By Matt Singer | Criticwire November 26, 2012 at 10:00AM
Q: 'Tis the season for gift giving. If someone's looking to buy a film-related book for the cinephile in their life this holiday season, what would you recommend?
The critics' answers:
"I would recommend 'Pictures at a Revolution' by Mark Harris. It's a great mix of history, anecdotes, and film analysis."
"I am atrocious at giving gifts. I'm the guy who would give one of the volumes of Roger Ebert's 'The Great Movies,' except the recipient, being a cinephile, probably already owns them all."
"It has to be 'Film Art: An Introduction' by the dynamic duo David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson. It's essentially a complete film studies course condensed into a couple hundred pages, pitched just at the right level for someone with an abiding love of cinema who may not know the terminology or necessarily recognize the various aspects that combine to make cinematic art. It's super easy to read, without a hint of the kind of pretentious pontificating you tend to see in film theory texts, and there are lots of pretty pictures to boot. It changed the way I, and countless others, look at film."
"To any person with an interest in film, I'd recommend: Francois Truffaut's 'Hitchcock,' the definitive director interview book; Andre Bazin's 'What is Cinema?,' the best possible introduction to film theory and criticism (Hugh Gray's translation is the easiest to come by; gift-givers with deep pockets should try for Timothy Barnard's new and more accurate translation, available from Canadian publisher caboose); 'Notes on the Cinematographer,' Robert Bresson's collection of filmmaking aphorisms and proverbs (a great 'budget buy'); 'Farber on Film: The Collected Film Writings of Manny Farber,' the title of which is self-explanatory; Tom Milne's 'Godard on Godard,' the title of which is totally misleading, since -- being a collection of essays Godard wrote as a critic -- it features Godard on everyone but Godard; and at least one book by Jonathan Rosenbaum (his latest, 'Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia' is as good a place to start as any). However, assuming this cinephile has already boned up on these classics, I'd recommend getting him or her Dave Kehr's 'When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade,' which came out last year. Kehr is one of the five or so greatest film critics this country has produced, a master of concise critical prose, and this is the first collection of his writings ever published. If this cinephile likes to talk about movies within a cultural context, then get them either of J. Hoberman's new books, 'Film After Film' (which focuses on 21st century cinema) or 'Army of Phantoms' (which is about cinema's relationship to the Cold War); Hoberman's book about the 1960s, 'The Dream Life,' is also an essential read. If this cinephile also happens to be a James Gray fan (as cinephiles tend to be), I'd spring for Jordan Minzter's 'Conversations with James Gray.' It is hands down the best book devoted to a single filmmaker released in the last decade -- and it happens to be quite pretty to look at, too."
"In 1938, Katharine Hepburn was declared box office poison, and one can't help but wonder how much the Hollywood publicity machinery had to do with it. The image of a strong, independent woman, wearing pants, was not something promoted in a country still suffering from high unemployment rates. 'Katharine Hepburn: Rebel Chic' combines fabulous rare photographs of Hepburn's style on and off camera and explores the star's legacy in five thought provoking essays. Hepburn had a keen eye for style, worked closely with her films' costume designers, and knew how to carefully subvert gender coding. Her knowledge of fashion in no way contradicts her desire for comfort and freedom, not only in regards to sartorial expression. And she loved her clothes. It takes a lot of effort to look as if you didn't make any effort, Katharine Hepburn once said to Greta Garbo, another movie star who managed to overcome Hollywood stereotypes of her time with distinct personal style. Authenticity takes a tremendous amount of work. 'One does not design for Miss Hepburn, one designs with her,' commented Edith Head."
"'Joe Bob Goes to the Drive-In' by Joe Bob Briggs. Because John Bloom, writing from the heart via a fictional persona, taught me that criticism didn't have to be what everybody else was telling me it was."
"I'm assuming this hypothetical cinephile already owns all the essential books, so I'm going to recommend a fascinating history of those inessential film workers, the extras. Anthony Slide's 'Hollywood Unknowns' digs up fascinating details of that tenuous gig, from the catch-as-catch-can days of early Hollywood hiring through the frustrating bureaucracy of Central Casting. Indelible personalities emerge through Slide's voluminous research, including Franco 'Frenchie' Corsaro, a 1930s extra who also acted as a pimp, culling starlets for studio bigwigs. For the Henry Fonda fan, Devin McKinney's impassioned biography, 'The Man Who Saw a Ghost,' is another ideal stocking stuffer."
"I'd recommend one of my new favorite volumes of film scholarship, J. Hoberman's 'An Army of Phantoms.' It's a dense history of postwar Hollywood, juxtaposing movies' ideologies with the national politics that informed them, yet it's also a fun, quick read. Between the pop of Hoberman's prose and the thrill of his subject matter, I can't think of a book I'd rather give or receive. (Honorable mention goes to Mark Harris's 'Pictures at a Revolution,' another ideal stocking stuffer for lovers of film history.)"
"Maybe it’s clichéd, but I’ll stick with a tried-and-true favorite: 'The Great Movies' trilogy by Roger Ebert. (Sure, it’s more than one book, but any cinephile will be thankful for the present.) Ebert is one of the most influential figures in modern film criticism, someone whose broad tastes coupled with insightful writing has always held great appeal to me. It’s through the Great Movies series, which originated on his website, that I was first aware of films like 'Peeping Tom' or 'Le Samourai.' Reading the first book when it came out in 2003, as I began my sophomore year in college, was an education unto itself. And Ebert’s appreciation of classics I’d seen countless times already, such as 'Singin’ In The Rain' and 'Fargo,' was then and is still like a verbal bowl of chicken soup, a welcome comfort and reminder of the power of cinema."
"I was very impressed with Douglas Crimp's new book on Andy Warhol's cinema, 'Our Kind of Movie.' In addition to providing his customarily sharp cultural-studies analyses on the work at hand, placing Warhol and his films in the broader context of queer politics and representation, Crimp also offers exceptional close readings of films that have been taken for granted for too long. That is, we think we knew these films, even if we hadn't even seen them. Crimp corrects that error, and then some."
"'Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in Modern Horror Film,' by Carol J. Clover. 'Flicker' by Theodore Roszak. 'Videodrome: Studies in the Horror Film' by Tim Lucas."
"Novelist and film critic Jeffrey Overstreet’s 'Through a Screen Darkly,' a book that explores the inseparable relationship between faith and film, equating a trip to the movies with spiritual experience. Given the format and Overstreet’s unique, conversational voice, the book reads less like a, well, book and more like a notebook full of insightful and exciting meditations on the art of film."
"'The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks' -- a fascinating roadmap inside one Hollywood studio and a must-read for any Spielberg fan."
"Depending on who it is, I would buy them Steven Soderbergh's 'Getting Away With It: Or, The Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw.' Half of it is an extensive, in-depth series of interviews with the great, forever underrated Richard Lester -- a director who's modest to a fault but who nonetheless more or less opens up for the Lester fanboy Soderbergh. The other half -- though the two halves are spliced together, alternating every couple pages -- is Soderbergh's diaries from 1995 to 1997, roughly from after 'The Underneath' to him prepping 'Out of Sight.' This is his Hollywood dropout period, which produced the incredible 'Schizopolis,' and also when he worked on a series of scripts and rewrites, including touch-ups on 'Mimic' and a sadly failed project with Henry Selick. As we know, he would soon regain his mojo and become absurdly prolific and energized, before burning out on film entirely (allegedly). But this book allows you access to a frail, wounded psyche, mired in self-doubt and mordant self-hatred. His deadpan sense of humor has never been more evident, although it's usually turned on himself as he beats himself up over missing deadlines, distribution headaches and writer's block, all the while wasting days and nursing romantic failures. Reading it, one can either wallow in its weirdly amusing misery or realize that even the best of us go through major down periods."
"Amos Vogel's 'Film as a Subversive Art.'"
"I'm a big fan of Nathan Rabin's 'My Year Of Flops.' Rabin's book teaches any cinephile a valuable lesson; to give movies a second chance. If you didn't like it the first time, maybe re-watching it with some distance can make you appreciate what the filmmaker was trying to get across."
"For me, Roger Ebert's 'Great Movies' collections, all three volumes, not only contain some of the best film writing out there, but also succeed at introducing a slew of classic and obscure titles you'll want to re-watch or discover for the first time. Together, the three volumes out now (more to come soon I hope) act as a great syllabus for any casual or serious lover of film."
"Every cinephile should own Otto Friedrich's 'City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s,' still gloriously in print after 26 years. The studios and the stars are here, but so are the labor disputes, riots, gangsters and other denizens of Hollywood high and low. The stories range from hilarious (I'm particularly fond of Walt Disney viewing the rushes for 'Fantasia' and observing, "Gee, this'll make Beethoven") to desperately sad, such as the fates of Canada Lee and John Garfield. Friedrich's chapter on HUAC and the Hollywood 10 is the best short summary of those complex events I've read. And his research means that for once, when you read an anecdote, you know the author checked the source, and you can flip to the back and do the same. It's a book that enriches your understanding of the era, and therefore the movies themselves."
"A few months ago, I finally got around to reading Julie Salamon's 'The Devil's Candy: Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco,' which was given to me by a fellow cinephile last holiday season. The book is a meticulous chronicle of the hundreds of tiny, bad decisions that led to Brian De Palma's disastrous adaptation of 'The Bonfire of the Vanities.' When De Palma agreed to give Salamon virtually unlimited access to the production for her book, it was widely expected that 'The Bonfire of the Vanities' would turn out be a critical darling and Oscar contender. Unlike the dozens of lesser books that take lazy shots at Hollywood's biggest flops, Salamon brings the objectivity and thoroughness of a serious journalist to 'The Devil's Candy.' She spent time with virtually everyone on set: PAs and assistants, studio executives, costumers, producers, De Palma himself, and stars like Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith, and Bruce Willis (who comes off very poorly, and had scathing things to say about it). For anyone who's ever wondered how studios, which are packed with smart people and money, can routinely end up producing such disappointing films, it's a fascinating and essential read."
"Because I love reading about movies almost as much as I love watching them, I literally had about fifty different answers for this question. But I'll go with 'Impossibly Funky' by Mike White. This book is a collection of articles from 'Cashiers Du Cinemart,' one of the greatest film 'zines to ever exist, along with, as the cover promises, '13.2% all new stuff.' Inside its pages, you'll find pieces on how White brought to light the similarities between Quentin Tarantino's 'Reservoir Dogs' and Ringo Lam's 'City on Fire,' interviews with Bruce Campbell and Keith Gordon, and much more. There's also an entire section devoted to 'Black Shampoo,' the most amazing blaxploitation movie you will ever see. Genre films have never been covered in such loving, admiring detail. It's a terrific read. Because I am a typically underpaid film critic who could desperately use a few extra bucks in his pocket this holiday season, I'd probably also recommend my own book, a collection of movie-related essays called 'Straight-Up Blatant: Musings From The Aisle Seat.' Yes, recommending my own stuff would make me guilty of the kind of obnoxious self-promotion usually reserved for the likes of people named Kevin Smith, but hey, a brother's gotta eat, right?"
"I always tell film fans the same thing: invest in Richard Brody's 'Everything Is Cinema,' a biography about 'the working life of Jean-Luc Godard' and an essential read for cinephiles of every stripe. Its focus on shifting the canon toward Godard's oft-overlooked later works is basically the lord's work as far as I'm concerned, and the more people who read it the better. It's rigorously researched, incredibly informative, and, best of all, a supremely entertaining read."
"I'd actually recommend 'Rebels on the Backlot.' There are certainly better titles available, but it was the first film-related book that I ever read and it started my consumption in a big way. 'Tales from Development Hell' is a close second though."
"Stephen Lowenstein's book 'My First Movie' is a wonderful read, and would make for an equally fab present. It's comprised of interviews with twenty renowned directors, who all recount the trials and tribulations they encountered whilst making their debut feature. Some tales reveal a refreshingly honest depiction of the process (Steve Buscemi talks about locking himself in a toilet to have a good ol' sob during 'Trees Lounge') and all offer fascinating tidbits and helpful do's and don't for any attempting this mammoth task."
"'The Psychotronic Video Guide' by Michael J. Whedon. It's nearly 16-years old, but this massive tome is essential if you're curious about monsters, westerns, weirdness and more in a pre-Wikipedia or Netflix era. It was like a literal bible to me when I was younger and skulking around Potomac Videos and Blockbusters in Washington, D.C. as I searched high and low for 'The Great Silence,' Troma films, and other instances of the weird. 'The Guide' still stands up, but remains frozen with features from before 1996 like the VHS-equivalent of the Necronomicon. Sure, Wikipedia has an entry these days for 'Psychotronic' and can probably be updated on a whim. But this book is like a list of myths for films that were hard to even find on VHS, let alone scanned into a massive VOD database."
"I'd say Robert Evans' autobiography 'The Kid Stays in the Picture.' It is so juicy, and such a hoot. Totally escapist fun that harkens to a very different time in Hollywood. Then recommend that the recipient watch the documentary based on the book, which Evans himself narrates as only he can, baby."
"David Thomson's 'The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.' A reference book I find myself wanting to read front to back like a novel. Even when he's wrong -- and he is so often wrong -- compulsively, dangerously readable."
"'American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now' offers a humbling historical overview of the shadows we're all working under. Kudos to Phillip Lopate for putting together such a comprehensive collection."
"If your cinephile is truly hardcore, one of the most fascinating texts on how we engage with film and film history is David Bordwell's 'On the History of Film Style.' Bordwell's book is not a history of film, but instead a historiography of how our perception of film history has changed -- he starts with the elements that led to the Basic Story, how that was later challenged by various film theorists, the elevation of deep focus and 'Citizen Kane' during the Cashier moment, and how later critics came to challenge the various elements of the canon. It's easy to see the history of cinema as a fixed, rigorous teleology, but Bordwell shows how various moments in time have affected what is important in that teleology. Hopefully, those who read his enthralling book will see how our own moment in history is giving us yet another imperfect view of cinematic history."