Lost in the Movies: Reading the Movies

Reading the Movies

A list of the movie books which had the greatest impact on me.

Not so long ago, I moved into a new neighborhood. Before even attempting to settle in, I paid a visit to the local library which, despite its grand exterior, was fairly nondescript within. This was particularly true of the nonfiction section, located downstairs. Endless shelves of books stretched across a close-quartered white-walled basement, completely unadorned and giving off the aura of an abandoned filing room located deep in the bowels of some God-forsaken bureaucracy. There were no labels, cards, or indicators on any of these shelves so I had to scan the stacks by eye to find the movie section.

When I tracked it down (it was one of the first stacks, mid-row, between the circus and television) I was in for a thrilling surprise. Hidden away in this library was a treasury of great seventies film-book classics, many out of print. Consequently, over the past few months, I have read I Lost It at the Movies by Pauline Kael, The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book by Arlene Croce, Godard by Richard Roud, Confessions of a Cultist by Andrew Sarris, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema by Peter Wollen, The Primal Screen by Sarris, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang by Kael; at present, I have delved into three more film texts: Politics and Cinema by Sarris, Going Steady by Kael, and The Japanese Film by Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie.

I mention this not only to illustrate my passion for reading about the movies, but also to demonstrate that I am only just discovering many seminal texts of the cinema, and that the list which follows is not to be mistaken for a primer on essential reading. I make no claims for the greatness of the following ten books. Nor are they necessarily my favorites; indeed, some have outlived their purpose and I haven't looked at them in years. Many titles are obscure, so fame is not a criterion either. What all these books do have in common is their influence...on me. These are the books that informed me, excited me, provoked me, the ones that introduced me to The Wolf Man and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Taxi Driver and Celine and Julie Go Boating and Le Vent d'Est.

Beyond these ten, I will deliver honorable mention to another fifteen books which were not quite as crucial to my development. Nonetheless, they are highly noteworthy and in some cases, may have been even more constant companions than those titles in the top ten. I will (briefly) tell you why...and then the ball is yours. Run with it. I would love for everyone reading this list to compose their own personal top ten. There are no rules in how you chose to play this game, no guidelines save one:

RULE #1:

Just a small matter (but one which was sadly neglected the last time I tried this!).

Also one very strong recommendation - please tag five more people so that we can keep this going.

The rest is up to you.

Here is my own list, titles followed by the stories of how we met...

1. Famous Movie Monsters series, by various authors
Sadly, I could not dig up the original covers from 20-year-old editions, when the books were bound in gloriously beat-up orange cardboard. Those were the books which, more than any other, turned me into a movie buff. Seven years old when I started borrowing them from the elementary school library, I recall thinking that my parents would not approve of me reading about the more human, and thus somehow more "adult" monster villains. Hence, when I graduated from Godzilla and King Kong to Dracula and Frankenstein, I made sure to hide the books in the rear of my backpack and perused them in secret. I suppose the fear stemmed from my parents having to deal with my frequent nightmares when I was a bit younger (due to Elliot Gould's and Joan Collins' performances as, respectively, Jack's giant and Hansel and Gretel's witch in Shelley Duvall's "Fairy Tale Theatre") - but ultimately my nervousness was a case of overzealous childhood paranoia, because my folks really didn't care. Still, the belief that I was harboring moral contraband of some sort only heightened my enjoyment of this series.

My enthusiasm also led to an elaborate prank, in which an older schoolmate convinced me and my friend that there was another book in the series, about an elusive monster movie called Mouse Guts. It was weeks before we realized he was pulling our legs, but nonetheless Mouse Guts became my first Holy Grail film, which I wrote about last fall. Meanwhile, over the years I slowly saw all the films written about in these books, but with no particular rush. Indeed, I only saw The Wolf Man last summer (it was one of the first films I wrote about for this blog), and The Mummy even more recently. Quite often, the actual movies disappointed me - an indication that, from the beginning, it was the imagining of movies which excited me as much as (and sometimes more than) the seeing of the damned things.

Each book began by describing the plot and then proceeded to go behind the scenes, telling the story of the filmmaking. Thus, from my earliest days, I was geared to wonder what went on behind the camera, not just what danced before my eyes on the magical screen. To my recollection, and with the assistance of the Internet, the books I read in this series were: Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Godzilla, King Kong, The Deadly Mantis, The Blob, The Mummy, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, It Came From Outer Space, Mad Scientists, and (perhaps) Zombies.

2. Academy Award Winners, by Ronald Bergan, Graham Fuller, and David Malcolm
(The back cover, as the front cover was long ago detached from the binding.) Quite possibly my first "adult" movie book. It was given to my father for Christmas in the mid-80s, but I'm certain I read it more than he ever did, even as a little kid. The book ended with the 1985 ceremony and I started watching the show in 1990, so for years there existed an Oscar Dark Age in my mind. I still recall my excitement upon finally discovering those winners after years of ignorance (to wit: Platoon, The Last Emperor, Rain Man, Driving Miss Daisy). Now, of course, I find it hard to regard the Academy Awards with little more than scorn and exasperation but that little kid obsessed with the golden trophies must remain deep down within, because I still watch the stupid show every year. Most importantly, this book served as my first introduction to a great many classic films, illustrated with tinted monochrome photo spreads laid out over glossy pages.

3. The Great Movies, by William Bayer
A huge influence on my thinking about and enjoyment of movies. I've placed it near the beginning of the list, since I discovered it (another one of Dad's books, this) around the same time as the Oscar text, but truthfully I only dove in years later, as a teenager. Still, even as a kid I regarded it from a slightly awed distance, reading bits and pieces and comprehending only in flashes. I do recall being quite startled by the author's description of how hippies in Godard's Weekend inserted a fish into the heroine's vagina and I may have put the book back on the shelf, deciding that perhaps this one was a little out of my league at eight years old...

If you want more on the book (including lots of great pictures), yesterday I devoted an entire post to The Great Movies.

4. Roger Ebert's Video Companion (1994 Edition), by Roger Ebert

And then, in the summer of 1994, I stepped out on my own. No longer content to ransack school libraries and dig through my parents' collection, I bought my own movie book. Up to this point, Roger Ebert was just the fat guy on TV who argued with the bald guy and stuck his thumb up in the air when he liked a movie. I didn't take him very seriously, to the extent that I took any critics very seriously at the age of ten. This book introduced me to a whole other side of the ubiquitous and much-parodied reviewer. Every review was so thoughtful, yet so easy to read, and I would find myself flipping through the book hungrily in an endless game of hopscotch...what did he think of this one? And this one? Did he like Star Wars? What's this Blue Velvet he seems to despise? The book opened many doors, not least of which was the one through which my own burgeoning critical sensibilities and style began to step. I still haven't figured out how to organize my thoughts as precisely, concisely, and yet richly as Roger, but he's still around - now active as a fellow blogger - to show the way.

5. Chronicle of the Cinema, edited by Robyn Karney
After years of gleaning bits and pieces of movie history, assembling a patchwork from the various books I read, the Chronicle put it all together. It was a thirteenth birthday present in 1996 and I would spend hours leafing through its pages, soaking in the progression of movie styles over the years, grooving on wild poster designs, and discovering who was born what year (some of the dates later proved inaccurate, but never mind...). Most of all, I remember being surprised how quickly I gravitated towards the early, adventurous years of the cinema. I think I had harbored a prejudice against those fusty, old-fashioned pioneer pictures which did not seem to capture the epic riches that movies were capable of. Yet here for the first time, I discovered the magic of those years of discovery, a sense of which has never left me since.

6. For Keeps, by Pauline Kael
And then there was Pauline. I didn't know much about her before acquiring this book, for free, when the town library (which had received it as an unwanted donation) passed it on to me. I had the vague impression that she was cantankerous and harsh, and for some reason my mind had her confused with the obnoxious "lady" (actually a man, writing in sardonic gender-disguise) who penned reviews for Premiere. I opened this book on a warm spring day, sitting outside at an outdoor family party ignoring relatives and my parents' friends as I was swept up in a rapidly rising tide of giddiness and sheer elation, hitching a ride to and fro across the breeziest 1,250 pages in history. I'd never encountered anything else like Kael's prose, and I still haven't. Beyond her admirable facility with the English language - a facility that expressed itself in clarity and passion rather than elaboration and polish, there was her ability to cut right to the chase - to write "aloud" what we'd all been thinking, hence justifying that ubiquitous "we" as more than just royal.

How can one possibly do justice to a great writer without the praise coming up noticeably short? Perhaps by quoting her. And so here's Pauline Kael comparing Intolerance to "an enormous, extravagantly printed collection of fairy tales," though she could easily have been speaking of For Keeps: "The book is too thick to handle, too richly imaginative to take in, yet a child who loves stories will know that this is the treasure of treasures."

7. A Biographical Dictionary of Film, by David Thomson
A birthday present which languished on my shelf for years before I fell deeper and deeper into its rabbit holes. Though Thomson's entries on actors are often celebrated and quoted, it was always his synopses of directors, less burdened by long filmographies than the actors, heavier on eloquent, heart-quickening celebrations and haughty, I-damn-three dismissals, which drew my attention. Flipping through the long tome, one is stopped cold, as by a bright light flashing in the inky black, by a name: "Mizoguchi." "Ozu." "Welles." "Ford." "Capra." "Rivette." "Godard." Each entry as unique as the auteur it celebrates...and this book embodies, to me, the Quixotic, deeply romantic notion of auteurism even better than Andrew Sarris' The American Cinema. No book I know of better justifies the conception of film history as a progression of names, each with a distinct personality and an entire unique world waiting to be unveiled. No two directors the same, no two of Thomson's entries the same either. What better tribute could there be - no matter the writer's view of the filmmaker in question?

8. Breaking In: How 20 Film Directors Got Their Start, by Nicholas Jarecki
Of all the books I've read about filmmaking, and about how one becomes a director, this is the one which has really stuck with me. Perhaps because it doesn't dance around the issue at all. The author is a recent NYU graduate, in the throes of angst as he looks around at all his friends who mope through industry jobs and warn him off of ever hoping to become a director. Yet, as he notes in his introduction, there must be some way to do it because, well, it's been done! And so he goes right to the source and discovers, of course, that no two stories are alike and yet, oddly enough, all the stories offer hope for those to whom it seemed, like Jarecki, "that [successful] directors were just 'geniuses' who were discovered one day, usually early in life, and from then on the world was their oyster."

The book is a series of interviews, ranging from respected veterans like John Schlesinger to, well, not-quite-so-respected directors like Brett Ratner to cult figures like James Toback (who so fascinated Jarecki that the young writer went on to shoot a documentary about the filmmaker). Some of the directors were whiz kids who nonetheless had trouble finding their big break, others (like Peter Farelly and his brother) were primarily writers who realized, in a hilariously described panic attack on the eve of their very first shoot, that they didn't even know what a director's job consisted of. All these conversations humanize the filmmakers and open up a walled-off area to those who are curious.

Among other things, the round-about path of John McNaughton, who describes a youth in which he didn't have anything to do with movies before deciding he was finally ready to direct, could explain why I'm sitting here at this computer right now scanning pages from old books instead of hopping around on the street outside, shooting my masterpiece. (I said these books were influential, I did not say for good or ill...)

9. Movies and Methods, edited by Bill Nichols
Though I attended film school, with a focus on production, my four years of college were spent mostly absorbed by music rather than the movies which had led me there in the first place. In 2006, shortly after I graduated I returned to cinephilia with renewed passion and vigor (it's so much more enjoyable when you aren't being forced). And this early 70s anthology served as a crash course in film theory...from first basic precepts to the hairy thickets of semiotics (sample sentence: "In fact iconic signs when combined into semes to form photograms (along a continuous synchronic line) generate concurrently a sort of diachronic depth plane, consisting of a portion of the total movement within the frame."). Even at its densest, there was something liberating and almost mystical about the headlong passion with which these writers tackled their subject. Or as I put it in a recent comment on another blog:

I once found an old, decaying yellow book in my family's garage - an early seventies collection of essays on film (edited by Bill Nichols). Its methods and subjects ranged from old-school historical and montage-centric readings to the passion of the early auteurists to proto-cultural critiques (with a section devoted to relatively nascent feminism) and eventually quite "difficult" semiotic analyses. The fact is, all of this - even the dense stuff at the end of the tome - was fascinating. 
Even (perhaps especially) while weaving elaborate - and probably untenable - theories about signifiers, spectators, and the structural compounds of film form, the writing was engaging. One could sense a giddy twinkle in the authors' eyes, even as they penned jargon-heavy prose - ever-present was a sense that the cinema, and by extension film theory, was giddy, thrilling (perhaps even mischievous) fun. 
Cut to the present day (or thereabouts). A roommate, upon departure from our apartment, offers up his film studies book: assigned reading for a long-finished course. Taking it in my hands, I flip through and encounter writing which is thorough, thoughtful, and dry as dust. I close the book and put it down. Later my roommate throws it away. 
Why did this earlier collection hold such greater appeal? Surely there's some unseemly aesthetic pretension at work here - the old book looks like something you'd stumble across at a yard sale or in the corner of a musty used bookstore, while one can imagine the newer text being plunked down on one's desk, with an unimaginative teacher droning, "Read the first section by Thursday." Yet I submit that there really was an energy and a passion present in the earlier hodgepodge of essays, a passion which has been ironed out over decades of taking movies "seriously."
10. American Movie Critics, edited by Phillip LopateSeveral years later, this book brought me back around from the wilds of theory to the gardens of criticism. I read it this past winter, and though it's a noticeably recent addition to this list, I think it brings things nicely to the present moment. In a way, it's the last of the anthologies for me, since I'm tending to read the originals rather than the excerpts these days. Reading Lopate's collection as I developed my own blogging voice, it opened up a world of criticism stretching from silent-era moonlighters with a facile pen to latter-day hipsters piling cultural commentary upon clever forms, reminding me of the variety of approaches one could take. I have said before that I don't really consider myself a critic, and that's still true. But I am someone who harbors and facilitates a critical sensibility along with a love of movies and a curiosity as to how they are made, all of which have been facilitated by this book and the others in my pantheon.

Now it's your turn. There are five people I especially want to tag, but don't think that lets you off the hook - when many bloggers have responded, I intend to compile a master list of all the books celebrated. As for my five, and their own ten:

1. Glenn Kenny, Some Came Running - In the past, he has written eloquently about movie books he buried his nose in as an infant, and I would love to know more about them and how they have shaped his own perceptions and sensibilities. (Here is a long quote from an interview where he discusses his preference for Sarris over Kael).

2. Tony Dayoub, Cinema Viewfinder - In his fairly regular comments on this and other blogs, Tony utilizes a strong sense of history and a passion for context in discussing a given film. I'm curious as to where this information came from; and for whatever reason, I have trouble guessing his favorite books (except, of course, for Guide for the Film Fanatic, which he explicitly mentioned earlier today when responding to my Great Movies post...).

3. Jeremy Richey, Moon in the Gutter - Jeremy's blog is always a treat to look at, and he has a taste for forgotten or even maligned movies. I can only imagine the wild and unpredictable readings which have fed his quests into the mists of movie marginalia and sharpened the perceptions of his roving eye.

4. Shahn, six martinis and the seventh art - Another blogger (recently discovered by me) with eye-catching images and an offbeat sensibility. I have a feeling her top ten would be fascinating.

5. James Hansen, Out 1 - James has a taste for the experimental; does it extend to books? What led him, like me, to that elusive yet enthralling hall of mirrors which lent his blog its name?

And, as promised, here are some more covers and titles worth mentioning:

A fascinating exercise by David Thomson, in which he elaborates on the lives of fictional movie characters by penning full biographies for them, inventing back stories, post-climactic downfalls, ignominious declines. All these stories unfold in an interlocking, noirish universe. This is dangerously close to the sort of thing I've done on my own, and I suspect I'm not the only one...

One of the few movie books in my library written expressly for kids. I recall being deeply impressed by a blurb on Hollywood: "Filmmakers could find locations close to Hollywood to represent the desert of the Wild West, the soaring Alps of Europe, or the gentle hills of England." Accompanied by a picture of one such diverse landscape. Whether this shaped, or merely crystallized, my own sensibility is hard to say.

Not as glib as you would think, given the source. Ty Burr's choices are quite good, and any book (or special edition of a magazine, if you must) which manages to squeeze in both Last of the Mohicans and Celine and Julie Go Boating is OK by me.

One of my first Top 100 list books. This one is not visually lavish - the pictures are in black-and-white, the pages are not glossy - but Norman makes up for splash with a lengthy introduction which chronicles the whole history of film. I'm fairly certain this was the book which introduced me to the concept of the auteur theory.

A thin large-size hardcover with candid black-and-white portraits of all the "American directors" (including Europeans who worked in Hollywood at one point, like Lang and Renoir) whom the photographer could find. It's really remarkable how, at a certain point in the seventies, so many of the pioneers were still living even as the Movie Brats were just emerging on the scene. In fact, this book might be worthy of a follow-up post. Stay tuned. I discovered it in a New York used bookstore on a hung-over Sunday morning many winters ago.

This too was purchased in a used bookstore. For some reason, like a child who asks his parents to tell him the same story every night, many film buffs love to read and re-read the history of the medium. I think it's the small variations - seeing what an author does with the grand narrative, much as one observes an auteur's touches in a genre piece.

Another unique film history. I'm a sucker for these. I almost avoided this one, though, because of the cover, which is one of the worst in the annals of movie books. Now I relish it because of its idiosyncrasy alongside all those dog-eared bindings on my shelf. A good reminder not to judge a book by its cover - Cousins' text is brimming with treasures of world cinema you won't find anywhere else.

There was a time when I followed weekly box-office stats religiously (in my defense, I was twelve years old). Back then, this was a kind of Bible to me. It's still fascinating as a reminder of how rarely the opinion of posterity and short-term popularity cross paths.

A breezy, witty little book in which the author, one Michael Gebert, hops and skips around his all-inclusive awards listings to comment on the worth of a given movie, share Critics Circle gossip, and pick his own winners with 20/20 hindsight. Quite an entertaining read - Gebert was a kind of print blogger, a man before his time (wonder if he blogs now).

Great history of the trilogy, but with particular focus on the first film. In-depth study of an extremely troubled and unhappy shoot which happened to produce a masterpiece.

Another great behind-the-scenes look at a classic, and the best book I've ever read about Golden Age Hollywood film production. The subtitle says it all: "The Miracle of Production #1060." Our knowledge of the film's classic status and everlasting psychological pull creates marvelous frission with Aljean Harmetz' scrupulous research and detailed look at the professionalism of the talents involved, for whom it was just another day on the job.

A marvellous analysis of form and narrative, and the way mainstream filmmaking captures a viewer's attention. Full of storyboards and production details. Two particular storyboards come to mind - the crucial scene in Sophie's Choice (without ever seeing the movie, these drawings greatly disturbed me as a child) and the ending of Notorious (which made it one of my favorite movies, again sight unseen).

Topic after topic, from the horse's mouth: the great directors who paraded themselves before the AFI in the 1970s offer their own perspectives on everything from writing to casting to managing the set to editing. Especially good for the night-and-day contradictions between different directors' approaches, often to be found in the space of a single page.

I finally started reading Sarris a few years ago. The tone of this book, with its serene celebration of a cinematic mysticism, warms me just to think of. It recalls My Dinner With Andre: Wallace Shawn's soliloquey on the joys of a fresh cup of coffee and newspaper in the morning, that wonderful contentment of an intellectual New York life, delivered in response to Andre's (read: Pauline Kael's) rapturous and passionate recounting of a life lived on the edge. Of course, Sarris and Kael could never have shared a dinner table for two minutes, let alone two hours, but we can dream, can't we?

A compendium of Voice columns spanning fifty years. In 2006, I attended a film screening mounted to promote the book. I was immediately struck by how closely each critic corresponded to my imaginings of them. J. Hoberman, looking slightly aloof and knowing, wore glasses and had a Tintinesque tuft of hair rising off his head. Andrew Sarris was short and round, with a mock-grumble and mischievous twinkle in his eye when his erstwhile (and late) rival's name was brought up. Jonas Mekas was scheduled to appear but, true to form, never showed up.

Anyway, the main reason I included this book is because of the inscription within, which is as good a closer as any...

(For a complete list of all the books chosen by bloggers in this exercise, visit The Movie Bookshelf.)

This is a Top Post. To see other highlights of The Dancing Image, visit the other Top Posts.


Jason Bellamy said...

This is a terrific post, and one that I need to read in more detail when I have time. But a few quick comments ...

- A few weeks ago I was in Milwaukee and stumbled across a used book store there. I immediately went to the movies section and was depressed when I found it didn't have much to offer.

- I need to buy "Breaking In." I discovered that one in college, reading it in chunks in the school bookstore between classes. I didn't buy it at the time because, honestly, I wasn't very familiar with quite a few of the directors. (I mean, I knew who they were, but I hadn't seen many of their films, as I recall.) Now that I have more time -- and knowledge -- I'd love to go back through that book.

Great stuff. Thanks.

Tony Dayoub said...

I'm working on my list as we speak.

Unknown said...

Two books I would recommend that really made a huge impact on me, are MIDNIGHT MOVIES by J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum that traces the history of cult films from ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW to ERASERHEAD to the films of John Waters. These guys are both great writers in their own right and this book is a fantastic team-up.

HARLAN ELLISON'S WATCHING by Harlan Ellison collects all of the film reviews he did CINEMA magazine, the LOS ANGELES FREE PRESS, STARLOG magazine, and THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION among others. As you can probably guess from the list of periodicals, he reviews fantasy, horror and SF films but in a critical way that you really hadn't seen before. And he takes no prisoners while also offering fascinating insight into how films like DUNE get sabotaged before they even come out. Also, Ellison's style of writing is entertaining as hell.

The Film Doctor said...

I agree with Jason--an excellent topic for a post, and film bloggers should collaborate more on the best books to read. I can vouch for three of the books you mention--the Kael compendium, of course, Lopate's American Movie Critics, and the Entertainment Weekly guide to the 100 best is surprisingly astute. I will look into other books you mentioned.

TALKING MOVIEzzz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tony Dayoub said...

I'd just like to chime in and second J.D.'s take on Ellison's writings which I caught over at Starlog. Great stuff.

Sam Juliano said...

Yes, the always erudite and cinematically informed Movie Man has again raised the bar with this rewarding post, (truly one of the best I've ever seen on the net, and no, I am not randomly kissing your ass, I am being perfectly honest!) which acknowledges a number of essential volumes that inform and enrich our weekly movie going. Well, we know what's here, and I'm lucky to say I own most of these, and just recently acquired the hardcover version of the Lopate volume, which is frankly superlative. Lopate is a specialist on Bresson and Naruse, twlo directors I value on the absolute highest level. In addition to the Kael book you list here (it may be her most brilliant volume, I agree) are the essential REELING, 1001 NIGHTS AT THE MOVIES and her justly famous volume of CITIZEN KANE.) CONFESSIONS OF A CULTIST (which I had signed by Sarris himself in 1998 at the Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble) is indeed a must as is his more recent treatment (which you also note here) on THE AMERICAN CINEMA, which I agree is a superb volume.
I own and have read both Donald Richie's THE JAPANESE FILM (with Joseph Anderson) as well as the essential volume OZU by David Bordwell and JAPANESE FILM DIRECTORS by Audie Bock.

What is the best volume on Bresson? Well, it cost me $70 on e bay, but having used it in a college undergraduate film class years ago, I felt I had to track it down:

THE FILMS OF ROBERT BRESSON (by Amedee Ayfre and Leo Murray) Praeger 1969. It goes up and includes MOUCHETTE. There is simply no more fascinating and scholarly volume on Bresson out there.

Peter Cowie's film on Ingmar Bergman may be the best we have, but John Simon's INGMAR BERGMAN DIRECTS is essential, if for no other reason than it provides some fascinating interview responses from Bergman himself. Then there Frank Gado's THE PASSION OF INGMAR BERGMAN, which I also own and have read from cover to cover. This may be the most thematically rich of any Bergman study. I actually rate it above the Cowie.

The definitive work on Chaplin for certain is David Robinson's CHAPLIN, which is one of the most eloquent of reads (magnificent book!), while Proffessor Murray's FELLINI THE ARTIST is the quintessential work on Fellini. I am a proud owner of these as well. Joseph McBride's volume on Ford is the best out there, and we must acknowledge Joel E. Siegel (not the deceased ABC film critic) as the author of the finest Lewton volume VAL LEWTON: THE REALITY OF TERROR.

Movie Man: An essential volume is Prof. Murray's NINE AMERICAN FILM CRITICS, which turns the tables on Agee, Kauffmann, Kael, Simon, Tyler, Mac Donald, and a few others. This one is endlessly fascinating for all sorts of reasons.

I'll have more to say on Kauffmann (my choices as the great American critic of them all) Simon, and MacDonald in another comment later today.

Again, you have truly outdone yourself here Movie Man!!!

Richard Bellamy said...

This is a tremendous post and I'm really jealous of your film-book library. One of the best collections of old film books was in used bookstore in Manhattan off Fifth near the Rockefeller Center. I need to go back there with a bigger backpack.

"For some reason, like a child who asks his parents to tell him the same story every night, many film buffs love to read and re-read the history of the medium. I think it's the small variations - seeing what an author does with the grand narrative, much as one observes an auteur's touches in a genre piece."

You eloquently express that urge I feel - to re-read the same film history, over and over again, discovering new things each time. Also, I have that book by Gerald Mast and I have referred to its commentary on Citizen Kane in my film history class.

I will definitely work on a list of books and link to your site.

Sam Juliano said...

I just read Hokahey's excellent submission, and I proceed:

THE SILENT CLOWNS by Walter Kerr is single-handedly the most important and most baeutifully-written of all books on silent comedy. Kerr is straitforward and the writing is free of ostentation, and historically comprehensive. The subjects are Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy. I own the oversized paperback, which can be bought used on amazon at a workable price.

There are two books on Hitchcock that tower over all others, and they are must-owns: Robin Wood's HITCHCOCK'S FILMS REVISITED(so what if Wood thinks THE BIRDS is a staggering masterpiece?) and Donald Spoto's THE ART OF ALFRED HITCHCOCK. The Spoto book is simply incredible in every sense of the word. Hitchcock himself issued unqualified praise for it.

Richie's THE FILMS OF AKIRA KUROSAWA is an essential own and read, and the oversized paperback is well designed.

I own all seven volumes of film criticism by Stanley Kauffmann (who at 94 is still writing) and best of all are his first one A WORLD ON FILM (where he states that WEST SIDE STORY is--bless him--the greatest film musical ever made) and his later FIGURES OF LIGHT and IMAGES.

Dwight MacDonald's ON FILM is also essential, as it presents the voice of a most consumate writer and cultural figure of the century.

John Simon's REVERSE ANGLE, is also essential as where else could you read about the famed curmudgeon saying THIS in his review of WHAT'S UP DOC?:

"In the present film Miss Streisand looks like a cross between an aardvark and an albino rat surmounted by a platinum-coated horse bun. Those she has good eyes and a nice complexion, the rest of her is a veritable anthology of disaster areas."

It's amazing that a lawsuit wasn't filed. You wonder where teh line is crossed. And Simon is no Godard advocate either, as he once likened his work to "screen masturbation."

And if I forget to mention Maltin, who usually attracts the most scathing judgements, the truth is he DID author one superlative book in his career, and it is:


In scope, passion, authoritative study, nostalgia and fond reflection, this is one beautiful book. My own co-favorite Our Gang episodes are: DOGS IS DOGS (1930) and THE KID FROM BORNEO (1932).

Joel Bocko said...

Before I respond to respond to all of you, let me take a moment for one more honorable mention, a text of sorts, but not a book.

If the 1998 AFI 100 list had been in book form it would probably be included here. It came at a time when I was just getting into popular music (an ephiphany which would be subsequently delayed until college) but it yanked me right back into the movie world, with full force. I remember looking down at a copy of the list in a video store and I had only seen about a dozen or so. Soon I dove in and initiated what was arguably my most impassioned movie craze of the many that have inflicted me. Yeah, the list isn't that good when you dig very deeply but it's a hell of a kickoff, and I love the TV series which went with it - in fact, I own it on videotape and recently re-watched all the episodes.

Well, I am quite pleased with the rapid and enthusiastic responses. All I can say in response to your own suggestions is, get to work! If you put your favorite books up on your respective blogs (with, ahem, a link to my own post) I will link up to yours and we'll get a big fat juicy list of great reads up and running.

Heck, Sam, you could probably just cut and paste what you've written here! What a list...

Over the years, noting how samey big bookstores tend to be (and after having worked in some of them too) I've come to treasure used bookstores above the rest. As you can see by their wear and tear on these covers, only about 50% of which has been caused by me...

I look forward to the list - let me (and the other commentators) know in this thread when you've got it up.

I'd really like to see your list as well - like Tony, you have a passion for history and context and I imagine your own pantheon must be quite crowded!

Glad to see another afficianado of the Entertainment book. The placement is at times a bit screwy, but then it always is (I can't play the numbers game anymore myself). The end of the 20th century was a great time for all these retrospective gatherings-up, not just in movies but in all categories (also on my shelf are a good half-dozen entries in Time Magazine's ongoing list-milking enterprises...).

(See above - I await your list too...)

Since you're a teacher it would be very interesting to see both the books you respond to and those your students find most appealing (and also the cross-section between the two). And of course this goes for FilmDr too, and all the others of you in similar situations.

filmgeek said...

Woah, that is quite a collection. I love film books too but I don't think I could put together a top 10 as I am somewhat biased in the books that I read at the moment - I'm only just getting started. I have a lot of books on Audrey Hepburn, my favourite of which being AUDREY STYLE, and I also have a lot on teen movies.
I did an assignment on teen movies adapting over time and they are all great reads. My favourites are the ones on The Brat Pack. I've recently bought HALLIWELL'S MOVIES THAT MATTER and I have a Heath Ledger bio I've yet to read. There are so many I want to read and your list is a great source of inspiration. Next on my list are some additions to my movie poster books and some more on film music. I'm got a lot of summer reading!

Richard Bellamy said...

The used bookstore in New York City I mentioned is the Gotham Book Mart at 41 West 47th.

Joel Bocko said...


Interestingly, I see that I did not include any biographies in this list (unless you count Thomson's two works). Perhaps I put them in a different category as I have an innate fascination with that genre, show-biz or otherwise. I've only read one biography of Audrey Hepburn but I remember it pretty distinctly. I think it was just called "Audrey", and around the same time I read "Golden Boy," a bio of William Holden (whose life and career overlapped with Audrey's a few times...).

Hope you change your mind about making a list - I'd love to see your choices.


I will definitely try to check that out the next time I'm in the city...

Richard Bellamy said...

My list is up at
Little Worlds. It was fun to do. Thanks for your post.

Joel Bocko said...

To anyone subscribing to this thread by e-mail, I just added one point to the post which I forgot to mention: please tag 5 people, so the meme can keep going!

Tony Dayoub said...

Hey MovieMan,

You can find my list up here.

Jason Bellamy said...

My post is up!

Joel Bocko said...

I love reading these responses; keep up the good work, guys (and girls...)

TALKING MOVIEzzz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nostalgia Kinky said...

Thanks for tagging me and for the nice words on Moon in the Gutter. I greatly enjoyed your list and just posted mine...thanks again...

Kaleem Hasan said...

This is an extraordinary post and a true homage to cinema and film criticism. Bravo!

Unknown said...

Here's my list!


Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

Jesus Christ, this meme has landed you a link from the New Yorker's blog. You've officially outdone us all, and hearty congrats are in order for your initiating this widespread discussion.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks for bringing that to my attention, Jon - it's quite flattering (though not quite as splashy as your own recent run-in with the New York press, which curious Dancing Image readers can find here (or given Sam's trademark enthusiastic headlines, discover from reading the name of the link, which I am not yet clever enough to embed:


Interestingly, the blog piece you cite is by Richard Brody who has been discussed recently, and at length, on The Dancing Image. His own choices for favorite books are quite interesting and, given his Godard book, illuminating too.

the crew of Unfaithful said...


James Hansen said...

Wow. This took long enough for us to get around to which is all my fault. Nonetheless, anyone still following along you can see lists for Brandon Colvin and myself now up at Out 1. Thanks so much for tagging me in this. It was really hard and I've had a crazy week so it kept getting pushed back. Hope some of you still get some use out of our list! I think its a pretty good one, and unique as always! Thanks again.


rudyfan1926 said...

Oh, my list will go up this weekend. A fabulous post! A lot of great books there and several that are now on my must read list!


Jamie said...

love your list here, and it's a wonderful idea.

here's mine (in no particular order):

1. 'A Cinema of Loneliness' by Robert Kolker. kind of surprised i have not seen this on one list yet-- it's probably my favorite book of film criticism.

2. 'American Movie Critics: an Anthology from the Silents Until Now' edited by Phillip Lopate. you also included this one, so i don't need to say much.

3. 'The New American Cinema' Jon Lewis editor. covers mid-60s to present american cinema. it's pretty fantastic for any fan of 70's American cinema--all the independents are present.

4. 'Midnight Movies' by J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum is probably my favorite film critic (others can have Ebert), and to think they both worked in Chicago from around the same era!

5. 'Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust' by Annette Insdorf. this is now out of print, but if you can find a copy, pick it up. a used bookstore by my house had two copies--now one.

6. 'Women in Film Noir' edited by E. Ann Kaplan. Just fantastic.

7. the 'Film Noir Reader' series edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini. also surprised these books (i think they are up to 4 or 5 now) were absent from many lists. they are the guide--bar none-- of film noir study.

8. 'Fangoria: 101 Best Horror Movies You've Never Seen' by Adam Lukeman and Fangoria Magazine. brisk, but fun read. great unheralded horror selections too.

9. 'On Photography' by Susan Sontag. not really a film book, but she cites many films through the pages. just as i prefer Rosenbaum to Ebert, I'd take Sontag in a cocaine heartbeat over Kael. this is essential reading to understanding modern art, so therefor film.

10. 'Random Order: Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-Avant-Garde' by Branden W. Joseph. Again not a film book exactly, but helps understanding modern art. my favorite book on art i've ever read (and Rauschenberg happens to be a hero of mine to boot). essential.

sorry, a few i just couldn't leave off:

11. 'The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre, and Other Aspects of Popular Culture' by Robert Warshaw. a decent study in understanding low art for it's visceral thrills (and not intellectual aspirations).

12. 'Making Movies' by Sidney Lumet. my favorite 'how-to' book on filmmaking.

13. 'In the Blink of an Eye' by Walter Murch. after watching THX1138 with his dyi sound effects and editing (which still seem modern almost 40 years later) i had to read books on how he understands film. great book.

14. 'Jean-Luc Godards Pierrot le Fou' by David Willis. great read of perhaps my favorite film of all time.

15. 'Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man : Critical Edition' by Marshall McLuhan. for obvious reasons, for a better overall understanding of film and art.

16. 'The Society of the Spectacle' by Guy Debord. again, for obvious reasons-- a better overall understanding of film, life, and art

17. 'Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film' by Carol J. Clover. fun read.

phew, I think that's it. though i already feel i've left some off. oh well. i'd be neurotic if i didn't also list a few books of literature that i love that feature films or film love as central themes:

'The Moviegoer' by Walker Percy. one of my favorite novels of all time. essential reading to any aesthete.

'The Film Explainer' by Gert Hoffman.

and finally, 'The Complete Prose of Woody Allen' by Woody Allen. collects all his books into one piece; 'Without Feathers', 'Getting Even', and 'Side Effects'. like all Allen it's brilliant, funny, and sentimental. often times all at once.

Joel Bocko said...

Great - thanks, everyone! Jamie, do you have a blog you can put that up on, so I can link to it when I assemble the master list?

Joel Bocko said...

As for your choices:

Making Movies - I'm really surprised nobody's picked this yet! It could (and probably should) have made my list; it's even on my bookshelf so I could have scanned it, easy! I guess I tended to overlook filmmaking books for some reason (except for Breaking In and maybe one or two others in the runners-up).

Midnight Movies - This seems to be on a lot of lists - I think it may be the most popular choice. I guess I should read it!

A Cinema of Loneliness - I don't think I'm familiar with this one. What makes it your favorite?

Jamie said...

No, I do not have a blog currently. (I'm building one from scratch--not from a parent like blogger, wordsmith ect-- it's almost done yada yada yada) Sorry.

Actually the 'Midnight Movies' isn't even my favorite Rosenbaum. Those would be 'Moving Places: A Life in the Movies', 'Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons', or 'Movies as Politics'. But I only own 'Midnight Movies' so when I consulted my library that is all I recalled. The others I read years ago from the city library, but I'd recommend those over 'Midnight Movies'. I should look to purchase them as well.

As far as 'Cinema of Loneliness', it's my favorite because it deals with an era I love (1970-present American film). It's exhaustive (the five sections-- Penn/Stone, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg/Digital, and Altman-- enjoy 407 pages), traces the respective directors films to the culture they come from and help create, it's highly literate, and the prose is fantastic. I'm failing in this proclamation I know, all I can say is buy it and within 10 pages of even the introduction you'll 'get it'.

Ryan Kelly said...

Here you go, Sr. MovieMan:


Congrats on a brilliant meme! Really got people thinking and talking.

Brad W said...

Thanks for this great post - I've weighed in here:


Anonymous said...

My list is up here:


Moira Finnie said...

The arrival of your infectious list at the Movie Morlocks, introduced by R. Emmett Sweeney there, has compelled me to add my wanderings through the movie stacks at home and at the library
to the TCM blog, recalling so many of the books that made me want to see more of the films--even before I'd had a chance to see many.

My copy of David Thomson's eclectic and very personal New Biographical Dictionary of Film almost made my list, but since my choices were largely confined to what made me a major movie fan starting around the age of twelve, I had to skip that one, (even if I do refer to it often today).

Thanks for beginning this meme. Now, if I could just stop thinking of additional books to add to it.

Joel Bocko said...

Great to hear from everybody - I will be over to your blogs early next week to comment (crazy weekend, this). Moira, I actually did see yours the other night and left a comment - great post, and I'm glad you guys jumped in (needless to say, I am a TCM fanatic; it's literally the only channel I watch on television, save for the occasional gem recorded off the bizarre Fox Movie Channel...).

Anyway, I know the feeling you mention...that's why I had to add on another 15 after my top 10, and even so I keep slapping my forehead in embarrassment when I recall another great title on my bookshelf which I left off...

jennybee said...

What a fascinating post. Counting the reading, I can't imagine how many cumulative hours went into creating it. I've read much fewer film books than any of you, but I'm saving this list and going to my library this weekend to see what I can find.

rudyfan1926 said...

A bit late, but here is my odd list


Paul J. Marasa said...

Sorry to be getting to this so late. A great list--Chronicle of the Cinema was one of my primary guides for the early years of my blog The Constant Viewer (although I, too, learned to beware of some of the dates), and Thomsom's Suspects was a strange trip. My first film book was Carlos Clarens' History of the Horror Film. Read it when I was twelve or so, taught me that my love of horror films mattered.

Thanks for the work you put into your site; sorry to see it go. (And, as always, thanks for visiting mine.)

Joel Bocko said...

As I've been stressing lately, no such thing as "too late" around here! The later the better, because it means people are still digging around.

Isn't it funny how everyone's initiation seems to be through horror movie books? You and I aren't the only ones; I think Glenn Kenny, among others, and perhaps Sam Juliano too, followed the same path.

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