Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Question of the Day: What are your favorite books about film?

My brother (who just wrote a really good write-up on Kubrick's Lolita) is leaving for vacation in a couple of weeks and needs some ideas for reading material. Out of my collection I recommended the authoritative Bergman text The Magic Lantern and Truffaut's The Films In My Life. So...I leave it up to you dear readers. What are some of your favorite books about film? I don't think my brother has a preference, so it could be film criticism; or a book about a certain film or filmmaker...just leave your recommendations in the comments section.

I'm at a work meeting most of the day so I will leave it up to Troy to respond in the comments section. I look forward to your answers. Some of my favorites are after the jump...


  1. Above all, Walter Kerr's The Silent Clowns. If he's in a biographical mood, I suggest Stuart Galbraith's Kurosawa/Mifune joint bio, The Emperor and the Wolf.

  2. And also The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber was just released, which I'm told is quite the read for any fan of cinema.

  3. The Dancing Image had a meme about the best film books some time ago, so I've already posted my own answers to this question. Jonathan Rosenbaum and the Truffaut/Hitchcock book are my go-to reads.

    Ryan, is that Manny Farber book out already? I've got it pre-ordered from Amazon and they say it's not coming until October 1. I'm looking forward to it, though — I've read a bunch of Farber's pieces and he's such an insightful, clever writer and critic, it will doubtless be overwhelming to have 1000+ pages of his criticism in one convenient place.

  4. Ed, that would count as a serious blooper on my part --- indeed, not 'til October. Which is good news for me, because I felt dirty having not purchased it yet!

  5. So we can just pretend this whole thing never happened...

  6. Thanks guys! I'm on a short break right now, but I just wanted to check in quickly and say that these are all great recommendations.

    Keep 'em coming.

  7. Some intriguing choices thus far. I'll head over to Amazon to check out page counts on these -- we are going on a two-week trip overseas with only one suitcase each, so I don't want to lug around a 1000 page book too badly :)

    I'm intrigued by the Rosenbaum book, as it seems to hit a wide array of subjects. I'll look into that.

  8. If we're working off of sheer quotability, I can never get enough of Sarris' American Cinema (although I know Ryan hates it) or This is Orson Welles.

    There's also a wonderful primer edited by Phillip Lopate, American Movie Critisism which has many of the canonical film essays that you've always heard about but never actually read.

    Also, since Bordwell is getting a lot of love here, his Book on Eisenstein is really illuminating, especially when read in tandem with Eisenstein's own writings.

  9. I also participated in that awesome film book meme, but here are some of my selections anyways:

    Midnight Movies by J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum: This was the first book of film criticism/history that I ever read and it really had a huge impact on me. I was just getting into David Lynch films and their chapter on Eraserhead blew my mind. It also pointed me in the direction of other great filmmakers like John Waters, George Romero and Alejandro Jodorwsky. In my mind, it still remains to be the best book on the midnight movie phenomenon written by two of the best film critics.

    Harlan Ellison's Watching by Harlan Ellison: Ellison is known mostly for his prolific career as a writer fantasy and science fiction short stories but I am actually a huge fan of essays. This books collects reviews he wrote for a number of publications including The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Cinema, The Los Angeles Free Press, The Staff, and Starlog. He was a rare critical voice in genres of SF and fantasy, not afraid to slam sacred cows like Star Wars and Star Trek in his reviews while also championing cult oddities like Repo Man and Big Trouble in Little China. Being someone with insider connections he also exposed the sabotaging of films like Dune and Brazil from within their own studios. Not to mention his style of writing is entertaining as hell. It's one of the rare books of criticism that I read again and again.

    Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind: There's a reason why this book has popped up on a lot of people's lists - it's a fantastic, entertaining read of the hedonistic days 1970s Hollywood chronicling the rise of the film brats (Spielberg, Coppola, Lucas, Altman, et al). While it does tend to get a little too gossipy at times, it is still a helluva read and before this recent book on Hal Ashby came out, it was probably the best profile of this underrated filmmaker. I also found his look at Terrence Malick's career to be a interesting as well.

    American Independent Cinema: A Sight and Sound Reader edited by Jim Hiller: There are actually a few of these readers and they are all great reads. Essentially, they are collections of review, interviews and essays that appeared in the pages of Sight and Sound magazine. This book is a great resource that saves you having to hunt down and pay for all of these back issues. I've been a big fan of the American indie scene over the years and this book covers a lot of ground including the usual suspects (Jarmusch, Linklater, Paul Thomas Anderson, etc.). I refer to it often.

    Nightmare Movies by Kim Newman: This is one the best overviews of contemporary horror films that I've come across. I only wish that he would update it but it is still a great read. Newman doesn't really go into great detail about these films but rather attempts to classify them in his own uniquely named genres/chapter titles. What it lacks in depth it more than makes up for in sheer volume of films mentioned so that you can go off and track them down. This is a really great read by a film critic I have followed for years.

    Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film by Peter Biskind: Biskind is at it again, this time digging up considerable dirt on the Weinstein brothers and Robert Redford and Sundance. What Biskind did for 1970s American cinema, he does for 1990s American Indie cinema. This is another wildly entertaining read that is, again, steeped in gossip, but there is some really interesting bits, like how the Weinstein's messed up Guillermo Del Toro's horror film Mimic and the struggle James Mangold had making Copland. If you are interested in the films from this period, then check this book out.

  10. Samuel Wilson is dead on by citing the Kerr book as one of his supreme favorites ("The Silent Clowns") IMO.

    I would venture to add:

    Ozu (Bordwell)
    Chaplin (Robinson)
    Alfred Hitchcock (McGilligan)
    Hitchcock's Films (Wood)
    The Art of Alfred Hitchcock(Spoto)
    50 Greatest Cartoons (Beck)
    The Films of Robert Bresson (Ayfre)
    Ingmar Bergman Directs (Simon)
    Dictionary of Films (Sadoul)
    Guide for the Film Fanatic (Peary)
    John Ford (Gallagher)
    Biographical Dictionary of Films (Thomson)
    5001 Nights at the Movies (Kael)
    Going Steady (Kael)
    The Citizen Kane Book (Kael)
    A World on Film (Kauffmann)
    Living Images (Kauffmann)
    Figures of Light (Kauffmann)
    Nine American Film Critics (Murray)
    Ten Film Classics (Murray)
    On Movies (MacDonald)
    Reverse Angle (Simon)
    Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark (Lucas)
    Alternate Oscars (Peary)
    Ingmar Bergman Archives (various)
    idnight Movies (Hoberman/Rosenbaum)
    American Cinema (Sarris)
    Art of Alfred Hitchcock (Spoto)
    Bergman (Cowie)
    On Kubrick (Naremore)
    Kurosawa (Richie)
    Val Lewton: Reality of Terror (Siegel)

    And more....

    I will definitely check out Troy's Kubrick piece!

  11. J.D., Krauthammer, and Sam:

    Thanks for your great lists (especially your very detailed list, J.D.). I know my brother is quite appreciative of it. Thanks to all of you for chiming in with such great options.

  12. Well, my Amazon book wish list has grown by about 100. Thanks for all the comments (and links).

    Does anyone have any opinions on the BFI Film Classics series of books? I was looking particularly at the ones for 8 1/2, Vertigo, and Chinatown. I can't quite tell by the limited number of reviews if these are heavily bogged down in film theory or if they would be accessible to someone who simply enjoys and appreciates the movie.

  13. I have a batch of those on my shelf Troy! I may have the ones you mention, though I'm pretty sure CHINATOWN isn't one of them. I'll definitely get back here and let you know. They contain a good number of worthwhile critical essays.

  14. I would also whole-heartedly recommend the BFI Film Classic series of books! I have several of them and, personally, the best of the bunch are the ones on THE THING, DEAD MAN (essential reading if you're a fan of this film) and THE RIGHT STUFF. But also, the ones on L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and HEAT are also top notch.

  15. OK Troy:

    I just pulled the BFIs I own down, and for some reason the great films you mention there are not among them. It's possible one of the two labs in this house could have gotten them a few years back, when they were up to some big-time book mischief.

    Here's what I have here:

    Odd Man Out
    Do the Right Thing
    The Seventh Seal
    Pulp Fiction
    Double Indemnity
    Bonnie and Clyde
    Blue Velvet
    Brief Encounter
    Seven Samurai
    Citizen Kane
    The Wizard of Oz
    The Thing (J.D. loves this!)
    Wild Strawberries
    Singin in the Rain
    The Big Sleep
    Meet Me in St. Louis
    The Birds

    For som ereason, and don't ask me why, I have TWO copies of BLUE VELVET, which means one is yours! But as many of the others that are here you are welcome to.

  16. I'll add my two cents:

    The Greed and Wild Strawberries books are great. Pulp Fiction and Citizen Kane would be interesting, too.


    Your list above (which I forgot to mention) is impressive. I love a lot of those titles and have fond memories of checking out them out (and constantly renewing the titles) from the public library when I was a teenager. Especially the Kael books.

  17. Might I suggest:

    The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film by Michael Weldon - I bought this when it first came out (back in the early 80s), before the advent of VCRs, when i was child fixated on genre and/or bad movies that were always playing on saturday afternoons or on late night television, and this book just floored me - someone else was spending an entire book talking about my favorite kind of movies - the craziest, weirdest, most hilarious movies (sometimes the titles alone can make you laugh). Weldon is often dead-pan funny when giving his little capsule reviews and I enjoyed the photos and/or poster art from these films. I still to this day thumb through this book quite regularly.

    Slimetime: A Guide to Sleazy Mindless Movies by Steven Puchalski - Mr Puchalski runs the Shock Cinema fanzine (one of the last great hold-it-in-your-hands fanzines still operating)and his reviews are as warped as the films he covers (I mean that in the best sense). If Weldon is the Bob Cosby of genre reviewers, Puchalski is the Richard Pryor of genre reviewers.

    Immoral Tales by Cathal Tohill and Pete Toombs - a fantastic survey of psychotronic films from all around the world.

    Any book published by FAB Press.

  18. Annonymous -- Those are some interesting titles. I remember perusing the Psychotronic Encyclopeida at the library in my younger days -- it was a fun book.

    As for the FAB Press, books, I'll agree on them being great. I own "Book of the Dead" (as well as "Eaten Alive," for that matter -- thanks Kevin!) and badly want to buy "Nightmare USA" at some point (I've got a PDF copy of it that has more than piqued my interest, but it's just not the same as holding the actual book). It's too bad that the niche nature of these books (and the fact they are printed in the UK) make them so expensive to own. Still, at least someone is making a document of these cult films.

    Sam -- wow, that's quite the offer. I'm not the fastest reader, so I wouldn't want to tie too many of those up, especially because they all sound great. In particular, The Birds, The Thing, Citizen Kane, and Wild Strawberries all sound intriguing. Let me know how to go about this (

    Sam Juliano -- truly the nicest man on the internet!

  19. Troy: YOU are the nicest guy on the net in fact. I will contact you today at the e mail address you provide above.

    Kevin, thanks. Those titles you broach are indeed among the cream of the crop.

  20. I like Stanley Cavell's Pursuits of Happiness, which forced me to think about and think differently about the screwball comedies of the 1930's. His book, Contesting Tears is less successful but still worth reading and focuses on Gaslight, Now, Voyager, Stella Dallas, and Letter From an Unknown Woman. He' a Harvard Philosophy Professor with an interest in film so his approach is quite different.

  21. The Phantom Empire by Geoffrey O'Brien.

    The most beautifully crafted prose on the subject of cinema you will ever find.

  22. James and Tom:

    Thank you for the suggestions. Yours in particular Tom has piqued my interest. I'm sure my brother appreciates it, too. Thanks.