Friday, July 03, 2009

Favorite Movie Books

I'm ridiculously late coming to this topic, but I thought a tardy response to a meme asking bloggers to name the film books that had the biggest impact on them would constitute a ideal inaugural post this relaunched blog. Robert Christgau once wrote that most people who read critics are criticism fans first and foremost, and that's certainly true in my case. My love of good, sly criticism informed my decision to write about movies for a living. Pace the common smear that critics do what they do because they can't cut it as musicians/filmmakers/painters/novelists/interior decorators, I fell in love with criticism as an art and a discipline at some point in my life, and I soon realized I couldn't think of a happier way to spend my life than trying to live up to the models of my favorite critics and scholars.

The books and writers below shaped how I see movies, from the way I piece together the history that connects one film to the next, to what I look for in terms of sanity and grace. Above all, my favorite film writing suggested a language for sorting out my feelings, a way of getting beyond just thinking about whether I liked a movie or not, and getting at the meaning of the thing. Like most people, a good portion of my life has been taken up by viewing films, and good criticism testifies to the idea that none of that time has been spent frivolously. Criticism for me means above all trying to figure out how Art fits into the world, a way of accounting for time and attention so as to make a claim for the central importance of useless things. Below, I've made an annotated list of my favorite film books, roughly in the order I first encountered them.

Classics of the Horror Film by William K. Everson

In a recent post on the Everson archives, Jonathan Rosenbaum observed that Everson's knowledge of film history was of more value than his critical analysis. Maybe, but when I poured over this book as a kid, Everson's sense of how the arc of horror film history hung together deeply affected me, and he was very good at relating specific films to the larger context . Everson made me think of every movie I watched in terms of an evolving narrative of film history, perhaps the key conceptual shift that distinguishes the critic from the average viewer.

Danse Macabre by Stephen King

Film history as autobiography, King's impressionistic account of the horror genre remains a funny and informative work. It weaves together the intricate interrelationships between horror literature, fandom, and movies that so many more specialist histories miss.

Favorite Movies edited by Philip Nobile

A public library find from when I was in my formative years as a movie buff, this includes one of my favorite pieces of criticism - Joseph McBride's defense of Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451. The book was issued at a time when the debates about taste ushered in by Sarris' The American Cinema were raging, so rather than simply rattling off a list of faves, the contributors engaged in an often bitter back and forth about what kinds of movies matter. The result is a collection of high stakes commentary about the very nature of film criticism.

Great Film Directors edited by Leo Braudy and Morris Dickstein

Another public library discovery, this was my introduction to auteurism (though as an avid reader of Fangoria magazine since I was about five, I already had a list of favorite directors -Romero, Carpenter, Dante, et al). It's an engaging collection of essays on both the pre-Sarris canon of great directors - Bergman, Fellini, Eisenstein - and post AC favorites (Hawks, Hitchcock, Ford). The collection remains one of the best anthologies of film criticism ever put together, and perhaps one reason I was left somewhat underwhelmed by Philip Lopate's recent Library of America collection of American film criticism was that I thought it paled in comparison to this collection of rather similar scope. It contains superlative pieces from Sarris (on The Seventh Seal and Blow-Up), Susan Sontag (on Persona), Luis Bunuel (on Passion of Joan of Arc), Christian Metz (on 8 1/2), Pauline Kael (on Intolerance), and André Bazin (on Diary of a Country Priest). In nearly every case, this was my first exposure to these writers, and also I believe the first I'd ever heard of Antonioni, Bresson, Dreyer, Flaherty, and Von Sternberg. An indispensable part of my film education.

From Vietnam to Reagan by Robin Wood

I came across this in my high school library when I was 15. Having already admired Wood's contributions to Favorite Movies and The Great Film Directors, this book enticed me because of the serious attention paid to the likes of George Romero and Larry Cohen. The idea that someone considered pulp horror movies worthy of serious consideration thrilled me. Wood's attentive dissection of these films legitimized my tastes like no other critic I had read before. But even more marvelous was what he had to say about those films - an eloquent, deeply ethical approach to criticism that saw art and political responsibility as intimately linked. Woods' forceful polemics even turned me, for a time, against Spielberg and Lucas, despite having grown up with and loved their films. I've since come back around to loving them both (well, more the former than the latter) , partly because I think they're defensible on precisely the humanist grounds established by Wood, but also because I ultimately came to question major tenets of Wood's critical foundation. Nevertheless, Wood's writings formed an absolutely critical component of my own feelings about film.

Hitchcock's Films by Robin Wood

Another Wood revelation, his audacity in ranking Hitchcock alongside Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky as a moral force and an artist made an enormous impact on me. I'm now somewhat suspicious of Wood's strategy (I'm inclined to agree with Robert Warshow's observation that "If film is to be accepted into the household of art, it will be a changed household that receives it"), but it's the kind of rhetorical move that was probably essential in order for film culture to move beyond the formalist ossifications that had shaped film aesthetics since the 1920s, and the book still makes one see Hitchcock better than any other single volume on the director.

The American Cinema by Andrew Sarris

Like most people who encountered this book at a certain age, Sarris's survey of American film directors became an obsession of mine, as I leafed through it more than any other single book in my collection. His thumbnail sketches remain definitive, and the wealth of discoveries this book enabled is the ultimate validation of auteurism.

Encyclopedia of Movie Awards by Michael Gerbert

At first glance, a kind of throw-away junk food book, full of trivia and asides and good jokes, but in fact it's an excellent off-hand history of movies and film culture. By laying out film awards
chronologically from the beginning of the sound era to 1995 (an updated version would be most welcome), Gerbert highlights the disparities between the movies that flattered and pleased people in their own day and the movies that move and surprise us now. Gerbert's own critical asides almost always inform even when he's wrong, and his pithy, superlatively written capsules that say so much with so little that he makes one wonder why anybody need ever write a review longer than fifty words.

Placing Movies by Jonathan Rosenbaum

Rosenbaum's critical positions have come to seem rather strident lately, but Placing Movies reminds anyone who's forgotten that for nearly three decades, Rosenbaum was one of the sanest, most intelligent voices in American film criticism. His thoughtful mixture of politics and aesthetics shows how it should be done, and he makes broadening one's cinematic horizons beyond the American multiplex seem like an ethical imperative.

Totally Tenderly Tragically by Philp Lopate

A recent re-read revealed Lopates attitude to be more cloistered and self-satisfied that I wished to remember, but those limitations are inextricable from Lopate's real virtues. Lopate conceives of serious moviegoing as a path towards self-understanding, an old critical commonplace that Lopate renders as a startling truth in a collection that works cohesively.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang by Pauline Kael
I came to Kael rather late. I knew the name from the Great Film Directors anthology and Sarris's kvetching, but my first immersion in her writing came vía one of her 80s anthologies, which proved underwhelming, since her taste rarely surprised, and her insights never turned the movies inside out. But in college, I got around to checking out her earlier collections, and discovered what all the fuss was about. Her prose stills seems explosive, and when you contextualize her within the conventions of liberal earnestness she rebelled against, it's obvious why she's revered as a revolutionary force in the history of arts journalism. I'm enough of a committed auteurist to question whether she ever truly helps the reader make renewed emotional contact with individual films, but her biggest impact is attitudinal, as she orients one to looking at movies in terms of pop sensationalism, an approach that can be reductive, but also makes one sensitive the ways movies upset the conventions of gentility and high art that so many critics try to reconcile with cinephilia.

Negative Space by Manny Farber

Another critic I came to late. Part of what impressed about Farber was how he worked anthropologically, using a cluster of movies to discover surprising formal rhymes with inventive reasoning. And as a prose stylist, he's as seductive and dangerous as Pauline Kael.

A few others worth mentioning, sans commentary:
History of Narrative Film by David Cook
Psychotronic Film Encyclopedia by Michael Weldon
James Agee's collected film criticism
Mondo Macabro by Pete Tombs
Cahiers du Cinema 1950s edited by James Hillier
Theory of Film Practice by Noel Burch
On the History of Film Style by David Bordwell
Films and Feeling by Raymond Durgnat
Signs and Meaning in the Cinema by Peter Wollen
More Than Night by James Naremore
Cinema 1 & 2 by Gilles Deleuze
The Material Ghost by Gilberto Perez
The World Viewed by Stanley Cavell
The Avant-Garde Finds Andy Hardy by Robert Ray

Also, a few non-movie books that have nevertheless had a profound influence on how I think about movies:
Album Guide to the 1970s by Robert Christgau
Kitsch and Art by Tomas Kulka
Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes
Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus
On Photography by Susan Sontag

I should of course mention the Leonard Maltin movie guides, whose middle of the road preferences are worth mocking, but which nevertheless were of great use to a pre-teen trying make sense of movies caught on TV in the days before the Internet Movie Database. Similarly, Roger Ebert's tastes can be exasperating, but he's an unusually thoughtful writer, whose commonsensical approach can be helpful when trying to maintain a sense of critical composure in the face of the hype machine of modern pop cinema.
Another favorite encountered outside of books: Dave Kehr, whose auteurist militancy borders on a kind of madness, but at his best reveals the advantages in having a confirmed point of view in criticism.