Sunday, May 31, 2009

My Favorite Movie Books

It’s embarrassing to admit, but in many respects I didn’t become aware of film criticism until I went to college. By that time, I’d long been a passionate movie fan. And I’d already started writing about movies myself – in letters to my film fanatic uncle, if nothing else. But I was – and to some degree remain – terribly underexposed to the world of print criticism. I would read the reviews of my local newspaper’s film critic, and I knew that there were versions of him writing for other outlets across the country. (Let me pause for the obligatory moment of silence as we remember those paid criticism positions that have left us in recent years …) But what was that awareness worth? I was in Oregon. Those other critics were everywhere else.

Then came college. More importantly, then came the Internet. More specifically, then came the Internet via an Ethernet connection instead of crummy dial-up, which was still acceptable at the time. Suddenly I could read any town’s newspaper critic just-like-that. Suddenly my awareness of criticism went beyond my local reviewer, Siskel & Ebert on TV and the stuff I’d find on the magazine rack. Thus, when I think of my most cherished source of film literature, it’s the Internet. No question about it. That was true before the blog movement, and so it’s certainly true today. Still, there’s something to be said for holding a piece of movie writing in your hands. And, so, as inspired by a terrific post at The Dancing Image, here’s a tribute to some of my favorite movie books.

I’ll list five, in no specific order:

Roger Ebert’s Video Companion (1997 Edition)
Over the years, I have grabbed this tome off the bookshelf more than any other, which is saying something, because technically the book belongs on my mom’s bookshelf. See, I gave it to her as a birthday gift. Or maybe it was Mother’s Day. In any case, I bought it because I was away at college, which meant my mom didn’t have me coming home with something from the video store a few nights a week. I figured Ebert’s book could be helpful in that regard. I thumbed through the book at the store, noticed that it provided full-length reviews and easy star ratings, and I bought it. My mom thanked me, and then it sat on the shelf mostly untouched for about a year. The following summer, I grabbed it from the shelf and – gasp – started to read it. Then I kept reading it, regularly. A summer later, I stole the book for my own. (Sorry, Mom.)

At that point I’d already discovered Ebert’s written reviews online, but this was the first time I really enjoyed Ebert’s essays as a collection of criticism. Previously, I’d used Ebert’s reviews to help me relate to movies I’d just seen. Thus, I typically focused on all the ways we agreed or disagreed, and I overlooked the larger artistic merits of film criticism itself. Thanks to the Video Companion, however, now I was reading about a 1970 film on one page and a 1995 film on the next. Some of the films I cherished. Some I’d forgotten. Some I had no plans to see until Ebert’s review piqued my interest.

Today I can get (almost) any Ebert review online, but if the film predates 1997, I always hope I’ll find it in the Video Companion. Once there, I tend to read more than I’d planned. Even today, it’s a book I struggle to put down.

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls
I love this book because it’s full of legends about a period in which cinema was transitioning into a new era – an era of auteurs, an era of blockbusters. Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is the story of Bonnie & Clyde, Star Wars, Apocalypse Now, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, M*A*S*H and more. It’s the story of the American Graffiti preview that thrilled the audience and turned off the studio execs. It’s the story of Pauline Kael raving about Nashville based on a private screening with Robert Altman. It’s the story of the Charles Manson murders rocking Hollywood, and Steve Spielberg finding ways not to get laid and Martin Scorsese losing his mind. Do I take all these stories as absolute fact? Of course not. But it’s a hell of a story.

For Keeps
Pauline Kael was the kind of critic the blogosphere often tries to imitate: provocative, tough, argumentative. If sometimes she was guilty of being a cheap bomb-thrower, for the most part Kael seemed to write from the heart. That’s why her criticism soars above that of her imitators. That, and the fact that she was a hell of a writer. There’s not much to say about For Keeps beyond this: it’s 1,250 pages of Kael! (Teaser: More on Kael tomorrow at The Cooler.)

The Conversations
Yes, the title for my series of exchanges with Ed Howard is (for me, at least) a tribute to this book, the title of which is of course a tribute to The Conversation. This book is a series of discussions between Michael Ondaatje and Walter Murch, the film and/or sound editor of Apocalypse Now, American Graffiti, The Conversation and others. Throughout the book, Murch provides interesting observations on those films, plus The Godfather, Touch Of Evil and others. One of my favorite anecdotes is provided in the introduction, describing how Murch added a beat and a line repetition to Caravaggio’s interrogation scene in The English Patient to make it more dramatic. Murch isn’t looking to pat himself on the back. Instead he plays the role of instructor, demonstrating how editing can be used to subtly yet significantly alter a film’s impact. If I had to recommend one book that would make anyone a smarter movie watcher, this would be the one.

Conversations With The Great Moviemakers Of Hollywood’s Golden Age
This is the book I’m going through currently, so I suppose it’s too soon to call it a favorite. But I’m a sucker for interview transcripts, as they have a way of cutting through the bullshit, so it might be a favorite before too long. More than 30 filmmaker interviews (originally conducted at the American Film Institute) are provided here, featuring names like Fritz Lang, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston and Elia Kazan. As a sampling, here’s David Lean discussing the challenges of adapting a novel: “I think the thing is to not try to do a little bit of every scene in a novel, because it’s going to end up a mess. Choose what you want to do in the novel and do it proud. If necessary, cut characters. Don’t keep every character and just take a sniff of each one.” Amen to that!

What are your favorite film books? Bloggers: Make your list and link them back to The Dancing Image.


Richard Bellamy said...

I have read and really enjoyed Raging Bulls and The Converstaions because, well, you gave them to me as Christmas or birthday presents.

I love the former book for its anecdotes about the wild 70s and the free-spirited films that came out of that decade that always packs a visceral punch whenever I think of it (and living through it). It brought me back to seeing The Godfather and Star Wars and Taxi Driver when they first came out.

You're right about the latter book. It influences you to watch films in a different way. It also inspired me to consider an element of film I had never thought much about - sound and sound mixing - so that now my passion for sound nearly equals my passion for the cinematic image.

A great list of books. I will try the book by Kael. You're right; she can be a cheap "bomb-thrower," as you say - and some of her articles really turned me off her writing, but I will give her another try.

Joel Bocko said...

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is an early favorite in this meme. It's one I've browsed in bookstores many time, but I saw a screening of the film version which and loved it - what's more Arthur Penn (and I believe the remaining partner of the Benton/Newman team - Benton I think) spoke after.

And of course, For Keeps seems to be on every list, as well it should.

Great picks with both conversations books. Again, I've perused both. I sometimes think Murch may be the most valuable contributor to the 70s film revolution beyond any of the directors. As for the AFI book, I think the Directing the Film book which I cited is culled from the same conversations, except that it slices and dices the directors' comments up and organizes them by topic instead of by individual interview. Both approaches are interesting, and I'd love to read the version you cite as well.

Anonymous said...

The Kael compilation is a good read, particularly since it includes her piece on Citizen Kane. And that she seems to continually get her digs in at her buddy Bosley Crowther.

I recently read Pictures at a Revolution, a pretty good overview of the 5 selections for best picture in 1968. While less a truly indepth exploration and analysis that it's purported to be, nevertheless a good historical look at the contextual times and how each of the 5 unfolded.

Ebert's Great Movies summary on line is also a great resource.

Ed Howard said...

I guess I should probably read The Conversations then, huh?

Great list, although the only one I actually have read (and put on my own list, too) is the Kael book, which is as maddening and entertaining and silly and insightful as Kael always is. I still often browse through it, wondering what Kael thought of some movie I've seen recently. Which, actually, I do with Ebert a lot too, although with him I just head online rather than to a book.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks, all. This was a fun task. When it was done, I felt satisfied that the five I selected was a strong, representative sampling. But, of course, I could have listed five other books and felt good about them.

Anon: Pictures of a Revolution is one I keep picking up at the store but never actually buying. I'll get around to it someday.

Ed: Well, everyone should check it out. But, yeah, I do like the simplicity of the title, along with its allusion.

Kevin J. Olson said...

This is great stuff Jason. Just out of curiosity are you still in Oregon? I'm in Salem -- so perhaps we were exposed to the same "local" film criticism (the Salem paper usually just has the AP critics reviews in it).

I still have my beat up 1997 Ebert companion and I'm so glad you singled that one out because like you, I get sucked in and start reading review after review. I think that was the last edition where he had such an array of reviews, I think after that edition it started becoming the most recent years reviews. But yes, that is such a great book, and despite the fact that my copy is missing a few pages and doesn't have a cover, I'll keep it forever. I also remember carrying around the little mini-companion that came with book, hopping on my bike and heading down to the local video store to check another titles off the list of titles that he gave 4-stars.

Also, The Conversations was the first book I ever bought about editing. It's been one of the best investments I've made, I still reference it today.

Jason Bellamy said...

Kevin: I'm in Washington, DC, now. I grew up in Eugene, and the newspaper there had a local film critic who wrote exclusively for the paper until about 1997 or so. (I recall, around his last year, that he really liked Henry Fool and The Fifth Element). After he retired, the paper started running Ebert, though by then I was off to college and out of state.

Funny about that little booklet you mention: I remember it, and I think I left that behind with my mom (gone now, I'm sure), to make myself feel better about stealing the book.

Glad you like The Conversations. It's such a fast read of terrific, easy-to-digest information.

Thanks for the comment!