Thursday, November 20, 2008

Cinema Biographies

I have many cinephile friends--foremost among them The Siren--who have a great taste for cinema biographies. I've read far too few of them, and for no good reason.

André Bazin died 50 years ago last week. In remembrance, I re-read Dudley Andrew's superb, indispensable 1978 biography. Andrew also has an essay in the new Film Comment for the occasion (not online, alas).

Two of my favorite cine-biographies are memoirs: Jean Renoir's My Life and My Films and Luis Buñuel's My Last Sigh. I've returned to them several times over the years. There are many biographies--of Howard Hawks by Todd McCarthy, Fritz Lang by Patrick McGilligan, John Ford and Roberto Rossellini by Tag Gallagher--that I haven't read from start to finish. I'll dip into them after I've seen a movie by these directors, and read just the sections pertaining to the movie. Not a very systematic or exemplary way to approach this valuable genre of writing!

And so, I'm wondering: Any favorite cinema biographies--of filmmakers, performers, craftsmen, etc.--that you would like to recommend? I'd appreciate it.


* * *

Some links:

-- The several online exclusives in the new Film Comment issue include the transcript for the panel "Film Criticism in Crisis?".

-- Catherine Grant has been doing an awe-inspiring amount of work at her blog Film Studies For Free. See, for instance, this recent post on authors of note with links to their writings.

-- At Dan North's blog Spectacular Attractions, several new posts on subjects including Hitchcock's cameos, special effects and the virtual actor, Jacques Tati's Playtime, and "How to Watch Werckmeister Harmonies".

-- Matthew Flanagan on "Towards an Aesthetic of Slow in Contemporary Cinema" in 16:9.

-- Brian Sholis, of Artforum and Bookforum, has a new blog called The Search Was The Thing. It's subtitled "Thoughts on Art, Literature and History".

-- David Hudson rounds up the new issue of Sight & Sound.

-- Marc Raymond on Very Short Introductions, the pocket-sized series of academic books from Oxford University Press.

-- In the New York Times: "Google signs a deal to e-publish out-of-print books."

-- David Cairns' Shadowplay is among the most enjoyable places in the entire film-blogosphere. Right now, David gives us: Frank Borzage Week.

-- David Bordwell on Charles Barr's classic 1963 essay on widescreen and Barr's useful idea of "gradation of emphasis".

-- Recent posts at Jonathan Rosenbaum's place: on Pere Portabella, Gus Van Sant's Psycho and Jacques Tati's Parade.

-- J. Hoberman in Bookforum on two recent books devoted to Andrei Tarkovsky.

-- Chris Fujiwara on Jerry Lewis at Moving Image Source.

-- Glenn Kenny gives us a preview of the upcoming Murnau/Borzage box set.

-- New addition to the Serge Daney trove of translations at Steve Erickson's place: "John Ford For Ever".

-- At Film of the Month Club, there are posts on Ed Howard's pick, Su Friedrich's Sink or Swim (1990).

-- Michael Hirschorn on Peter Watkins in The Atlantic.

-- Jon Jost blogs about seeing the Leighton Pierce installation The Agency of Time.

pic: A portrait of Jean Renoir and his nurse Gabrielle Renard by his father.

51 Comments:

Blogger Robert said...

You've listed most of the good biographies, but I'd add Enzo Siciliano on Pasolini, Barbara Leaming's Welles biography and Richard Schickel on Clint Eastwood.

November 20, 2008 12:52 AM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Not I would imagine very factual and not even quite sane but a hell of a read is Klaus Kinski's All I Need Is Love.

November 20, 2008 1:18 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

I second the Kinski mention on all counts.

A couple of good memoirs of the silent era are by writer/director William C. de Mille (Hollywood Saga) and cameraman Karl Brown, as told to Kevin Brownlow (Adventures with D.W. Griffith).

I've just finished reading Lotte Eisner's biography of F.W. Murnau, which is a seminal piece of work, clearly very thorough in its scholarship, but somehow unsatisfying in several respects. Maybe it's just a nagging sense that SOMEbody should have published a Murnau bio in English since Eisner's.

November 20, 2008 2:10 AM  
Anonymous Matthew Flanagan said...

Many thanks for the link, Girish.

If I could add a couple of autobiographies, Jack Cardiff's Magic Hour and Sternberg's Fun in a Chinese Laundry are (of course) essential. Also, George Sanders' Memoirs of a Professional Cad and Tallulah Bankhead's Tallulah are hugely entertaining - the former really does live up to its magnificent title!

November 20, 2008 8:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although I'm not too fond of biographies, particularly if the subject has been long dead and they rely too much on often unreliable witnesses or other books, I must say that autobiographies are often name-dropping and superficial about filmmaking, even if sometimes they are written with wit and style and are engrossing narratives (first part of Michael Powell's, Andre de Toth). The only one I really like very much is, perhaps surprisingly, Cecil B. DeMille's.
Miguel Marías

November 20, 2008 8:36 AM  
Blogger Gareth said...

I've mostly read British memoirs. I liked both parts of Michael Powell's autobiography (I know most people, like Miguel, value the first much more), and I also enjoyed Dirk Bogarde's various autobiographical volumes, though he conceals as much as he reveals. Peter O'Toole's memoirs are also a great read, though they don't get to the cinema years; he's an exceptionally evocative writer.

More often, though, I adopt your approach of dipping into a volume after I've seen a particular film rather than being more systematic.

I've recently been trying to find a good biography of Michel Simon, whose life seems to cry out for a chronicle.

November 20, 2008 9:00 AM  
Blogger Moviezzz said...

Sam Fuller's autobiography A THIRD FACE is a great read. I think a case could be made that it is his best work.

November 20, 2008 10:20 AM  
Anonymous Daniel said...

I've actually read very few cine-biographies, operating under the assumption that rare is the author who is as insightful about film (and a filmmaker's films) as he or she would be about the prose and research involved in writing a biography.

One of the few I have read is Patrick McGilligan's book on Fritz Lang which I found frankly rather absurd. While I certainly welcome an attitude questioning the enshrinement of an auteur's legend, it seemed like once Lang got to American McGilligan lost all respect for the guy's art. From what I recall, he dismisses or downplays the vast majority of Lang's American output for no better reason than he doesn't think they are very good films.

November 20, 2008 10:37 AM  
Blogger Marc Raymond said...

The Hawks biography is a good one. I haven't read the Fuller, but a cinephile friend is a big fan. The new Scorsese bio (by Vincent LoBrutto) isn't very good, unfortunately.

November 20, 2008 10:40 AM  
Blogger nitesh said...

Thanks for sharing the links Girish. I really enjoyed reading Truffaut: A biography by
by Antoine de Baecque, Serge Toubiana, Catherine Temerson and the recent Godard's biography by Richard Brody.

November 20, 2008 10:45 AM  
Anonymous Marilyn said...

Another Patrick McGilligan bio that might not be so controversial is George Cukor: A Double Life: A Biography of the Gentleman Director. I found it entertaining and illuminating. Also love Bunuel's autobiography.

November 20, 2008 11:27 AM  
Blogger David C said...

Thanks for linking, and for the kind words. I second Matthew's praise of the Sternberg, which gives a great insight into the filmmaker's peculiar mind, and thus to his films. In fact, I can't think of any book that is more helpful in formulating an understanding of any filmmaker's work. I just read Sternberg's intro to the published script of The Blue Angel, and it's more of the same skewed brilliance.
Roger Corman's How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime is lots of fun, and also quite instructive for the beginning filmmaker.
I also love Lethal Innocence: The Cinema of Alexander Mackendrick by Philip Kemp. If you've been wowed by Mackendrick's On Film Directing (and if you haven't, GO TO IT), this is your next stop.

November 20, 2008 1:40 PM  
Blogger rmprouty said...

If you're interested in reading more about Bazin and the formation of the New Wave, I'd recommend Richard Brody's Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard. I'm reading it now, and it's terrific.

November 20, 2008 1:54 PM  
Anonymous thepopview said...

I remember reading Edward Dmytryk's autobiography years ago and enjoying it, but mostly for its insight into the blacklist era. I should track down a copy. Sikov's biography of Billy Wilder was kind of depressing, since Wilder comes off so badly as a human being. This Is Orson Welles is not strictly speaking biography, but it's an endlessly fascinating read.

November 20, 2008 1:54 PM  
Blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

Directing films involves so much, so many cultural elements, that it's unsurprising that great directors tended to be good writers, or at least good conversationalistis.

I'm thinking of A Tree is a Tree, King Vidor's autobiography. It's interesting how much Vidor saw himself as working from a literary tradition (much the same way as Griffith saw himself as working from a theatrical -- dramatic -- one). And Vidor's career more or less tracked the development of cinema. His first "films" were actuality footage shot in Galveston. Then he traveled across the country, shooting stock footage for newsreels, got to Hollywood and made one-reel comedies, then longer comedies and dramas, then his complex late silents, his 1930s dramas, melodramas in the 1940s, grand spectacles in the late 1950s--and then he left Hollywood, or, rather, Hollywood left him. And there he is in the 1960s through 1980s, making self-funded essay films about his philosophical positions and artists whom he'd admired. Watching his last work, Metaphor, shot on 16mm in the '80s, it's strange to think that he'd more or less followed cinema everywhere it went during his lifetime. Of all the classic directors, he and Nicholas Ray where the ones that followed their interests to their most radical conclusions.

November 20, 2008 2:42 PM  
Anonymous Jonathan Rosenbaum said...

Chris Fujiwara's JACQUES TOURNEUR may be less of a biography than his recent book about Preminger, and more of a critical biography than anything else, but this is a volume I repeatedly return to with pleasure.

There's one very lamentable thing about Bunuel's MY LAST SIGH (which really should be called MY LAST GASP): the English translation is substantially cut from the French original. I'm not even exaggerating when I say that there are passages which have been cut on almost every page, although this trimming isn't acknowledged anywhere in the book. A serious crime!

November 20, 2008 5:39 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Another vote for Karl Brown's Adventures with D.W. Griffith. Also Akira Kurosawa's Something like an Autobiography. I also liked William Donati's biography on Ida Lupino which goes into her family history as well as her filmmaking.

November 21, 2008 1:31 AM  
Anonymous Kimberly said...

I love reading memoirs as well! I really should make time for Buñuel's My Last Sigh soon.

I agree with everyone who mentioned Kinski's autobiography. All I Need Is Love (re-released in English as Kinski Uncut) is one of my absolute favorite autobiographies. Everytime I'm asked what my "favorite books" are Kinski Uncut instantly comes to mind.

Another great autobiography is John Huston's An Open Book.

Kinski and Huston were both amazing individuals who lived fascinating lives so their autobiographies are both insightful and really entertaining to read.

I also love everything Jean Cocteau has written. Beauty and the Beast: Diary of a Film and The Art of Cinema are both wonderful reads.

November 21, 2008 2:24 AM  
Blogger Catherine Grant said...

Thanks a lot for the shout-out and the stimulating post, Girish. And Kimberly - great choice. As it happens, Ronald Duncan's 'Jean Cocteau: Diary of a Film' on La Belle et la Bête is one of a number of film e-books available for free online (http://www.archive.org/details/jeancocteaudiary000680mbp) at the Internet Archive. (Apologies, but my command of html is not yet up to posting a direct link!)

November 21, 2008 7:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just to point out, both of Gallagher's books are available online for free at the moment and can be downloaded from his site (this is especially important for the Ford book which was revised for 2007).

John Ford: The Man and His Films

I second Jonathan's recommendation of Fujiwara's JACQUES TOURNEUR and I am eager to finally read the forthcoming Jerry Lewis book.

The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini

November 21, 2008 8:27 AM  
Blogger Filipe Furtado said...

Let me second Jonathan recommedation of Fujiwara's amazing Tourneur book (his more recent Preminger bio is very worthy as well). One that nobody mentioned yet that is great is Bernard Eisenschitz's Nicholas Ray bio.

Tag Gallagher's Ford book is great but like Fujiwara's Tourneur is more a critical study than straight bio. Ford fans should probably always combine Mcbride's great bio with Gallagher's study. His Rossellini book is even better.

November 21, 2008 8:59 AM  
Blogger craig keller. said...

A must-read cinema biography is:

James Dean Is Not Dead by Morrissey.

The full-text of this long out-of-print volume is available here:

http://www.geocities.com/costelt/smithsmoz/Jamesdean/dean.htm

craig.

November 21, 2008 1:01 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

Most cinema biographies are horrible, that's why Girish hasn't read them.

"I've actually read very few cine-biographies, operating under the assumption that rare is the author who is as insightful about film (and a filmmaker's films) as he or she would be about the prose and research involved in writing a biography."

It's actually very considerably more difficult than that. The above would be shared with any artistic biographies (or even any biography at all - a biographer of a general probably doesn't know war very well, a biographer of a boxer doesn't box very well, etc.)

No, what makes cine-biographies additionally exceptionally difficult is that most (mainstream) movies were/are made by giant corporations. A biographer writing a cine-biography not only needs to know the archival material, have excellent film criticism skills, but ALSO be a corporate historian SIMULTANEOUSLY. A biographer of a painter does not need the last.

That is, to really understand the life of anyone within the mainstream US film industry, the biographer needs to be extremely adept at understanding an industry which is precisely geared at propagandizing it's own clientele. The US film industry in particular has always consistently generated a huge amount of misinformation about it's operations and has a long history of being extremely secretive. Not only would one need to be a film critic of great ability, you'd need to be able to do such things as read and truly understand how marketing research was understood and operated in the past (for just one example).

November 21, 2008 5:40 PM  
Blogger Ted Fendt said...

Has anyone else read Joseph McBride's FRANK CAPRA: THE CATASTROPHE OF SUCCESS? It is very thorough and really breaks down a lot of the myths Capra built around myself during his life.

November 21, 2008 7:22 PM  
Anonymous Christian Keathley said...

For a good sampling from various bios and auto-bios, check out "The Grove Book of Hollywood." It's arranged by decade and contains excerpts from a number of memoirs, some quite obscure. For example, Dore Schary's daughter (!) remembering their family's Sunday evening dinner with the stars when her dad was head of MGM.

Best autobio title: Jean Negulesco, "Things I Did and Things I Think I Did."

November 21, 2008 7:56 PM  
Blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

Craig,

Much thanks for the Morrissey link. A work that's always had a place in my imagination. Now I have the opportunity to learn whether the reality of it is disappointing or surprising.

November 21, 2008 9:13 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

I am interested to hear what people think, in general, of the 'critical biography' genre that is growing in the film field. I think it is highly 'problematic', as they say in the academy! In recent years we have had Chris Fujiwara's books on Tourneur and Preminger (his next one, on Jerry Lewis, seems to be relieved to dismiss all biography in the first paragraph!), Gallagher on Rossellini, and Brody's Godard shocker, as well as before it MacCabe's JLG bio. Also David Thomson's, I guess, although there the biography tends to be mainly (under-researched) fictional speculaton! Some of these books are terrific (and some are dreadful), but the form itself is a worry; the combination of criticism and biography is not only unwieldy, but also creates certain contradictions. My theory is this: since criticism is involved (at the very least) with interpretation and evaluation, the temptation/tendency is to extend the 'thesis' from the work to the life - to both interpret the life in line with the films, and (at worst) to then 'judge' it. These problems are front-and-centre in Brody, where there is an absolute 'fit' between what Brody makes of the life and what he makes of the films - and, furthermore, he makes the films primarily (sometimes) only about the life!

On the more general topic of film bio's and autobio's: being fascinated as I am with the joys and despairs of artistic collaboration, Wenders' MY TIME WITH ANTONIONI is a truly fascinating document. Actually, it is a painful story: in many ways, the account of a bad collaboration (on BEYOND THE CLOUDS) - bad for Wenders, at least. When we reach the final sentence - something like 'I do not regret my time with Antonioni' - we may well feel that he means the exact opposite! ... I also second the vote on Fuller's autobio, which is indeed great. But not better than his best films!

November 21, 2008 11:40 PM  
Anonymous Michael Pigott said...

Hi there, I second the great biography of Truffaut by de Baecque and Toubiana, and I'd also like to add Errol Flynn's autobiography 'My Wicked Wicked Ways', which I'm actually reading to the moment. Flynn is a wonderful storyteller, and like Kinski he had an incredible, unruly life. A lot of it is totally unbelievable and he certainly pulls no punches when it comes to stories that show him in a less than favourable light (both in terms of making him look like an immoral jerk and putting him in situations not exactly befitting the dashing Hollywood sex symbol he would come to be - I was particularly shaken by the image of Robin Hood/Peter Blood/Wade Hatton 'dagging the hogget' on an Australian sheep farm.)

Adrian, I share your curiosity and slight uneasiness about the 'critical biography' genre. It's something that I've noticed to be a staple in the world of quasi-academic jazz books for a few years now. I have critical biographies of Mingus, Coltrane and Bud Powell sitting on my shelf, and for someone who doesn't actually read music that makes large portions of the books redundant for me. That's beside the point - for someone who does read music they could be incredibly interesting and useful - but the significant thing is that they mix serious criticism of the art with the telling of the artist's life story. This seems to me more intuitively acceptable in the world of jazz because here the art and the author are wound together more tightly. I'm not sure it's as legitimate an enterprise in the world of film, but I'm open to being convinced otherwise.

On a sidenote, I'd love to read a critical autobiography?Is that possible?

November 22, 2008 9:16 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I also read McBride's biography of Capra. In comparing what McBride wrote against Capra's version of his story, I was reminded of Mary McCarthy's criticism of Lillian Hellman, paraphrasing here - that everything written was a lie including "a" and "the".

November 22, 2008 10:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Following up on what I take to be Adrian's dissenting view on Brody's Godard book, I'd like to add that this book left a very bad taste in my mouth. In a way, I'd still recommend it. Brody's a lively writer who is not incapable of insight and the book is filled with interesting facts about the making of Godard's films as well great quotes from Godard and others. But not only does Brody see all of Godard's films as about his personal life, effectively de-politicizing them, but the book is also filled with insinuations that have moral overtones. So we are supposed to still believe in Godard as an uncompromising genius, but we are also meant to see him as a misogynist and all around asshole who may even be a latent anti-semite and pedophile (I'm not kidding). Now that I'm writing this, I have to say that I do not recommend the book. Since a few people here have recommended the book, I was wondering whether anyone else had the same negative reaction to it that I did. It reminded me of why I so rarely read biographies. The form of the artist biography (critical or otherwise) seems to rest on the false premise that the life has anything really to do with the work. And so many biographies indulge in the deeply hypocritical combination of titillating gossip and moral judgment that is so prominent in our culture today.
-AS

November 22, 2008 1:10 PM  
Blogger Moviezzz said...

The problem I have with Brody's JLG book is the problem I have with a lot of biographies. It isn't complete.

I opened it up to the index and chose one of his films at random, ARIA, and he doesn't even mention it.

Granted it is just a short film he made, but still. If you are going to write about a filmmaker, and not cover all of their films, what else about their career are you going to leave out?

Because of that, the book is still in the middle of my Must Read pile, where it has remained since it was published.

As for other memoirs, I'm reading David Niven's now which are highly entertaining.

November 22, 2008 3:53 PM  
Blogger Filipe Furtado said...

Adrian, I believe all biographies runs this risk, but I understand the problem being pontentially worse in a book that puts its criticism side in front. I'd say Fujiwara's Preminger bio does a great job of keeping his account of Preminger's life and the films production from his critical observations about the actual films. On the other hand, Tag Gallagher's Rosselini (a great book) does gives one the feeling sometimes that Tag is trying hard to fit Rosselini inside some ideas he has.

November 22, 2008 5:50 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Michael, I am still trying to wrack my brains to come up with an example of a 'critical autobiography'! Maybe there are examples in other fields, like music? Autobiography, however insightful or revealing (intentionally or unintentionally), seems to preclude the 'distance' necessary for detailed self-criticism of one's own works. Perhaps Eisenstein came close, but then again even his self-analyses of his works are very different to the 'unfettered' free association of his IMMORAL MEMORIES (which would be another terrific film autobiography to mention). I am reminded of what POSITIF critic said about Joseph Losey's sometimes brutal honesty in the Ciment interview book: "He is lucid about his delusions, but he is also deluded about his lucidity" !!! Like all of us, perhaps!

November 22, 2008 7:28 PM  
Anonymous adrian said...

PS I meant to name that pithy POSITIF critic: Alain Masson.

November 22, 2008 7:29 PM  
Anonymous Girish Shambu said...

I've been learning a lot on this thread.

A couple of thoughts:

-- An interesting twist on the biography is Will Friedwald's book on Sinatra, which is terrific, and is characterized by the author as a musical biography. He skips most of Sinatra's personal life, concentrating--in great detail--on the making of the recordings: how the song choices came about, the building of the arrangements, selection of instrumentation, recording session accounts, etc. Fascinating stuff.

-- I wonder if anyone is familiar with the titles in the small-sized Reaktion Books - Critical Lives series of books. e.g. James Williams on Cocteau, Mike O'Mahony on Eisenstein, plus non-film bios like Benjamin, Bataille, Duchamp, Debord, Borges, etc. I haven't read any of them.

-- I know Spoto's Hitchcock biography is very controversial. Anybody out there who has read it and might like to share their opinion on it?

November 23, 2008 7:42 PM  
Blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

Regarding Adrian's comments on the critical biography:

I think that for many people, the ability to extend (or attempt to extend) a critical framework on something outside of cinema--say, an action--validates said framework. If we view movie-making as a series of gestures and choices (a very good description of directing), can't we apply the same ideas to gestures, choices and statements made outside of the film set? This, in some ways, is the critic's secret pride--the understanding that their ideas about a medium are in some ways applicable to the world that medium draws on; that by knowing movies, they are coming to know the world. Saying that you're interested in looking at movies critically means that you're also interested in looking at everything movies involve (in other words, everything) critically. If we can analyze what a heterosexual male director likes in the image of a woman, can we also analyze said director's relationships towards in the women in his life?

There is a danger, but it's the danger that applies to all critical work: the danger of strict adherence. If you find a system that seems to work most of the time, you can convince yourself that it works all the time, on everything. We have to invent a different system for every situation, or understand that it is only that--a system, an equation that creates one possible solution for a problem (a film, an action) with infinite solutions.

November 23, 2008 7:49 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

"My theory is this: since criticism is involved (at the very least) with interpretation and evaluation, the temptation/tendency is to extend the 'thesis' from the work to the life - to both interpret the life in line with the films, and (at worst) to then 'judge' it."

I would simplify it even further: there is simply not much reason for anyone to be very interested in an artist's daily life. Let's give a personal example from myself: when I was writing my first screenplay, a biographer could run around pretending that it had a lot to do with my love life or work life at the time. But it didn't. And my first screenplay could seemingly be viewed as autobiographical - but I could have gone in an infinite number of completely different directions simply being autobiographical (and of course, the screenplay wasn't simply autobiographical either). I.E., even though the central character of my screenplay was outwardly roughly similar to myself in some respects, that didn't necessarily determine my artistic choices. A biographer might say that the fact that my "hero" worked in a similar job to me is something critical for others to know - but I would deny that. I was much more responding to the literary work of Richard Yates and John Cheever, and the movies of Naruse, than making obvious autobiographical comments. It's actually much more important that there was a bit of a Yates revival around that time (and I had been looking for a writer like Yates for several years previously) and that there was a major touring Naruse retrospective at that time than I was dating girl X or P or that I was living in one neighborhood versus another, etc. You'd do a lot better to look at my library card record than my social life at the time.

The reality is that the artist's daily life and her artistic work aren't necessarily really closely connected, but that assumption is the basis upon which all biography is written.

Also problematic is that the biographer is usually writing about a very great artist and usually the biographer is not a great artist themselves. Worse, let's admit it, most biographers live in an entirely different social class - in fact, currently the most exclusive social class by far in the world - than their cinema subjects do (or did).

November 23, 2008 9:20 PM  
Blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

Alex,

I'm not sure that the narrative / critical impulse in biography should be discounted just because it can be misleading. There is always an unconscious level of meaning--something we were referring to without knowing its name. Really, any position can be taken and defended fully, even if it runs contrary to the intentions of whoever creates a work. I think it's something we all have to accept, especially in the age of the Internet--that anything we say or do can have a million different meanings divined from it. We have to become responsible for things we weren't responsible for.

If I remember correctly, Jonathan's got a good story about German Expressionism and Alphaville to tell relating to this, and I'm sure he'd do a much better job relating it than I can.

What we can say is this: a biography is always a work of interpretation. It's neither a transcription of a person's life nor merely an addendum, but always some sort of critical commentary, like any description of any event.

November 23, 2008 10:10 PM  
Blogger Andy Rector said...

"The intending biographer pledges himself to tell lies, to hush things up, to be hypocritical, to paint things in glowing colors, and even to conceal his inability to understand , because biographical truth is unattainable, and were one to attain it, one could not make use of it."
--Freud to Arnold Zweig (May 31, 1936)

I for one cannot stand Brody's subtle, step-by-step 123 revelation of his supposed ability to understand Godard: an abject success. Indeed he tries to *make use* of what he seems very sure of, in the service of many unsound conclusions.

I think the good cinema biographies and autobiographies really "do history" .... like P.E. Salles Gomes' JEAN VIGO (Faber and Faber), Krohn's LUIS BUNUEL (Taschen), Joris Ivens' THE CAMERA AND I (International Publishers), and Mack Sennett's KING OF COMEDY (Mercury House Pub).
They keep "exposé"-ism (either of their subjects or of their colleagues) and interpretation (diabolical or innocent speculation) to a minimum.

As a side-note, I highly recommend the recent book on the Blacklist 'UN-AMERICAN' HOLLYWOOD (Rutgers UP). Mainly for Thom Andersen's essay RED HOLLYWOOD (finally appearing somewhere other than an obscure journal of "media") and his new Postscript to that essay. Among other things, it constitutes a great critique of *autobiography* onsofar as it chronicles the historical revisions and omissions, according to political tides, in the autobiographies of Lilian Hellman and others.

November 24, 2008 12:26 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I like very much what Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said on the danger of applying critical scrutiny from artistic gestures onto life events!

Thanks for the Freud quote, Andy Rector. I was going to bring up the ego (artist) and the superego (critic), as a conflict of interest in telling the "truth". The self is the only one who grasps the objective totality of facts, but at the same time is not the best person to judge them, condemn to subjectivity. It's the conflict between the principle of pleasure (aesthetism of the artist) and the principle of reality (evaluation with a tendency to self-censorship of the critic).
So auto-biography is meant to be subjective and partial, they are "memories" rather. The biographer and the subject cannot be the same person.

Is there such a thing as an objective account of one's life? Who could produce that? There is an ambiguous risk to slip into (freestyle) psychoanalysis... Do we want psychoanalytical biographies?

November 24, 2008 8:00 AM  
Blogger Campaspe said...

Girish, I'm most honored to be a springboard for any post of yours. While I readily acknowledge the tawdriness of a lot of Hollywood biographies and autobiographies, I can't dismiss them altogether as Alex does. Most of these books, even the wackiest ones, have something to tell you about how movies were made and what people were doing when they made them. Mosey over to the Sheila Variations and check out her piece on Lana Turner's memoirs for a particularly hilarious example of this.

I want to give some love to Simon Callow's Charles Laughton bio, one of the few that really tries to get inside an actor's head and thought progresses as he prepares a role. Colleen Moore's "Silent Star" is terrific, and Lillian Gish's memoirs have a great deal of detail about D.W. Griffith's working methods. I love Louise Brooks's essays and Barry Paris's bio of her is great to read alongside. And David Niven's two books are a stitch.

But two of the best star bios are Marlene Dietrich, by her daughter, Maria Riva, and Gavin Lambert's book about Norma Shearer. The first is a shattering look at what a star can get away with. The second becomes a terribly sad meditation on what happens when the adulation and beauty and privilege are taken away. The chapters on her last years are tremendously effective; usually that's something the biographer skates over in a hurry to get to the valedictory closing grafs.

You have prompted me to go back to another post I'd been planning for a while, we will see if I can finish it.

November 25, 2008 11:25 AM  
Blogger Max said...

I would also point to This is Orson Welles for its performative, illumination-via-indirection approach. When pressed, Welles scrambles:
"It’s an egocentric, romantic, nineteenth-century conception that the artist is more interesting and more important than his art...This emphasis on the artist himself—this glorification of the artist—is one of the bad turnings civilization has taken in the last two hundred years. In other words, the whole purpose of a book like this is what I quarrel with."

In terms of documents on the facts of filmmaking, I find Costa's portrait of Huillet-Straub, Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie , a bottomless resource and refreshingly non-mythologized. If "themes" are usually the interface by which the so-called critical biographers link life and work, the writing of technicians like John Alton ( Painting With Light ) and Walter Murch presents a different, more process-oriented perspective on moviemaking.

November 25, 2008 2:07 PM  
Anonymous The Pop View said...

One of the other fascinating things about This Is Orson Welles is that it acknowledges the tendency of old-time directors to mythologize. Time and again, Peter Bogdanovich pushes Welles on why he describes incidents a certain way or why he has contradicted a previous account. Welles more of less blames it on people's desires to hear romantic myths or insist on analysis of creative decisions. There are certain things Welles is happy to discuss about his work and other issues he finds irrelevant. But people will insist on hearing a story anyway...

November 26, 2008 6:38 AM  
Blogger Alex said...

"Most of these books, even the wackiest ones, have something to tell you about how movies were made and what people were doing when they made them."

We might want to push back on that assumption, however.

First, the wacky biographies aren't just randomly wacky: they nearly all foreground the stars in archetypal and routinized ways that play into star narratives: the aging female star as hysteric, the aging male star as frustrated alcoholic, the young female star as slut, the young male star as confused sexually, the young male star as wild drug abuser, etc. Beyond being archetypal, these narratives function as inherent part of the overarching narrative that constructs "stardom" itself.

Second, while the bad biography may tell us something about the process of making a film, it will likely also distort our perceptions of what making a film is about. I.E. it's quite possible that a film under examination was really driven by the decisions of a marketing research group, for example. (or the investors, or a dozen other players in institutions of this size and complexity). But very few people are writing or reading an institutional history of the "Dreamworks SKG Marketing Research Department 1996-1998" - instead, the biographer is writing about Nicole Kidman or George Clooney (to take one example of Dreamworks' 1997 film Peacemaker).

November 26, 2008 3:54 PM  
Blogger Ed Howard said...

AS said:
"The form of the artist biography (critical or otherwise) seems to rest on the false premise that the life has anything really to do with the work."

Why is that a "false premise?" Granted, some biographers and critics go too far in assuming that the filmmaker's life is exactly reflected in his films, or vice versa, but I don't think it's so absurd to assume that any artist's life influences and shapes the kind of art they make. Critics who write these kinds of things have to be careful not to posit simplistic one-for-one correlations, but it's fine to suggest connections or places of correspondence between life and art when they provide insight into either the films or the artist.

That said, I don't read many biographies, I prefer the "conversations with..." format and love reading books of interviews with my favorite filmmakers: the ones of Woody Allen, Godard, Altman, and Herzog are especially great. Colin MacCabe's Godard bio is also a fine book, although it's rather selective in which films it dedicates attention to. I'm going to be reading the Hawks book soon, too, so hopefully that's worthwhile.

November 27, 2008 12:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ed Howard, You are right. I don't really believe that an artist's life has nothing to do with the work. (I was writing quickly and overstating the case.) But I also think that the problem with many biographies goes much deeper than "one-to-one correlations" between the life and the work. The use of indirect implication can be just as dubious. I think a lot of the problem comes from the conventional narrative form of many biographies that implies causal relations centered around the psychology of the protagonist/artist. It's also the problem with most film biographies.
-AS

November 28, 2008 10:46 AM  
Anonymous Girish said...

Thank you so much, all!

I'm hoping to hoist up a post here soon, within the next day or two...

December 01, 2008 12:58 PM  
Anonymous David T. Johnson said...

Sorry to come in at the end of this discussion, but I've enjoyed reading the thread. I'd add to the list Stephen D. Youngkin's biography of Peter Lorre, _The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre_, which I enjoyed very much. Also, given the number of references to Brody's book on Godard, I'd put in a vote for a not-quite-biography (but a text I like very much), Colin MacCabe's _Godard_.

December 02, 2008 11:36 PM  
Blogger Gareth said...

I forgot to mention Stefan Kanfer's bio of Groucho Marx: I especially like the first half, which takes the story form the vaudeville stage to the screen. I wasn't as much of a fan of the second part, but the methods of refining the stage act and then transferring it to the screen were fascinating.

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