Books for an air-conditioned summer
The season has arrived for Summer Book Guides. While most such articles envision readers lounging at the beach with quick-read thrillers or dishy comedies, though, I’d like to aim one at my people: Those whose response to rising temperatures is, quite sanely, to stay inside and think about movies.
One new release does some of my work for me, providing a handy tie-in between literature and a DVD column: Isabella Rossellini’s celebration of her father’s 100th birthday, In the Name of the Father, the Daughter and the Holy Spirits (Schirmer/Mosel) is not only a loving recollection of Roberto Rossellini’s home life; it is packaged with a DVD of a film the actress wrote for Guy Maddin to direct, My Dad is 100 Years Old.
Other recent director-centric books are less idiosyncratic. One of Rossellini’s countrymen gets an authoritative biography in Federico Fellini: His Life and Work (Faber and Faber), penned by playwright and noted Italian film critic Tullio Kezich. Faber has also released the timely Altman on Altman, the latest installment of a book series film buffs have come to love. Accidental Genius (Miramax) finds Marshall Fine explaining how John Cassavetes became the father of American indies, while legendary documentarian Frederic Wiseman — who’s so indie that he won’t release his films on video — offers print transcriptions of the most famous work in 5 Films (University of California Press). Transcripts are also the bulk of Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute (Knopf), which documents hugely entertaining master-class sessions with everyone from Frank Capra to Billy Wilder.
In The Schreiber Theory (Melville House), David Kipen takes issue with this director-as-God status quo, insisting that scholars and buffs turn their attention to screenwriters. While his point is important, Kipen is clueless if he really thinks he’s alone in this insight; moreover, the remedies he suggests are so utopian they’re DOA. Happily, the book’s first-half manifesto is followed by an informative mini-encyclopedia of screenwriters, parsing themes from oft-overlooked careers.
The value of Kipen’s book emerges when it’s compared to the new edition of Halliwell’s Who’s Who (Harper Collins). In a random selection of five of Kipen’s scribes, two weren’t listed in this book and two were represented only by the kind of filmography list you’d find through IMDB.com. But the fifth, Julius Epstein, represents a best-case Who’s Who entry: a filmography (including some uncredited work), a brief biographical outline, and enough great micro-anecdotes to convey a sense of who Epstein was.
The third recent encyclopedia-style film book is mostly for laughs. David Kamp and Lawrence Levi’s The Film Snob’s Dictionary (Broadway) does offer some pithy assessments of cult filmmakers and genres, and contains fun little lists like “Ten snob-approved sequels.” But it’s as flaky a bit of ethnography as the Preppy Handbook, imagining some nonexistent class of straw-man cinephiles who get haughty about both Peter Greenaway and Mexican wrestling pictures.
The book is pretty good, though, at listing the most cult-influential members of the critical establishment, all of whom (your Kaels, Farbers, and Sarrises) appear in the wonderful anthology American Movie Critics. Following last year’s James Agee collection, the Library of America offers a Greatest Hits of criticism from the Silent era (when Carl Sandburg reviewed The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) to the dynamic duo currently ruling the roost at The New York Times.
Location-specific film books can often be written off as glorified tourist pamphlets, but a coincidence of publishing might pull the attention of film buffs toward Frisco: Celluloid San Francisco (Chicago Review Press) is an unusually obsessive rundown of that beautiful city’s famous locations; the photos are sub-par, but Jim Van Buskirk and Will Shank will tell you every movie that ever filmed at, say, the Palace of Fine Arts or Ghirardelli Square. Similarly boosterish but with a Star Wars-sized production budget, Sheerly Avni’s Cinema by the Bay (George Lucas Books) paints SF as a paradisical alternative to Hollywood, chronicling both the major films shot there and the auteurs — Eastwood, Coppola, the Pixar crew — who have chosen it as their headquarters. An intro by Michael Sragow provides some enjoyable historical perspective, but the general mood is glossy self-congratulation.
Finally, if summer heat has left you incapable of reading much, there are plenty of pretty pictures in The Art of Italian Film Posters (Black Dog Publishing), a luscious anthology that starts with the silents but lingers longest in the heyday of Italian genre product, the ’60s and ’70s. Hercules and the Man With No Name get billing over Fellini and De Sica here, but the real stars are the hitherto unknown poster designers, who, in Schreiber Theory fashion, get their due in a short appendix of biographies.