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May Books

Ingmar Bergman

Two big biographies open this month’s overview of new and noteworthy titles. Reviewing Peter Cowie’s God and the Devil: The Life and Work of Ingmar Bergman for the Wall Street Journal, Ty Burr admits that he “went in expecting a dutiful trudge through the life of a warhorse of twentieth-century cinema—the kind of filmmaker one gets under one’s belt in one’s impressionable youth—and came out wanting to watch or rewatch everything Bergman ever did, from the breakthrough Summer with Monika (1953) to the valedictory Saraband (2003).” Cowie “aims here to blow the dust off the statues, abetted by new interviews with Bergman’s colleagues and family and freshly available details unearthed from memoirs, letters, and workbooks.”

In the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle asks Cowie which of Bergman’s films he’d recommend to someone unfamiliar with the oeuvre—and to discuss them in the order in which they should be seen. Cowie begins with The Seventh Seal (1957), “the film that stunned a generation,” he says. “It came out a couple of years before the French New Wave, a couple of years ahead of the Italian masterpieces like La dolce vita and L’avventura.

In the New York Times, Dwight Garner proposes that one of the “salient contentions” in Carrie Courogen’s “casual, sympathetic, and compulsively readable new biography,” Miss May Does Not Exist: The Life and Work of Elaine May, Hollywood’s Hidden Genius, is that “while American culture makes room for its tortured and demanding male talents, it freezes similar women out.” Courogen tells her story “as if over Negronis. She casually drops a lot of f-bombs. At times, she rambles. She writes about how she stalked May while wearing a cheap blonde wig. (May did not grant her an interview.) Smart but offbeat, she’s the Elaine May of biographers.”

Multitasking Novelists

Miranda July is “a director, a performer, and an artist who likes to work in media that do not seem to be media at all until she shows up to exploit their latent possibilities,” writes Alexandra Schwartz near the top of her engaging profile for the New Yorker. In July’s second novel, All Fours, a forty-five-year-old “semi-famous” artist, wife, and mother sets out alone on a road trip from Los Angeles but never makes it to New York. A hunk in his thirties catches her eye, and the artist decides to turn her life upside down.

All Fours is “as close to autofiction as July has come,” writes Julie Phillips at 4Columns, but as July makes clear to Schwartz, she never intended it to be. “By giving her narrator some of her own biographical details,” writes John Self in the Guardian, “July is playing with the reader’s expectations in a tradition that runs from Marguerite Duras through Christopher Isherwood to Rachel Cusk. But she’s funnier and more peculiar than any of them.”

New York Times film critic Alissa Wilkinson describes her forthcoming book, We Tell Ourselves Stories: Joan Didion and the American Dream Machine, as “a cultural history of twentieth-century American myth-making in Hollywood.” In the NYT, Wilkinson offers a guide to Didion’s most essential work, from Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and Play It As It Lays (1970)—the novel voted to the top of the Los Angeles Times’s list of the fifty best Hollywood books of all time—through The Year of Magical Thinking (2005).

Wilkinson notes that by 1973, “having worked as a movie critic herself for a while, she’s not particularly interested in critics’ thoughts anymore, which leads to this brilliant line: ‘Making judgments on films is in many ways so peculiarly vaporous an occupation that the only question is why, beyond the obvious opportunities for a few lecture fees and a little careerism at a dispiritingly self-limiting level, anyone does it in the first place.’ You said it, Joan.”

Let’s hope these “Essential” guides keep coming. The most recent, “The Essential Don DeLillo,” comes from NYT Book Review senior editor Gregory Cowles, and while DeLillo’s link to cinema isn’t as obvious as Didion’s, Cowles does begin by recommending the 1985 novel White Noise, which Noah Baumbach adapted in 2022. Cowles’s primer is excellent, but for more on DeLillo and the movies, see Leonardo Goi’s 2022 piece for the Notebook.

J. W. McCormack has launched a column for the Baffler with a rollicking piece on novelizations, noting that “the field once derided as sacrilegious bastardization has a lot to offer media theorists.” McCormack has read his way through a dark forest of these paperbacks, and as he dissects a few dicy passages, he observes that the novelization is “what happens when a parasite takes the wheel and rides the nervous system into oblivion, like how a certain fungi of the tropics zombify their insect hosts. Or as [media theorist Friedrich] Kittler puts it in his essay ‘A Story of Doubles,’ about golems and Mallarmé: ‘Literature no longer even tried to compete with the wonders of the entertainment industry. It handed over its magic mirror to the machines.’”

For Collected Stories, Ben Rivers invited fourteen writers to respond to one of his films. “What appears as a compendium of standalone fables, essays, and poems emerges as a complex portrait of Rivers, formed around the shape of his absence,” writes Maria Dimitrova for e-flux. “This ghostliness is fitting not just to Rivers but to his medium. Originally trained in sculpture, his films move within the genres of ethnographic cinema and documentary, all the while shading into the metaphysical, fantastic, and interior . . . For such a slim, compact volume, this collection gives a richer impression of the mind’s eye of Ben Rivers than any traditional catalogue ever could.”

Interviews

Taken from the collection Intervista con il mito and translated by Lucia Senesi, Oriana Fallaci’s 1963 interview with Paul Newman appears for the first time in English at the Film Stage. Newman starts cold, warms up to Fallaci for a brief while, and then shuts down again. He was evidently struggling at the time with fame, with a dash of guilt for being overpaid, and with the fear that he’d never be “creative” enough to direct. Five years later, his first feature as a director, Rachel, Rachel, was nominated for four Oscars and won two Golden Globes.

In the new Film Quarterly, Bruno Guaraná talks with Marina Hassapopoulou about her first book, Interactive Cinema: The Ambiguous Ethics of Media Participation, noting that her “guiding impulse is to disrupt binary understandings of interactive cinema as either utopian or dystopian, liberating or controlling, pedagogical or manipulative, democratizing or tyrannical.” Interactivity “offers an expansion of, not a replacement for, the cinematic medium and its scholarship.”

At JSTOR Daily, Tim Brinkhof has a few questions for Mauricio Espinoza and Jared List, the editors of The Rise of Central American Film in the Twenty-First Century. Pointing out that filmmakers such as Mercedes Moncada and Gloria Carrión have been forced to leave Nicaragua, Espinoza and List also note that Tatiana Huezo (Prayers for the Stolen, The Echo) is “making films in Mexico about drug cartels and drug trafficking and their effect on women. Such sensitive, difficult topics make her a target. It’s dangerous work. It gets people killed, kicked out of their countries, or threatened. These filmmakers know they are getting into risky business. Making films, whether fiction or documentary, is pushing against serious realities. It’s activist work in itself.”

Critical Reading

Newly translated from the original Serbo-Croatian and freely available as a PDF, Past: An Introduction to a Problem—Želimir Žilnik on Film, Communism, and the Former Yugoslavia is a 2013 collection of cultural theorist Boris Buden’s essays about and conversations with the Serbian filmmaker. E-flux is running Buden’s new preface for the English-language edition in which he explains why Žilnik is “the most important filmmaker of the former Yugoslavia . . . precisely because his life and work resist any attempt at canonization.”

Writing in the London Review of Books about two recent collections of work by the critic Serge Daney, The Cinema House and the World: The ‘Cahiers du Cinéma’ Years, 1962–81 and Footlights: Critical Notebook 1970–82,Michael Wood notes that “the movie theater remains what it was for Daney as a child: a ‘bad place,’ ‘a place of crime and magic,’ which directors like Godard turn into a school. A special school, of course, where we are late learners and everything has already been said. For Godard, Daney says, this means paying attention to ‘quotations, slogans, posters, jokes, funny stories, lessons, headlines and so on.’ We seem almost to have arrived at Timothy Barnard and Kevin Hayes’s book, Reading with Jean-Luc Godard. Or perhaps just at the work of Fellini, who, ‘better than all the others, never stops proving to you . . . that you are seeing just one thing, which is that when you see, it’s too late.’”

Excerpts and Podcasts

In an excerpt from Hollywood Pride: A Celebration of LGBTQ+ Representation and Perseverance in Film up at RogerEbert.com, Alonso Duralde takes us back to the 1930s, the rise of Hitler, and the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code. “What was historically the worst of times in many ways,” writes Duralde, “was, conversely, a golden age for the Hollywood studio system, even if LGBTQ+ artists had to live their lives off-screen with discreet circumspection while queer characters in movies could be found only if you looked at the screen at just the right angle.”

“I was twenty-three years old, and I was terrified,” Michelle Pfeiffer tells Glenn Kenny in an excerpt at RogerEbert.com from The World Is Yours: The Story of Scarface. “I was just terrified every single day that I was going to fail.” Kenny discusses the book a bit with Jason Bailey and Mike Hull on A Very Good Year before they turn to some of the greatest films of 1954, and then really delves into Brian De Palma’s 1983 gangster movie with Writers on Film host John Bleasdale, whose recent guests also include Maureen Foster (Alien in the Mirror: Scarlett Johansson, Jonathan Glazer and Under the Skin) and Roger Lewis (Erotic Vagrancy: Everything About Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor).

A few recent conversations on the New Books Network might be thematically paired. Sydney Stern discusses her latest book, The Brothers Mankiewicz: Hope, Heartbreak, and Hollywood Classics, and Patrick Humphries talks about his book on the movie Joseph L. Mankiewicz took over from Rouben Mamoulian, Cleopatra and the Undoing of Hollywood: How One Film Almost Sunk the Studios. Then there are Emily Strand and Amy H. Sturgis, the editors of Star Wars: Essays Exploring a Galaxy Far, Far Away, and Robert Farley on Andor: Star Wars Recreates The Battle of Algiers (And It Works).

New and Forthcoming

Next month will see the releases of Sheri Chinen Biesen’s Through a Noir Lens: Adapting Film Noir Visual Style and Jiří Anger’s Towards a Film Theory from Below: Archival Film and the Aesthetics of the Crack-Up. Another Gaze Editions, in the meantime, has announced that Polly Barton’s translation of Susaki Paradise, the first work from Yoshiko Shibaki to appear in English, will be out later this year. Published in Japan in 1955, the collection of six interlinked stories inspired two films released the following year, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame and Yuzo Kawashima’s Suzaki Paradise: Red Light.

In 2000, philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy wrote The Intruder, a deeply reflective book about surviving a heart transplant nearly ten years before, and in 2004, Claire Denis directed an adaptation starring Michel Subor. Fordham University Press published a new edition earlier this month with a foreword by Denis and new pieces from both Nancy and Denis on the film’s conception and making.

Christopher Schobert has a robust round of notes on new releases at the Film Stage, and two more recent publications need mentioning. Edited by Sam Ashley, Little Joe: A book about queers and cinema, mostly is a collection of essays, interviews, and stories that first appeared in the zine in the 2010s and includes contributions from John Waters, Erika Balsom, Ira Sachs, Terence Davies, Ed Halter, Jenni Olson, and Andrew Haigh. And Thinking with Dub Cinema is a freely accessible reader curated by Kodwo Eshun and Louis Henderson with Stoffel Debuysere.

To wrap, let’s note that on Tuesday, Light Industry will host a series of readings from Eternal Current Events, a collection of Jackson B. Smith’s new translations of pieces that Chris Marker wrote for the Paris-based magazine Esprit from 1946 to 1952. “Unbound by genre or form,” writes Smith, “Marker’s pieces range from short stories, essays, poems, and reviews to fabricated reportage and invented news affairs, all gemmed with the hallmarks of his style: a blurring of reality and imagination, a wry sense of humor, a sustained political engagement, and, of course, a limitless curiosity for animal life.”

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