February Books

Preston Sturges

Writing about Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels (1941) for our 2015 release, Stuart Klawans observed that the “lesson of Sturges’s peculiar gospel may ultimately be the communion of all humanity in the need for laughter, but by the time you reach this revelation, you have witnessed one of the most striking and conscience-laden episodes of social realism in classic American cinema.” Klawans’s new book, Crooked, but Never Common: The Films of Preston Sturges, headlines this month’s roundup on new and noteworthy titles.

It’s an “incisive, compelling, and spirited analysis of the screwball maestro’s life and oeuvre,” finds Peter Keough at the Arts Fuse. In his review for Film International, Jeremy Carr points out that “alongside the laudatory, Klawans also permits equitable criticism, not letting Sturges completely off the hook for what the author notes are occasionally questionable narrative devices or excuses for contrived complications. All the same, merging plot dissection with formal consideration and the inevitable historical context, alternating back and forth between these and other points of argument, Klawans crafts a fascinating survey that agreeably defies a straightforward directorial appraisal.”

More Directors

Martin Woessner admires the “great wit” he finds in Harvard, Hollywood, Hitmen, and Holy Men, a memoir by Paul W. Williams, a filmmaker you may not have heard of before. “Although Williams has spent a lifetime in and around Hollywood—as a director, writer, actor, and producer (Malick’s Badlands was one of his earliest producing credits)—he has never been all that comfortable with, as he puts it, ‘“the business” of movies,’” writes Woessner in the Los Angeles Review of Books. “At just about every point in his career, Williams resisted calls ‘to become more productive, more famous—a lifelong brand.’ So what did he become instead? Take your pick: a political radical; an eager explorer of altered states; a transcendence-seeking spiritual pilgrim; a maker of low-budget films about failed drug deals, presidential assassinations, and house cats.”

Also writing for the LARB, Ella Kemp finds that in Maya Deren, Choreographed for Camera, Mark Alice Durant “tactfully avoids pathologizing Deren” and “his book doesn’t seek to overperform in the arena of critical analysis either (see the formidable volume Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, edited by Bill Nichols, for that). Instead, Durant presents us with key figures and experiences from Deren’s life, from which we might draw our own conclusions about her place in art and film history. I surface from this book with the blistering image of a woman who tenderly administered the brutal passage between sleep and waking, poetry and cinema, life and the performance of it.”

Through the Billboard Promised Land Without Ever Stopping, the only work of narrative fiction Derek Jarman wrote, is “a surreal and bizarre fantasy” in which events “unfold with the loose, free-associative logic of a dream,” writes Alistair Curtis for Prospect. “Jarman chooses his words carefully; each sentence shimmers.”

Of all the books Ray Pride has read lately, he’s most enthusiastic about Walter Chaw’s A Walter Hill Film. “Chaw is an astute and generous observer,” writes Pride at NewCity Film, and “few filmmakers get a tribute like this after they’ve passed, let alone as adroit festschrift while they’re alive and thriving. This is an insight-rich celebration, not a solemn tombstone.”

Way back in 2015, Barbra Streisand announced that she was writing a memoir and that it would appear in about two years. At long last, we have a publishing date: November 7. At 1,040 pages, My Name Is Barbra should have plenty of room to cover Streisand’s on-screen breakthrough in William Wyler’s Funny Girl (1968), such subsequent hits as Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972) and Sydney Pollock’s The Way We Were (1973), and the long road to her directorial debut, Yentl (1983).

Critical Views

Back in September, we took a look at the first round of reviews of The Cinema House and the World: The Cahiers du Cinema Years, 1962–1981, a collection of writing by French critic and editor Serge Daney translated by Christine Pichini. It’s hardly a surprise that writers are still taking measure of a book this dense and vital. In the Nation, Max Nelson notes that between the publication of his first review in 1962 and his death in 1992, “Daney kept returning to the thought that a film was something like a life: finite, haunted by its own termination, and for that reason saturated with choices that defined its moral compass and political commitments.”

In the New Left Review, Daniel Ward finds that Daney’s “writing is—perhaps more than any other European film critic of the twentieth century—almost self-admonishingly up to date. It is writing that addresses the present violently, to use Gramsci’s famous phrase, in a field which is more than happy to go on pretending as if nothing has changed.” Daney “responds to cinema’s end not through elegy but zealous reappraisal.” As Greg Gerke points out in his review for the LARB, we watch movies now “in half-light, daylight, or even phone-light.” Cinema “comes to us deformed, caricatured, and much more personal for being less beautiful.”

In Perplexing Plots: Popular Storytelling and the Poetics of Murder, David Bordwell “zeroes in on how literary modernism laid the foundations for a brand of popular storytelling that shaped a century’s worth of narrative,” writes Michael J. Casey in the Boulder Weekly. “If you’ve ever wondered about the connective tissue between James Joyce and Gillian Flynn—with a Donald Westlake stopover—reader, you are in luck.”

Bordwell tells his publisher, Columbia University Press, that his previous book, Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling, “was an effort to show how many of the innovations in plot and style we find in 1940s American filmmaking derive from other media, chiefly popular literature, theater, and radio. This new book turns that argument inside out, looking at the crosscurrents of exchange within the media arts, all influencing each other—and on a much larger time scale.”

A few quick notes: On the latest episode of his Writers on Film podcast, John Bleasdale talks with critic Charles Bramesco about Colors of Film: The Story of Cinema in 50 Palettes, which will be out next month. Matt Singer’s Opposable Thumbs: How Siskel & Ebert Changed Movies Forever will be out in October, and Eric Hoyt’s Ink Stained Hollywood: The Triumph of American Cinema’s Trade Press is available right now as a freely accessible download.

Two Novels

Peter Blauner has reported on crime and politics for New York and worked as a producer on such television shows as Law & Order and Blue Bloods. He’s also written several novels, and in his latest, Picture in the Sand, a story within the story takes the reader to Egypt, where Cecil B. DeMille is shooting The Ten Commandments (1956). Deadline’s Todd McCarthy writes about the film’s making, talks with Blauner, and notes that Picture in the Sand “was more intensively researched than many nonfiction works and emerges as a shrewd and revelatory portrait of an enormous American movie being made on location at a time of major intrigue and tumult in the Middle East.”

The Shards, the new novel from Bret Easton Ellis, is set in the early 1980s and is narrated by a seventeen-year-old high school senior named Bret. While Melissa Broder, writing for the New York Times, finds that the “climax and denouement ultimately fall flat,” she does suggest that those who have liked Ellis’s “earlier fiction (Less Than Zero, American Psycho, Lunar Park) will enjoy many of his signature strokes: murder, music, cocaine, Valium, obscene wealth, an unraveling narrator, brand names, palm trees, blood, stalkers, dogs, cults, disaffected teenagers, negligent parents. But there is an exciting new vulnerability in Ellis’s latest book, inviting the reader more profoundly into the emotional realm of the protagonist than he has with his previous characters.”

That vulnerability is keenly felt in an excerpt from The Shards running in the Metrograph Journal. For three years, Bret has been looking forward to seeing Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining: “I was almost paralyzed with anticipation.” When the day arrives, the excerpt leaves us with a cliffhanger, cutting off just before Bret is about to tell us the real reason he’s “never forgotten seeing The Shining on May 24, 1980, at the Village Theater in Westwood at the 10am show.”


Louise Brooks, James Dean, Jean Seberg, Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Viola Davis, Denzel Washington, and Riz Ahmed are among the stars David Thomson writes about in his new book, Acting Naturally: The Magic in Great Performances. Literary Hub has an excerpt on Marlon Brando, and more specifically, on Brando’s Oscar-winning turn as Terry Malloy, the longshoreman in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954). “The picture is a sonata for a great actor pretending to be dumb,” writes Thomson, who also admires Eva Marie Saint’s performance as Edie Doyle, the woman Terry thinks he might be falling for: “Though [Lee J.] Cobb and [Karl] Malden are allowed to overact in garish ways, and Brando is off on a tour de force, Edie holds the story in place and permits Brando to sing.”

The Book Cover Review, a relatively new British site, does what it says on the tin, posting occasional pieces of around five hundred words on cover design and its relation to what’s written inside. The roster of reviewers so far is impressive. Of special interest here will be Rick Poynor’s contribution on Conversations with Filmmakers, a collection of interviews conducted by Jonas Mekas, and Owen Hatherley’s piece on Topographics, a now-discontinued series from Reaktion Books, with a special (but again, brief) focus on Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Space.

On Friday, February 24, Twin Peaks Day, Freud Museum London will launch Freud/Lynch: Behind the Curtain, a collection edited by Jamie Ruers and Stefan Marianski. “Enjoy donuts and damn fine coffee,” reads the Museum’s invitation. “Test your knowledge with a Twin Peaks quiz. Listen to short talks from the book’s contributors, alongside many more activities!”

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