Tag Archives: Walker Percy

Reading the Movies: Some Books for Cinephiles!

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.)

Photo 8The 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 VertigoThis 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

large.snazal.comThere 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.)

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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

Photo 9A 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.)

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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

Photo 5Fritz 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

Photo 11I 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

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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)

51Pybabto8L._SS500_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

coverpageI’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!

Movies in Literature Part 1: Walker Percy’s ‘The Moviegoer’ (further continued)

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I found this intriguing comment on the sequence we have been looking at from The Moviegoer. It was posted beneath an article on the novel, on the New York Times online:

I grew up in New Orleans and attended college — or mostly didn’t — there as well. I’ve always thought the movie theater that Percy describes so well at the beginning of the book was the lonely movie theater next to the University of New Orleans on Elysian Fields. In Gentilly (where Binx lives).

Don’t bother Google Mapping it — it was replaced, pre-Katrina, by a Taco Stand (I think). I can’t remember what it’s name was.

It was a lonely little movie theater, not popular, not nice, not far from Lake Pontchartrain, and in fact I can remember when the wind was really whipping it up you could hear it shaking the walls of the theater unless you were watching some blood bath with supersonic Jet levels of sound.

I saw David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” there and this remains one of the frightening-est film experiences of my life. The film, the creepy guy down front, the howling wind, the absence of any real neighborhood life when the University wasn’t in session… it was, in its way, absolutely perfect.

Jude Bloom

I’m tempted to treat this comment as yet another text to be deciphered. There are certainly some interesting parallels with Percy’s writing as well as with my interpretation of Percy. I like that Jude emphasises the cinema as ‘lonely’ and talks of sounds as ‘shaking the walls.’ Both are examples that hardly only claim to affirm the literal reality of the setting as described by Percy. They rather stake a claim on the affirmation of its spiritual and psychological truth-value. 

Yet this might be saying too much. Jude’s comments here made me think a little about my last two posts on The Moviegoer. I noticed particularly that there seemed to be something close to contradictory in the fact that I first chose to describe the sequence as ‘beautiful’, then, after presenting it, to dwell on its negative criticism of cinema and moviegoing. After all what did I find beautiful? Of course it was the description of cinema: of the process of going to the cinema and of the pleasures one can attain from this. And how could the sequence give me these feelings about cinema (and Jude too, since he likewise concludes a criticism of the ‘not nice’ “real” cinema by stating that it was ‘perfect’) while seemingly at the same time attempting to undercut cinema’s worth?

I’m not sure I can claim to have a definitive answer to this question but I think it’s an important one to consider. It reminds me in passing of the protagonist narrator in Dostoevsky’s Notes From the Underground as he notes that ‘There is pleasure in a toothache.’ It’s perhaps that the very fact of touching on real experience, however dark this may be, can have a positive effect – of making it real to us. This may even perhaps be literature’s main purpose.

Alternatively and just as likely, however, tho admittedly somewhat more banal, is the possibility that Jude and I are quite simply choosing to read against the grain, adding to the text our own passion for cinema. We are taking the pleasure without the toothache..

A third possibility, also highly likely I think, is that Percy wants us to identify with his protagonist’s happiness, aligning our own pleasure with his, but also wants to suggest its problems on a perhaps more subtle, as yet only partially noticeable level. This might suggest an approach with therapeutic aims, hoping to cure us of our affliction.

These are just tentative thoughts and I imagine will remain this way for some time. Please let me know what you think. Reading one, two or three?! Or a combination of two or three of these readings? Or something completely different?

p.s. Jude’s comment can be read in full here. His excellent website Bloom Radio can be found here.

The original sequence from The Moviegoer can be found here. My reading of this sequence can be found here.

 

Movies in Literature Part 1: Walker Percy’s ‘The Moviegoer’ (continued)

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The above painting is Edward Hopper’s New York Movie (1939.) It is well known that Hopper was heavily influenced by cinema in his painting style.. This painting actually depicts a cinema (the screen is on the far left.) I’ll get to this in a little while, but first let’s start with The Moviegoer (1960) and the short sequence from the last post, which opens Walker Percy’s novel. If you haven’t read this yet I suggest going back to it before reading this post..

It’s a strange and fascinating sequence. Not unlike much of the rest of the novel, which seems to flit from one idea to the next without any apparent narrative ‘motivation.’ The motivation is instead very much psychological and seems to serve the purpose of placing us squarely within the psyche of this man and thus the mindset of a moviegoer. Which begs the question, What does Percy think goes on in the mind of a moviegoer?

Well o.k., firstly I’d better warn you that I think the answer is ‘pretty dark stuff’.. He seems to be comparing movies and moviegoing to denial (1.) Acting like a soldier at hearing of one’s brother’s death would surely not really be a good idea.. Let it all out, that’s what I say. And the memory of this injunction and his apparent contentedness to follow it reminds our protagonist of a movie he saw in which a character up and leaves his whole life behind to start anew. Admittedly it’s blamed on amnesia, but this was a typical trope of post-WW2 film noir, usually with some relation (however metaphorical) to a wish to forget, i.e. deny/repress, the traumatic experience(s) of WW2. It seems rather that cinema has become our character’s method, in his adult life, of continuing this controlling of his emotions (2.)

There is something extremely perverse about the fact that our character says ‘It was a fine night and I felt good. Overhead was the blackest sky I ever saw; a black wind pushed the lake toward us.’ I guess a black sky might denote a lack of rain clouds (!) tho this is hardly our initial impression. Rather the character seems to be relishing in darkness which I would say is the darkness of depression; just as Churchill famously called depression his ‘black dog.’ I like the way in this sequence the real world seeps into the movies in the sound of the waves and conversely the movies blare out to the outside world from the sidewalk speaker. This interchangeability of the two spaces finds a purpose when we realise that pleasure in ‘the blackest sky’ outside is for our character only an extension of the darkened room of a cinema. Our character’s moviegoing is presented as not merely a pastime, but as something that envelops his life, a dark sky of depression and denial, which he seems to relish.

I think this is the point at which we can begin to compare this sequence with Hopper’s painting above. Here we equally have a dark, slightly depressive cinema, its audience, on the left of the image, pointedly male and in shadow. And the girl on the right of the frame could very easily be Linda, the secretary in this sequence of The Moviegoer, all dressed up, with movie-star glamour, but with no-place to go – solemn and pointedly abstaining from watching the film. In New York Movie she’s an usherette; in The Moviegoer she’s the secretary and girlfriend – in both cases money has something to do with the situation, tho it is not necessarily everything..

Percy and Hopper even both choose to define their ladies by the colour blue (the usherette wears blue while Linda likes to dance in the Blue Room); in both cases this is in contrast to the male black. That said, I don’t think either of these texts have a great deal invested in an overt feminist critique of patriarchy. Yet they can both be read as to some degree sympathetic to women’s struggles within patriarchy, each for example emphasising the woman’s negative emotions in her situation. In fact they register these emotions in very similar ways since the description of Linda in The Moviegoer could just as easily be that of this usherette, as she ‘stood by unhappily.’ The ‘standing by’ is essential here, pointing to the characters as being on the periphery, i.e. outside of patriarchy.

The most significant difference between these texts is that in New York Movie we remain within the cinema – the real world is really only a mysterious possibility, up the stairs.. Indeed, as already noted, the usherette looks like a movie-star.. She’s in a way not an entirely real person, still part of the dream, like a ‘real’ person in a David Lynch movie maybe (3.) (That’s not to say that there isn’t enough reality in her for us to register her unhappiness, as noted in the previous paragraph, however; just that she comes across as significantly more trapped within the movie world.) I’d say The Moviegoer offers some level of contrast to this. Linda forces the protagonist’s hand as she gets him to take her dancing. And the crashing of the waves create a racket that you can hear even from inside the cinema. The waves offer up something more elemental than cinema and also don’t really lend themselves to being perceived as merely a projection of the protagonist’s mind, as the black sky does..

Each perspective has its purpose. In the Hopper painting, we are trapped in the insular, unified world of the cinema. The faux-glamour of the orange lights above the patrons is parodied by the simplicity of the orange lights by the usherette. Yet at the same time these may not be the opposites we first take them to be. The added orange of the curtains add to the sense of the cinema as a unified universe. This speaks of  the way in which Hollywood cinema can suck us into its narcissistic self-reflexivity, without first warning us that we may never get out.. 

In contrast, Percy in The Moviegoer wants us to be aware of an alternative to cinema and to the life of a moviegoer, which as I’ve suggested is perceived as one of denial. We can see this reflected in the style of this sequence, and indeed the book as a whole, with each paragraph seeming to jump on from the previous without filling in the gaps. This is a style that is maintained throughout the book, so that while it’s easy to read for plot, it’s much more difficult to actually understand its ideas (tho well worth the effort..) This jumping-ahead is just like the idea of a kid acting like a soldier, denying past trauma rather than working it through – simply ploughing on ahead without reflection. Since the book rigidly follows the thoughts of its central character, we come to recognise the falsity of this way of living.

A good example of Percy’s wish to show the world outside of the Hollywood image can be seen in the aberration of this cinema to which the protagonist and his girlfriend go. We hear it was built in the hope that it would be one part of a suburb that would grow out to meet it. The suburb never grew and the cinema is instead an absurd ‘pink stucco cube, sitting out in a field all by itself.’ Thus on the macrocosmic scale we see this idea of jumping-ahead without thought. It is a cinema, yet it is the antithesis of the glamour that Hollywood promises. It represents a dream that went horribly wrong..

 

(1) Percy appears to be influenced by Jean-Paul Sartre who argues in Being and Nothingness that the individual chooses projects for himself which can be harmful but which allow him a sense of identity, of his ‘being.’ Acting like a soldier might be considered one such ‘project’ for our protagonist, aimed at denying his emotions, and moviegoing is a ‘determination’ of this project, meaning that it is another project determined by the first project. Sartre would have us believe that this acting like a soldier is also a ‘determination’ of yet another project that is broader still and that this pattern of ‘determinations’ will lead us back ultimately to the character’s failure to attain ‘Authenticity’, which is the first ‘determinable’ causing a string of ‘determinations.’ This failure to attain ‘Authenticity’ Sartre labels ‘Bad Faith.’ In The Moviegoer the protagonist dramatises this concept of having a project as he returns continually to a rather vague project, which appears important to him but which is never really explained, which he calls ‘the Search.’ Percy may have developed Sartre’s ideas in his own direction.. A very easy, helpful and trustworthy summary of Sartre’s Existential Psychoanalysis can be found here.

(2) Incidentally, in Paul Auster’s Oracle Night the central character, an author, describes a very similar scenario as appearing as a minor aside-story in Dashiell Hammett’s novel of The Maltese Falcon, which never made its way into John Huston’s film.. I think it’s not amnesia but a near-death experience that causes the character Flitcraft to change his life, but there is a similarly bourgeois conclusion and a similar existentialist emphasis on this hope for a change being false, a case of ‘Bad Faith.’ Auster’s fictional novelist then writes his own version of the Flitcraft story in which the man ends up getting himself locked inside an underground nuclear bunker with the only key that could get him out on a man who has just died on the operating table. It’s tempting to imagine that Auster was thinking of this passage from Percy’s novel.. Or even that Percy was thinking of this section from Hammett.. Other films in Percy’s novel are named but this one is not, could Percy be playing with the relationship between literature and film? And does Auster know this? Is Auster quoting Percy, quoting Hammett while thinking of Huston. The answer to all of this is very likely no. But it gives me more than enough pleasure that the possibility exists..

(3) Thanks to Todd Swift for his suggestion of a link to David Lynch in this painting, which can be found here.

Movies in Literature Part 1: Walker Percy’s ‘The Moviegoer’

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As you’ve probably guessed from the title this post is to be the first in a series offering up sequences of fiction writing that will be of value to those of us with a love of and an interest in cinema.

The young man with his leg outstretched in the photo is Walker Percy when he was a freshman at the University of North Carolina, queueing to see a movie. You don’t normally find photos of the artist before they were famous as striking or as fitting as this. I’m also always a sucker for old photos of cinemas..

I’ve decided to begin at the beginning with this one, since I find this opening passage in Percy’s first novel The Moviegoer (1960) the most beautiful in the whole book. One time I spent an age searching through this book to quote this sequence to a friend and couldn’t find it.. This afternoon I opened the book on page 1 and there it was – Enjoy!

*****

  This morning I got a note from my aunt asking me to come for lunch. I know what this means. Since I go there every Sunday for dinner and today is Wednesday, it can mean only one thing: she wants to have one of our serious talks. It will be extremely grave, either a piece of bad news about her stepdaughter Kate or else a serious talk about me, about the future and what I ought to do. It is enough to scare the wits out of anyone, yet I confess I do not find the prospect altogether unpleasant.

  I remember when my older brother Scott died of pneumonia. I was eight years old. My aunt had charge of me and she took me for a walk behind the hospital. It was an interesting street. On one side were the power plant and blowers and incinerator of the hospital, all humming and blowing out a hot meaty smell. On the other side was a row of Negro houses. Children and old folks and dogs sat on the porches watching us. I noticed with pleasure that Aunt Emily seemed to have all the time in the world and was willing to talk about anything I wanted to talk about. Something extraordinary had happened all right. We walked in step. “Jack,” she said, squeezing me tight and smiling at the Negro shacks, “you and I have always been good buddies, haven’t we?” “Yes ma’am” My heart gave a big pump and the back of my neck prickled like a dog’s. “I’ve got bad news for you, son.” She squeezed me tighter than ever. “Scotty is dead. Now it’s all up to you. It’s going to be difficult for you but I know you’re going to act like a soldier.” This was true. I could easily act like a soldier. Was that all I had to do?

  It reminds me of a movie I saw last month out by Lake Pontchartrain. Linda and I went out to a theatre in a new suburb. It was evident somebody had miscalculated, for the suburb had quit growing and here was the theatre, a pink stucco cube, sitting out in a field all by itself. A strong wind whipped the waves against the sea wall; even inside you could hear the racket. The movie was about a man who lost his memory in an accident and as a result lost everything: his family, his friends, his money. He found himself a stranger in a strange city. Here he had to make a fresh start, find a new place to live, a new job, a new girl. It was supposed to be a tragedy, his losing all this, and he seemed to suffer a great deal. On the other hand, things were not so bad after all. In no time he found a very picturesque place to live, a houseboat on the river, and a very handsome girl, the local librarian.

  After the movie Linda and I stood under the marquee and talked to the manager, or rather listened to him tell his troubles: the theatre was almost empty, which was pleasant for me but not for him. It was a fine night and I felt good. Overhead was the blackest sky I ever saw; a black wind pushed the lake towards us. The waves jumped over the seawall and spattered the street. The manager had to yell to be heard while from the sidewalk speaker directly over his head came the twittering conversation of the amnesiac and the librarian. It was the part where they are going through the newspaper files in search of some clue to his identity (he has a vague recollection of an accident). Linda stood by unhappily. She was unhappy for the same reason I was happy-because here we were in a neighbourhood theatre out in the sticks and without a car (I have a car but I prefer to ride buses and streetcars). Her idea of happiness is to drive downtown and have supper at the Blue Room of the Roosevelt Hotel. This I am obliged to do from time to time. It is worth it, however. On these occasions Linda becomes as exalted as I am now. Her eyes glow, her lips become moist, and when we dance she brushes her fine long legs against mine. She actually loves me at these times-and not as a reward for being taken to the Blue Room. She loves me because she feels exalted in this romantic place and not in a movie out in the sticks.

  But all this is history. Linda and I have parted company. I have a new secretary, a girl named Sharon Kincaid.

*****

My readings of this sequence from The Moviegoer can be found here and here.