A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH: THE BRAIN REVEALED BY THE MIND OF MICHAEL POWELL by Diane Broadbent Friedman (Author House) — One of my greatest pleasures this past year was revisiting Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, newly issued on DVD by the Criterion Collection. In this extraordinary film, pilot David Niven has a near-death experience; then, while undergoing...
brain surgery, he imagines historical figures in heaven arguing over his life. The heady mixture of wartime reality and sophisticated fantasy has made a lasting impact on many viewers over the years, but no one I know has taken it to heart quite like Diane Broadbent Friedman. As she explained in a letter to me, “I am a nurse practitioner in neurology who [wrote this book] in her spare time, hitting the university libraries at Penn State School of Medicine and Indiana University School of Medicine and the Library of Medicine in Bethesda while my husband’s job took us to several locations. I did this because I just know I was onto something really special and I felt that if I just kept trying I could figure out the mystery of what was all that neuroscience doing in A Matter of Life and Death... I wanted other people (not just neurologists) to really understand what Michael Powell mastered and then embedded in the film.”
Friedman tracked down a dizzying amount of information. For instance, “The character of Dr. Reeve (played by Roger Livesey) is a famous neurologist, living in the country, published in Brain, likes poetry and is treating a poet who is also in the service. I think this is a strong echo of Sir Henry Head, revered neurologist, editor of Brain, who lived in the country for a while, liked poetry, and cared for several British poets during World War One including Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Nichols. They both had red-brown goatees.
“The music of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, playing during a scene, was thought to have been first played by Felix Mendelssohn in the British home of the grandparents of the first neurosurgeon to successfully perform epilepsy surgery—Victor Horsley.
“I located an article from which I think Powell took dialogue—British Journal of Ophthalmology—reprinted at the back of my book.
“I located and corresponded with Michael Powell’s brother-in-law, Dr. Reidy, who told me that they had talked about a script, probably about the plastic surgery done on pilots at the beginning of the war.”
Friedman describes herself as “single-minded,” but I think she’s done an amazing job. As she explains, “Working out all of the neurology only makes the fantasy story more powerful and wonderful for me. I don’t think it diminishes the magic in the slightest. I sure wish I could have met Michael Powell. I tried to honor his scholarship.”
KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES! AMERICAN SCIENCE FICTION FILMS OF THE FIFTIES by Bill Warren (McFarland) — Weighing in at more than one thousand pages, the book that was declared definitive when it first came out in 1982 is now bigger and more detailed than ever. No one knows more about this fruitful period of science-fiction films than Bill Warren, and this magnum opus will doubtless be browsed, consulted, and cited for many years to come.
WORLD’S COOLEST MOVIE STAR: THE COMPLETE 95 FILMS (AND LEGEND) OF JEAN GABIN, VOL. 1: TRAGIC DRIFTER; VOL. 2: COMEBACK/PATRIARCH by Charles Zigman, Revised 2009/2010 Edition (Allenwood Press) — I covered this unique labor-of-love publishing endeavor when it first appeared in 2008, but I’ve recently learned that author-publisher Zigman has issued a revised, expanded version of his epic two-volume book. If you have any interest in Gabin, or the era of French filmmaking he represents, you’ll find much to savor in these detailed books. Not the least of their pleasures are the introductions, written by Gabin costars Michelle Morgan and Brigitte Bardot.
SOME LIKE IT HOT: THE OFFICIAL 50 th ANNIVERSARY COMPANION by Laurence Maslon; foreword by Walter Mirisch (Collins Design) — So you think you already know everything you’d care to know about the making of this classic comedy? Think again. Maslon has written a breezy, knowledgeable text that covers the familiar territory (i.e., Marilyn Monroe’s serial tardiness during filming) but casts a wider net than anyone ever has before. He examines the 1951 German film that inspired Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s remake—and discovers that there are more similarities than the famous screenwriters cared to admit. (It was itself a remake of a 1932 French movie.) He offers interesting sidebars about 1920s Chicago, gangster movies, popular music of the period, Joe E. Brown, music director Matty Malneck, costume designer Orry-Kelly, a failed TV pilot starring Vic Damone and Dick Patterson, and much, much more. This good-looking book is packed with rare photos (in color and black & white) and poster reproductions. And we can see with our own eyes how curvy cast member Sandra Warner posed for publicity photos and key poster images with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, only to have her face replaced by Marilyn Monroe’s, in those pre-PhotoShop days.
THE ART OF PIXAR SHORT FILMS by Amid Amidi; foreword by John Lasseter (Chronicle Books) — In its brief but colorful lifespan, Pixar has established two laudable traditions: producing animated short subjects, and chronicling its own history-in-the-making. This eye-appealing book, with text by the savvy author of Cartoon Modern (and co-host of cartoonbrew.com), actually delves into Pixar’s pre-history, when John Lasseter made the pioneering computer-animated short The Adventures of André & Wally B. in 1984, followed by the even more successful Luxo Jr. two years later. The bulk of the volume is devoted to beautifully reproduced artwork of all kinds: sketches, computer wireframe images, drawings, paintings, even clay sculptures representing the evolution of such delightful films as Tin Toy, Knick Knack, Geri’s Game, For the Girds, Mike’s New Car, Bouncin,’ One Man Band, and Lifted. As the jacket copy declares, “At Pixar, every film is a labor of love—even the ones that are only five minutes long.”
BACKSTORY: INTERVIEWS WITH SCREENWRITERS OF THE 1990s, Edited by Patrick McGilligan (University of California Press) — Author and film historian Patrick McGilligan has done a great service by compiling these periodic collections of interviews with screenwriters, the men and woman who too often stand in the shadow of directors. In this latest volume, the spotlight falls on thirteen successful writers of vastly varied backgrounds: Albert Brooks, Jean-Claude Carrière, Nora Ephron, Ronald Harwood, John Hughes, David Koepp, Richard LaGravenese, Barry Levinson, Eric Roth, John Sayles, Tom Stoppard, Barbara Turner, and Rudy Wurlitzer. Their thoughts on the filmmaking process, and their candid stories about experiences in the trenches, make for good reading and valuable reference.
A SPLURCH IN THE KISSER: THE MOVIES OF BLAKE EDWARDS by Sam Wasson (Wesleyan University Press) — In making his case for Blake Edwards as a unique observer of the human condition, for whom comedy is often associated with pain, Wasson begins with a description of the word gag. “The word itself is dumb,” he writes. “It sounds dumb. Gag. Like the sound a baby makes. It’s also ugly. The dorsal consonant G, first at the beginning, and then at the end, comes up like mud in the throat, and that A in between is just plain flat. Speaking it feels like talking with a mouthful of tuna fish.” What a welcome notion: somebody who knows how to write funny is doing a serious book about comedy! (A section in the back of the book on “How to Make a Blake Edwards Movie,” which catalogues his trademark ingredients, is labeled Appendicitis.) I haven’t had time to dive all the way into this ambitious examination of Edwards’ career but I like what I’ve read very much indeed.
THE WESTERNERS: INTERVIEWS WITH ACTORS, DIRECTORS, WRITERS AND PRODUCERS by C. Courtney Joyner; foreword by Miles Swarthout — A good interview requires an interesting subject and someone who knows the right questions to ask. C. Courtney Joyner loves Westerns, which is apparent as you glean his conversations with Glenn Ford, Virginia Mayo, Andrew V. McLaglen, Harry Carey, Jr., Julie Adams, A.C. Lyles, Burt Kennedy, Edward Faulkner, Aldo Sambrell, Jack Elam, Andrew J. Fenady, and Elmore Leonard. Some of these veterans’ careers have been covered elsewhere, but it’s a treat to “hear” them talking about their work with a true film buff.
LAUREL & HARDY FROM THE FORTIES FORWARD: Second Edition, Revised and Expanded, by Scott MacGillivray (iUniverse) — I’m always ready to read something new about Laurel & Hardy, and Scott McGillivray has continued to mine new material about the great duo’s later years—and the revival of interest in their work spurred by television—since the initial publication of his book in 1998. In fact, this book is twice as long! Among the nuggets of information included here are details on five planned feature films, two television projects, and two Broadway shows. John McCabe, author of the beloved Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy and founder of Sons of the Desert, praised the original book as “really wonderful.” Who am I to disagree?