Film: The Critics' Choice
It’s rare to find a coffee-table book about cinema that is truly of value to both the casual reader and the serious cinema-lover. One of them is French New Wave (1999), edited by Jean Douchet. I’ve just discovered another: Film: The Critics’ Choice (2001), edited by Geoff Andrew, with a foreword by Bernardo Bertolucci (Billboard Books, 2001). It’s out of print, but used copies are going for under a dollar at Amazon.
The book has a simple, clean structure that invites browsing. There are ten sections, each written by a different critic. Each critic takes on about 15 films. Every film gets 2 pages, one of which is devoted to a mini-essay and the other to a large still photograph.
The sections include “The Silent Era” (David Bordwell); “America: The Studio Years” (David Thomson); “America: Years of Change” (Philip French); “America: The Modern Era” (Amy Taubin and Kent Jones); “Europe: The Golden Age” (Gilbert Adair); “Europe: The New Waves” (Jonathan Rosenbaum); “British Cinema” (Peter Wollen); “Europe: A New Fin de siècle”; “International Cinema” (Tony Rayns); and a final section on animation (Paul Wells).
The essays are unusually insightful, especially given that they are working within the constraints of the coffee-table book format, and some of the film choices are pleasantly startling in their unlikeliness. There’s lots to savor here, but let me limit the scope of this post by reproducing, as a tribute, some passages by the recently deceased Gilbert Adair.
Adair on Fritz Lang’s M (1931):
Here is a curiosity: The sinister prominence with which the letter “M,” one tailor-made for the branding iron, figures in Fritz Lang’s filmography. His best known, although far from finest, film was Metropolis (1927), whose heroine’s name was Maria. His most celebrated creation, the protagonist of two silents and one late sound feature, was the verminously arachnoid mastermind Dr. Mabuse. Three of his most memorable Hollywood productions were Man Hunt (1941), Ministry of Fear (1944), and, long the favorite of cultishly minded Langians, Moonfleet (1955). (A whimsical case can even be made that the title of another work from the American period, The Woman in the Window, 1944, contained two inverted Ms.) Lang himself made a moving valedictory appearance in 1963 in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris.
On Julia Solntseva and her 1970 film The Enchanted Desna:
Solntseva was the widow of Alexander Dovzhenko, a great filmmaker and a matchless celebrant of the Soviet Eden, whose loyal helpmate she had been throughout his life. When he died in 1956, she proceeded to film, one after the other, his handful of unrealized scripts almost as if they had been bequeathed to her, as if she were executing his deathbed request; and when there were no more left to film, she simply downed tools and retired.
If ever a film were a poem, it is The Enchanted Desna. A pantheistically phosphorescent hymn to nature as equally to the gleaming tractors and plows which were destined to transform it (and a personal favorite, intriguingly, of Jean-Luc Godard), it must be, at just 81 minutes, the briefest of cinematic works to ever have been shot in the 70mm wide-screen process [...] The visual motifs that we have to come to associate with Dovzhenko's cinema--the skies so low-hung we feel the characters will have to hunker down on all fours to crawl beneath them, the cornfields waving goodbye in unison (Dovzhenko himself once said that his was "a cinema of farewells")--are just as present in The Enchanted Desna.
On Manoel de Oliveira's first feature, Aniki-Bobó (1942):
...whose mystifying title is a Portuguese variant on "eeny-meeny-meiny-mo," it is a film about, and to some degree for, children. Set in Oporto, the director's native city, its slight plot centres upon the rivalry--for the affection of the local stunner--of a pair of matching mop-haired tots, one of whom, a blond cherub who might have stepped down from a Tiepolo altarpiece, is unjustly accused of having shoved the other onto a railroad track. [...]
What makes Aniki-Bobó unique, though, is its blatant theatricality, a word scarcely ever used to describe children's films. As witness the endearingly actorish performances which Oliveira coaxes from his diminutive performers, his film is unequivocally a melodrama. And even if its loose and deceptively artless shooting style (it was filmed wholly on location) seems to anticipate the revolutionary strategies of neorealism, the result is less reminiscent of De Sica's work, say, than of Pagnol's Marseillais trilogy, Marius, Fanny and Cesar (1931, 1932, 1936), by virtue of both the dockside setting and the tiny if nevertheless eternal triangle so solemnly, so touchingly played out before it. Like Pagnol's own films, what Aniki-Bobó offers is a persuasive illustration and defense of cinema as open-air theater.
Any suggestions of good coffee-table books on cinema--books that might contain something of interest for both the casual film buff and the more serious film-lover or film critic? I'd love to hear them.
I know that publishers such as Taschen and Phaidon have produced a number of cinema books in this format, although I know only a few of them. I recently picked up a couple of volumes in Phaidon's recently released budget series--on Hitchcock and Kubrick (both by Bill Krohn) and Lynch (by Theirry Jousse)--and they look interesting and insightful.
-- Sight & Sound has made available a great little trove of Gilbert Adair's writings online. David Hudson's post at MUBI collects a number of pieces on Adair.
-- Adrian has a tribute to Adair at Filmkrant. And here's a wonderful text that is a critical 'duet': Adrian and Cristina Álvarez López's two-part, dual-language essay on Philippe Garrel at Cine Transit.
-- At Moving Image Source, critics, writers and artists share their highlights of 2011: part one; and part two.
-- As usual, plenty of recently posted, wonderfully engaging reading at Jonathan Rosenbaum's place on subjects as diverse as middlebrow cinema, Errol Morris, Iranian politics, black cinema, and Samuel Fuller.
-- Polls for best films of the year: Indiewire's round-up; and Film Comment's best released films and best unreleased films of the year. Also: Cahiers du Cinéma's top ten of the year; Andréa Picard's choices for best experimental films of the year; and Reverse Shot's best films of the year. Finally: Michael Z. Newman's "Faves, 2011."
-- The new issue of Cineaste has several web-exclusive pieces but is particularly worth picking up for a fascinating symposium (not online) on "the prospects of political cinema today" featuring such figures as John Gianvito, Travis Wilkerson, Sally Potter, Kelly Reichardt, John Sayles, Pere Portabella and John Hughes.
-- A new DVD release that seems to have slipped under the radar: Gilles Deleuze from A to Z, available for the first time with English subtitles. The translation is by Deleuze scholar Charles Stivale. (via Jason LaRiviere)
-- A wonderful close analysis of the prologue to Melancholia by Manohla Dargis.
-- The new issue of Senses of Cinema includes articles by Jacques Rivette and Murray Pomerance, and a roundup of the Toronto film festival by Darren Hughes. Also: the new issue of La Furia Umana is just out; it includes this Luc Moullet piece on Eric Rohmer in conjunction with MUBI.
-- Film Studies for Free's "Favorite Online Film Studies Resources in 2011".
-- The new issue of Film-Philosophy includes essays by Steven Shaviro and Rowena Santos Aquino, and a review of a recent collection of writings by Alain Badiou on cinema.
-- Ignatiy Vishnevetsky puts up a post collecting 22 capsule reviews he wrote this year for the Chicago film weekly Cine-File.
-- Ben Sachs, at Chicago Reader, on his best films of the year.
-- At Moving Image Source: Chris Fujiwara on "The contradictions of Cuba in the work of Nicolás Guillén Landrián"; Bilge Ebiri on the use of language in Malick's The New World; and an excerpt from Jordan's Mintzer's recent book on James Gray in which Gray is interviewed about The Yards.
-- Charlie Kaufman's next project is ... a musical about online film criticism??
-- At Artforum: Tony Pipolo on Robert Bresson; and on Jean-Marie Straub.
-- Links to several recent articles by film scholar David Rodowick (srcoll down). Also via his page: the archives for Cinema: Journal of Philosophy and the Moving Image.
-- "Passionate Utterances: Learning from Stanley Cavell," at the Los Angeles Review of Books.
-- A restoration and revival of the films of French comedian Pierre Étaix.
-- Zach Campbell on some "recent commercial cinema." Also: Zach is now on Twitter.
-- Kent Jones on the documentaries of Vittorio de Seta.
-- Gilberto Perez on Alexander Dovzhenko in Film Quarterly.
-- The Anthology Film Archives just concluded the fascinating retrospective "Anarchism on Film" curated by Cineaste editor Richard Porton.
-- B. Kite and Alexander Points-Zollo's complete "Vertigo Variations".
-- Jonathan Romney on the recent DVD releases of films by Miklos Jansco.
-- In The Guardian: "Friedrich Kittler and the rise of the machine."
-- Via Adrian: Writings on Indian cinema at Projectorhead magazine and Silhouette.
-- The new issue of the journal World Picture.
-- At eFilmCritic: "2011 Whores of the Year."
-- At The Nation: "The Making of the 99%" by Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich.