Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Johnny California Looks at Books

 by JB

Time once again for our roundup of movie books that are actually worth the TIME AWAY FROM YOUR PHONE!

Cinema Speculation, Quentin Tarantino
This is the big one, the book I suspect every self-respecting cinephile is either going to want to read by Christmas or receive as a present under the tree. Expectations were high for this book, Mr. Tarantino’s first foray into non-fiction. He does not disappoint. Besides being a wonderful discussion of a very specific era (era) in Hollywood history, the author weaves wonderful stories of his growing up years and the theaters and circumstances in which he first saw these films. His in-depth discussions of Dirty Harry, Deliverance, The Getaway, The Outfit, Sisters, Daisy Miller, Taxi Driver, Rolling Thunder, Paradise Alley, Escape from Alcatraz, Hardcore, and The Funhouse make up the core of the book and are free-wheeling, stream-of-conscious rants not unlike some of the famous dialogue in his films.

PATRICK BROMLEY TAKE NOTE: QT calls Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre “one of the few perfect movies ever made.”

The thing I liked best about this new book is the hidden subtext on every page—an undercurrent of the personal. Tarantino discusses his influences and gives us a road map to the type of filmmaker he would eventually become; yet he never hits the reader over the head with the enormous shit-hammer of obvious historic irony. Highly recommended.

All About Me, Mel Brooks
Although first published a year ago, this week the book debuts in paperback and is now available, as they used to say in the movie biz, AT POPULAR PRICES!

I had trepidations last year when I originally read the hardcover. I was expecting a quickie, “transcribed from taped interviews” sorta-biography full of stories we have all heard before. This is not that book. It’s quite good, particularly in the chapters covering Brooks’ early years before Your Show of Shows. I love how Brooks quickly throws out any pretense of being objective, omniscient, or humble when discussing his remarkable career. The passage of time has not dimmed masterpieces like The Producers, The Twelve Chairs, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein—Brooks’s first four films and also his best—and All About Me takes us back in time for a fun production history from the man who made them. To hype the release of the paperback last week, Brooks gave an interview to The New York Times on Sunday, focusing on his influences. Judging by the comments, many Brooks fans were unaware of just how fantastically well-read he is.

TANGENT: From Brooks’s Oscar acceptance speech for The Producers’ Best Screenplay Academy Award: “I’ll just say what’s in my heart: bah-bump, bah-bump, bah-bump, bah-bump.”

Highly recommended.

Camera Man, Dana Stevens
This is the film book I was most looking forward to, especially after its publication got pushed forward a few months. I love the films of Buster Keaton with all my heart. I love Dana Stevens’s film reviews in Slate. This is a match made in silent movie heaven.

Stevens is awesomely erudite about what makes Buster and his films so special; she even connects Buster’s story with the history of the movies and the history of the whole twentieth century. You won’t find better discussions of Keaton’s silent masterworks anywhere. The real achievement? Stevens weaves this film criticism into a deeper tapestry about the nature of art and history. The chapters on Mabel Normand, Roscoe Arbuckle, and One Week are particular highlights, but the entire book is tremendously insightful.

I don’t often read books more than once because there are too many new books waiting.
I have now read Camera Man three times. Highly recommended.

Filmed in Brooklyn, Margo Donohue
I love this new book and not just because I have broken bread with its author. (She is a friend of this website—check out "Dorking Out" and “What a Creep,” the delightful podcasts she hosts with Sonia Mansfield.) In the book Donohue has done a marvelous job of encapsulating a lot of pertinent information into a very entertaining package.

This book is full of facts (I love things that are full of facts!) and yet never reverts to dry “academicism” and never wears out its welcome. Other things to love: 1) The book goes all the way back to the turn of the century with its discussion of the Vitagraph Studios. I hate books that pretend that film history encompasses only the last twenty years. 2) Donohue breaks Brooklyn into more manageable “chunks” to facilitate her tour: “Brownstone Brooklyn,” “The Brooklyn Bridge,” “Coney Island,” and “Gritty Brooklyn,” for example. 3) The appendix of famous Brooklynites is a lot of fun.

It’s the fun I’ll remember most we thinking back to this book. It’s incredibly well-researched and intelligent. Donohue’s love of the subject just jumps off the page. Highly recommended.

BFI Monograph: From Russia with Love, Llewella Chapman
BFI Monograph: Duck Soup, J. Hoberman
I am on record about what a fan I am of these little pocket gems. Eons ago, I wrote a whole love letter to them.

These two latest additions to the great BFI monograph list represent a rather twisted dichotomy: one of them is among the very best of these I’ve read, and the other just might be the worst.

Chapman’s take on From Russia with Love is engrossing, detailed, and intensely readable. She is of the opinion that FRWL is the single best Bond film, an opinion shared by many film critics. While I find myself forever loyal to “Camp Goldfinger,” I must admit that Chapman makes a fine case for the earlier film. Tangents on production personnel, star salaries, and hair and costumes make the book an even more irresistible deep dive. This new book represents everything we have come to expect from this long-running series. Highly recommended.

The Duck Soup book, on the other hand, has me scratching my head. It may exist only to prove that nothing’s perfect, not even the editorial board at the BFI.

I cannot understand how this got published. Devoid of significant insight (or anything really new), the book resembles nothing more than a rambling transcribed audio commentary, hastily made while the author watched the film late one night after a few cocktails. My first red flag came when I realized the only words to describe the book’s structure was “long plot summary.” Perhaps, because I love the film so much, my expectations were too high? I’m at a loss to understand this book. Highly disposable.

If you’re looking for two much better books about the Marx Brothers’ greatest film, look no further than Hail, Hail Euphoria: Presenting the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, the Greatest War Movie Ever Made, by Roy Blount, Jr.; or Classic Film Scripts: The Four Marx Brothers in Monkey Business and Duck Soup, published by Lorrimer.

Remember, gentle readers, right after Thanksgiving Break, I will be administering a written test... on all these books... to all of you. Study hard!


  1. HAZAAAAA!!! THANKS JB!!!! i love love books on movies (also music bio's, autobios, etc) and always am looking for suggestions. Currently in the middle of the first two books you reviewed and have Camera Man on deck! Thank you so much for the write up and great suggestions within. Hopefully this is a recurring topic. Speaking of which....

    FYI to the Reserved Seating gang as well as Patreon crew...if y'all are ever looking for a theme for an ep, "fav books on cinema" or just "great books on movies" are solid choices.

    Peace .n. Print Media

  2. Nine years ago we did JUST THAT: http://www.fthismovie.net/2013/02/our-favorite-books-about-movies.html#more

    1. HAZAAA!!! {cue my best Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown Voice...} "Mashke! We've got to send you back to the future!!!!"

      Thanks dude!!!!

    2. woot! read and loved the 2013 article. its that perfect balance of some books ive read (and loved) and tons of great suggestions.

      I just purchased a nicely used copy of "Comic Mind by Gerald Mast". Will letcha know when i get it and burn thru it! woot!

  3. I'm about 300 pages into Cinema Speculation and loving every word of it. QT has such a deep bank of knowledge on the cinema of this era and such well-formed opinion about it. You can tell that he's been thinking about these movies and these people for so long. I even enjoy how petty he gets about certain people and certain movies. In particular, his complete and total contempt for James Bacon.