Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Formative Film Writing

The new issue of Sight & Sound magazine contains a large feature in which film critics choose works of criticism that had an inspirational or formative impact on them. It's a captivating read, and I'd like to use it as a springboard to offer a brief response and also ask you for your examples and stories.

I have a somewhat unusual tale to recount here. The first piece of cinema writing that grabbed me by the lapels was a book I discovered in my engineering college library when I was seventeen: James Monaco's The New Wave: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette (1976). At the time--well before India threw its doors open to full-blown free enterprise via its 'economic liberalization' program in 1991--imports of goods were severely restricted.

The New Wave was the first film book I ever read cover to cover, and I thought about it often over the next few years. The only problem was: because of lack of availability, I hadn't seen a single film in the book! Over the course of several years, I built up elaborate fantasies of these films from Monaco's plot descriptions and analyses, not aided much by the sparse collection of B&W stills, all of which I nevertheless memorized right down to the last gesture, glance and sartorial detail.

Years later, after I moved to the States, I finally caught up with most of the films on videotape. But to this day a tension remains, never completely resolved, between the films as the edifices I constructed in my mind sight unseen and the way they really, actually, turned out to be.

The book was formative for me in some very deep, fundamental ways. For example, Monaco wrote about New Wave filmmakers as having a certain unique shared attitude: they valorized the importance of ideas in cinema.

Having held apprenticeships as critics, all of them see film essentially as a phenomenon of intelligence. This is not to suggest that their films are devoid of feeling; on the contrary, they are often invested with profound emotional significance. But always we are led back to a basic structure of ideas. There is an underlying logic, no matter how passionately it is developed. Film is, for them, a fascinating way to discover the world and to develop an understanding of its politics, its psychology, its structure, its language.

Monaco's book is also driven by a view of cinema (and of art in general) as being essentially dialectical. This was a revelation to me at the time. He holds dear Godard's summarizing phrase "method and sentiment." (The word "sentiment" in French, Monaco points out, has a broader meaning: it "encompasses the English senses of affection and feeling, but it also has connotations of perception, sense, consciousness, and sensibility".)

I remember the following simple passage burning itself into my head:

When one image is juxtaposed with another, one sound with another, an image with a sound, it is almost impossible not to think dialectically. It is not always the artist who works this way; sometimes it is only the observer.

Even today it seems to me a wise, succinct lesson on both filmmaking practice and viewing practice.

And now, I'm very eager to know: what were some of your early, formative encounters with cinema writing--reviews, essays, books, magazines, etc?

* * *

What strikes me as amazing about the current financial crisis is this: there's not a great deal of talk about the underlying causes of the crisis and how to uproot them. The proposed bailout plan will do zilch to address the reasons why we got into this mess. In the long view, it's an emergency band-aid, no more. Also striking: the plan is brazenly free of oversight and arrogantly skimpy on details (a three-pager demanding $700 billion).

The key elements of this horror story--subprime mortgages, the derivative financial instruments known as credit default swaps, the AAA credit ratings awarded to these instruments, the mostly young sales-force that aggressively sold these worthless 'assets'--exist thanks mainly to outrageous deregulation. But there's been little discussion so far of the kinds of structural changes the American economic model will desperately need moving forward. Paulson is right about exactly one thing: "Raw capitalism is dead." To dream for a second: What the presidential candidates should be doing is calling up some of the best economic minds in the country and having them suggest detailed, realistic plans for systematic, across-the-board de-deregulation. There are fundamental conceptual changes that our model of capitalism needs, and the 'good thing' about this crisis, its potential, is that it might perhaps lead to widespread public conversation--and education--about what these changes might or should look like. No?

* * *

Some links:

-- Naomi Klein at Democracy Now!: “Now Is the Time to Resist Wall Street’s Shock Doctrine.”

-- At Film of the Month Club, Chris Cagle kicks off discussion of Claire Denis' The Intruder with a fascinating post on the film's narrational strategies.

-- Inspired choice: The new issue of Reverse Shot focuses on Hou Hsiao-hsien.

-- My favorite Vinyl is Heavy invention: a conjunction of quotations, the latest edition.

-- How I wish I knew Spanish: Adrian Martin has a lengthy essay in the language on Hitchcock's Notorious at Miradas de Cine.

-- Rob Davis at Daily Plastic has a valuable post that compares and contrasts "Apple TV and Netflix Player: Internet Video for Your TV".

-- Richard Prouty at One-Way Street has two posts on critic James Wood's book, How Fiction Works.

-- JD Copp at My Gleanings: Jean-Pierre Gorin on being present at Manny Farber's side when he died.

-- Andrew Osmond in The Guardian on Tezuka's X-rated manga.

-- Barbara Ehrenreich's op-ed in the NYT on the 'optimism' that fueled our current crisis: "Americans did not start out as deluded optimists. The original ethos, at least of white Protestant settlers and their descendants, was a grim Calvinism that offered wealth only through hard work and savings, and even then made no promises at all. You might work hard and still fail; you certainly wouldn’t get anywhere by adjusting your attitude or dreamily “visualizing” success. Calvinists thought “negatively,” as we would say today, carrying a weight of guilt and foreboding that sometimes broke their spirits. It was in response to this harsh attitude that positive thinking arose — among mystics, lay healers and transcendentalists — in the 19th century, with its crowd-pleasing message that God, or the universe, is really on your side, that you can actually have whatever you want, if the wanting is focused enough."


Blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...


For me, it wasn't film writing but films themselves. I watched movies that had a critical relationship with cinema before I started reading film criticism other than the reviews I'd skim in the paper. I discovered the critic by watching the movie.

The first critics I paid attention to were filmmakers, so criticism has always seemed connected to the practice of filmmaking for me--an outgrowth, rather than a way of quantifying something else.

September 25, 2008 12:14 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I was at a bookstore in downtown Denver that also had a lot of imported magazines. This was sometime in 1968 I think. I "discovered" Films and Filming, Raymond Durgnat, and writing about film specifically for an audience that cared deeply about film and film history.

September 25, 2008 12:20 AM  
Anonymous ratzkywatzky said...

When I was about 12 years old, another kid loaned me Robin Wood's book on Hitchcock (why this kid had it, I don't know--he wasn't even a big reader, but he knew I was, and knew I liked movies). I found it infuriating. All he saw in those movies was sex! He clearly was a disturbed individual! Yet I read it cover-to-cover, and got a good beginner course in psychoanalytic interpretation of film before I ever knew who Freud was.
And it completely changed the way I viewed The Birds the next time it popped up on TV.
Robin Wood and puberty--they go together very well.
(I still love reading him.)

September 25, 2008 12:27 AM  
Blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...


I think every generation "discovers" Raymond Durgnat.

September 25, 2008 12:33 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

Not so much film criticism, perhaps, but it was Anais Nin's entry on the premiere of Gates of Hell in Paris that made me aware that seeing certain films were indicators of genuine life experience, and worthy of inclusion in a diary of life experiences. That's why for me--despite the many ways I have learned to approach a film--it is still its import as a social and biographical event that most concerns me.

September 25, 2008 1:16 AM  
Blogger Ryland Walker Knight said...

I'd always been a reader, and even dabbled in writing, but I was a devout fiction lover with little interest to read what I then thought of as "facts" or arguments not based in interpretation. I didn't know a lot of stuff. I think growing beyond fiction happened in my year in New York, specifically when I learned who James Agee was, and what he'd written. However, in my return to school, my reading capabilities and appetites grew rather exponentially. So it's really hard to remember, exactly, when the switch in devotion, from the word to the cinema, happened outside of being completely, utterly dissatisfied with the general public reception of _The New World_ -- even in NYC, or the NYC I knew (so little of). I owe any interest in whatever I write to Matt and Keith for giving me a pretty big platform to start working things out in public. Things have snowballed from there in a really cool way and I could list a bunch of stuff from the past year that's been major in pushing me down different trajectories of thought. Narcissistic as I am, I think my blog and my writings elsewhere are pretty transparent: my reading at the time of the writings I've "published" shines through most pieces to me. Which is why I dig your blog so much, Girish. You specifically blog about how you are thinking at that moment in your relationship with film (and other things). That movement around and from within the first person is a tough thing to do and few do it well. It's the curious and generous writers and thinkers who keep me coming back for more even when they routinely engage the first person; I have no time for clever posturing. So, in a way, this is a way to say thanks!

And thanks for the link. That second edition definitely exists because of your encouragement.

That Monaco book sounds thoughtful, btw, and your choice quotations are astute and exciting as ever. I guess this interest in ideas is why I, like so many, really started to learn about cinema when I learned about the New Wave, and, yes, Godard in particular. (Although, I must admit, Rivette is pretty fucking dope and has dominated my film vocabulary ever since I took in _Out 1_.) Did I tell you I bought _The Material Ghost_ and have been plodding through? There's a lot there. Thanks for that tip, too.

Tell me something in turn, if it's possible in this space: which of that quintet speaks to you the most? Why? I'll take a pithy one-liner...

September 25, 2008 2:36 AM  
Blogger Ryland Walker Knight said...

Oh, and, call me a late bloomer: I have yet to "discover" Durgnat.

September 25, 2008 2:39 AM  
Blogger Catherine Grant said...

'Twas my smalltown library copy of VF Perkins Film as Film: incomparably concise; still unbettered.

Thanks, too, for the Miradas de Cine, Adrian Martin tip. I can't wait for the full launch of Martin's own site (, said to be happening in late 2008, so we can read much more of his work online, including, hopefully, the wonderful 'Mise en scene is dead, or The Expressive, The Excessive, The Technical and The Stylish', which used to be accessible via Continuum (
The Australian Journal of Media & Culture vol. 5 no 2 (1990)

September 25, 2008 5:58 AM  
Anonymous Yann said...

I grew up in Germany and between the age of 10 to 16 was hooked by these books:

My earliest encounter with film books must have been the Goldmann/Citadel series. I don't remember much about the quality of the writing, though I think it was pretty good, but they had an enormous amount of stills and very detailed lists of cast and crew. I had the volumes on:

John Wayne
James Bond
Laurel & Hardy
Edgar Wallace

and I loved them all dearly. Somebody actually gave me "Ronald Reagan und seine Filme" as a present, which they issued when he got elected, lol.

Next in line was the "rororo Film-Lexikon" in six volumes, which was the German edition of the "Oxford Companion to Film" by Liz-Anne Borden, edited for the German market by Wolfram Tichy, who seems to have resurfaced as an executive producer. Though it was an encyclopaedia, I read it cover to cover several times.

At the around the same time, I borrowed Truffaut/Hitchcock from my brother and was utterly mesmerized by it.

A bit later I read James Monaco's "How to read a Film" ("Film Verstehen") and Michel Ciment's book on Kubrick.

September 25, 2008 8:44 AM  
Blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...


Thanks for pointing to the Martin essay, by the way. I'm resisting the temptation of Babelfishing to try and discern the gist and instead working my way through with a dictionary.

September 25, 2008 5:21 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Ignatiy, Peter, Ratzky, Maya, Ry, Catherine, Yann--Merci!

It's fascinating to hear all these personal accounts.

Ry, I'm pondering your always-thoughtful questions...

Ignatiy, you're spurring me to follow your lead with Adrian's essay.

September 25, 2008 8:54 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Thanks, Girish, for starting a great thread, Thanks, too, to Catherine and Ignatiy for your kind comments about my work. The NOTORIOUS piece in MIRADAS is part of a chapter of my 2006 PhD, and an earlier version of it (from 1993) appears in a print issue of Ken Mogg's THE MACGUFFIN - and if you can find that, you really are a bibliophile of the highest order!

To respond to Girish's initial idea: early film reading for me is tied to particular magazines found in public libraries and bought in local newspaper shops, rather thn books (FILM AS FILM, FILMS AND FEELINGS, and indeed Monaco's THE NEW WAVE), which came a little later. In a 1974 SIGHT AND SOUND I was bowled over by Jonathan Rosenbaum's LANCELOT DU LAC piece (later reprinted in MOVIES AS POLITICS, I think), which gave me an instant sense of cinematic 'materiality'. In a 1975 FILM COMMENT, I was amazed (and still am) by a huge Durgnat piece on "Populism and Social Realism" - virtually uncited by anyone to this day - which evoked for me what the 'interconnectivity' of film genre is all about. And in a 1976 FILM COMMENT (so now I am 16 at this time), there is the dazzling lists of "Favourite Films/Texts/Things", which provided me with endless pointers as to what to see - and, perhaps even more importantly, read. The editorial grouping there was extremely 'catholic' in the open-minded sense: people from SCREEN, MOVIE, Rosenbaum again, a very rich expanse. I am still trying to catch up with some of the more obscure items mentioned in those very influential (on me) pages !

September 25, 2008 9:17 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Adrian, as always you're giving me great ideas for my next biblio-hunt.

Also, very much a propos here: I'm not sure I've ever told you this but one of your pieces that has most occupied my mind in the last year or so is the one at Undercurrent about the teenage summer of your cinephilia. An excerpt:

"At the age of 15 or 16, I started reading my first film books. I was already nurturing my cinephilia, but I was not yet full of a certain film-literary taste — I wasn't (yet) taking an imaginary side in the wars between »Cahiers« and »Positif« or (in England) »Movie« and »Screen«, I had not yet settled on an allegiance to Manny Farber over Pauline Kael. I was reading seriously — hungry for knowledge — but also haphazardly. I wasn’t very far from the childlike phase of scouring handsome coffee table books for intriguing titles (and colour photos) of films — just as Scorsese describes that kind of kid-in-a-library experience in »A Personal History of American Cinema« — but I wanted something more substantial, some first thoughts about cinema, beyond the bewilderingly profuse lists of masterpieces and greats. (It must be more bewildering for 16 year old cinephiles today, the entire film world has gone list-crazy!)

"In that youthful summer of my cinephilia, two books, selected at random in this trembling phase of initiation, wielded a life-long impact: »Film as Film« by V.F. (Victor) Perkins, and »Theory of Film Practice« (French title: Praxis du cinéma) by Noël Burch. They make an unlikely couple; it would be hard to think of two books more different in their tone and approach, not to mention the sorts of films valorised in each (Preminger—Hitchcock—Ray for Perkins, Bresson—Hanoun—Lang for Burch)."

September 25, 2008 9:29 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Democracy Now! is among the few American media outlets I listen to with regularity these days--glad you posted a link, Girish.

As a teenager, I was more partial to Monaco's "How to Read a Film" (my pre-Bordwell aesthetics text); also Sarris' "Interviews with Film Directors" and Geoff Andrews' "The Film Handbook" revealed and promised so many future riches of world cinema, plus the aforementioned Hitchcock (and Hawks) books by Robin Wood (and the Hitchcock/Truffaut book). And of course, I read all sorts of popular and genre movie magazines as a kid.

September 26, 2008 1:15 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Doug, that is spooky synchronicity - presumably in another place and maybe another era for you? - because both Monaco's HOW TO READ A FILM and Sarris' INTERVIEWS WITH FILM DIRECTORS (far more than his AMERICAN CINEMA) were important/eye-opening books for me as a teen in the mid 70s. I still frequently quote some of the rare stuff from the latter - but the former I haven't look at in 3 decades! I wonder how it holds up today?

BTW, all loyal Girishians (Shambuans?) must immediately write in to DK Holm's Vancouver blog (see link in GREEN CINE DAILY at the moment) to protest what is unfairly said about our Team Leader there!

September 26, 2008 1:23 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

That's great, Adrian--my own teen era would have been the American Midwest in the '80s, which is definitely removed from your own! But those two books were pivotal. A lot of standard reference books back then have been rendered moot with the Internet--I started losing pages of my copy of Ephraim Katz's [i]Film Encyclopedia[/i] before I went to college, and had to start wrapping rubber bands around it; but I haven't looked at it in years.

On the other hand, one of my best used bookstore finds in recent years is the two-volume "Cinema: A Critical Dictionary" (1980) edited by Richard Roud, still a fascinating read.

Sarris' book contains some rarer, longer English interviews with filmmakers like Dreyer and Rossellini, so I've continued to dip into it on occasion. A friend has been systematically going through it (and each filmmaker's oeuvre) as a crash course on world cinema, and I think he's finding it very valuable.

September 26, 2008 3:40 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Adrian and Doug!

I received a kind note from DK Holm saying sorry. He has graciously removed said remarks.

I've had both How To Read A Film and Sarris' Interviews with Film Directors in my collection for years and have done little more than graze on them in cursory fashion. Up they go to the top of the queue!

September 26, 2008 3:41 PM  
Blogger aaron said...

Apart from reading about genre films -- namely horror and science fiction in the once-great "Cinefantastique" magazine (particularly its back issues) -- the first criticism that struck me down and made me take notice was the 'Movie' Reader, published in 1972, which I picked up at some long ago garage sale when I was fifteen-sixteen.

In it, the voices of Robin Wood, Ian Cameron, V.F. Perkins and, yes, Durgnat forced me to reconsider just how important the form can be.

That, and "Hitchcock/Truffaut", which I loved so much that I reported it missing from the library, paid whatever the paltry costs were, and kept it for myself (minus the section on PSYCHO, which had been scissored out long before I'd gotten my hands on this well-worn copy).

September 26, 2008 5:03 PM  
Blogger nitesh said...

I stumbled upon good films by chance, and much like Girish, I spend most of my formative years making films in my head, after what I initially read on Ozu (a review of Ebert) and Pan-Asian directors during my high-school days. Few years back, it was difficult to find such films in the market, but things are improving now.

It was in my final year at high-school, that in a flea market I found a copy of David Brodwell’s book on Film Art: An Introduction( in a place like Patna, Bihar India it was a shock), I read that book thoroughly but never quite understanding anything. I fondly remember trying to understand the basic of classic narrative during my final board exams. And also getting tons of print-outs; pretending to study Physics I was reading about Ozu’s 360 method of editing. Well, most reading initially went over my head. It’s only when in my first year in college that I had a chance to watch a foreign film- Fellini’s 81/2. Later, not having the money to read books on cinema nor that our college had any; I sneaked out Bazin’s volume of criticism (from an embassy library) that a seminal affect in the way I saw films and understood cinema. While most film magazine continue to stay out of my reach, because its expensive for a student, I religiously hike down to British Library each month without fail to read Sight& Sound, and, just, for the magic of holding Cahier Du Cinema every month- I keep visiting the French Library.

Being a cinephile in India there is a basic lack of availability of books or films in the market, but things are improving. And when I look back at my initial years of reading varieties of criticism it has helped me a lot and it continues to as I grow each day hoping to making films someday.

September 26, 2008 5:32 PM  
Blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

Thinking about Girish's comments regarding his imaginary films, I remembered something the painter Gustave Courbet wrote in an introduction to an exhibit of his work. Dismissing how his paintings had been described over the course of his career, he said something along the lines that if descriptions were accurate, there would be no reason for actions.

And then there is, of course, Godard's review of BITTER VICTORY, in which he describes the stills used to promote the film and explains how they are incapable of capturing what is truly beautiful about the film. This is what marks Nicholas Ray as a true filmmaker to him. Ray's power lies in the film, and it can't be replicated with a still image, a description of the plot, a quote from the script.

Very often it takes a long time for me to track down a film I've read about. There was a gap of several years, for example, between reading about Ray's WE CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN and actually seeing it (aside from the clips in Wim Wenders' LIGHTNING OVER WATER).

Inevitably, we build up fantasy scenarios directed by ourselves imitating the filmmaker (or what we know about the filmmaker). But if WE CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN had been as I'd imagined it, I would have been disappointed. We don't want descriptions to be accurate; we want to believe in action.

There have been several cases my imagined scenario was just like the real thing. In some ways I've never forgiven those films and filmmakers for it.


An additional aside: once, a friend showed me a video he'd made when he was a teenager. It was an imitation of Godard's HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA, very close, but not as dense. When he made it, he'd never seen the actual thing, but read everything he could about it, peered over stills.

Connected with the Courbet quote and Godard's own review, this distresses me a little. But it could it just be that HISTOIRE(S) is so powerful as an idea that it can be replicated without someone actually seeing it?

September 26, 2008 6:04 PM  
Anonymous Eli said...

I don't think anything distinct has really been formative in terms of shaping my ideas about cinema, other than snippets here and there from all over the place. When I began to watch "serious" cinema Videohound's World Cinema: The Adventurer's Guide was my guide. I found it lying around the house one day, and tried to follow all the recommended viewings. Soon after I discovered the criticism of Jonathan Rosenbaum, and it is still essential as to what films I look for, and how I look at films.

There was also the benefit of access to the internet, which really was an overwhelming amount of information and yes, it is list-crazy indeed. Another notable influence is the Cinematheque. During my first season, I decided on a whim to see a film from a director I had never heard of before the season was announced. That film was Rome: Open City and that viewing can be described as nothing less than a revelation.

Recently, I've read over Sculpting in Time and Film Art: An Introduction. There's so much that I want to read that I have almost no idea where to go next. This thread definitely provides ample suggestions!

September 26, 2008 10:25 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Summer of 1969. I was going to NYU in the Fall. I bought a copy of Interviews with Film Directors. One of the interviews was with someone named Sam Peckinpah whose career was on the skids following his firing from The Cincinatti Kid. A few weeks later, a new western opened at the Paramount Theater called The Wild Bunch . . .

September 27, 2008 12:13 AM  
Blogger johnofjack said...

Given the Democratic tendency to beat the chest a bit and then cave in, and the announcement early on in Bush's regime that the Repbulican plan was to bankrupt the government, I find it hard to believe that there will be any de-deregulation.

As a cynic, I've found these last eight years particularly dispiriting in all the ways they've exceeded my expectations.

September 27, 2008 1:17 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

I'm straining to think of any formative pieces of film criticism, but reading others' responses somehow reminds me of my teenage encounter with Dwight MacDonald's article “Masscult and Midcult” and how much it shifted my geographical sense of media and the arts at that moment. I should take a look at it again, now that it's been almost two decades.

September 27, 2008 9:30 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

Thanks for this thread, Girish: now for an exercise in unapologetic nostalgia.

I first devoured many “picture books” that I would later come to recognize were paltry as “criticism,” but which provided me with a great deal of essential information (always underrated as Jonathan Rosenbaum as pointed out), and long lists of names and titles to seek out for the near and far future: I checked out Richard Griffith and Arthur Mayer’s “The Moves” from the public library over and over, fascinated by stills from silent films I wondered how I could possibly ever see; later, relying on the repertory cinema only available on television, and 8mm prints from Blackhawk Films, I relied on the endless series of Citadel Press books called “The Films of …” Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, etc. Growing up in Miami, the local channel 10 (this is all pre-video, pre-cable, kids) ran, I slowly realized, Warner Bros. films each week night, linked by weekly themes: Cagney, Bogart, Busby Berkeley, prison films … and I found a basic history of the studio (need to dig up the author’s name) that made me realize I had been educated in the “house style” of a major Hollywood studio: I learned to easily recognize bit players, and repeated names in the credits: it would be years before I was aware of the style and players of different studios. Somehow I stumbled upon Donald Ritchie’s early books, especially “The Films of Akira Kurosawa” after seeing “Seven Samurai” as part of a PBS series of Japanese films, and I immediately realized it was unlike the other books with similar titles: it actually discussed major themes, techniques, and the social and historical context for the films – for years I read Ritchie’s descriptions of Kurosawa films I would only see decades later. A paperback of “The Making of Kubrick’s 2001” was also a revelation, the first insight I had into the work of the production process and how understanding it could help one understand a (notoriously cryptic) film. Other early revelations: a copy of “Film Comment” devoted to the Hollywood cartoon, where I learned the name Tex Avery, and began to thereafter recognize that even cartoons could bear the signatures of auteurs; the “Film Comment” issue on film noir was also life-changing; Robin Wood’s book on Hitchcock presented a major leap forward, and the burning desire to seek out “Vertigo,” which I first saw in a pirate print screened by Doc Films at the University of Chicago years later; between that screening and Wood, the discovery of Truffaut’s Hitchcock book was a demonstration of criticism as a creative activity (as would be “Godard on Godard” a bit later). Soon thereafter, Gerald Mast’s “A Short History of the Movies” paved the way for a future scholarly approach, solidified when I took a class from him – amazed to realize that one could perhaps meet the authors of the books one read! Oh, and Parker Tyler! Almost unreadable, but who knew that such films – experimental, underground, sexy – existed before he described them? The shocking but terribly exciting images in Amos Vogel’s “Film as a Subversive Art” were like finally falling off the deep end… Along with the specific titles I’ve cited, I’m remembering that even average bookstores seemed to once be filled with film books of this sort, whereas today the film sections of much larger bookstore chains are almost empty.

September 28, 2008 11:58 PM  
Anonymous Christian Keathley said...

Corey's recollections mirror my own: starting in late elementary school, I began buying extensively illustrated filmographies, often devoted to actors I'd never actually seen (eg, The Films of Ronald Colman). Also important for me were the series of books, edited by Richard J Anobile, that were roughly shot-by-shot breakdowns of a number of famous films (Psycho, Ninotchka, The Maltese Falcon, and others). Does anyone else remember these?

Especially important for me around this same time was The Great Movies, by William Bayer, which featured spectacularly beautiful stills (both color and B&W) on glossy pages. In a still from Red River, you could actually see the corduroy texture of John Wayne's vest. My cinephiliac fantasies kicked into high gear every time I opened it.

Richard L Bare's The Film Director taught me a lot of the basics about filmmaking: different lenses, the axis of action, etc. I still xerox pages from this book for my students. His diagrams are enormously helpful. Bare was the house director on the TV show Green Acres. [Insert joke here.]

Other than this, I read collections of reviews by Kael, Simon, Kauffmann, plus the Film 67/68 - Film 71/72 anthologies from the Nat'l Society of Film Critics. I subscribed to Film Comment and American Film.

Then in high school, I discovered Sarris.

September 29, 2008 10:21 AM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

Ah! Chris's comments remind me of texts I'd forgotten: indeed the Anobile volumes (Stagecoach!), and a notorious volume of interviews with Groucho Marx! (The Marx Bros. were an early obsession.) And Bayer's book also had a major impact -- he was ahead of the curve in elevating The Searchers to its current status, and before almost anyone he seems to have employed frame blow-ups as well as production stills. I also read Bare, but early on decided that criticism was more fun than how-to texts (though does anyone remember Lenny Lipton?). And there were autobiographies, which I read uncritically: Chaplin, and Capra, whose book I read twice on a dull family vacation.

September 29, 2008 10:46 AM  
Blogger Darren said...

When I was 14 or 15 I found a copy of Hitchcock/Truffaut at the public library and read it cover to cover. My parents introduced me to the Hitchcock films of the '40s and '50s when I was fairly young, so he was the first person I recognized as a "director." Reading through his interviews with Truffaut gave me a pretty solid understanding of what that word meant, and I still recommend the book to friends who are just beginning to explore film.

September 29, 2008 4:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I would like to know when our generation will be allowed to "discover" Durgnat. A collection of his criticism is out of print and impossible to find even on the internets.

I've also been waiting two months+ for Amazon to mail me my copy of Manny Farber's "Negative Space."

-Nick G.

September 30, 2008 10:03 AM  
Blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

Nick G,

I assume you're located in the US; correct me if I'm wrong. If you live in a large city, I'd recommend trying the public library (that's where I've gotten most of my Durgnat). Otherwise, I'd try the library of a college that's had a film / media studies program for at least a few decades. Newer film programs tend to have more equipment than anything else, but colleges that had film programs in the 1960s-1980s usually have a very good collection of out-of-print film criticism books.

September 30, 2008 1:20 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

A quick check on Amazon and other sites reveals that most of Durgnat's many books, while not in print, are available in pretty cheap used copies. And, as suggested, he shouldn't be too hard to come across in decent libraries. Frankly, I'd put in a bid for Andrew Britton as a critic worth perennially rediscovering as well. His classic essay "Blissing Out" from MOVIE 31/32 (1986) was on first encounter the most amazing take on contemporary (at that moment) film I had ever read. His other work has long deserved being brought together in a single volume.

September 30, 2008 4:17 PM  
Blogger girish said...

This is great reading. Thanks, everyone!

Ry, you asked: "Tell me something in turn, if it's possible in this space: which of that quintet speaks to you the most? Why? I'll take a pithy one-liner..."

Godard because of his utter inexhaustibility. But Truffaut was the first of the quintet I discovered. And Annette Insdorf's book on him (which is warm and generous) was the first devoted to a single filmmaker that I ever read. I need to go back and watch his films--I haven't revisited most of them since the first flush of my cinephilia ages ago. (A part of me is a little nervous to do so but reading about Arnaud Desplechin's enthusiasm for Truffaut is infectious.) I did see Two English Girls again a few years ago and can vouch for it--a terrific film.

I've been getting into Andrew Britton, and just picked up his Katharine Hepburn biography a few months ago.

September 30, 2008 11:08 PM  
Anonymous Kimberly said...

Wonderful topic for discussion Gitish! I've been trying to catch up with the blogs I enjoy reading after a rough summer but it's slow going since I'm currently back in college as well as working part-time. Please excuse my late reply but I thought I'd join in and share my own experience.

If picture books count I guess I should mention my grandmother's collection of film books that I used to spend hours with like "The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the World’s Great Movie Stars and Their Films from 1900 to Present Day" (1979) but they really didn't contain many words.

I was also introduced to a lot of film history thanks to local horror hosts like Bob Wilkins while I was growing up. Bob would play a film like The Revenge of Frankenstein for instance and during commercial breaks he'd discuss the production and share bits of movie trivia with his audience.

The first written film criticism that had an impact on me when I was a teenager was the writing of guys like Tim Lucas and Kim Newman in Fangoria. My local newspaper - The San Francisco Chronicle - was also something I read a lot. Mick LaSalle was one of the critics I remember best but I rarely agreed with anything he wrote. I did enjoy the syndicated reviews of Joe Bob Briggs though. In the early-mid '80s I was really only interested in horror films but it was nearly impossible to find intelligent writing about the genre at the time. Even though 75% of the writing in Fangoria was forgettable, I'd occasionally come across a great piece about a new David Cronenberg or John Carpenter film. I especially enjoyed the insightful articles about old Universal monster movies and Hammer films. During this period I wrote some movie reviews for my high-school newspaper but I always felt like an outsider since film criticism for the types of movies I was interested in writing about was such a boy's club at the time and at school I was known by nicknames like "Morticia" or "Elvira" because I dyed my hair black and liked horror movies. Gotta love the '80s!

After high-school life got rather complicated for awhile but I started watching all kinds of foreign films, re-watching classics I had grown up with and just generally enjoyed the VHS age. Around 1987 I saw my first Truffaut film - The 400 Blows - and it completely floored me. I saw a lot of myself and my own story in 12-year-old Antoine Doinel. I worked at a night-club as a janitor/DJ at the time and I saw the film with my boss who had recommended it to me. We watched the film at the club on a large video screen one afternoon (we often watched films while eating our lunch) and when it ended my boss mentioned to me that the character of Antoine Doinel was based on the director himself and that intrigued me.

A few days later I found myself at a local used bookshop and in the film section sat a worn copy of Truffaut's "The Films in My Life." I was drawn to the book right away since the title had been influenced by Henry Miller's "The Books in my Life" and at the time I was also falling in love with Miller's writing. The rest as they say, is history.

I rejected the idea of a film cannons so Truffaut spoke directly to me when he wrote, "I still find any hierarchy of kinds of movies ridiculous and despicable."

And when he claimed that, "I was always on the side of those that were hissed and against those who were hissing." I knew I'd found a soulmate in Truffaut.

His book will always be special to me and it represents a turning point in my life. After I read it I took my own love for cinema much more seriously and I ended up at my local community college studying film. I never graduated and now that I'm back in college and determined to get myself some kind of degree before I turn 50, I think I should revisit "The Films in My Life" because I haven't read the entire book from front cover to back since I first bought it. You've also reminded me that I really need to pick up a copy of "The Early Film Criticism of Francois Truffaut."

His enthusiasm for cinema is infectious.

October 02, 2008 5:26 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Kimberly, I really enjoyed reading your thoughts and your personal account here. They were very touching--thank you! I'm sorry to hear the summer was a bit rough. I hope the fall is turning out to be better, and I hope the college environment is proving to be a fun and stimulating one for you.

October 03, 2008 11:25 PM  

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