November Books

Maya Deren in Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

We can probably chalk it up to serendipity, but two of the most engaging reads to appear since last month’s roundup on new and noteworthy books center on vital figures whose early years were upended by the October Revolution and the subsequent Russian Civil War. Vladimir Nabokov’s family fled Saint Petersburg for Crimea when he was in his late teens. The future writer studied at Cambridge, and after graduating in 1922, he followed his family to Berlin, a city he eventually grew to despise.

During his fifteen years in the German capital, Nabokov married, became a father, and wrote his first nine novels. He also saw a lot of movies and wrote reviews for the local Russian-language dailies as well as scenarios for the studios. He even appeared in a few silent films as an extra. “Russian émigrés with occupations in the cinema feature across Nabokov’s Russian fiction and drama,” writes Luke Parker in an excerpt from Nabokov Noir: Cinematic Culture and the Art of Exile running in the New York Review of Books. “To Nabokov, the spectrality of film seemed not to distort reality but to hold a mirror up to the ghostlike and insubstantial existence of dispossessed Russians in cities like Berlin and Paris.”

Maya Deren was born Eleanora Derenkowsky to well-off Jewish parents in Kyiv, and in 1922, when she was around five, the family fled anti-Semitic pogroms to Syracuse, New York. On a trip to Hollywood in 1942, Deren met filmmaker Alexander Hammid, and together, they made her first film, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). Deren “certainly didn’t invent experimental cinema, nor introduce it in the U.S.,” writes the New Yorker’s Richard Brody, “but, with this short silent film, Deren became the genre’s Orson Welles, realizing her own original ideas by a fruitful collaboration with an experienced cinematographer (as Welles did with Gregg Toland) and putting those ideas over by way of onscreen star power. She became the name of avant-garde cinema by becoming its face: a still of her, at a window in Meshes, is, to this day, the prime iconic image of American experimental filmmaking, the single-frame synecdoche for the entire category.”

Brody finds that Mark Alice Durant’s Maya Deren, Choreographed for Camera, “twenty years in the making, bears the illumination of fanatical research and passionate empathy for—practically an inhabiting of—Deren’s inner world. The book’s one crucial lack is notes: footnotes or endnotes. Durant offers fictionalized sequences, the biographical equivalent of reenactments in documentaries, but doesn’t identify them as such, and leaves the sourcing of events and descriptions unclear.”

On—and by—Filmmakers

On the Film Comment Podcast, Devika Girish and Clinton Krute host a lively discussion of Pier Paolo Pasolini: Writing on Burning Paper, a collection of reflections from twenty filmmakers, with Giovanni Marchini Camia, who cofounded Fireflies Press with Annabel Brady-Brown, and Radu Jude, who won the Berlinale’s Golden Bear last year with Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn and contributed an essay to the book. Metrograph Journal is running Catherine Breillat’s contribution, in which she writes about overcoming her initial objections to Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1976)—“it distressed me and it hurt me for a long time”—and toying with the idea of adapting Pasolini’s 1968 play Orgia as well as Marguerite Duras’s 1982 novella The Malady of Death.

Another Gaze Editions will soon publish Duras’s My Cinema, which gathers Daniella Shreir’s translations of Duras’s writings and interviews. Also due out early next year is Life Above the Clouds: Philosophy in the Films of Terrence Malick, a collection edited by Steven DeLay. The Film Desk, in the meantime, will release Godfrey Cheshire’s In the Time of Kiarostami: Writings on Iranian Cinema next month and Jean Cocteau’s Diary of a Film in January. Nicholas Elliott has translated the entries Cocteau wrote between the day before he began shooting Beauty and the Beast (1946) and the day after the first screening.

Joyce Chopra’s candid memoir Lady Director: Adventures in Hollywood, Television and Beyond was published this week and we’re celebrating on the Criterion Channel with a program of seven of her films, including Chopra’s first feature, Smooth Talk (1985), featuring a young Laura Dern. Kate Erbland talks with Chopra about the excerpt IndieWire is running, a tough-to-read account of being fired one week into the production of Bright Lights, Big City (1988). Talkhouse has an excerpt recounting happier days when Chopra was a bright young woman in Paris.

Introducing an excerpt from Tesla: All My Dreams Are True at Filmmaker back in April, Michael Almereyda called the book “a jigsawed account of my attempts at conjuring a movie about Nikola Tesla over the past forty years, tracking questions and clues about the elusive inventor’s life and legacy.” Tesla, starring Ethan Hawke and Kyle MacLachlan, premiered in 2020 at Sundance, where it won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize. Now Nicolas Rapold has profiled Almereyda for Air Mail, noting that the book is “an engrossing, witty reflection on moviemaking and history, hypnotically unfolding in what feel like meetings of the mind across time.”

Translated by Alex Dudok de Wit, Hayao Miyazaki’s 1983 watercolor manga Shuna’s Journey is now available in English for the first time. The story of a prince’s search for a golden grain that may save his people “moves and surprises because of the reader’s disorientation at being dropped into a world that is both generously detailed and miserly with explanations,” writes Sam Thielman in the New Yorker, where he quotes Miyazaki’s opening lines: “These things may have happened long ago; they may be still to come. No one really knows anymore.”

The Notebook has posted three excerpts from new books that the Viennale released during its recent sixtieth edition. One is a poem by Georgian filmmaker Alexandre Koberidze inspired by Kazakh director Darezhan Omirbaev’s 2001 film The Road, and in another, Albert Serra writes about Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical (2016), “one of my favourite films of the last years.” It’s a “personal drama, a social drama about a country that has lost its sense of psychological direction, and an allegorical fantasy.

Louis Malle: Interviews, edited by Christopher Beach, gathers seventeen conversations conducted between the late 1950s and 1994. In his review for Film International, Thomas Puhr finds Malle to be “a consistently eloquent (and occasionally scathing) subject.” Derek Jarman could also be eloquent and occasionally scathing, and House Sparrow Press has posted a thirty-minute recording of the artist and filmmaker reading from his only work of prose fiction, Through the Billboard Promised Land Without Ever Stopping.

Our America, a collection of some of Ken Burns’s favorite photographs, is a book “about a country,” writes Scott Borchert in the New Republic, “but it is also about Ken Burns: a summation, and celebration, of his career . . . The images here do add up to a kind of American self-portrait, one assembled out of momentous events and terrible milestones and glimpses of ordinary life. Stare at these photographs long enough, though, and you’ll be struck by the volatility, the weirdness, and the raw antagonisms that they capture—essential aspects of any honest portrayal of the American past.”

In an excerpt from The Northman: A Call to the Gods, a chronicle of the making of Robert Eggers’s Viking revenge thriller, Simon Abrams talks with Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, who have been working together since 2007. “If you’re not prepared to go too far, you’ll never know if you went far enough,” says Blaschke.

A Range of Criticisms

From James Baldwin to bell hooks, “there is an enduring continuum; a tradition of radical Black aesthetic intervention from margin to center,” writes Jan Asante in a short piece in the new Black Film Bulletin on hooks’s “most immersive cinematic tome,” Reel to Real: Race, Class and Sex at the Movies (1996). “The arc of Reel to Real is critical agency, advocating for a more equitable stake.”

Laurent Kretzschmar, who has been translating reviews, essays, and other writing by the critic Serge Daney for several years, praises translator Christine Pichini for her “fabulous work” on The Cinema House and the World: The Cahiers du Cinema Years, 1962–1981. In the meantime, Kretzschmar is sorry to hear that the publication of Pierre Eugène’s study of Daney’s work during those Cahiers years has been delayed. When it does appear, though, it will be “the essential guide to better understand Daney over this period.”

Cinema Speculation, Quentin Tarantino’s new book on American films from the 1970s, is “basically everything you’d hoped for and everything you’d feared from a book of movie reviews by the former video store clerk who grew up to become one of our greatest living filmmakers,” writes Sean Burns for WBUR. “Argumentative, insightful, obnoxious, and powered by a compulsively readable passion, the book zooms in on formative films from Tarantino’s childhood, which happened to coincide with an astonishingly fertile period for American cinema.”

The book has prompted David Bordwell to write about the “criticism of enthusiasm,” beginning with one of the most influential examples in the English-speaking world, Andrew Sarris’s “The American Cinema,” an essay that ran in a 1963 issue of Film Culture and eventually became the 1968 book. In Cinema Speculation, Tarantino’s focus is on genre, “character portrayal, memorable dialogue, performance filigree, the charisma of stars, and the immediate surge of audience appreciation—who else does this sound like?” asks Bordwell. “Pauline Kael. Tarantino has called her the most influential person on his filmmaking; he pored over her collected reviews and channeled her voice. If Sarris was the impresario of classical studio production, Kael became the demanding guide to the New Hollywood.”

Hollywood, Old and New

Film historian Jeanine Basinger and journalist Sam Wasson have combed through the American Film Institute’s interviews with around four hundred actors, directors, cinematographers, editors, and other industry insiders to put together Hollywood: The Oral History. “The result is fascinating in all the ways you might expect and some you wouldn’t,” writes Kathryn Hughes in the Guardian. Wasson discusses the book on the Writers on Film podcast, where host John Bleasdale also talks with A. J. Black (The Cinematic Connery: The Films of Sir Sean Connery), Mark Searby (Eddie Murphy: Deliriously Funny), and Rachel Abramowitz (Is that a Gun in Your Pocket?: The Truth about Female Power in Hollywood).

J. E. Smyth, the author of Nobody’s Girl Friday: The Women Who Ran Hollywood (2018), is currently working on a biography of Mary McCall, a top-earning screenwriter in the 1930s and ’40s and the first female president of the Screen Writers Guild. Smyth gives us a preview in the Los Angeles Review of Books: “There are too many vanished Hollywood women, but McCall’s fall from the heights of power to near historical annihilation is one of the more blatant examples of Americans’ capacity for cultural apathy and the erasure of women’s history.”

The Guardian’s Peter Conrad finds The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man, a memoir pieced together from transcripts of interviews that the interviewee, Paul Newman, later tried to destroy, “startling: Narcissus breaks the mirror, leaving only some cruelly jagged shards.” You’ll find excerpts at Time and Literary Hub, where Nicole Miller writes that “Newman’s films and their literary sources are enamored with archetypes of middle-class striving—the cycle of conflict between owners and upstarts, the competition and camaraderie of men.”

At the Quietus, Joe Banks talks with Kelly Roberts, Michael Grasso, and Richard McKenna, the coauthors of We Are the Mutants: The Battle for Hollywood from Rosemary's Baby to Lethal Weapon. “The standard New Hollywood narrative—that a handful of visionary outlaws took over Hollywood and gave us the last and best ‘golden age’ of American film—is a myth,” says Roberts. “First, there were hundreds of filmmakers who contributed to the overall shift in mood and technique between the late ’60s and the early ’80s. We don’t tend to think of, say, John Carpenter and George A. Romero as part of this movement, but they’re just as influential as Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman, if not more so.”

Ying Zhu’s Hollywood in China: Behind the Scenes of the World’s Largest Movie Market presents “significantly more” than a history of Hollywood’s “successful market expansion in China or the lesser-known story of unprecedented levels of Chinese investment flowing into Hollywood in the twenty-first century,” writes Dina Iordanova for Film International. The book also provides “an overview of the entire history of China’s film culture as it is correlated with foreign film traditions.”

From Page to Screen

Literary Hub is running Sofia Coppola’s foreword from the new edition of The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton’s 1913 novel centering on Undine Spragg, a young woman from the Midwest determined to work her way into New York society. “As I’ve worked on adapting it into a screenplay,” writes Coppola, “I’ve found it interesting to hear some men say that Undine is so unlikable, while my women friends love her and are fascinated by her and what she’ll do next.”

It’s 1959 in Edward J. Delaney’s novel The Acrobat when Cary Grant drops acid and looks back on his fifty-five years. “The typical approach of the Hollywood novel,” writes Mark Athitakis in the Los Angeles Times, “is to mock its veneers (Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, Michael Tolkin’s The Player); to lament how it treats its stars (Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde, Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset); or to reveal it as morally and criminally corrupt (James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential). Delaney, who’s written five earlier acclaimed works of fiction, is going after something subtler. He’s not satirizing Grant or Hollywood so much as crafting a character who’s effectively character-less. If Delaney clings overly much to his mask metaphors, he’s also sensitive to how those masks change, how hard they are to remove.”

When Kazuo Ishiguro was on the jury in Venice a couple of months ago, Ali Moosavi spoke with him about writing Living, a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952), and about leaving the adaptations of his own novels to others. “The book was better” is a worn-out complaint, but whether or not it’s actually true in each case is “an academic question,” says Ishiguro. “I always say that to people who are trying to adapt my books, and far more people have tried to write screenplays and develop things than have actually made it to the screen; at the moment I have seven projects in development of my books.” When Moosavi suggests that Hirokazu Kore-eda might be a good director to take on The Unconsoled (1995), Ishiguro replies, “That’s the one book of mine that is not under option!”


On the tenth anniversary of the publication of Kier-La Janisse’s House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation, FAB Press has released a new expanded edition. Last year, Janisse’s first feature, the documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror, won audience awards at the Fantasia and SXSW film festivals. And for AnOther Magazine, Thom Waite talks with Claire Marie Healy about the book she’s put together for A24, On the Dance Floor: Spinning Out on Screen, featuring contributions from “a vast array of names from across film, literature, art, and music.”

For more recommendations, see Christopher Schobert’s latest roundup at the Film Stage, and, of course, this is the season in which we see annotated best-of-the-year lists. So far, they’ve come from contributors to the New Statesman, the New York Times,Time, the TLS, and the Washington Post.

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