Tag Archives: book review

A Pair Of Book Reviews

On Tuesday, May 9th, 2017 two stories broke on my facebook feed. One was from indiewire that detailed David Lynch’s “retirement” from making films (2006’s Inland Empire is to be his swan song). The second appeared courtesy of the Sydney Film Festival blog and explained why Martin Scorsese believes that the cinema is dead. If one is to take the statements of these two filmmakers at face value than the forecast for motion pictures seems to be pretty dire. However, it seems to me that both filmmakers are speaking with too much haste.

Desiree Gruber, David Lynch and Kyle Maclachlan in Paris

It is true that the mainstream of Western film production is relatively bankrupt. I myself have gone on and on about the irredeemable qualities of the current Hollywood franchises. Yet, this corner of the cinema, the one that dominates our media intake online and on television, represents only a fraction of what the cinema is today. One cannot gauge the current state of affairs in the cinema by using something like the Academy Awards or the Cannes Film Festival as a barometer. Films from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia all indicate innovation and progress in the tradition of such renowned filmmakers as Fritz Lang, Elaine May, Stanley Kwan, John Cassavetes, Ousmane Sembène, Nagisa Oshima, Alan Clarke, Béla Tarr, and Abbas Kiarostami just for starters. Not to mention the legions of underground filmmakers working in the U.S., Great Britain, France, Canada, etc. This, the underground, is where the majority of films are being made today (this leaves out, of course, the iconoclastic filmmakers still working within the mainstream that Lynch and Scorsese have given up on such as Jim Jarmusch, Andrea Arnold, Terence Davies, Atom Egoyan, Claire Denis, Charles Burnett, and Abel Ferrara; to name just a few).

As someone who works as an educator in the medium of film I can attest to a continued interest in the history of world cinema amongst my students. During this last semester I had a student who made weekly trips to his public library to rent Criterion Collection DVDs. I also had a student who, at age 16, had already made two documentaries and has decided she would like to focus on making some comedic short films. I was also fortunate enough to work with some acting students on two short film adaptations of works by Hal Hartley and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. So as far as I can see, the cinema is nowhere near dying off anytime soon.

In the interest of preserving the cinema I would like to recommend two books on the cinema. I often wish I could assign more readings to my students during the time I have with them, but the length, the specificity and some of the academic language of these books would render them inaccessible to my students in the context of the classes I teach. So I will relate some thoughts and reflections concerning these two publications to those who read this blog instead (which, to my delight, does include some former students).

Fassbinder and Thomsen

The first text I would like to address is Christian Braad Thomsen’s Fassbinder: The Life & Work Of A Provocative Genius. First published in 1991, Thomsen’s piece is unique in the realm of studies surrounding Fassbinder’s work in so far as Thomsen actually knew Rainer Werner Fassbinder quite well and can offer some qualified analysis of his films. The title speaks to Thomsen’s regards for Fassbinder and the text makes quite an argument in support of those regards.

Unlike the work of Wallace Steadman Watson, Thomsen succeeds in contextualizing Fassbinder’s work in the theatre within his filmography. Drawing on aesthetic and political similarities, Thomsen paints a clear portrait of Fassbinder’s artistic development in both mediums. Their mutual friendship also gives Thomsen some unique insights into the more psychological readings of films such as Fassbinder’s segment in the anthology film Germany In Autumn, In A Year With Thirteen Moons and other personal films. Thomsen also brings the importance of the novels Effi Briest and Berlin Alexanderplatz as narrative influences to clearer light, going so far as to identify character types outlined by these two novels that find their echoes as early in Fassbinder’s career as Love Is Colder Than Death.

The true highlight of Thomsen’s book is the close analysis of Fassbinder’s more avant-garde films and videos such as Bremen Coffee, Nora Helmer, The Journey To Niklashausen, Pioneers In Ingolstadt and Eight Hours Are Not A Day. These titles in particular are often overlooked in studies of Fassbinder.

Thomsen’s weakness as a writer, and this may be due to the fact that the text is translated from Danish, is in the prose style. There are a number of instances where the language is casual, lending the text an air of amateurism that I am sure is quite unintentional. This style maybe appropriate for the anecdotal elements of the book, but it reads poorly in the sections of concentrated and deliberate analysis of specific works. That said, while Thomsen’s book is a highly informative and accessible piece of literature on the subject of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, it is not as exhaustive in its presentation of information on Fassbinder as The Anarchy Of The Imagination, published by PAJ Books in 1992.

Ms. 45

The second publication I will address exists on the total opposite end of the spectrum of the literary discourse of the cinema. Nicole Brenez’s Abel Ferrara, published in 2007 as part of the University Of Illinois Press’ series on contemporary filmmakers, is an entirely scholarly piece of writing and represents the best of what film academia has to offer in the way of auteurist theory. The structure of Brenez’s book is to present a close analysis of Ferrara’s films in the first half, ending with a second half that is a transcription of a question-and-answer session following a screening of the film ‘R Xmas at the highly regarded Cinémathèque Française in 2003. By structuring her text in this manner Brenez allows her subject to support her own interpretations of his work in his own words, though in a less detailed and more casual conversational context.

Brenez’s book looks at all of Abel Ferrara’s films from Driller Killer to The Blackout in varying degrees of detail. The films that receive the most attention are Ms. 45, Bad Lieutenant, The Addiction, Bodysnatchers, The Funeral, New Rose Hotel, and The Blackout. Brenez’s exhaustive and highly specific analysis of these films is singular in film scholarship. The kind of thorough and detailed readings Brenez offers us of Ferrara’s films cannot be found elsewhere. Abel Ferrara is a filmmaker who is, for the most part, largely ignored within the discourse of film, often surfacing as a topic of interest in a limited capacity primarily in general overview studies of American Independent Filmmaking and its history.

Perhaps the most delightful portion of Brenez’s work on Ferrara is her analysis of the “time image” in relation to The Addiction. Brenez very successfully argues that the shared traumas of war and genocide in the 20th century are in fact what prompts the highly allegorical vampirism of The Addiction’s narrative. Not only that, but she successfully ties in the commentaries on society found within Bodysnatchers and King Of New York as being earlier iterations of the same social analysis found in The Addiction. Likewise, Brenez’s investigation into the modes of character duality in Ferrara’s Dangerous Game, Bad Lieutenant, Ms. 45, The Funeral and The Blackout is equally as impressive.

Brenez is wise in her analysis not to look to hard at Ferrara’s filmic influences. Often these kinds of studies on specific filmmakers become bogged down in the auteurist trap of tracing influences as a kind of aesthetic genealogy.  The weakness of Brenez’s book is that, for a few readers at least, the language is extremely academic and the prose highly refined and elaborate.

John Huston, Orson Welles, and Peter Bogdanovich
In conclusion I would like to return to the catalyst for this piece and discuss briefly my approach to writing this post. Originally I was going to open this piece with a quote from Orson Welles taken from This Is Orson Welles  concerning the nature of film in academia. But given the bleak forecastings of David Lynch and Martin Scorsese I think that the discourse that these two publications represent as well as the example of Orson Welles will dispel any anxieties surrounding the future of the cinema. Consider that these publications represent only a minute sampling of the literature on the subject of film. Then consider that Orson Welles spent the last decade of his life trying to complete a number of films that remain unfinished and yet he never lost hope nor did he ever give up. The cinema is alive and well, without a doubt.

-Robert Curry

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Conversations With Joan Crawford

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A Book Review

on the set of Coney Island (1917)

There is no shortage of biographies and memoirs of the men and women who have shaped the cinema.  Ray Carney’s work on John Cassavetes is exhaustive and all encompassing, Richard Brody’s Jean-Luc Godard: Everything Is Cinema is a perfect mixture of the director’s personal life and his professional development, and Patrick McGilligan’s George Cukor: A Double Life is as thorough as thorough can be.  But the book in question is not a traditional biography.  This book takes the facts of a real life and endows them with a humanity that is absent from the official record of this life through the fictional invention of it’s author, creating a memoir that is supposed, and in reality, a novel.  The book in question is Jerry Stahl’s I, Fatty.

I, Fatty, as its title suggests, tells the life story of Roscoe Arbuckle.  Arbuckle, better known now for the scandal that ended his career, was one of the earliest and most influential innovators of screen comedy.  In the world of film literature Arbuckle, perhaps because of the infamy of his scandal, has been relegated to a footnote or a breezy chapter in a book on Buster Keaton or some extensive survey of the silent cinema as a whole.  Those writers of non-fiction, the good film historians such as Walter Kerr and Rudi Blesh, treat Arbuckle and his accomplishments with the appropriate reverence and respect without being concerned with the man who truly was “Fatty” Arbuckle.

I, Fatty by Jerry StahlIt is in creating a portrait of a man that Jerry Stahl excels; even if the man in his book is as much a fabrication as it is historical fact.  It is enlightening in its suggestion of a human being behind the “Fatty” persona.  To have the reader grapple with not only the facts already available in the works of Kerr and Blesh but the very concept that there was an emotional creature behind this famous persona who lived and felt the tumultuous events that we know made up Arbuckle’s life.  This suggestion is the real “food for thought”, the true success of I, Fatty.

It only helps that Stahl’s voice for Arbuckle is flawlessly consistent, imbued with the slang and jargon popular in the 1910s and 1920s.  It helps further that Stahl is very simply able to conjure a sense of time and space in his novel, making tangible the dusty back lots of old Hollywood, the worn out and rotting theaters on the vaudeville circuit, as well as the cold dank Kansas shack where Arbuckle was born.  It is these two principle elements that tie I, Fatty to our understanding of reality, an understanding that, if absent, would render Stahl’s rendition of Arbuckle a tasteless caricature.

Thankfully, I, Fatty works.  Though it may not be the definitive biographical work on Roscoe Arbuckle, it is the closest to it this reader has ever stumbled upon.

-Robert Curry

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Emotion Pictures: A Short Review

Wim Wenders’ book Emotion Pictures (published in Germany in 1986) is an anthology of both his previously unpublished writings and his work for Filmkritik, written between 1968 and 1971.  Like Wenders’ films, his writings about the medium deal with his tried and true preoccupations with Americana, rock and roll, Nicholas Ray and Easy Rider.  What differentiates Wenders’ prose from that of his contemporaries Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Jean-Marie Straub is the form his writing takes.  That Wenders’ passion for the cinema is reflected beyond the words with which he writes and into the format in which he discusses film.

The stand out pieces of this kind are heavily rooted in the poetry of Allen Ginsberg and Kenneth Rexroth.  Wenders’ poem on the cinema, The American Dream, reflects admiration for the American cinema and a desire to bring the nationality that binds all American films to Wenders’ own native Germany.  Like so many German filmmakers of the sixties, in the wake of West Germany’s economic rebirth, Wenders’ covets the strength and endurance of American popular culture.  Unable to instantaneously manufacture their own Pop Culture, many German filmmakers simply adopted America’s as their own.  “The American Dream, what does it mean?” is the question Wenders poses.  Skeptically, he grapples with that which has inspired so much of his earliest cinema, and the fears of the culture clash German filmmakers like himself have wrought upon the German Cinemas.  Due to the time when he composed this poem, Wenders’ has yet to draw any conclusions, the cinema of West Germany simply hadn’t developed enough, and perhaps he never has.

In his analysis’s, Wenders out does even Godard at times, drawing all forms of expression into the realm of cinema with a relevancy that is hard to argue.  In his piece of Hopper’s Easy Rider, Wenders looks beyond the narrative and the image of film, fixing upon the soundtrack as a sort of omnipotent narrator, an on going commentary whose voice is that of an entire popular medium and by proxy an entire country.  This is the anomaly German Filmmakers coveted the most in American films, the density of the culture’s language in film.  Wenders picks apart each song from The Weight to Born To Be Wild.  In Wenders’ eyes, each is as essential as the characters that inhabit the film (including Phil Spector’s cameo).  His fascination with Dennis Hopper that began here would lay the building blocks for his own international breakthrough The American Friend in 1976.

Informal, obsessive and poetic are not terms commonly attributed to film criticism.  But they are the best words for describing what Wenders has done here.  His capacity to love the cinema has been matched only by his ability to articulate that passion.  Though Emotion Pictures may not offer the profound revelations or inventive arguments other authors offer in their writing, it does offer the wonderment and expressiveness of film itself and is therefore worth the read.

-Robert Curry

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Peter Biskind & His History Of Hollywood

Peter Biskind is an entertainment journalist, though not in the classic sense like J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) in the film Sweet Smell Of Success (1957).

Biskind offers his readers something human about the otherworldly celebrities whose lives he reports.  The fact that he has been able to remain so objective over the course of his long career is a marvel unto itself.

Biskind’s first book published in 1983, Seeing Is Believing follows the course of popular American filmmaking in the fifties.  Biskind singles out a dozen film titles that he then gives a brief production history of and some mild mannered criticism.  The book maintains a casual tone throughout, but what makes the read truly intriguing is how the book soon becomes a portrait of its author.  Biskind’s mild mannered criticism is just that, amateurish film analysis whose primary concern is the historical context of the film.  However, Biskind’s own nostalgia for most of the films is at conflict with the context he forces himself to place the titles in.  A worthwhile example of this would be his piece on Fred Zinnemann’s film From Here To Eternity.  Stylistically speaking, the most important aspect of Biskind’s first book is how well he draws illuminating parallels between the moviemakers and the movies they made.

This device is what makes his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998) his masterpiece.  Most readers go digging for stories about Robert Towne’s dog, Francis Coppola dropping his pants, Peter Bogdanovich’s sexual triumphs, William Friedkin sadistically torturing Ellen Burstyn, and of course everything having to do with BBS or Roman Polanski.  The book focuses on Hollywood from the rise of Warren Beatty’s producer power on the production of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde to the death of Hal Ashby.  It seems likely that the book sold so well based exclusively on the strength of its gossip, and the extreme living the books subjects were a part of.

But, as I implied above, to dismiss Easy Riders, Raging Bulls as an anthology of 1970s Hollywood gossip would negate the most compelling component of Biskind’s writing.  Let me make use of the most obvious example, Roman Polanski.  Biskind can find Polanski’s personal grief, obsessions and paranoia manifesting them not just on the screen, but also during production.  Thus, Biskind provides an accurate portrait of Polanski the film artist.  Amazingly, Biskind accomplishes what he did with Polanski with almost all of his subjects, and he is even able to tie all their stories together cohesively (one is may be tempted to say Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is to Hollywood what Robert Altman’s film Nashville was to Nashville).

What works better in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is that Biskind does not attempt the analysis of these films as he did in Seeing Is Believing.  It succeeds better as factual reporting, allowing contexts and connections to slowly and organically reveal themselves to the reader, who can then quite easily make applications to the films discussed in the book as an active audience member.  It cannot be stressed enough how important the history and lives of filmmakers are to understanding the films they have created.  Lets just say then, that Peter Biskind’s books are a good place to start.

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Spring 2012