Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Overlook Looks at Books!

by JB
This week, babies, we put away the moving picture show, and we pick up a goddamn book.

Though it's hard to believe they've been around this long, I have been enjoying BFI Film Classics books for more than two decades. They are the film literature equivalent of potato chips; I can never eat just one. For a time, these addictive little tomes were my "go-to choice" whenever a family member asked, "what do you want for your birthday?" (Well, second go-to choice. I'm still waiting for that pony, you selfish bastards.)

To date, BFI has published more than 150 of these handsome volumes; I believe my current collection numbers 53 (hint, hint). These concise, well-written and well-researched monographs are essential reading if you love film. I am devoting this week's column to recommending them.
During my last ten years of teaching Film Studies, I used these books for a student project. At the beginning of a new semester, I would ask students to choose a BFI book about a film that interested them. Students would view the films, read the monographs, and then prepare individual presentations on what they thought of a) their films and b) the theories presented in the books and whether or not they agreed with them. Students had the entire semester to accomplish these tasks and the resulting presentations were the final exam. One sad thing about not teaching that class anymore is that I no longer get to see how the BFI Film Classics books could turn kids on to films that they would never otherwise watch in a million years. I also miss seeing all the resulting presentations, which were often excellent.

NOTE: If any of my readers would like to do this assignment, simply choose a book, screen the film, read the book, and record yourself talking about both. Send the resulting video file to F This Movie! as an attachment. I will grade it! (Grades are non-transferable to any accredited academic program. But you and I will both know how you did, won't we?)

A random sampling of cool things I have learned from reading these fine books:

Back To The Future: The risible "Indy hides in a lead-lined fridge during a nuclear bomb test" scene from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a left over scene from Back to the Future. Director Robert Zemeckis never filmed it, and Producer Steven Spielberg remembered it from all those years ago. That's why Zemekis and co-writer Bob Gale are thanked in Indy 4's closing credits.

Jaws: Showing incredible attention to detail, author Antonia Quirke has some interesting things to say about evil mayor Murray Hamilton's attempts to quit smoking in the film. It's chilling; I don't want to spoil this one.

The Wizard Of Oz: Salman (The Satanic Verses) Rushdie loves The Wizard of Oz; he wrote the BFI monograph on it.

Groundhog Day: Author Ryan Gilbey points out that teachers can easily empathize with what Bill Murray goes through in the film—we too find ourselves, because of our class schedules, doing the same things over and over and over again.
I cannot think of another film series where I have never regretted reading a single entry. Even the least good of these small, fine books is head and shoulders above what usually passes for film criticism in our modern age. Because each book focuses on a single film, babies, you will find it easy to seek out only those volumes that discuss your particular favorites. The editors of the series have very high standards; many of the authors are lecturers on film and media at various British universities.

CAVEAT: Perhaps they are trying to appeal to some twisted collectors' mentality, but lately the fine folks at BFI have been republishing popular older titles with newly commissioned cover art. This can get confusing because I have not (yet) memorized nor purchased all the titles available, and when these repacked volumes are announced, I always assume it's a brand new text.
Here's a list of every BFI monograph published so far. For the sake of clarity I have conflated both the "Film Classics" series and the "Modern Classics" series into a single list. Most of these volumes are available from Amazon.com; the average cost per book (new) is about seventeen dollars. BFI is also slowly making select volumes available on the Kindle and Nook e-reader platforms at a slightly reduced price.

Titles with an asterisk (*) are particularly recommended.

Went the Day Well
Double Indemnity
Citizen Kane*
The Wizard of Oz*

L' Atalante
42nd Street*
Rocco e i Suoi Fratelli
The Seventh Seal
The Big Heat
Singing in the Rain

The Passion of Joan of Arc
It's a Gift
Boudu Saved from Drowning
Brief Encounter
In A Lonely Place

An Actor's Revenge
Queen Christina
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
Odd Man Out
Meet Me in St. Louis
Things To Come
Wild Strawberries
Gun Crazy*
Annie Hall
Easy Rider
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Don't Look Now
The Terminator

Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari*
The Big Sleep
Bride of Frankenstein*
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Les Enfants Du Paradis
Once Upon a Time in America
The " Three Colours" Trilogy
Blue Velvet
Blade Runner*
The Crying Game
The Exorcist (First Edition)*
The Right Stuff
The Thing*

La Nuit Americaine
The Palm Beach Story
Pepe Le Moko
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
The Birds*
L'Age D'or
High Noon
The Exorcist (Second Edition)
Independence Day
Last Tango in Paris

The Magnificent Ambersons
Fires Were Started
The Wings of the Doves
WR - Mysteries of the Organism

The Searchers*
A Matter of Life and Death
Bonnie and Clyde
Sansho Dayu
Taxi Driver
Cat People*
Dead Man
Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom

Belle De Jour
The Night of the Hunter
L'Annee Derniere a Marienbad -
Red River
Roma Citta Aperta
The Usual Suspects
Do the Right Thing*
Pulp Fiction
Thelma and Louise
The Blue Angel
I Know Where I'm Going
The Manchurian Candidate
To Be or Not To Be

Mother India
Ivan the Terrible
Seven Samurai
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge
City of Sadness
Eyes Wide Shut
The Silence of the Lambs*

Kind Hearts and Coronets
The Third Man*
Rio Bravo
The Rules of the Game
Pather Panchali
The Shawshank Redemption
Amores Perros
The Exorcist (Second Edition, Revised)
The Idiots
LA Confidential*

In the Realm of the Senses
Andrei Rublev
Groundhog Day*
The Matrix
The Thin Red Line
Withnail and I

Fear Eats the Soul
Bringing Up Baby
On The Waterfront
Ten (dir. by Abbas Kiarostami)

Modern Times
Los Olvidados
Distant Voices, Still Lives

Lawrence of Arabia
City Lights
Night Mail
The Big Lebowski*
The Apu Trilogy

Bicycle Thieves
Cleo de 5 a7
8 1/2
Night of the Living Dead*
Spirited Away*

The Godfather*
Star Wars
La Grande Illusion
Jia Zhangke's Hometown Trilogy
The Bigamist
2001: A Space Odyssey
Sweet Smell of Success*
Back to the Future*
Night and the City

Bringing Up Baby
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Grey Gardens
The Best Years of Our Lives
Meshes of the Afternoon
Far From Heaven
The Servant


Tales of Hoffman
The Innocents
Pan's Labyrinth
Written on the Wind

Dr. Strangelove*
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Quatermass and the Pit
War of the Worlds*
Silent Running*
Throne of Blood

And Coming Soon in 2015:
Toy Story
The Sound of Music
The Birth of A Nation
The Gold Rush
An American In Paris
Head On

So let's all get started reading, babies! If you have read any of these and have an additional favorite, please mention it in the comments below. Class dismissed.


  1. These look terrific, I suddenly want them all, and all at the same time. Thanks for turning me onto these JB! As if Criterion didn't suck up enough of my extra cash.

  2. Camille Paglia's take on The Birds is a particularly enjoyable read - her intense dislike for the young girl played by Veronica Cartwright is quite amusing.

    1. Yes, that volume is so well written, it conquered my intense dislike for Camille Paglia.

  3. This is an great book if you're interested in a deep look at David Cronenberg's work: http://www.amazon.ca/The-Artist-Monster-Cinema-Cronenberg/dp/0802038077

    As an added bonus, the author was my Film Studies professor a million years ago. :)

  4. These books look great. Sadly, my public library only has 3 of them and my empty wallet says I can't buy any. I'll have to start with the library copies and see if I need to put some on my Christmas list.

    1. Your public library should be able to do Interlibrary Loans; in which they find and bring in materials from other library systems. You should be able to get at least some of them free of charge (just make sure you bring them back on time). :)

    2. Thanks for the tip. I'll have to look into that.

    3. Maybe we should set up an F This Movie lending library...

    4. Amazing. Darn iternational shipping costs

    5. *International. Though maybe I can work something out where if you do ship something to me I will send you British chocolate.

  5. These BFI books really are great. I first learned about them when JB mentioned them in passing on one of the podcasts. Now I am hooked. Thanks JB!

  6. Ohhh, you got me going on these a couple years ago after mentioning them in an article or podcast - I have most of the ones in your 3rd and 4th pictures - they are great reads ("Jaws" is a fantastic moment by moment "close reading" of the film - having already read a great deal about Jaws I was surprised by the new insights I was able to gleam). I want em all!

    1. I can only sing the praises of Antonia Quirke. I see or hear her talk about movies often thanks to her association with the BBC (including the Film 2015/ whatever year) and she is one of my favourite people to read or listen to talking as she gets so passionate about what she is saying, as well as giving insights you might not have thought of before. So it is not surprising that even you Master Jaws Sol got that from her! I recommend trying to find her speak on The film program podcast on which she does a few episodes.

    2. Thanks Gabby but omygosh I just realized I totally spaced on that thing we were doing about Jaws - I'll try to find some time ASAP if you're still into it! Sorry - blame Dylan!

    3. No worries, a new baby is a very good reason but yes still very much up for that!

  7. These sound awesome. The Star Wars and Godfather volumes are definitely going on my birthday list :D

    1. The Star Wars one had many great insights. I think you will enjoy it.

  8. I am very lucky that I have a lot these available to me thanks to my uni library having so much of them. I have definitely been inspired to get another one out. I think the last one I read was Cat People, a real delight. I always get excited by visiting the store of the BFI Southbank as they have these as well as others, even just browsing them is fun for me.

    I really like the challenge of the presentation thing, a large part of me is saying challenge accepted. Maybe I can make it relevant to my dissertation in some way that would give me a good motive. What are the ones at the top of your wish list out of interest?

    1. Yes, Cat People was written by Kim Newman, who's fantastic-- he reviews DVD's for Video Watchdog. He's one of the talking heads in Fear in the Dark.

    2. He sometimes writes for Empire too, he is full of personality. I haven't looked at Video Watchdog actually, I will check it out thanks.

  9. A little tip folks - bookoutlet.com appears to have a number of copies of BFI's Star Wars and Back to the Future - you can get them both, shipped, for less than $20.

  10. Can I get audio versions of these books?

    1. Some of them are available for Kindle and Nook. I wonder if the publishers have enabled the "read aloud" option on these?

    2. The first eight BFI books to be released on the Kindle e-reader platform have the "text to speech" feature enabled.