June Books

Elaine May

When last month’s books roundup went up, only one notable review of Carrie Courogen’s Miss May Does Not Exist: The Life and Work of Elaine May, Hollywood’s Hidden Genius had appeared, Dwight Garner’s in the New York Times. Since then, there have been many, and the one to recommend first and foremost is Richard Brody’s for the New Yorker.

Blending praise for the “deeply researched, psychologically astute new biography” with his own appreciation for May’s work, Brody guides us through the career of the brilliant but elusive writer, performer, and director. The groundbreaking improvisational comedy May honed with Mike Nichols led to the films—A New Leaf (1971), The Heartbreak Kid (1972), Mikey and Nicky (1976), and Ishtar (1987), the film that famously got her thrown into directors’ jail—and, eventually, to several years spent as one of Hollywood’s most sought after script doctors.

Miss May is “written with a brash literary verve that feels authentic to its subject, and it does justice both to May’s mighty artistry and to the complex fabric of her life, linking them persuasively while resisting facile correlations between her personal concerns and her blazing inspirations,” writes Brody. “I suspect that not having access to May could ultimately have been an advantage. Discovering May by way of published sources, archival documents, and interviews with her friends and associates obliged Courogen to construct her, and the resulting portraiture has the intense yet free discernment of a novel.”

In the Washington Post, Donald Liebenson admires the “revelatory scholarship that gives full measure to this artist who, despite obstacles and setbacks (some self-inflicted), is an exalted figure in the comedy pantheon,” and in the Los Angeles Times, Marc Weingarten calls Miss May “the definitive book about May’s life and career.” Writing at Crime Reads, Vincent Keenan suggests that May is “our most unheralded maker of crime films.”

At Bright Wall/Dark Room, Courogen tells Chad Perman about discovering May’s handwritten notes in the margins of the screenplay for Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie (“it’s maybe the greatest thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life”). Talking to Christopher Schobert at the Film Stage, she explains why, despite Hollywood’s sexism, she doesn’t see May strictly as a victim. And in an excerpt from the book at Literary Hub, Courogen, still in the early stages of the project, comes to terms with the fact that she’ll never land an interview with May. She even sympathizes, at least a little: “Submitting to the mortifying ordeal of being known after years of rejecting it doesn’t come easy.”

Not-So-Desperate Susan Seidelman

“I had no female role models,” Susan Seidelman tells Rachel Syme in the New Yorker. “I didn’t know any female American directors. The only one I had even heard of was Elaine May, because I had seen The Heartbreak Kid and loved it.” When she completed her first feature, Smithereens (1982), Seidelman alerted the only festival she knew about, Cannes. Smithereens became the first American independent film to compete for the Palme d’Or.

Seidelman tells Syme about a lunch with a Cannes representative who told her that she’d need to blow the film up from 16 mm to 35 mm, that she’d need a trailer, and a poster, and a few other things she had no money for. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe this opportunity is slipping through my fingers.’ Then, at that very moment, this British man and a woman sitting at the table next to us turned to me and said, ‘I’m sorry to interfere, but we happen to be sales agents. If you let us represent you, we will front you the money for all those things.’” The Brits were from New Line Cinema.

Syme points out that Seidelman’s follow-up, Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), “cost Orion Pictures just five million dollars to make and grossed more than twenty-seven million dollars in the United States alone—a coup for a film that had two female stars, two female lead producers, a female writer, and a woman in the director’s chair.” One of those stars was an unknown when production began, but by the end of the nine-week shoot, the whole world knew her as Madonna.

Seidelman tells Willow Catelyn Maclay at Metrograph Journal that both she and screenwriter Leora Barish were inspired by Jacques Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974), and in an excerpt at Vanity Fair from her new book, Desperately Seeking Something: A Memoir About Movies, Mothers, and Material Girls, Seidelman recalls that she and Madonna “talked about screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s. Those comedies had strong and feisty heroines: Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday, Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve, Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey, and Rosalind Russell in almost everything she did.”

Rosanna Arquette plays the bored housewife who becomes obsessed with Madonna’s Susan, and there were evidently trust issues between Arquette and Seidelman that hampered production. Arquette “had been used to acting in movies with professional actors and an experienced director,” Seidelman tells Syme. “She was just coming off a Scorsese set. I was not an experienced director.” Her features Making Mr. Right (1987) and She-Devil (1989) and the pilot episode of Sex and the City (1998) were yet to come.

Griffin Dunne’s Family Portrait

The Scorsese set Arquette had arrived from was After Hours (1985), starring Griffin Dunne as a Manhattan yuppie who spends a frenzied night in ’80s-era SoHo. Dunne is not only an accomplished actor (An American Werewolf in London), director (Practical Magic), and producer (Chilly Scenes of Winter), he is also an extraordinarily talented writer. Exhibit A is the excerpt up at Alta from The Friday Afternoon Club: A Family Memoir.

Dunne is the son of Dominick Dunne, whose byline, as Alexandra Jacobs notes in the NYT, “was one of the last to sell magazines.” He’s also the nephew of John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion, and in 2017, Dunne produced and directed a loving but not uncritical tribute, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. Dunne’s sister was actress Dominique Dunne (Poltergeist), and her murder in 1982 at the hands of her ex-boyfriend is the decisive turning point in The Friday Afternoon Club. For all the unavoidable name-dropping—Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Truman Capote—there’s a tragic story at the center of the book, and Dunne tells it “with searing, unsentimental, sometimes shocking honesty,” finds Evelyn McDonnell in the Hollywood Reporter.

For Jim Kelly at Air Mail, The Friday Afternoon Club is “everything an autobiography should be: beautifully written, highly perceptive (to a sometimes painful degree), candid, observational without being judgmental, and touching in unexpected and genuine ways.” Dunne’s “story is unsparing but also affectionate, alternately flattering and stark, depending on the scene,” writes Rebecca Nicholson in the Guardian. “What emerges is a novelistic and compelling account of a life, and a self-deprecating guide to the Dunnes’ many highs and lows. It is a fond yet riveting family portrait.”

Neil Jordan Remembers Now

Best known for directing such landmarks of British cinema as Mona Lisa (1986) and The Crying Game (1992), Neil Jordan has also written more than half a dozen novels. He’s currently preparing to shoot his first adaptation of one of them, last year’s The Well of Saint Nobody. Jeremy Irons will play an incapacitated pianist who falls in love with his housekeeper (Helena Bonham Carter). Jordan tells the Guardian’s Rory Carroll that he was struck a few years ago by the realization that he had poured his life story into his oeuvre.

“That Jordan burgled his own psyche injects fresh meaning into a highly idiosyncratic body of work that spans mainstream hits like Interview with a Vampire and Michael Collins, Hollywood duds such as High Spirits and We’re No Angels, and art-house darlings such as Angel and The Butcher Boy,” writes Carroll. “The disclosure is one of many plums in his new book Amnesiac, a memoir of a life (and imagination) less ordinary. It hop-scotches from a childhood in 1950s Catholic Ireland to bohemian 1970s London, then on to a shimmering ’90s Los Angeles, before reaching a peripatetic lion-in-winter stage, with Jordan, now seventy-four, making forays from Dublin for TV and film work.”

Bresson and Marker

In the introduction to her selection of films currently screening in New York through Thursday, playwright Annie Baker recalls discovering Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer when she was twenty-one. “The book was for me, in the end, about understanding the limitations and possibilities of the form you’re working in, and trying your hardest not to lie to yourself,” she writes.

In the Cleveland Review of Books, Robert Baskin agrees that this “collection of aphorisms” can “apply to all art-making ventures.” The interview collection Bresson on Bresson is “a wonderful testament to Bresson as a working artist. In Notes, he can seem unapproachable, uncompromising in his fidelity to his maxims and principles. In the interviews collected in Bresson on Bresson, however, you get a sense of him thinking and questioning himself.”

Also new in the Cleveland Review is Adam Fales’s essay on Eternal Current Events, a collection of Chris Marker’s writing for Esprit in the late 1940s and early ’50s. “Marker’s lesson, in part, is that the news is what you make it,” writes Fales, “but you cannot make it just as you please. His documentaries of social movements—from Grin Without a Cat, documenting the global turmoil of the ’60s and ’70s, to his late documentary The Case of the Grinning Cat, which found echoes of that earlier moment in early twenty-first-century demonstrations in Paris—are all stories of the capacities for mass movements to transform the world. The point of Marker’s intervention into news media is not that facts are mere socially constructed fictions; rather, with enough collective action, we might change fact itself.”

Rosenbaum and Christie

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities: A Jonathan Rosenbaum Reader gathers pieces on cinema, literature, and jazz that have not appeared in the esteemed critic’s many previous books. “I think an awful lot of people think of criticism as the solving of mysteries,” Rosenbaum tells Thomas Quist at the Notebook. “When in fact the perpetuation of mysteries and even the expansion of mysteries is something I like very much, too. It’s a creative model versus a consumption model. I’m inviting the reader to make something out of all this. It is also connected to the idea that comes up more than once in the book that Godard said he wants to be considered an airplane, not an airport. So, in a way all of those different ideas tie together in that.”

Ian Christie—the author of Arrows of Desire: The Films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the editor of Scorsese on Scorsese, and a frequent Current contributor who has recorded audio commentaries on a few of our releases of films by Powell and Pressburger—has a timely conversation with Writers on Film host John Bleasdale. Timely in that Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell and Pressburger, a comprehensive retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, opens this Friday. And on Saturday, Thelma Schoonmaker will introduce Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger, directed by David Hinton and narrated by Martin Scorsese.

Four Novels

Jiaming Tang’s debut novel, Cinema Love, opens in the 1980s at the Workers’ Cinema in rural China, where gay men quietly hook up while the ticket seller, Bao Mei, and the ghost of her brother ensure that their secrets are kept. Until they aren’t, and Bao Mei and one of the regulars emigrate to the U.S. Cinema Love is “a story with real heart,” finds Claire Adam in the Guardian. “Tang shows genuine sympathy for each of his flawed characters as he carefully unpicks the moral complexities of their choices.”

In Paul Tremblay’s Horror Movie, only three scenes from a low-budget thriller, Horror Movie (1993), were ever seen by the public, but three decades on, a major studio aims to reboot the project. “So much of the power of this novel, like the power of the best found-footage films, emerges from the belief that we’re experiencing something we were never meant to,” writes Jim Coby in the Los Angeles Review of Books. For Emily C. Hughes in the NYT, Horror Movie is “a smart book, smartly told, and should establish Tremblay as not just one of our great horror writers but one of our great fiction writers, full stop.”

Medusa of the Roses, a noirish tale of love and betrayal in Tehran and the debut novel from moving-image artist Navid Sinaki, will be out in August. And Jane Schoenbrun says that Public Access Afterworld, their first novel, will be “the culmination of my so-called ‘screen trilogy’ that I began with We’re All Going to the World’s Fair and I Saw the TV Glow. But unlike those works, which focused mainly on pre-transition, this novel is an epic of trans becoming, and probably the biggest cinematic universe I’ll ever create.”


In an excerpt from What Makes Sammy Jr. Run?, a collection of magazine pieces from the 1960s and 70s, editor Alex Belth sketches a brief history of the celebrity profile—with an emphasis on the days when editors paid established writers top dollar to hang with a star for weeks on end. At Alta, Kathleen Rooney steers us clear of Rudolph Valentino’s poetry, but in Film International, Dávid Szőke recommends Gary D. Rhodes’s Vampires in Silent Cinema.

When FIDMarseille opens next Tuesday, the festival will present a retrospective devoted to Ingrid Caven, the singer known for her work with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Jean Eustache, Daniel Schmid, Claire Denis, and Bertrand Bonello. Fireflies Press has teamed up with the festival to launch Ingrid Caven: I Am a Fiction, featuring a new in-depth interview, a survey of Caven’s career by Erika Balsom, archival photos, and writing from Bonello, Rachel Kushner, Nathalie Léger, and more.

Mentored by Theodor Adorno and Fritz Lang, director and writer Alexander Kluge (Yesterday Girl) became a crucial figure in the early days of the New German Cinema. In his new book, The Dragonfly’s Eye, Kluge explores the potential of “virtual cinema.” Two forthcoming titles warrant mentioning, even though they won’t be appearing in English. Notre musique, c’est celle de tout le monde is rooted in a 2005 interview Michael Witt conducted with Jean-Luc Godard, and Marco Abel’s Mit Nonchalance am Abgrund: Das Kino der “Neuen Münchner Gruppe” (1964–1972) will be out in September.

On Thursday, Light Industry will host an evening in Brooklyn devoted to Night Fever: Film and Photography After Dark, a collection of essays and artist portfolios edited by Shanay Jhaveri. And on Saturday, July 20, the Metrograph Summer Book Fair will showcase the library of the late Robert Gottlieb, the renowned former editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster, Knopf, and the New Yorker. Gottlieb, whose work with Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro is the subject of Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb (2022), directed by his daughter, Lizzie Gottlieb, also edited Toni Morrison, John le Carré, and Ray Bradbury. The book fair will feature more than five hundred film books from Gottlieb’s personal collection.

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