I’ve been asked by fellow-blogger Movieman0283 over at The Dancing Image to join him and a few others in writing a little something each on our favourite books on cinema. I don’t really know where to start so have reached for the first things on my shelves I could find that I could hold my hand on my heart and say ‘Yes, I really like this book!’ So, without further ado:
1. Hitchcock, by Francois Truffaut (ed.)
The first book to get on Hitchcock and the one that you’ll keep turning back to over the years. My edition, from 1969, is a snug size that I can fit into a broad pocket – much nicer in my opinion than the clumpy A4 editions that seem to be the norm for this book at the moment. I very much like the cover design too with a vertiginous swirl distorting Hitch’s face with the left side of his face darker than the right, much like Judy’s face appears at that moment in her apartment in Vertigo. This book is simply jam-packed full of ideas about filmmaking – Truffaut got a great deal out of Hitch and follows him through his whole career chronologically. His famous contrast between suspense and surprise is in here but so too is his fascinating notion of ‘saving’ the long shot, with everything in a scene (what we would typically term the ‘establishing shot’), until it can be put to a purpose. It’s also fascinating to read as a marker of its time, the mid-60s (when the interviews were done.) Truffaut and the Cahiers gang had all made films but were still young and Truffaut’s admiration for the man he clearly considers THE master of cinema is palpable. Incidentally Hitch doesn’t come across as too enthused about Chabrol and Rohmer’s portrait of him as a Catholic filmmaker in their monograph. Here are Truffaut’s words on Hitchcock at the close of his introduction:
If in the era of Ingmar Bergman, one accepts the promise that cinema is an art form, on a par with literature, I suggest that Hitchcock belongs – and why classify him at all? – among such artists of anxiety as Kafka, Dostoevsky and Poe.
In the light of their own doubts these artists of anxiety can hardly be expected to show us how to live; their mission is simply to share with us the anxieties that haunt them. Consciously or not, this is their way of helping us to understand ourselves, which is, after all, a fundamental purpose of any work of art.
2. The Women Who Knew Too Much, by Tania Modleski
There are of course many great books on Hitchcock that I could cite here but this is one that’s certainly had an effect on me personally. Modleski basically attempts to stand between the polar opposition of perspectives on Hitchcock’s view of women – that he was a misogynist (Mulvey) or that he was a proto-feminist (Wood.) She humorously undercuts Wood’s wish to “save” Hitchcock for feminism as auteurist romanticism, making it clear that her intention is to “save” feminism for film studies (or vice-versa.) She achieves this through the close study of Hitchcock’s position on women in seven films. Modleski terms Hitch “ambivalent” about women and – similarly to Truffaut above - suggests that his talent, and more importantly his value for a feminist “reader” of his films, comes from the clarity of his expression of his anxieties about women.
3. Controlling Hollywood: Censorship and Regulation in the Studio Era, by Matthew Bernstein (ed.)
The Depth of Field series is a terrific one and I could just as easily have recommended the collections on Film and Nationalism and Movies and Mass Culture in this series. These collections bring together previously published work by some of the most important academic figures on the subject. The books are very well put together and the introduction is always authoritative.
4. Parallel Tracks, by Lynne Kirby
A book on film with a truly innovative form in its discussion on the interrelation of the railroad and cinema as twin engines of the onslaught of modernity. It’s also a joy to read combining in all the right ways history, theory and textual analysis of the movies and the railroad. The kind of book I’d love to be able to write someday…
5. “Film Europe” and “Film America”: Cinema, Commerce and Cultural Exchange 1920-1939, by Andrew Higson and Richard Maltby (eds.)
A groundbreaking collection that takes as its starting point a small period in the late 20s and early 30s in which there was a hope that a “Film Europe” could be established, with the nations of Europe combining forces in an attempt to match and compete with Hollywood cinema’s worldwide “Imperialist” dominance of cinema screens. While this hope ultimately failed the book uses this as a means towards discussing Hollywood world-dominance in the inter-war period in a manner that is refreshingly clear of hyperbole and that goes beyond the notion of a simple, top-down hegemony. This book is full of historical details on tariffs, embargoes and contingencies and definitely not one to take with you to the beach… But it goes beyond the details of economic exchange on this subject laid out so well in Kristin Thompson’s Exporting Entertainment, putting as much emphasis on cultural exchange. It’s a difficult read but really worth the effort, to get a strong, grounded sense of the globalism and transnationalism of cinema that was just beginning at this stage but that is now central to the medium; lest we forget that, for example, The Lord of the Rings was really a German film…
6. Fritz Lang in America, by P. Bogdanovich
Fritz Lang, in my opinion, was a serious intellectual and you can learn a lot from what he had to say about his films. It’s necessary to take Lang’s specific historical details and his self-mythologising with a pinch of salt, but the essence of Lang’s views on cinema in this book are invaluable.
7. The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy
I think we all get an attachment to the specific editions of books that we’ve read, but again I prefer this edition to the regular one with a colour photo. Ok, since I’ve written quite a bit on this book on this site I’ll redirect you to this stuff, of which I’m quite proud. First there is a segment from the opening of the novel here, then there is a piece of writing on that segment and its discussion of cinema here and finally there is a follow-up piece here. It’s all quite easy to read I promise!
8. Hollywood Modernism, by Saverio Giovacchini
The film still on the cover is from Confessions of a Nazi Spy (WB, 1939) the first film, as the tag-line went, that dared to ‘call a swastika a swastika.’ It’s a fascinating film that strangely, considering its historical importance, still remains completely unavailable on DVD or VHS. I have a copy of the film on the now obsolete format of the Video-CD (VCD), which is probably quite rare and seems to be the only way this film has been released. Giovacchini’s book forcefully counters the myth that Hollywood cinema, and Hollywood culture in general, of the 1930s and 40s produced only vacuous mass entertainment and was completely unwilling to discuss politics and the problems of modern society. He draws attention to heated discussions over the nature of “realism” in the 1930s and the immense national strength and influence of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. I’ve written a little about the HANL in an essay on Meet John Doe (1941) here. Giovacchini’s book is a very enjoyable read.
9. Time Out Film Guide 2008, by Geoff Andrew (ed)
You’ll notice I’ve put the 2008 edition here – this is no slight on the latest edition but just the edition I happen to have; it also has a rather lovely image of Penelope Cruz that I couldn’t resist having on my site.. Anyway, the Time Out Film Guide is without a doubt the best film guide on offer in Britain – I haven’t looked at that many of the US ones but they’d have to be pretty strong to compete. It certainly seems to be the guide with the most space for World Cinema. There are no star ratings and reviews don’t generally contain synopses – instead they offer acute observations and understanding of the films discussed, crammed into very few words. Reviews do generally make it clear if the critic liked the film but are so well drawn that you can come away from a review that slammed a film with so much detail that you feel you want to see the film anyway. This happened for me, for instance, when I read the review of Gregg Araki’s Nowhere (1997), which described the film as ‘a piece of shit.’ In this instance the critic got it wrong, by the way – hardly a great film but kind of weirdly enjoyable. But I’ll repeat that generally the reviews are uncannily accurate.
10. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960, by David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson
I’ve been pondering over what should be my last book here and felt I couldn’t really leave this one out. Love it or hate it The Classical Hollywood Cinema is probably one of the most important books in film studies. Bordwell et al set out to define the characteristics of an “ordinary” film. Of course it is contentious to imply that Golden Age Hollywood set the “norm” for which all other kinds of cinema (0f the “World” or the “avant-garde”) become the aberration and risks simplifying matters. Yet within the specific context of mainstream American cinema, in the period of the Studio System and its “dream factory”, this model certainly has value. The research in this text is incredibly thorough and when reading through a chapter you occasionally get the sense that the information and ideas here are equivalent to the amount you’d get from reading ten other books. Bordwell’s blog on cinema Observations on film art and Film Art is also essential reading.
That’s as much as I have the energy for right now! By the way, they’re not in any order of greatness, of course… Please comment to let me know what you think of these choices, whether you’ve read the books or not – I love to hear what you guys think. And get reading!