spotlights—and a wish to go back in time and smash their male colleagues’ cameras. Or heads.”

Reviewing Reframing Todd Haynes: Feminism’s Indelible Mark, a collection of essays edited by Theresa L. Geller and Julia Leyda, for the LARB, Jean-Thomas Tremblay writes that Haynes “truly earns his badge as a director of women’s films, in Geller’s estimation, through his continued engagement with feminist theories of form. Haynes is a scholar’s filmmaker if there ever was one. Undeniable is the impact of such film theorists as Laura Mulvey, Biddy Martin, Linda Williams, and Mary Ann Doane on his creative process. The privileged role that both female characters and feminist theorists occupy in Haynes’s filmography prompts Geller to inscribe it in a genealogy of ‘new feminist cinema,’ where the filmmaker stands alongside figures like Chantal Akerman, who died in 2015 and to whom Reframing Todd Haynes is dedicated.”

Women and Hollywood has posted So Mayer and Corinn Columpar’s introduction to a new collection they’ve edited, Mothers of Invention: Film, Media, and Caregiving Labor. The aim here is to frame a “conversation in a manner that recognizes how very political the intersection between media and parenting can be, something that Hepi Mita captures in such resonant terms when describing the work of his mother, Māori filmmaker Merata Mita. In the concluding voice-over of his documentary Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen (2018), he states unequivocally, ‘Only a mother could have done the things she did. . . . It wasn’t money or power or war that decolonized the screen. It was a mother’s love.’”

Literary Listening

In 2012, the newly restored 216-minute director’s cut of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) premiered in Venice to widespread acclaim that spread wider when it screened at the New York Film Festival a month later, and wider yet when we released it on Blu-ray and DVD that fall. According to Hollywood legend, this is the film that sank United Artists and brought an end to the New Hollywood. In an excerpt from Cimino: The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate, and the Price of a Vision up at IndieWire, Charles Elton explains why that legend has got it all wrong.

Elton expands on his argument in the latest episode of John Bleasdale’s Writers on Film podcast. Bleasdale also recently spoke with Kim Newman, whose work comes up more than once in Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Lavie Tidhar’s conversation in the Washington Post about fantasy novels inspired by Hollywood. Newman’s most recent novel, Something More Than Night, “teams up Raymond Chandler and Boris Karloff,” notes Moreno-Garcia. “It’s both a classic hard-boiled narrative and an urban fantasy set in Golden Age Hollywood.” Tidhar especially likes Newman’s “opening salvo in Johnny Alucard (the fourth of the Anno Dracula sequence), ‘Coppola’s Dracula.’ Newman reimagines Coppola shooting not Apocalypse Now in the Philippines, but Dracula in Transylvania (Martin Sheen is turned into a vampire halfway through production following his on-set heart attack). The only way to describe it is glorious.”

On his podcast The Last Thing I Saw, Nicolas Rapold talks with the New York Times’s Kyle Buchanan about his new book, Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road. Rapold notes that the book is “full of well-researched and entertaining detail about the movie’s sometimes insane production process, which involved stops and starts dating back to the 1990s.”

Star Power

Writing for the Baffler, Christina Newland ties together Robert Gottlieb’s Garbo, James Curtis’s Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life, and Dana Stevens’s Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century: “Both Garbo and Keaton’s careers reached vertiginous heights in the heady silent era, when they were contracted to MGM under studio head Louis B. Mayer and his hotshot young producer Irving Thalberg; Keaton’s beloved dog, Elmer the St. Bernard, used to accompany Garbo up and down the studio lot.”

Garbo and Keaton “both projected a certain demurring quality that would come to help audiences define them—and their offscreen lives—in a very particular way,” writes Newland. “The most unknowable and mysterious of the old stars remade the very concepts of fame and persona, helping to carve out our perception of privacy as it relates to celebrities today.” And for more on the Keaton biographies, see Chris Yogerst in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Literary Hub is running an excerpt from Stephen Galloway’s Truly, Madly: Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, and the Romance of the Century, and at the Ringer, you’ll find a generous slice of Keith Phipps’s Age of Cage: Four Decades of Hollywood Through One Singular Career. At the Reveal, Phipps writes about discovering in November 2019 that screenwriters Kevin Etten and Tom Gormican were working on The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, a movie in which Nicolas Cage plays Nicolas Cage. “If there’s a through-line to Cage’s work, it’s his habit of grounding even cartoonish performances in a character’s humanity,” writes Phipps. “That’s true even when playing ‘himself.’” Unbearable Weight turns out to be “a fun movie that truly gets Cage, which is something I write with admiration and, after two-and-a-half-years of nervous curiosity, a little bit of relief.”

Endnote

Suggestions for further reading? At Esquire, Alex Belth has put together an annotated list of “125 essential books about Hollywood and the American movie experience.” That should tide you over until May’s roundup.

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