San Francisco Moderator & Programming Advisor Peter L. Stein
Books about watching movies...and holiday gift guide!
Hello Cinema Clubbers!
One of our members posed an interesting question recently, asking me to recommend any books or primers that lay out some of the basic vocabulary and techniques of filmmaking and film watching, so that she can become a more informed viewer.
The question made me revisit my own modest library of film books to root around for recommendations. What follows are some thoughts and tips, and I would love to hear your recommendations as well, especially as we approach gift-giving time for that cinephile in your midst (i.e., for yourselves!).
First, to the specific question posed: There really aren’t too many popularly oriented books about the art of watching films, but two worth mentioning are Talking Pictures: How to Watch Movies by Ann Hornaday, and the classic How to Read a Film by James Monaco.
In pondering further about books on movies, I will generalize (unwisely, I suppose) that most books about making or watching movies fall into three categories:
• autobiographical accounts by (or biographies of) people involved in some aspect of film production or criticism. Commendable examples are Akira Kurosawa’s Something Like an Autobiography, William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade, and Brian Kellow’s Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark.
• surveys of movies, usually for a general audience, which often focus on particular genres, eras or or film cultures. Good examples of far-reaching surveys are Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema, David Thomson’s magnum opus The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Chick Flicks by B. Ruby Rich and The Story of Film by Mark Cousins.
• works pitched more toward academic film studies or technical mastery, including books and monographs of film analysis or handbooks about a particular craft. Some of these are accessible and valuable for the general reader as well as the specialist, including: Amos Vogel’s Film as a Subversive Art, Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut (which could also be classified in the first category above), In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing by Walter Murch, and Engaging Cinema: An Introduction to Film Studies by Bill Nichols.
Naturally this three-part taxonomy leaves out some insightful fiction that deals with the world of the movies, including some of my favorites like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Pat Hobby Stories, Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust and Michael Tolkin’s The Player.
If you’re interested in what film critics list as their favorite books about film, here is a survey conducted by the British Film Institute, which tilts toward the academic.
Of course, the best pathway into informed film-watching is to develop your own familiarity with as wide a range of cinema as possible. To aid that effort, consider steeping yourself in all 13 1/2 hours of Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film: An Odyssey, a remarkable if idiosyncratic guided tour through hundreds of world cinema clips from the invention of the medium to today. You have to be able to enjoy (or get past) his quirky, upturned lilt that ends every sentence on a rising inflection? as if to call it into question? like that? But it is an amazing achievement, streamable on Amazon if you are a subscriber.
I’d be eager to hear your suggestions or list of favorite books about film. Feel free to contact me here by email, and I can try to compile them and post them here.
Happy reading and viewing –
More books about movies...
Following up on my December note listing a few favorite books about moviemaking, movie-watching, and the craft of cinema, I did an informal poll to my Facebook community soliciting other people’s recommendations. What follows is an unedited list of some of the responses – a treasure-trove of film books that will keep you immersed well into this new year…. You’ll see some duplicates of my recommendations as well as some wonderful and obscure references. Thanks to my terrific and eclectic online community for their contributions!
Lynn Hershman Chick flicks by ruby rich
Bob Hawk Also Ruby’s NEW QUEER CINEMA: The Director’s Cut
Wendy Levy On Directing Film by David Mamet, Question Bridge: Black Males ed. Deborah Willis and Natasha Logan. And it’s not a book, but howtomakeakenloachfilm.com will make a cinephile weak in the knees: howtomakeakenloachfilm.com
Roy Collins The Celluloid Closet by Vito Russo.
Ben Zweig Pictures at a Revolution by Mark Harris
Kenny Yun anything by Sergei Eisenstein or Susan Sontag
Joshua Grannell Shock Value by John Waters
Pam Grady Making Movies/Sidney Lumet; I, Fatty/Jerry Stahl; Hitchcock/Truffaut; Easy Riders, Raging Bulls/Peter Biskind; Shooting to Kill/Christine Vachon; The Films in My Life/Francois Truffaut; anything by Jodorowsky; Horizons West/Jim Kitses; Baby I Don’t Care (Robert Mitchum bio); Scruples/Judith Krantz; Hollywood Babylon/Kenneth Anger — Clearly, I could go on.
Bob Hawk I second the Lumet especially, but lots of great titles here.
Spencer Jarrett “In the Blink of an Eye,” by Walter Murch
Bill Weber Reflections from a Cinematic Cesspool by the Kuchar Brothers.
Leba Hertz Day of the Locust by Nathanael West
Elizabeth Greene “Film Form” and “The Film Sense” by Sergei Eisenstein.
Yvonne Welbon Killer Instinct Killer Instinct: How Two Young Producers Took on Hollywood and Made the Most…
Peter Stein …and on a related note, try “A Killer Life,” Christine Vachon’s terrific memoir…
Jay Hansell George Lucas: A Life by Bryan Jay Jones
Martin Jabs My last sigh by Bunuel
Judi Leff “When the Shooting Stops, the Cutting Begins” by Ralph Rosenblum. A wonderful book about the development and importance of film editing.
Jordan Peimer Double DePalma
Hitchcock The Dark Side of Genius
Sam Samuels “Keaton” by Rudi Blesh; and “W.C. Fields: His Follies and Fortunes” by Robert Lewis Taylor
Shirley Gutierrez Old and probably out of print, but I loved “When the Shooting Stops” by Ralph Rosenblum
Nancy Saslow The Men Who Would Be King (Nicole LaPorte) Fascinating read on Spielberg/Katzenberg/Geffen and Dreamworks
Nancy Saslow Easy Riders/Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind. Also Indecent Exposure, Final Cut, and Adventures in the Screen Trade.
Nancy Saslow Julia Phillips: You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again. Must. Read.
David Weissman I always appreciated a little book I read for my first beginning film class – something like “How To Make a Motion Picture Story”. It was a 1950s how-to for home movies, like mom washing the dog or little Freddie riding his bike. But it was the first time I consciously understood what we all sort of know intuitively as viewers—the construction of a narrative through the use of wide shot, medium shot, close-up and cutaway—how to create those elements so that they can be edited together seamlessly
Roger Collins I always loved Hitchcock (Revised Edition) by Francois Truffaut
Vivian Kleiman Walter Murch BLINK OF AN EYE
Lawrence Helman Independent filmmaking by Lenny Lipton
David Weissman City of Nets
Bob Hawk FEATURE FILMMAKING AT USED-CAR PRICES by Rick Schmidt (the “bible” for Kevin Smith, and many others). And then, for something quite different, there’s Tarkovsky’s SCULPTING IN TIME.
Cornelius Moore Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks, the classic by Donald Bogle.
Jordan Peimer There’s also the Walker Percy novel The Moviegoer
John Basgall Some of my choices to propose are already mentioned but here are two titles I can recommend that I don’t see suggested yet… I enjoyed both immensely. Altman on Altman and Beneath Mulholland…
Edward Guthmann The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, by Michael Ondaatje.
Jennifer M Kroot Reflections from a Cinematic Cesspool (by the brothers Kuchar)
Peter Moore Film as a Subversive Art by Amos Vogel