What Are You Reading?
I think I need to do a reading post every few months. The last one generated a torrent of cool ideas and suggestions….
I’m thinking back to what I hated most about grad school: being broke, of course. When I began teaching full time, suddenly I could buy all the books and music I wanted, and years later, I still haven’t gotten over the child-like wonderment and incredulity (silly, I know) of being able to do that.
But there are two personal challenges to grapple with. First, I’m a crawlingly slow reader who likes to dawdle on the page, mark it up, and write cranky notes in the margins. Second, I don’t have ADD (I don’t think) but I’m always in the middle of a couple of dozen books at any time. For both these reasons, it’s not uncommon for me to sometimes take several months to finish a book!
So, snail-like, I’m currently making my way through the following:
Film. Peter Wollen’s Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (three editions, all a bit different); Richard Roud’s biography of Henri Langlois, A Passion for Films; Noël Burch’s Theory of Film Practice; Geoffrey O’Brien’s The Phantom Empire; Sam Rohdie’s Montage.
Non-film Nonfiction. Walter Pater’s The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry; Donis Dondis’ A Primer of Visual Literacy; Dave Hickey’s Air Guitar; Ted Gioia’s The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture; Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, edited by Christoph Cox & Daniel Warner.
Fiction. George Saunders’ Pastoralia; Mirrorshades, the cyberpunk anthology edited by Bruce Sterling; Mark Twain’s The Diaries of Adam and Eve; Thomas McGuane’s The Bushwhacked Piano; Borges’ Ficciones; Jaime Hernandez's Ghost of Hoppers.
And as the semester shudders to a finish in four weeks, I’ll be waiting to sink my teeth into two Serge Daney books: Postcards from the Cinema and Cinema in Transit.
So, if you feel like it: what are you reading, or have recently read, or are looking forward to reading? Perhaps we can give each other some good tips and ideas....
Here, for your pleasure, is some typically thought-provoking Peter Wollen. This is from his essay "The Semiology of the Cinema" in Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (1969):
"Von Sternberg was virulently opposed to any kind of Realism. He sought, as far as possible, to disown and destroy the existential bond between the natural world and the film image. But this did not mean that he turned to the symbolic. Instead he stressed the pictorial character of the cinema; he saw cinema in the light, not of the natural world or of verbal language, but of painting. 'The white canvas on to which the images are thrown is a two-dimensional flat surface. It is not startlingly new, the painter has used it for centuries.' The film director must create his own images, not by slavishly following nature, by bowing to 'the fetish of authenticity', but by imposing his own style, his own interpretation. 'The painter's power over his subject is unlimited, his control over the human form and face despotic.' But 'the director is at the mercy of the camera'; the dilemma of the film director is there, in the mechanical contraption he’s compelled to use. Unless he controls it, he abdicates. For 'verisimilitude, whatever its virtue, is in opposition to every approach to art'. Von Sternberg created a completely artificial realm, from which nature was rigorously excluded (the main thing wrong with The Saga Of Anatahan, he once said, is that it contains shots of the real sea, whereas everything else was false) but which depended, not on any common code, but on the individual imagination of the artist. It was the iconic aspect of the sign which Von Sternberg stressed, detached from the indexical in order to conjure up a world, comprehensible by virtue of resemblances to the natural world, yet other than it, a kind of dream world, a heterocosm.
The contrast to Rossellini is striking. Rossellini preferred to shoot on location; Von Sternberg always used a set. Rossellini avers that he never uses a shooting-script and never knows how a film will end when he begins it; Von Sternberg cut every sequence in his head before shooting it and never hesitated while editing. Rossellini’s films have a rough-and-ready, sketch-like look; Von Sternberg evidently paid meticulous attention to every detail. Rossellini uses amateur actors, without make-up; Von Sternberg took the star system to its ultimate limit with Marlene Dietrich and revelled in hieratic masks and costumes. Rossellini speaks of the director being patient, waiting humbly and following the actors until they reveal themselves: Von Sternberg, rather than wishing humbly to reveal the essence, seeks to exert autocratic control: he festoons the set with nets, veils, fronds, creepers, lattices, streamers, gauze, in order, as he himself puts it 'to conceal the actors', to mask their very existence."