Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Our Favorite Books About Movies

Here at F This Movie!, we don't just watch movies. Sometimes we read books. As long as they are about movies.

Today's list comes courtesy of a request by F-Head Stuart P. Thanks, Stuart!

Alex: The Mind of the Modern Moviemaker by Josh Horowitz - Compromised entirely of transcribed interviews with a swath of directors from Kevin Smith to F. Gary Gray, The Mind of the Modern Moviemaker (which Patrick turned me on to [Ed. note: Patrick was turned onto the book by Mike!]) isn't seeking to be some high-minded literary probing of its titular organ, but that's hardly the point. A filter-less trip inside the minds of 20 contemporary filmmakers, the book is wholly confident in the ability of these professional storytellers to engage the reader with their own experiences and inspirations that led to where they are in the respective careers. The 2006 book's subtitle bills its subjects as ""the New Generation of Filmmakers," but I try not to think of the book as christening of Hollywood's next Chosen Ones and more of an appropriately diverse group of moviemakers sharing insight into their creative processes. Even the inclusion of filmmakers that have drawn a healthy amount of criticism from film snarks like myself, namely Brett Ratner, offer an illuminating glimpse of what makes them tick. The bottom line of this is that before reading Horowitz, I did not know that Michel Gondry almost directed I Know What You Did Last Summer. And now I possess that knowledge, turning it over in my head periodically, weighing the implications of his decision to not make that specific film at that specific time.

Each chapter culminates in a quick-hit survey meant to get to the root of the filmmaker's approach and artistic worldview. This survey unearths such gems as: Trey Parker's favorite movie is A Christmas Story, while Matt Stone's is Babe; Todd Phillips would love to remake Sullivan's Travels; and, finally, when asked who she'd have play her in a movie about her life, Monster director Patty Jenkins replied "Charlize Theron, though I'd have to ugly her up again." Are you still reading this? You should be reading The Mind of the Modern Moviemaker already.

Mike: Conversations with Scorsese by Richard Shickel - My favorite director is Martin Scorsese (ORIGINAL!), so whenever I can get my hands on a book written about the director or his films, I gobble it up. While I have yet to read a bad book on Scorsese, some are better than others. For the purposes of this column I'll pick just one: Richard Schickel's Conversations with Scorsese. The reason I chose this book is simple -- no one is as articulate, knowledgable, honest,  or energetic as Scorsese when it comes to talking about their work or the films of others. Conversations reads not like an impersonal, cold Q&A between subject and interviewer, but rather a natural back-and-forth between two friends -- or as advertised, a conversation.The great thing about a director like Scorsese is there is no shortage of books about the man. From Scorsese by Ebert to Scorsese: A Journey by Mary Pat Kelly, there's a surplus of Scorsese books out there. But if you just want to hear from the man himself, look no further than Conversations with Scorsese.

Adam Riske: The Great Movies series by Roger Ebert - I have a habit of watching a movie and taking a break mid-way through to read about it on the internet or in books I own. It's odd, but what can I say? Without fail, the books I go to the most are the Roger Ebert The Great Movies series. They are invaluable for contextualizing and informing a great movie you are watching and are key in reassessing a 'great movie' that is just not working for you. I also love the series because it opens you up to movies you might not have otherwise sought out. For example, I watched Amarcord, Five Easy Pieces and The Red Shoes after reading the essays in the Ebert books and am very happy that I was pointed in their direction. The best piece in the entire series is the one for Saturday Night Fever (a movie I love and love even more because I often have to defend it). It is the best writing I've ever come across on why a flawed movie is also a perfect movie -- even if it's just perfect for you alone. The essay also provides a fascinating insight into the point of view of the brilliant Gene Siskel. Please read it right away. It will not only make you a better, more fulfilled moviegoer, but the last two paragraphs might even make you a better person.

Doug: Rebel Without a Crew by Robert Rodriguez - The subtitle of Robert Rodriguez's autobiographical tome, first published in 1995, is "Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker with $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player." I first read this "book about a movie" when I was 18, back when I [briefly] flirted with the fantasy of becoming a genius, independent, rule-breaking filmmaker. At 18 I thought, "Heck, I've got FIVE years before I'm an old man like Rodriguez. Surely I'll have two, if not six or seven, feature-length narrative films under my belt at 23. PLENTY OF TIME." What can I tell you? LIFE: IT GETS IN THE WAY. Anyway, this diary details the struggles and triumphs Rodriguez experienced in order to make El Mariachi, the film that launched his career, setting the stage for The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl ("YOU'RE WELCOME" -Robert Rodriguez). Sacrificing his body at an experimental medical testing facility in Austin, shooting on a shoestring budget in rural northeastern Mexico, shopping the finished product around, initially getting rejected by Spanish-language straight-to-video distributors, eventually landing a deal at a Hollywood studio ... this book has it all. I highly recommend it -- even to myself. I badly need to reread it, if only for the wonderful underdog story and the inspirational outcome.

JB: A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980 by Robert B. Ray - Ray’s thesis here is intriguing: following World War II, the American movie audience split into two different factions (the na├»ve audience and the informed audience) and any film hoping for wide success had to somehow appeal to both audiences. His point is exhaustively argued with analyses of sequences from the following films: Casablanca, It’s A Wonderful Life, The Man Who Shot Libery Valance, The Godfather, and Taxi Driver. A must read, it will make you look at movies in a whole new way. Robert Ray is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Florida

Danse Macabre by Stephen King - King taught a college class in “Themes in Supernatural Literature” at the University of Maine in 1978. This book cobbles together his lecture notes, but is more like listening to King ramble on over a beer. Accessible and entertaining, his discussion of horror archetypes is not to be missed.

Only Entertainment by Richard Dyer - I am primarily recommending this collection on the basis of one specific essay included in the book: “Entertainment and Utopia,” Dyer’s groundbreaking essay on movie musicals, how they function, and what they provide their audience. Also included is a cool essay about homosexual pornography. Richard Dyer is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Warwick.

The Comic Mind: Comedy in the Movies by Gerald Mast - The single best film book I have ever read, The Comic Mind discusses film comedy from the inception of the movies (Mast begins with the Lumiere Brothers’ L'Arroseur Arrose in 1896) to comedies of the 1970s. Mast really did his homework here, (He wrote the book when just seeing some of these films was next to impossible.) and his breakdown of all film comedies into just eight different comic plots is something to behold. Gerald Mast and this book are one of the reasons I became a film teacher. Mast was Professor of Film Studies at the University of Chicago; he passed away in 1988.

Patrick: Pictures at a Revolution by Mark Harris - If you're interested in learning more about the film movement of the 1970s -- probably the last best era in America movies -- there are three books you definitely need to read. Start here, with Mark Harris' exhaustively researched chronicle of the five movies nominated for the Best Picture Oscar at the 1968 Awards. Not only does Harris make the story of each production super compelling and readable (and I didn't even think I cared about the making of Doctor Dolittle), but the way that he suggests that a new kind of filmmaker and a new kind of film (The Graduate, Bonnie & Clyde) helped transform the movie landscape and kill off "old" Hollywood (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?) is fascinating. This one Best Picture race became a microcosm for all of American film. The whole thing seems like a gimmick, but it's so good.

From there, you'll want to read Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind. A detailed account of how film school brats took over Hollywood and made brilliant, personal films during the '70s before blowing it with excess, the book covers a lot of ground really quickly, but there are a ton of great stories in there. I defy you to read it and not want to immediately watch every movie it mentions.

Close it out with It Don't Worry Me by Ryan Gilbey. I've talked about this book several times on the podcast, because it's maybe my favorite collection of essays on those same revolutionary filmmakers of the 1970s. Whereas Biskind's book is historical, Gilbey's is a critical examination, and a great one. The miracle of the book is that Gilbey writes about movies that have been discussed over and over and over, but somehow finds BRAND NEW things to say about them. He argues that Godfather Part II makes The Godfather Better, that Annie Hall is possibly the most experimental and revolutionary movie of the decade, that George Lucas applied the very same autism that drove him to obsess over every single detail of the Star Wars films to American Graffiti. It's such a good book.

25 comments:

  1. Is that the same Josh Horowitz who makes movie stars do ridiculous things in interviews? I'll have to add that to my wishlist.

    My favourite's The Winston Effect, because practical effects are fascinating (and apparently because I'm too dumb to handle big blocks of text and need lots of pictures to distract me). I don't think there are many other books that have stuff about Jurassic park, Terminator, Aliens and Predator in them (except for a couple of comic books probably).

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  2. There's something about cinematic disasters that fascinates me, so I'd like to recommend 2 books about the making of an epic flop:

    Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven's Gate, by Steven Bach - a book that is rather uniquely from an executive's point of view, this is a fantastic account of what went horribly wrong when UA basically gave Michael Cimino the keys to the asylum and asked him to lock up when he was done.

    The Devil's Candy, by Julie Salamon - how a talented director like Brian de Palma ended up in filmic hell when he set out to adapt Bonfire of the Vanities. Julie does NOT like Bruce Willis.

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  3. Two more:

    The Making of the Wizard of Oz: Movie Magic and Studio Power in the Prime of MGM, by Aljean Marmetz. Recommended by JB, this is a really interesting look at the making of the movie and the background of how the Hollywood studio system worked back in the day. Especially interesting for some background on some of the actors, especially (for me) Margaret Hamilton. Out of print but should be easy enough to find at the library.

    And, waaaaaaaay at the other end of the spectrum, Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astro Zombies: A Film Critic's Year-Long Quest to Find the Worst Movie Ever Made. Michael Adams is an Australian film critic who delights in the Z-level of film as much as anyone I've ever read. This book could have been simply a delight in bowels of badness, but it's deeper than that at times, looking at how such things get made and filmmakers intents. Of course, it also has some damn funny bits, like discussing the killer doll movie Black Devil Doll from Hell, a movie that sounds like a bad fever dream. There's also an interestingly nuanced discussion of Weng Weng, the Filipino little person who had a action movie career. Really, really recommend book.

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    1. Ditto on The Making of the Wizard of Oz. I haven't gotten into reading too many of the film books that are mentioned in this article, many of which I also heard about on the podcast. However, this one I did check out, and it's excellent and highly interesting. It's a great examination of a great movie made during a great point in film history.

      I'll have to look into all the others, though. I'm glad you guys made a compilation of all of these suggestions, though, so I don't have to sift through the podcasts to find some of them now!

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    2. I was going to include The Making of the Wizard of Oz (for which I have JB to thank), but needed to make the cutoff somewhere and decided to stick with a theme. We'll do another of these lists someday, because this one barely scratches the surface of what's out there.

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  4. This is definitely a list I've been waiting for - thanks for all of the great recommendations. I will seek them out. I've only read Danse Macabre and it really was great.

    I would also mildly recommend The Jaws Log that I just read a few weeks ago. It's perhaps too easy of a read if that's possible, but it does provide some interesting insight into both the writing and filming of Jaws and some tidbits on the industry in general.

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  5. I'm surprised there's no mention of Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark, by Tim Lucas.

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  6. By the way, my Chicago friends, off-topic but I listened to a "Doug Loves Movies" podcast of a Chicago show and at the end of the games when he reads the losing contestants' shitheads (sorry for anyone that doesn't know what I'm talking about but check out that podcast if you don't), he said, "Anyone that likes The Boondock Saints is a shithead." Were any of you or your friends there or something? Either way I am giving F This Movie credit for bringing that fact to the public's attention.

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    1. I heard that, too! We were not there. But I'll take the credit for it.

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  7. Great topic. Here are my two contributions:

    The American Cinema: Directors and Directions - 1929-1968 (Andrew Sarris) One of the best writers/critics of cinema (whose passing made it into the 'In Memoriam' section of the Academy Awards this year over the likes of Larry Hagman and Andy Griffith) tackles the works of most directors, big and small, from the sound era to just before the 70's began. Other books cover plenty the new class of filmmamers we got from the 70's and beyond, but Sarris' defense of the 'auteur theory' and opinions on the filmmakers that laid the foundation for contemporary directors is must-read stuff.

    A Year at the Movies: One Man's Filmgoing Odyssey (Kevin Murphy) An inspiration (along with Tim Lucas' Pause.Rewing.Obsess 2012 blog) of my new year's resolution to watch a new-to-me movie everyday in 2013, Murphy looks at how the external environment one views movies at (size of screen, crowds, surroundings, etc.) affected the experience of movie-watching for an entire year in 2001. The section on Sep. 11th of that year is sobering, and being an "MST3K" alumni gives Murphy's observations both wry humor and enough love of the appeal of commercial movies for the book to be just another 'Hollywood sucks' narrative.

    My new-to-me movies:

    2/26/13:
    Mike Hammer's quest for the great 'what's it' gets him in trouble, again, in Robert Aldrich's (and A.I. Bezzerides') KISS ME DEADLY (1955) on Blu-ray.

    2/27/13:
    Because multiple-personality serial killers are just so, like, whatevah, Wes Craven's MY SOUL TO TAKE (2010) on USA Network

    http://www.dvdverdict.com/juryroom/viewtopic.php?f=50&t=6028&p=74626#p74626

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  8. Thanks for doing this Patrick, and the rest of the F This Movie! crew.

    There’s a great mix of books I would’ve picked myself, some I’ve been meaning to read and some really cool sounding stuff I’ve never heard of before.

    I recently finished Conversations with Clint: Paul Nelson's Lost Interviews with Clint Eastwood, 1979-1983. I’m a huge fan of Clint Eastwood and have never really found any other interviews where he seems so relaxed and open with the interviewer. He talks with such enthusiasm and honesty about his career as a film star and also his switch into directing. It’s full of great stories and a pretty quick read; one I’d highly recommend.

    Seagalogy by Vern. Vern is the only person other than Patrick who writes about straight to DVD action fare without the usual sarcasm and snarkiness. His passion for those films is infectious, and it’s a book I could read from cover to cover countless times without ever getting bored.

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    1. Our pleasure, Stuart! Thanks for the suggestion. It was a great idea. And all the comments have given me even more books to seek out.

      Seagology is great. I need to get the new "updated" version, which is pretty caught up on Seagal's catalogue. Also good is Yippee Ki-Yay, Moviegoer, a book that just collects a bunch of reviews by Vern. Super entertaining and says some really smart stuff.

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  9. I very nearly went with Pictures at a Revolution, but I suspected Patrick might write about it. It's also mentioned briefly in the up-fronts of the HEAT podcast when we talk about Bonnie & Clyde:

    http://www.fthismovie.net/2012/04/f-this-movie-heat.html

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    1. Also, Patrick, I'm not letting go of the "up-fronts" terminology.

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  10. I believe JB mentioned it on a previous podcast but the British Film Institues series of short books on classic movies is very good. They are each written by a different critic or professor about one specific "classic" movie. They have one for every thing from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to the Big Lebowski, they are all amazing.

    Bambi vs. Godzilla by David Mamet is also a very interesting book about the in and outs of the studio system and the role of producers.

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  11. Great suggestion, Clint. I briefly mentioned this one in the Spanish Prisoner column. Check out Mamet's "Three Uses of the Knife." It will blow your mind.

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  12. My unasked-for suggestions:

    THE BATTLE FOR BRAZIL by Jack Mathews. An in-depth look at the making of Terry Gilliam's amazing film, and then all the craziness that went on regarding its final edit and release. It also has the complete screenplay.

    THE EVIL DEAD COMPANION by Bill Warren. About the making of Raimi's trilogy. What makes it a standout is that in the back of the book, Bruce Campbell contributes a scene-by-scene "commentary" on all three films.

    And, I guess, CINE HIGH...

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    1. The Battle for Brazil is great. Matthews also does the commentary on the Criterion edition of the movie, and he really knows his stuff.

      It's funny, because there are several Terry Gilliam movies that have their own "here's why the production was trouble" books -- The Brothers Grimm has one, and Losing the Light covers the troubled production of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. All are worth reading.

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  13. "Fiasco: A History of Hollywood's Iconic Flops" by James Robert Parish. A very detailed look at happens when a movie is doomed to fail. This is worth a read just for the behind the scenes info about "Last Action Hero" and "Cutthroat Island". Also, the appendix contains a list of every movie that a disappointment or a flop in the domestic box office from 1960-2004(when the book was written).

    "Profoundly Disturbing: The Shocking Movies that Changed History" and "Profoundly Erotic: Sexy Movies that Changed History" by Joe Bob Briggs(sadly, no relation). Great essays about "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre", "The Wild Bunch", "Deep Throat", "Reservior Dogs", "Shaft", and several well-known or obscure movies with Joe Bob's wit and keen movie knowledge. Highly recommended!

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    1. I like Fiasco, too. Some of those movies deserve their own books, but it's nice to have an overview.

      There's another book called The Gross that covers the summer of 1998, and while it's not exactly about flops, it does look at a lot of "what went wrong" and "why didn't this do as well as people though?" It's worth checking out.

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  14. Great call on "Pictures at a Revolution". That book is a modern classic. I also liked Shannon's reference to "Fiasco", a book I very much enjoyed.

    I would also recommend checking out the BFI Film Classics series, a collection of monographs on classic and contemporary film favorites. Naturally, the quality here varies depending on the book and the author, but generally the series is trustworthy. Some standouts: Antonia Quirke's unique take on JAWS, Amy Taubin's intense reading of TAXI DRIVER, David Rudkin's virtually shot-by-shot analysis of VAMPYR, Nick James's take on HEAT, and Ryan Gilbey (that name again) providing a beautifully rendered analysis of GROUNDHOG DAY.

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    1. Ah, the BFI reminds me that the Deep Focus books from Soft Skull Press are also worth taking a look at. Jonathan Letham's book on THEY LIVE is really, really good, as is John Ross Bowie's book on HEATHERS. (Also, the series has fabulous covers.)

      http://bnreview.barnesandnoble.com/t5/Reviews-Essays/Soft-Skull-s-Deep-Focus/ba-p/5009

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  15. Yes, yes, yes. The BFI monographs are the bestiest.

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    1. Jesus you guys, now you're going to have me on Amazon spending a fortune on BOOKS? I just checked it out and there are dozens of those BFI monographs I'm interested in. I'm going to start my own blog called "F This Wallet!"

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