I’ve long had a soft spot for books about the movies. My space-challenged loft features a shelving unit, embarrassingly overstuffed from floor to ceiling, dedicated to the topic — from collections of critical essays and reviews to interviews with or biographies on filmmakers to wide-ranging histories of an art form that’s still in its relative infancy.
(Curiously, I’ve never had much patience for actor-based biographies, most of which are vainglorious re-creations of lives that might or might not be entirely accurate — though I did once read a 300-page unauthorized biography of Robert De Niro in a single sitting. Then there’s the fact that actors are rarely interesting beyond their work, De Niro being the most obvious example.)
While almost everything in my library is a worthwhile read in one way or another, a few titles stand out as important personal markers, books that altered the way I experienced movies. I still vividly recall purchasing Pauline Kael’s career-spanning collection, For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies, upon its publication in 1994. A burgeoning movie buff with a newly acquired job at an independent video store, I found her expansive cross-cultural knowledge, lively prose style and unabashedly decisive opinions a fascinating eye-opener — even when her take on a given movie would diverge from my own.
Other staples of the movie-book canon surfaced in For Keeps’ wake, two of which had a similar impact. My well-worn paperback copy of Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema — the late critic’s list-driven 1968 opus that championed his auteur theory, which Kael ironically abhorred — is now on the verge of disrepair, its smudged, pen-marked pages a physical monument to my cinematic education.
David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film, which first appeared in 1975, was just as indispensable, its brief, elegantly written profiles of moviedom’s central players still as fresh and incisive as you’ll find.
These were not just sources in my search to see and better understand our most immersive art form; they were wit-infused investigations of how movies impact the culture at large and vice versa. A pair of recently published efforts threaten to carry on this esteemed tradition, both of which look at cinema’s place in a crowded 21st-century media landscape: Thomson’s The Big Screen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and J. Hoberman’s Film After Film (Verso), each a welcome addition to my overflowing shelf.
Now in his 70s, Thomson is as busy as ever, producing six books since 2004, including an affecting memoir about his childhood in war-torn London; a look at the impact of Hitchcock’s Psycho; a curious, probably unnecessary analysis of Nicole Kidman’s career; and not one but two new editions of his Biographical Dictionary of Film. His latest, The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies, is not as comprehensive as its title might suggest, despite looking at topics as diverse as “Muybridge to Facebook.”
Thomson has long been rueful about the state of contemporary movies — both in terms of their quality and their place in the culture — and he does little to refute that emotion here, but he’s now thinking about the evolving role of screens in our viewing life more broadly. “The screens then and now are alike, but they were big once, as large as a buildings, and now they may be thumbnail size — yet they are vast in their ubiquity and their constant use,” he writes in The Big Screen’s opening page. “They make a taunting offer of reality, but I wonder if that isn’t a way of keeping us out of it.” What follows that intriguing thought is a wide-ranging tome (nearly 600 pages) that isn’t shy about indulging in the author’s often fascinating tangents, most of which are delivered with lyricism and insight. This is the screen according to Thomson.
Hoberman’s Film After Film arrives less than a year after his unfortunate dismissal from The Village Voice, where he so ably reviewed movies for more than 30 years. The book is divided into three parts, opening with “A Post-Photographic Cinema,” which features a series of compelling essays about the implications of cinema’s move from the more traditional photographic image and into an era awash in digital manipulation.
Just as intriguing is the section titled “A Chronicle of the Bush Years,” which reprints a variety of Hoberman’s illuminating Voice reviews that, looking back, presciently explored how George W.’s America was represented in and impacted our movies of that era. Put simply, nobody writes about the connection between movies and culture better than Hoberman, and Film After Film is a reminder of that fact.
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