Tuesday, June 16, 2009

10 Books From a Cinephile's Past (Part 1)

The Siren has been tagged several times, but (she believes) first by Tony Dayoub, for a meme about books that have influenced her view of the cinema. At first, the Siren thought, that's been done. Sheila O'Malley's shelf-by-shelf descent through her enormous film-book library is a hard act to follow. Still, the Siren went over to her own haphazardly organized shelves and began to get quite nostalgic over the books she read years ago. So she decided to attempt to reconstruct a small part of her early film-book reading pattern, where she went from just watching movies to wanting to read about who made them, and how, and when, and why. This is not a heavyweight list. It is more akin to stopping into a children's bookstore and saying, "I remember that! I even remember what I was doing when I read it!" But the Siren has always found that the books you read as a youngster stay with you the longest.

So then, roughly in the order that the Siren encountered them, 10 books that shaped my view of the cinema. Herer are the first five books, with the next five to come:

Vanity Fair: Selections from America's Most Memorable Magazine, ed. Cleveland Amory and Frederick Bradlee.This wonderful book, firmly out of print but available on the Web for little more than the price of postage, is full of beautiful images from the magazine's first incarnation, which ran from 1914 to 1936. The Siren spent hours decoding the witty articles like messages from a lost ship--which, in a way, they were. Since this was well before the Internet, it sometimes took years to find out what they were talking about. Who, for example, was Doris Keane?

Long before Graydon Carter or Twitter ever came on the scene, the magazine was in the habit of handing notepads to celebrities and asking them to come up with thoughts, for example, on The Ideal Woman. And, further to our digression on Ruby Keeler, perhaps my readers would like to see what Al Jolson had to say on that matter. Read it and see if you don't appreciate Ruby a little more for sticking it out for 12 years:

1. The gift of stretching a can of sardines into a banquet.
2. A thorough dislike of all actors--save one.
3. An appreciation of the fact that, in all the important affairs of life, and in the trivial ones as well, I am, for some curious reason, invariably RIGHT.
4. A disinclination to be taken out--unless she had bid 'one club.'
5. A hearty laugh for all my jokes, including the very old ones.
6. A loathing for crossword puzzles.
7. An inability to block a straight left. [!!!! -The Siren.]
8. Complete ignorance of the existence of the Lucy Stone League.
9. A million dollars.
10. A cough.

Many were the photographs that filled the Siren with desire to see the subject's movies. Like this one, which along with Queen Christina sparked a lifelong love for Garbo:

Or this one, which prompted the Siren to pick up Sunshine and Shadow, Mary Pickford's autobiography.

Pauline Kael in the New Yorker. I could cheat here and cite 5001 Nights at the Movies, but in truth I didn't get that book until much later and I have been missing my copy for years--probably wound up with an ex-boyfriend. My father subscribed to The New Yorker and my favorite section was the front, where I could get all manner of intriguing capsules about movies I had already seen and movies I wanted to see. I didn't agree with Kael all the time (who does?) but she opened my eyes to so many directors and so many movies. Like this one below, chosen just because the title leaped out at me at this site:

Paths of Glory. Just after he made his racetrack robbery picture THE KILLING, Stanley Kubrick directed this version of Humphrey Cobb's novel, photographed in Germany. It is not so much an anti-war film as an attack on the military mind. Some of the press went all out for it ("searing in its intensity," and that sort of thing), but it wasn't popular. The movie has a fascinating jittery quality, especially when Timothy Carey, who's like a precursor of the hipster druggies of the 60s, is on the screen, and the strong, liberal-intellectual pitch makes it genuinely controversial, though it was certainly easier to be anti-militaristic in a film (made in peacetime) set during the First World War than it would have been in a film set during the Second World War. The story is about the class structure within the French army--the aristocratic generals in their spacious, sunlit châteaux and the proletarian soldiers in the dark trenches; trapped between them is Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), who commiserates with the men but is powerless--he carries out the orders of the high command. When the soldiers refuse to fight in a battle that is almost certain death, three of them are selected to be tried for cowardice; Dax has the task of defending them. The film's rhythm is startling--you can feel the director's temperament. And there's an element of relentlessness in the way he sets out to demonstrate the hopeless cruelty of the "system." (The film was banned in France for some years.) It's an angry film that seems meant to apply to all armies. Watching it is very frustrating: Kubrick, who wrote the script with Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson, doesn't leave you with anything. He must have felt this, because he tacks on a scene at a cabaret, with a German girl (Susanne Christian) singing and the soldiers singing along, as they weep. (It just makes you uncomfortable.)

The Siren most emphatically does not agree with everything in that capsule--for one thing, I couldn't disagree more about the film's ending. Other parts engender the same "Yes, BUT..." reaction that I often have to Kael's criticism. But Kael made me want to see the movie, and she made me want to think about the movie, and she made me yearn for an intelligent conversation about the movie. And that's just one of thousands. Years later I can still remember phrases from both her capsules and her long reviews. Not many critics can expect their writing to be that fresh, that provocative, that memorable long after they have died.

Scarlett Fever by William Pratt, including the collection of Herb Bridges. This picture-packed (but alas, entirely black-and-white) book about Gone with the Wind helped spark the Siren's interest in movie-making, as opposed to just movie-watching. It could be a model for other fan books. There is a long section about Margaret Mitchell, the writing of the book and its stupendous success, but the Siren liked the movie sections the best. Pratt goes back through the filming records and shows almost day by day how GWTW was shot. He details the alterations made during filming, and the rationales for them. There are many on-set photographs, a whole series of test stills of Walter Plunkett's costumes, sketches from William Cameron Menzies, pictures of Ernest Haller at work, and many other details on the movie, from rights purchase to Atlanta premiere, all the way up through re-releases. You get all the directors, including a rundown on which bits George Cukor did, which scenes were shot by Victor Fleming and which were shot by Sam Wood. Pratt even introduced the Siren to such cinephile controversies as aspect ratio, describing misbegotten re-releases in widescreen that cut out part of the image. There's also a huge (maybe too huge) section on Herb Bridges' collection of GWTW memorabilia. Pratt eschews gossip; you will find none of the rumors about Cukor's departure, just a rundown on his "script differences" with David O. Selznick (which appear to have been real enough). But since reading this book, the Siren has read a lot more about Selznick, Vivien Leigh and all the others involved in Gone with the Wind, and has found very little to criticize in terms of Pratt's accuracy. In fact the book politely sets the record straight on a number of matters, Pratt shaking his head gently over such howlers as Bosley Crowther asserting in The Great Films that Victor Fleming died during production. Interpretation is another matter, and the book's most serious flaw is that it barely touches upon the controversies that surrounded GWTW from the moment of the book's publication. Still, this was one of the best Christmas presents my parents ever got me.

Lulu in Hollywood by Louise Brooks. Another Christmas present, and my introduction to Louise Brooks, whom I met as a writer long before I met her as Lulu. Brooks could really write, and this is another book that still has phrases rattling around in the Siren's head. The Siren recommends reading this slim volume of essays alongside Barry Paris's biography of Brooks, because some of her writing bent the facts to her particular viewpoint--the most notable example, according to Paris, being the "Gish and Garbo" essay. Which lends a whole different layer to beautifully executed passages like this one, from her essay on W.C. Fields:

The tragedy of film history is that it is fabricated, falsified, by the very people who make film history. It is understandable that in the early years of film production, when nobody believed there was going to be any film history, most film magazines and books printed trash, aimed only at fulfilling the public's wish to share a fairy-tale existence with its movie idols. But since about 1950 film has been established as an art, and its history recognized as a serious matter. Yet film celebrities continue to cast themselves as stock types--nice or naughty girls, good or bad boys--whom their chroniclers spray with a shower of anecdotes.

The Great Romantic Films by Lawrence J. Quirk. This one I bought for myself with babysitting money on the strength of a cover shot from Wuthering Heights, with which I was slightly obsessed at the time. Lawrence J. Quirk, nephew of the legendary Photoplay editor James Quirk, has written some 30 Hollywood books but the Siren loves this one for two reasons. One, the romantic melodramas it covers are often given short shrift by "Great Film" tomes. And the films that do get a fair bit of serious critical attention (Letter from an Unknown Woman, All That Heaven Allows) are often analyzed from an angle that assumes the romantic and emotional trappings are fripperies to be stripped away to reveal the "real" themes underneath. Quirk passionately believes that the sentiment in these films is part of what recommends them, and needs no apology. The Siren agrees with him. Second, the Siren loved this book for the huge variety of films the writer chose, everything from the obscure (speak up--who here has seen The Life of Vergie Winters?) to the eternally popular (Now, Voyager) to the head-scratcher (the Siren is still trying to figure out what Teorema was doing in this book, although Quirk gives it a thorough write-up). The Siren has spent years trying to see all of the films discussed here; she has about eight left, including Vergie Winters, Only Yesterday, Lydia, the 1932 Smilin' Through and The Music Lovers.

Quirk's definition of romance is a broad one, encompassing mother love and friendship as well. Here is Quirk describing No Greater Glory, the intensely moving Frank Borzage film that the Siren finally saw this year. Quirk sees no need to justify, or indeed even take note of, those things a modern audience might find hokey. He takes the movie on its own lyrical terms:

Young [George] Breakstone's Nemecsek tags after a gang of boys who wear uniforms and run their lumberyard playground like a military post. Heading the gang is Boka (Jimmy Butler), a handsome, stalwart little fellow who is idolized by Nemecsek and whose approval he constantly seeks. But Nemecsek is an outcast; he is frail and delicate, inept at the assorted skills the others regard as mandatory. The impatient, barely tolerant Boka is forever consigning him to his black book for shortcomings and minor ineptitudes. The only "private" in an army of "officers," Nemecsek is held in contempt and condescension for his failure to cope in physical and coordinational terms, although in the actualities of his soul he is a martyr and visionary in the making, the one pure soul of the lot.

(Part 2 to follow...)


VP81955 said...

Hope there is some love for "Romantic Comedy in Hollywood From lubitsch to Sturges" by James Harvey or "Complicated Women" by Mick LaSalle, two indispensable volumes on 1930s American cinema.

Vanwall said...

Great start, Siren, and as expected, eclectically personal. I caught the Vanity Fair book at our public library in my salad days, and it also set me to watching a lot of films I hadn't heard of before. Haven't read it since, mostly because of lack of connections to it, in hand, but it had a lot of groundbreaking going for it when it came out.

Ms Kael was more of a reason to read more on film in general for me, as I didn't have a lot New Yorker time back then, and I really got to read a lot of her stuff in some of her books, and strangely enough, Microsoft's old Cinemania application, (which was surprisingly interesting overall, BTW).

Lulu in Hollywood is the best book written by an actor, bar none, IMNHO, and altho it's only a collection of essays, it packs some surprising bits of insight, which makes me hesitant to discount broadly a lot of what she's criticized for. Louise was the spark, laughing on the stairway in a clip from "The Show Off" shown in a dreary classroom, that set me off into the long search for just who she was, and incidentally, I found out about the value of films in general.

I'll seek out the others, as your recommendation has fixed them in my future reading.

Waiting with breath abated for the next installment...

Arthur S. said...

Five of my Ten would be...

The Films in My Life
by Francois Truffaut.
The first time I realized film criticism could be read for pleasure as much for research.

Jean Renoir by Andre Bazin

and Jean Renoir's autobiography.

Godard on Godard, translated by Tom Milne.


Very francophilic, obsesseively francophilic but these five books made me a die hard auteurist and introduced me to all things New Wave.

Laura said...

I also bought THE GREAT ROMANTIC FILMS with money I saved as a teenager. I just reread it for the first time in years, having seen several of the films for the first time in recent months, and enjoyed it all over again. I love the large, well-chosen photos.

I spent some time last weekend photographing some of the earliest treasures of my collection but when I'll have time to write a post is anyone's guess. :) Very much enjoyed your Part 1.

Best wishes,

Frank Conniff said...

I've read interviews with Kael where she said that she had to fight tooth and nail with William Shawn at the New Yorker over her prose. The breezy, sometimes slangy way she wrote was not to Shawn's taste, but you have to give him credit for hiring her in the first place. Kael's style not only had a profound impact on film criticism; it seems to me that the New Yorker itself was forever changed by her writing.

Jesús Cortés said...

Some really valuable:
- Victor F. Perkins´ "Film on film"
- Jean Douchet´s "L´art d´aimer"
- Raoul Walsh´s "Each man in his time"
- Ian Cameron´s "Adventure in the movies"
- Josef von Sternebrg´s "Fun in a chinese laundry"
- Henri Langlois "Trois cents ans du cinéma"

Karen said...

Nice, Siren. As you know, I'm not much of a reader ON film, but you make me want to go out and buy every one of these.

When I was in high school, I tended towards big glossy heavily-illustrated The films of... books. I had Clark Gable and Katherine Hepburn and Errol Flynn; I might also have had Cary Grant and James Stewart. They created mental catalogues for me: "Gotta see this; can pass on that." They also provided a fascinating flip-book of time, as the reader went from, say, the lithe and youthful Flynn through the bloated and aging version. I think the stills they had from Adventures of Don Juan were enough to put me off ever wanting to see it, although I believe he looks better in the actual film than in some of the on-set images they used.

I blush to confess (so great is my desire not to disappoint our hostess) that I have NOT seen The Life of Vergie Winters (and, frankly, a recent viewing of the horrific Westward Passage may have put me off Ann Harding for life), but I HAVE seen Only Yesterday. Am I redeemed??

I will also confess that sometimes I wish I could read more about a given actor, tho' usually there's nothing much to be found. A case in point: this week I watched the compelling Fritz Lang film about the Czech assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Hangmen Also Die! (screenplay by Bert [sic] Brecht), and it featured one of the most bizarre and brilliant performances I've ever seen. Reinhold Schünzel plays a Gestapo officer as a kind of dementedly gleeful pixie. I wanted to know more about him, but his IMDb page is sparse, offering up little more than this tantalizing line:

Described Kaiser Wilhelm II and Adolf Hitler - both of whom had been responsible for breaks in his career - as "persons of recognized authority and the worst possible dramatic taste."

I want more!!

Tony Dayoub said...

Glad to see you again, Siren.I can't wait to read part two.

I'm happy you quoted from each book, as I did. I feel if we are celebrating these words that inspired each of us, we should share passages with our readers to demonstrate why these books have been so important to us.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Bosley Crowther thought Victor Fleming died during GWTW production?!! (Hearty gales of undignified snorting laughter.) Beginning to feel an inexplicable affection for that poor critic.

The Siren said...

Laura, I am absolutely tickled to death that you also not only have read, but OWN The Great Romantic Films. Now this is what makes the Internet great, for my money. Pre-Web I might have spent years without encountering a single soul who had ever read that book.

Ditto Vanwall! Isn't the Vanity Fair book great? Most of the photos are now available online but the text isn't, and there is an amazing range, some it a bit inscrutable to a modern reader but all of it worthwhile. I especially love the old Hall of Fame nominations as well as a feature they did on famous people exhibiting actorly emotions in public (e.g., Mussolini with the King of Italy, exhibiting guile and suspicion, respectively).

And don't get me wrong --Louise Brooks probably doesn't stretch the facts much more than other memoirists, but I felt obliged to mention "Gish and Garbo" because Paris debunked huge parts of that essay, particularly with regard to James Quirk. But what a writer Brooks was! Even the small details, like her knees meeting those of Lesley Howard in a taxicab. With a few sentences she explained to me what GWTW could not--why he was such a ladykiller.

VP, I have read both those books but don't own them. Karen mentions the Films of Books that were so popular in the 70s -- I have a couple and one is for Carole Lombard. I love the snippets of contemporary reviews in those things.

Arthur & Jesus, what I'm covering here are the early books that I read, so Bazin and Godard didn't come till later (although I did read Hitchcock/Truffaut; what mostly struck me about that one was how funny they both were). But Jesus reminds me I have to track down that Walsh.

Tony, I couldn't possibly write about these without trying to show why I loved them. It does make this a nice exercise.

Jacqueline, I had the same reaction. It reminded me of how my paternal grandmother loved to talk about how the long filming and all those heavy Scarlett O'Hara costumes permanently undermined Vivien Leigh's health. Mam-ma was expounding on this theme one day when my father could take no more and remarked that Ms Leigh had managed to muddle along until the early 60s so the costumes were something of a slow-motion killer.

Exiled in NJ said...

I acquired a copy of the Temple University Press The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson in the early 70s. Half the time I had little idea what the man was talking about, but it was fascinating to see him write pages on films that are no more, but toss off films we love today with barely a mention.

Now the book is no more, having been given away when I moved in 1998, but I recall his comments on Hitchcock's The Secret Agent, how sound was a character in that film. I'd rent the film, bought a DVD copy, and have yet to find a version where the sound is not marred [let alone the film quality].

I will be curious to hear your views of The Music Lovers, which I have not seen since it came out.

mndean said...

My most charitable interpretation of that ever-befuddled Crowther's blunder was he mixing up Fleming and GWTW with George Hill and The Good Earth. My least charitable one is that he was an old tosspot who was right about a movie at the rate of a flip of a coin. (He did like Sturges, so he must have had some taste. Somewhere.)

DavidEhrenstein said...

Welcome back, Siren.

The film books that have left the greatest impact on me are--

Running Away From Myself: A Dream Portrait of America Drawn From the Films of the 40's by Barbara Deming (Grossman, 1969 -- and LONG out of print) Deming was a left-wing activist and never wrote anythign like it before or afterwards. But this is the best book I've ever read on how Holywood film seduces away our impulse to rebel. Lots of good anlaysis of Casablanca in it and an appreciative portrait of the great Julius Garfinkel.

La mise en scene comme langage by Michel Mourlet ((Henri Veyrier, 1987) The Bible of the MacMahonists with much to say about Lang, Losey, preminger and Vittorio Cottafavi.

The Stars by Edgar Morin (Grove press originally -- long out of print) An essential text from Jean Rouch's co-director on Chronique d'un ete. Roland Barthes cribbed tons from it.

And of course Louise.

X. Trapnel said...

A fascinating and quirky list, Siren, touching enough mystic chords of memory to supply two B. Herrmann scores. The scattershot selection is probably like most people's first blind gropings into the literature of something on the way to becoming a passion (the first books I used as primers in Russian literature were pretty mediocre).

The Vanity Fair volume is indeed a treasure both for the immortals (not just the film folk) depicted within and the bleak and grainy Creatures Who No Longer Walk the Earth (Maxine Elliott, Michael Strange, Irwin Cobb, Giovanni Papini), lots of Covarrubias, and lastly a probing, sensitive image of Robert Montgomery spewing a silvery stream of water.

I'll never get the cult of P. Kael (yes, she could write), and the bit about the (magnificent) ending of Paths of Glory only the deepens the mystery. Sometimes I just think the woman had a soul of styrofoam.

One of my early books was Parker Tyler's Classics of the Foreign Film, a volume with no filmographic info whatsoever, windy writing, and stunning pictures (and oh so grown up to my 12-yr-old brain).

DavidEhrenstein said...

One More: L'homme ordinaire du cinema by Jea-Louis Schefer (Cahiers du Cinama/ Gallimard, 1980)

Ryan Kelly said...

Of course the most pleasurable entry in this meme series came from The Siren. No surprise there.

And incidentally, this meme has prompted many purchases off Half.com. And I think I found some more to add to the list.

VP81955 said...

VP, I have read both those books but don't own them. Karen mentions the Films of Books that were so popular in the 70s -- I have a couple and one is for Carole Lombard. I love the snippets of contemporary reviews in those things.

I own the Lombard and Loy books in that series; the Loy volume lacks contemporary reviews, but the author does encapsulate every film and its effects on Loy's career. Then again, Loy made many more films than Lombard -- and that would've been true even if Mynna had stopped making movies after 1941.

Arthur S. said...

I've read Deming's piece on CASABLANCA in Phillip Lopate's recently published anthology of film criticism. It's a pretty personal and rich observation on film ideology.

Eric Rohmer's real name is Jean-Louis Maurice Scherer, is it the same guy who wrote that book?

Another important book, for it's sheer eclecticism, SCORSESE ON SCORSESE.

The Siren said...

Ooh, Exiled, I will have to get that one for myself! I keep a running list of things to haunt Abebooks for ...

M., you made me LOL. Crowther also liked Mankiewicz a lot so no, not all bad. From what I read of him, Crowther had little or no sense of the visual possibilities of film; for him it was all about the dialogue.

David, that Deming book sounds fascinating.

XT, I will see you Maxine Elliott and Michael Strange and raise you Tilly Losch, Walter Damrosch and Rosamond Pinchot. Not to mention Janet Flanner on the death-dealing Papin sisters and A Western Disunion, a story about setting up a weekend in the Hamptons, told completely in telegrams. Honestly guys for $1 plus postage I hope someone else orders it.

Ryan, thank you very much -- I am catching up with other entries but I have no doubt I will be scurrying around various second-hand sites as well.

VP, I don't have the Loy one -- my others include Katharine Hepburn and the Films of the 30s. Lombard's career was much too short, it is true.

Arthur, what did you think of the Lopate anthology? Been thinking about getting it. I also liked Scorsese on Scorsese. He is an enthusiast with a warm, joyous approach to talking and writing about film, and I get great pleasure from his observations in that book and also in his documentaries. Bogdanovich ditto, and he's a better expository writer than Scorsese, having started out as a critic.

The Siren said...

P.S. XT, I have no idea how Kael could have misread the Paths of Glory ending so badly, either. That capsule also spotlights her mega-irritating habit of universalizing her own reactions: "It just makes you uncomfortable." Well, no, for whatever reason, it made Kael uncomfortable. It broke MY heart. But there's no critic I would rather disagree with than Kael, which is why I still turn to her reviews for more disagreement. She somehow gives me room to breathe with her critiques, whether I am nodding my head or clutching my neck and groaning.

Arthur S. said...

The Lopate book is an excellent buy if you are interested in the history of film criticism but it's not really a book to read for pleasure unlike the books I listed.

It has some of the most famous pieces of criticism like Robert Warshow's seminal 'The Gangster As Tragic Hero', some of Sarris' pieces, a little of Eugene Archer, three pieces by Manny Farber. I am more thrilled that I can get it through my local library than bearing it on my shelf.

I prefer Scorsese as a film writer over Bogdanovich. I think Bogdanovich is more of a Boswell, chronicling all the Golden Age actors and their society in it's latter days and his book on directors and actors is unbelievably informative but he tends to lapse into sentimental nostalgia a lot of the time. But that can be a strength and a weakness.

It's more like Bogdanovich is looking for vestiges of a vanished and imagined past in those old films while Scorsese is interested in what our generation and coming generations can still learn, a much healthier attitude.

Scorses has been writing pieces for DIRECTV magazine semi-regularly(he was AWOL a few months ago presumably because he was editing his next film) but he came back...

The piece on Bergman is one of the best pieces ever on the great Swede.

Another good Scorsese book is Scorsese - A Journey, by Mary Pat Kelly, a monograph that stops at CAPE FEAR and has interviews with Scorsese, his family(including his brother who I didn't know existed before purchase) and all the actors and crew he worked with over the years. Includes a wonderful interview with Nestor Almendros who compared Scorsese to Truffaut but noting that Scorsese was a happier man. It also has a lot of information on his taste in films and the like.

One book that I have been tracking on Scorsese and which is currently out of print is THE SCORSESE PICTURE, by...David Ehrenstein.

X. Trapnel said...

Siren, I've always been curious about Max Reinhardt's "pageant" The Miracle. These mass spectacle pseudo-mystery plays were quite a big thing in the thirties; sort of highbrow Ziegfeld and were, I suspect, a forgotten influence on the Hollywood musical. A biography of Rosamond Pinchot was actually published last year.

The Papin sisters are unkillable (i.e., The Maids, Sister, My Sister, and no doubt more to come).

X. Trapnel said...

What's doubly wrongheaded about Kael in this instance is that World War I may have been the last conflict in which such an episode was distinctly possible (there were famous incidences of fraternization in the early part of the war). Moreover, Kubrick's dramatic shaping of the scene is masterful and the growing communion between the girl and the soldiers with their weary, almost archaic faces is moving beyond words, the kind of thing only film can do.

The Siren said...

"It's more like Bogdanovich is looking for vestiges of a vanished and imagined past in those old films while Scorsese is interested in what our generation and coming generations can still learn, a much healthier attitude."

I don't disagree with any of that, and yet I do still prefer Bogdanovich, which may tell you all you need to know about me, alas! That doesn't mean I am putting down Scorsese, though -- I do think Bogdanovich has an edge as a prose stylist but Scorsese is still awfully good, and I pounce on anything I encounter by him. Both men are doing the lord's work in trying to keep the public interested in these older films.

XT, I have seen both Papin films and the Genet play and yet nothing matches the blood-curdling reporting by Flanner. Since I have the book right here -- is there anything to match her description of the murder scene? "On the third step from the landing, all alone, staring uniquely at the ceiling, lay an eye."

X. Trapnel said...

Oh, god I've been thinking about that eye since your 2:16 pm post!

DavidEhrenstein said...

Well no one should feel they should be forced to choose between Bogdanovich and Marty. They're not really opposed in their approaches. It's just just a matter of different emphasis.

I have the first printing of Mary Pat Kelley's book. So she talked to the brother in the update? Cool.

Kael is many ways a beat as Kerouac's "first thought/best thought" notion was how she went about film critcism. As a result she made any nuber of mistakes, the ending of Paths of Glory being but one.

I expect we all know what became of that lovely young woman who sang the song.

Yojimboen said...

Hear, hear, Madame Sirène, on the sub-textual passion in Bogdanovich’s writing.
Hear, hear, XT, on the power of Kubrick’s mise en scene. (and ditto on PK)

Having been in the same room with Pauline K a time or three, I had the opportunity to watch her working (the room) and playing (herself). I think the best - and worst - that can be said of her is she believed her own press a little too readily. Understandable, perhaps, given that she wrote most of it.

Re Scorcese, I take a back seat to no one in my admiration for his championing of the 7th Art; his untiring efforts to preserve the cinematic legacy of a culture for future generations are beyond admirable; in that regard, Mr. Scorcese could justifiably be deemed a national treasure.

I just wish he didn’t make films. I try to like them, I really do, but… there’s just nothing there that comes close to explaining to me what all the fuss is about.

Vanwall said...

I'll add that the film book that I seem to go back to again and again is John Kobal's "People Will Talk", an essential in my film book collection. It's unsparing in some of the bleaker things that have happened to film folk over the years, but Kobal had some kind of extraordianary ability to connect with the stars and not-so-stars that seems magical and elicits more good than bad. He didn't just stick with stars, either, a notable change in itself from most movie tomes..

The Siren said...

"Well no one should feel they should be forced to choose between Bogdanovich and Marty. They're not really opposed in their approaches. It's just just a matter of different emphasis."

You are entirely right D., and shame on me for setting up them as any sort of dichotomy -- if they were here they'd probably BOTH quit speaking to me. A slight preference for one writing style over the other is of small moment. Why choose, when you can have both? Indeed, you NEED both.

Y., I think Scorsese is a genius filmmaker. If I haven't taken all of his later films to heart, to me that doesn't reflect on the ones that walloped me. His is not a smooth, consistent career but then again it is often the mediocre who wind up with consistent careers.

DavidEhrenstein said...

The trailer for Shutter Island looks fantastic. It's Leo again, this time as a police detective sent to an island asylum where a woman has somehow escaped solitary confinement. Soon he becomes an inmate himself and learns that it's the doctors who are crazy, not the patients. Full of dark moody Val Lewtonesque lighting it looks like Shock Corridor on steroids.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here's the trailer

The Siren said...

V., you've mentioned the Kobal before and I couldn't find the exact title. Now it goes on The Abebooks List (I just keep going to Abebooks because I always find things there).

D., I'll check for the trailer on Youtube. I loved the Lewton documentary that MS narrated.

X. Trapnel said...

Yojimboen, I'm with you on Scorsese; I just can't warm to these films. At most, I'm "impressed" and the un-Whartonian gentility of The Age of
Innocence makes me suspect the true grittiness of his more ususal subject matter.

Over the years, I've read all of Kael's books and find they're not re-readable; the fabled style all flash and filigree the judgment intelligent enough but lacking in sensibility. My favorites remain David Thomson, Andrew Sarris, Geoffrey O'Brien, James Agee.

Peter Nellhaus said...

I haven't read the perhaps aptly named Quirk's book, but I find it amusing to know that Teorema is included. Of course everyone fell in love with Terence Stamp.

As for myself, I have to fight the fact that I am an extremely slow reader nowadays, and have three books from the Udine Far East Asia Film Festival (one on Asian musicals!) plus Nick Dawson's book on Hal Ashby waiting on my shelf.

On the subject of Scorsese, I finally got the DVD of Shinoda's Silence, a film Scorsese has been talking about remaking for years.

Gloria said...

I guess just any book in my personal library is a favourite, but the Hitchcock/Truffaut book, the already mentioned "Films of my life" (Francois again), and of course, Renoir's "Ma vie et mes films", and Richard Schickel's "Matinée Idylls"

Laughton-related, my first recommendation's are always Simon Callow's watershed biography of the man and Preston Neal Jones' "Heaven and Hell To Play with" (about the making of "The Night of the Hunter"). Elsa Lanchester 's 1938 long-out-of-print memoirs are also quite enjoyable (more than her later ones, IMHO).

I have also liked actors' memoirs when they are like james Mason's "Before I Forget" or George Sanders' "Memoirs of a professional cad", and memoirs of animators, like Chuck Jones' "Chuck Amuck" or Jack Kinney's "Walt Disney and other animals"... and, hum, any book containing a lavish collection of film posters

(...of course I have a lot of pending readings on film, so don't consider this a definite statement )

Post Scriptum: since Ruby Keeler was mentioned, maybe you'd be interested in meeting Ruby Squealer: click, click

Yojimboen said...

“My favorites remain David Thomson, Andrew Sarris, Geoffrey O'Brien, James Agee.”

I’m not as familiar with O’Brien as I should be; but I would agree in toto with your list with the addition of Otis Ferguson – if only for his contrariness – no one set the bar higher than Ferguson; and maybe Molly Haskell among English-speaking critics.
(The French are another day’s discussion.)

Re ‘re-readability’, I have an unreasonable fondness for David Shipman – to my mind no one ever wrote better (make that ‘re-readable’) movie star pocket bios.

But for sheer guiltless pleasure I turn to my (happily complete) shelf of “Studio” books (MGM Story etc.) and take down Republic Confidential – Vol 2 – The Players.

There are more than two thousand pictures in it; Iris Adrian to George Zucco; beauteous, crisp b&w head shots of pretty much every actor who was ever in an American B movie.

That's 'B' for Bliss.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I'm STILL in love with Terence Stamp

mndean said...

Re: Kael, I always thought that she was an exceedingly unsentimental woman ("hard as nails" in '30s parlance), and it really irritated her to see sentimentality in most forms. I've read enough of her reviews that I noticed it early, and moreso in the '80s when Spielbergian mush was all the rage.

In a way, I see her point, too, for a lot of sentiment in film is as manipulative as putting a black hat on a villainous cowboy in an old Monogram serial.

I have the James Harvey book, too. Complicated Women I borrowed from the library, since Mick LaSalle wasn't exactly my favorite newspaper critic back in the day.

rudyfan1926 said...

Siren, a great list and I also await parts II, II and IV.

My list is here:



Raymond De Felitta said...

Does anyone remember the Spy magazine parody of Kael? Years later I can still remember there send up of a typical PK simile: "It has a nutty, kicky quality--like Desi Arnaz on a tilt-a-whirl."

First of me was Capra's autobiography "Name Above the Title". Almost simultaneously was a Quigley/Quirk volume which I've since lost--believe it was called "Films in America", a year by year (staring in 1929) survey of the dozen or so best films of the year, with descriptions, small pix, cast and writer/director info. Not really much of a book but a perfect primer for a ten year old interested in cinema history.

Next was a book that remains a favorite of mine: Joe Adamsons wonderfully astute and witty "Groucho Harpo Chico and Sometimes Zeppo". I've often wondered why Adamson, who works for AMPAS, didn't write more.

Kael in the New Yorker and the front of the book squibs were also of paramount importance to me, Siren. That led me to:

Agee On Film Volume 1
Dwight MacDonald on the Movies

Then came Lambert's "On Cukor", "Billy Wilder In Hollywood" (Zolotow), Geist's "People Will Talk" (the Mankiewicz bio, not the other book that a previous commenter I think has it confused with) and Spoto's first Hitchcock book (not his biography).

Vanwall said...

"Agee On Film Volume 1" - voraciously devoured in high school in one sitting, after picking it up at a garage sale for a nickel - the best five pennies and stay-up night I ever spent. It eventually fell apart about 20 years of use later, and I was lucky it was the week before I lugged out a few grocery bags full at Powell's in Portland - it was right on top.

And M Ehrenstein, agreed on Stamp - the man is hypnotic and moves so well; I was jumping outta my seat (Yes!!!)when he stalks out of the warehouse and climbs into the camera lense in "The Limey" and bites off "Tell 'im I'm cominggg!" like no else ever could - scarier than a horror film filmed with bloody zombies eating nuns and children.

X. Trapnel said...

Y, if I were thiniking in terms of single volumes, I'd definitely include From Reverence to Rape, still the best book on the most important aspect of film (except to those who get their jollies looking at maggoty meat in Potemkin and similarly "important" stuff). I've wondered why Haskell never wrote a companion volume on women in film since the seventies; perhaps the subject was just too disheartening.

mnd, I agree with you about Kael, but a good critic should be able to distinguish between sentiment and sentimentality. Kael gives the impression of needing to be, first and last, a "sophisticated New Yorker," the results, at least for me are arid and airless. Likewise, Dwight Macdonald, a vastly superior writer and intellect, is brilliant in attack but in praise he rarely goes beyond Partisan Review platitudes on art, culture, and modernity. Agee had all their cleverness, buit neither of them had his amplitude of emotion and imagination, perhaps because Agee was, in essence, a poet (yes, yes, I know his actual poetry isn't very good [tho I love "Description of Elysium"], but his way with words rivals any american poet of his generation or since).

Spielberg is worse than mush; he's vicious mush. If you don't share his worldview you're one of the cynics, the bad people who Jerry Lewis used to castigate in the wee small hours of the Telethon.

X. Trapnel said...

Y, forgot to add, I also love Ferguson for his echt-30s jazzy style (and his adoration of Margaret Sullavan). There are some wonderful pages on him in Alfred Kazin's memoir Starting Out in the Thirties. He was a fascinating character; if there were a movie about film critics he would be played by Robert Ryan.

mndean said...

The funny thing about Kael was that she was hardly the New York sophisticate before her stint in the New Yorker. She was strictly San Francisco/Berkeley (from what I read, she grew up on a farm north of the Bay, like near Novato or somewhere like that), and some of her fiercest writing came during the era before she went to New York. Her attack on Kracauer and the auteur theory were done way before she ever moved to New York. She even had a movie review radio show in SF back in the early '60s.

If there was one thing I could say for her is that she did to Bosley Crowther what Jack Paar did to Walter Winchell. Consigned them to irrelevancy.

The Siren said...

And I'd argue that "irrelevant" is one thing you can't say about Kael. She's still relevant, still debatable, her opinions are still out there to be lauded or derided, part of the conversation. There are some movies you still can't discuss without discussing her reviews.

gmoke said...

"No Greater Glory" is a version of Ferenc Molnar's "The Boys of Paul Street." I saw the 1969 Hungarian version on a late, lamented International Channel cablecast of a series of Hungarian movies (in Hungarian movies everybody dies) in the late 1990s. After seeing it, I thought it was a telling and poignant allegory about WWI and then found out that the original novel was written in 1906. Once again, art is prescient.

For me, it was reading every review I could get my hands on, a practice I still follow. Capsule reviews in the paper or TV guides, the daily reviews in the papers and the magazines (New Yorker, New York...). Then, when I was a teenager, one company started putting out books of film scripts of classic films. I know I had "Jules and Jim" and I think I had "Ikiru" as well. Now, I have the song Takashi Shimura sings on the swing captured on my computer.

Knowing what became of the singer in real life adds a marvelous resonance to that last scene in "Paths of Glory."

X. Trapnel said...


Only Yesterday has been on my grail list for years--Borzage! Zweig! Sullavan!--but my question is: how much of a problem is John Boles? Is he off screen more or less than Louis Jourdan in Letter from an Unknown Woman? Of course, I have the same worries about Little Man, What Now? re D. Montgomery.

I am always riveted by Rheinhold Schunzel as the gentleman Nazi in Notorious. If we only knew the stories of these emigre actors (and I love their dry Central European wit, a lost art); a collection of interviews would have made a great book. Too late now.

Karen said...

X., I have to confess that I have absolutely no memory of John Boles in that film. I'm not sure if that's a good or a bad thing. But surely Margaret Sullavan makes everyone else shine a little less bright. Oh, I do love me some Margaret Sullavan. Why don't mimics ever do her voice? Surely as distinctive as Stewart or Hepburn or Grant!

On the subject of film books I am a novice, but one collection of film criticism that I read and loved (and own) that I've not seen mentioned is James Baldwin's The Devil Finds Work. It opened my eyes to another perspective in the same way Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet did. When Baldwin describes Harlem audiences shouting at the screen, during the climactic scene in The Defiant Ones, "Get back on the train, you fool!"--well, that just knocked me for a loop, and I've never been able to see the film the same way again.

I've also liked Hitchcock/Truffaut and Conversations with Wilder (despite the latter's popping of my Ray Milland bubble), because I like that format of just letting a director talk at length without a lot of exposition.

The Siren said...

Karen, I have forgotten what Wilder said about Milland? Remind me.

Hey, I *like* Louis Jourdan in Letter. I think it's his best performance.

Peter, everyone is in love with Terence Stamp and he's still gorg. Mention "Billy Budd" to my mother and she gets a dreamy look in her eyes to this day.

Gloria, I need to read Mason's book. His interviews are always a delight; he was like Michael Caine in that both seem very alert to the nuts and bolts of movie-making.

The Siren said...

Gmoke, I don't know about Molnar's original, but the Borzage movie is very much an antiwar allegory -- I would say its few drawbacks are linked to little snatches of dialogue that make that too explicit. I am like Quirk in that I found the depiction of childhood love and friendship to be the most heartbreaking part.

Karen said...

Siren, Crowe asks Wilder if it's true that the Milland part in The Major and the Minor was written for Cary Grant, and Wilder says, "Always was for him. Every part." He continues that he got Milland because he was on contract at Paramount, and did The Lost Weekend with him later, which was a much better part for him, "he had no comedy in him, and that was good for the part. There was no laughing in Milland."


About Terence Stamp: anyone who sees him in Billy Budd and doesn't think the doors of heaven have opened...well, that's someone I wouldn't want to know.

X. Trapnel said...

Siren, please don't misunderstand! My question re Jourdan/boles was purely quantitative. Jourdan is absolutely superb in Letter, a perfect, i.e., ambiguous mix of authentic emotion and practiced charm. And so many Viennese grace notes he gets absolutely right (ok, that may be Ophuls input). Compare him to Francis Lederer in Midnight (also superb) to see how un-French he manages to be.

DavidEhrenstein said...

As you can see from this IMDB listing,
Rheinhold Schunzel's directorial credits include Viktor und Viktoria and Ice Follies of 1938.

As an actor he most notably played the evil blackmailer making life hell for poor Connie Veidt in Different From the Others -- the very first gay film.

The Siren said...

ICE FOLLIES? With Lew Ayres and Joan Crawford and James Stewart, source of the campiest damn publicity stills of all time? Well why didn't someone say so? I have wanted to see that thing for yonks. Every once in a great while it shows up on TCM. I have several stills on my hard drive just waiting for the day when we all need to see Joan Crawford channeling Sonja Henie.

Karen said...

Thanks for all the info on Schunzel! It adds even more depth to his very peculiar and brilliant performance in Hangmen Also Die. I do recommend it--Brian Donlevy is an odd, and rather flat, choice for the protagonist, and Anna Lee gets a little shrill in the early going (she mellows out well, though), but the supporting cast is simply marvellous. I confess that Walter Brennan would not have been my first choice for the elegant Czech history professor, for example, but he nails it.

X. Trapnel said...

Morris Carnovsky in Edge of Darkness does an awful turn as the same sort of noble professor character, full-throttle Muni-ism. Certain actors should never be let near a beard. (Is Brennan bearded or cleanshaven in Hangmen?)

Karen said...

Bearded--kind of a greying Van Dyck.

X. Trapnel said...

Hm, Brennan bearded and presumably with teeth, does he attempt an accent?

Has anybody here ever noticed Felix Bressart's fake (why?) moustache falling off in Portrait of Jenny?

Goose said...


I think Felix Bressart's moustache falling off in Portrait of Jennie is intentional. He played an actor and he was putting on or taking off make-up when Eben Adams talked to him. I suggest it means that the people Eben meets with respect to Jennie are half-real or half-present, or something like that.

Walter Brennan does very well in Hangmen Also Die. The beard changes his appearance so much, that when he speaks in that familiar voice, it is quite a shock.

BTW, a print of this film with the last scene now restored is now in circulation.

Karen said...

Goose is right; he does very well indeed. No, he doesn't attempt a Czech accent, though his usual mannerisms seem to be toned down a notch.

The film is quite clever, by the way: the Czechs all speak English, and when the Germans are supposed to be speaking Czech they also speak English. Otherwise, they speak [non-subtitled, of course] German. It's very effective.

IA said...

I second the acclaim for Joe Adamson's "Groucho Harpo Chico and Sometimes Zeppo"--trying to write a book about the Marx Brothers that tries to be funny is a near-suicidal task, but Adamson succeeded brilliantly.

I like Kael's 5001 Nights book for all the entries about films that have fallen through the cracks--its coverage of 30s screwball comedies, especially the more obscure ones, is wide and enthusiastic, and attests to Kael's abiding love for the genre--she's at her best when infatuated, even if the results are sometimes gonzo. I can't at all find her writing "arid and airless," given how unabashedly, how often, and how hard she fell for movies. That level of passion was what I found lacking when I read Agee, who could be irritatingly equivocal in his "on one hand but one the other" judgments, and whose poetic style sometimes seemed like a vaporous screen in lieu of content. I still enjoy his writing, but I can understand why Manny Farber wrote that semi-critical piece on him. Kael herself loved Agee, and said he was as every bit as good as Bazin, a charge few nowadays would agree with.

X. Trapnel said...

I think some distinctions should be made between the generations of film critics, those active in the 30's and 40s and those of the 50s and 60s (as between reviewers and essayists). The later generation had the advantage of longer acquaintance and historical perspective than had Fergusson or Agee (some of whose judgments, I admit, look a little odd) as well as having a larger, more receptive audience for the idea that the American entertainement/commercial film might have real aesthetic merit (in a sense, Bazin and the Cahiers crew had a similar advantage of cultural distance). I don't mean this as special pleading (I confess my own veneration of Agee has more to do with his general qualities as a writer than his critical attitudes.), but when I read Agee and Fergusson I have a more vivid sense of film as part of the larger world it reflected.

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

X. Trapnel wrote:
> [Louis] Jourdan is absolutely
> superb in Letter, a perfect,
> i.e., ambiguous mix of authentic
> emotion and practiced charm.

For a second there, I thought that read "an ambiguous minx of [etc. etc.}" -- which I rather like.

The books which influenced me are pretty much The Usual Suspects, namely Kael's "I Lost It At The Movies" and "Agee on Film: Vol. 1" and Sarris' "The American Cinema." (My heart belonged/belongs to Kael, but I found Sarris very useful.) Perhaps I should also mention Carlos Clarens' fine "An Illustrated History of Horror and Science-Fiction Films."

But I am surprised, in any case, not to've seen mention of Manny Farber's "Negative Space" -- which I came to late, but have learned to value. Or did I unwittingly skim over somebody's allusion to it?

burimp (the sound of Charles Coburn after a good meal)

X. Trapnel said...

Ambiguous rat (S. Brand, not LJ), in my view. How could anyone forget a night with Lisa Berndl? Unless he had a rendezvous with Emma Breitkopf. Wien, Wien nur du allein, truly.

Does anyone know if Bazin's essay on Best Years of Our Lives has ever been reprinted in any collection?

Yojimboen said...

I have the Bazin piece somewhere in a box of Cahiers, I’ll try to dig it out; meanwhile it seems the only excerpt on line is this sample.

Did you know that before Bazin died so tragically young, he and Doniol-Valcroze planned an off-shoot of the magazine devoted entirely to American Westerns?
They were going to call it

Igenlode Wordsmith said...

"But what a writer Brooks was! Even the small details, like her knees meeting those of Lesley Howard in a taxicab. With a few sentences she explained to me what GWTW could not--why he was such a ladykiller."

Oh, do tell ;-)

mndean said...

Leslie Howard's irregular columns in the New Yorker on life in the theater were amusing and you could tell that he was no prima donna. I wouldn't call it great writing, but it's fun to read how a star of Broadway looked at himself with a sense of humor. The early New Yorker is notorious for having a lot of Broadway gossip, and since a great number of those stars populated early film, it's invaluable for that. I won't say the magazine isn't shallow in its early years, but it's fun to see the '20s through that lens.

DavidEhrenstein said...

That joke is not of the first freshness, Yojimboen. I heard it first in high school, around 1963.

Saw Frers' Cheri last night. Drop everything and rush like mad to see it when it opens. Michelle Pfeiffer achieves a level of the cinematic sublime reached by few mortals.

The Siren said...

Raymond, just saw you up there! We seem to have to have remarkably similar taste. I also love the Zolotow and the Geist, and The Name Above the Title (although according to that Capra bio of a few years back, Frank wasn't the most truthful).

I also adore Terence Stamp, for the record. He still sends my heart careening against my ribcage.

mndean said...

I never believe director's books, even retired ones. My little BS detector swings here and there in all of the ones I've read. Some have pegged my detector more than a few times. I had a book of interviews with directors (sorry, can't remember what book it was now, it was lost in a move), where the mendacity could run pretty thick.

Classic Maiden said...

Look forward to part two!

McMullen said...

by the bye, Louis Jourdan happens to be 90 years old today. Happy birthday!

VP81955 said...

ICE FOLLIES? With Lew Ayres and Joan Crawford and James Stewart, source of the campiest damn publicity stills of all time?

"Ice Follies" was released in March 1939 (in fact, its official title was "The Ice Follies Of 1939")...and despite all the great films Stewart made or were released in that year, "Ice Follies" is the reason I have to place James Stewart 1939 just a shade below William Powell 1936 as the greatest year any film actor has ever had.

Igenlode Wordsmith said...

I'd still love to hear what Louise Brooks had to say on Leslie Howard -- one of the actors I've always appreciated for his ability to convey intelligence (see also Basil Rathbone, Ronald Colman), a quality all too rarely emphasised in Hollywood (and all too often apportioned solely to the cunning villain, with the hero blundering his way through by sheer brawn and looks...)

La Belle Louise not one of my favourites, I'm afraid, but she could turn a mean phrase (with the emphasis too often on the 'mean' for my taste)

Joel Bocko said...

Well, you did break the rule in red (linking to my blog for starting the meme) but on the strength of your "Reverence to Rape" post alone, which is simply tremendous, I'm inclined to forgive you.

In case your readers are curious, here's where the ball started rolling:


Thisishollywood said...

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justjoan123 said...

When I was 13 I subscribed to The New Yorker as training for the day when I could escape my Philadelphia life (obviously having been kidnapped from my rightful Manhattan home by renegade Pennsylvanians.) At 17, nourished by Pauline Kael's film criticism, I spent most of my early New York years in revival houses on the upper West Side, now all, sadly, replaced by supermarkets. I celebrated the fulfillment of my goal by writing to my idol, and it is to her credit that she actually answered what was probably a very jejune mash note. Not many people would term her as kind, but I do.

justjoan123 said...

Bad form to follow one's own post, but this somehow got lost in the ether:
Another book I recommend, if you can find it, is Parker Tyler's "The Hollywood Hallucination." Before Gore Vidal's brilliant "Myra Breckinridge" almost killed poor Mr. Tyler all over again for his rapturous idolatry of "minor" actors such as Maria Montez, Tylerr's attention to psychology in the film arts was of great merit. And I particularly admired his piece on the Great Somnambules. The recent passing of perhaps the greatest, Hedy Lamarr, brought it all back.