Monday, 1 June 2009

Favorite Books on Cinema

At his blog "Only the Cinema" Ed Howard has a post on his favorite film books, a so-called meme (don't ask me to explain that one, but it started at "The Dancing Image") that has been circulating on a few blogs. I thought I'd add the books that have been most important to me. Most of my selections are somewhat academic, but I excluded many great scholarly works that were not re-readable. My criteria for these selections are books that I have returned to for pleasure (as opposed to merely reference or study) over the years. I've limited myself to ten (with a few ties for individual authors):

1. Robert B. Ray, A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980 (1985)

My favorite single volume text on American cinema, a deeply knowledgeable yet very readable and intellectually provocative take on popular film and national culture. I may not agree Ray's overall thesis, which is a tad simplistic, but it is a great jumping off point for discussion and a wonderful text to introduce students to the concept of ideology and movies. The main strength of the argument is Ray's notion that the popular cinema that resonates and has lasting power is not simply one in which ideology is firmly re-enforced; rather, it is the films that put the ideology at risk and force the viewer into a confrontation with its core beliefs that remain in the imagination years later. His readings of Casablanca, It's a Wonderful Life, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Taxi Driver are so strong that the texts have been forever altered in my mind afterward. Looking forward to reading his recent The ABCs of Classic Hollywood (2008).

2. James Naremore, More Than Night: Film Noir and Its Contexts (1998)

I remember reading this book right after finishing a paper on film noir for my MA core class and immediately thinking everything I just wrote was worthless. This is a perfect blend of a great writer applying his vast historical knowledge to an endlessly fascinating topic. Naremore makes connections throughout between noir and the broader social and political context, and it proved to be very influential on everything I try to write. Naremore's authorship studies of Welles, Minnelli and most recently Kubrick are all superb as well, but More Than Night is probably the book that will define him as a scholar.

3. Robin Wood, Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan (1985) and Sexual Politics and Narrative Cinema (1998)

Robin Wood is one of the great film critics, and the first writer to really excite me about the cinema. Wood is one of the few writers that almost always makes me re-think and re-consider a work after he has written about it. I mention these two texts although all of Wood's work is worth reading and re-reading. His essay on Scorsese in Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan and his piece on Ozu in Sexual Politics and Narrative Cinema are just two of the most obvious of many examples of how Wood has changed my thinking about film and, by extension of course, the world beyond the frame.

4. Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the 'Frenzy of the Visible' (1989) and Screening Sex (2008)

Linda Williams is one of the top film scholars around, and is a fine writer as well. Although she has written about many topics very well (I'm currently awaiting the arrival of her book on race and melodrama, Playing the Race Card), her work on pornography has really defined her. Moving beyond the porn/anti-porn debate, Williams devotes her energy to analyzing what porn has been and what it currently is. Using Foucault as a theoretical guide, her work on sexuality in film (which includes the recent Screening Sex) is unsurpassed in the field.

5. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Placing Movies (1995) and Movies as Politics (1997)

The only other serious contender to Robin Wood as a film critic is Jonathan Rosenbaum, who has probably shaped my taste more than anyone else (almost embarrassingly so, in fact). Without his work, there are many great directors, from Hou Hsiao-hsien to Abbas Kiarostami to Bela Tarr, that I most likely wouldn't have discovered. Rosenbaum's ability to be ideologically committed and yet true to his aesthetic judgements has been a model I've tried to follow. These two collections are my favorite of his works, although all of his writing is worth reading, and much is now available at his website.

6. Frank Krutnik, In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity (1991)

Another noir book (not surprising really, given the enormous amount written on the subject), this one with a focus less on history and more on thematics; specifically, how noir deals with the now much discussed "crisis in masculinity". Krutnik's main skill is his analysis of particular films. His discussion of Out of the Past was a stunning revelation to me when I first read it, so penetrating and yet seemingly simple and obvious. This book changed not just how I viewed single films but how I considered a whole historical grouping.

7. Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture (1991)

I took me awhile to come around to Zizek. I always had a certain almost natural impulse towards psychoanalysis (the same way many have a strong adversion), but Zizek and by extension Lacan always mystified me. But coming back to this work last year, the confusion finally melted away (to some extent) and enjoyment took over. One reason this is so re-readable to me is, paradoxically, its difficulty. I understand as I read, but any attempt to explain to others and even re-explain to myself sends me back to the book. Although not really a film text, Zizek's short How to Read Lacan (2006) is also recommended.

8. Robert Kapsis, Hitchcock: The Making of a Reputation (1992)

I read this sociological study of Hitchcock while still an undergraduate English major. It may be the first academic text I read cover to cover (at least of my own volition), and the whole topic of artistic reputations and how they are made was an entirely new idea. Without knowing it at the time, this book would have maybe the biggest influence on me of all, leading, many years later, to my dissertation on Martin Scorsese and his role in film culture.

9. Robert Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness (3 editions) (1980) (1988) (2000)

This is the only text here that I may not revisit again for awhile, having used, applied, debated, and argued against its central thesis on the "modernism" of New Hollywood so extensively over the last 5-10 years. Kolker's book has undergone three editions, each of which I have read, and regardless of some of my disagreements, it has many excellent readings of individual films. Kolker's close attention to formal detail is one I try to emulate. I also think his intro text Film, Form and Culture is one of the better ones around.

10. Christian Keathley, Cinephilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees (2005)

A book that so intrigued me that I wrote my first official book review about it (published in Film Criticism). Keathley's central project of trying to combine a love of cinema with more traditional scholarly writing was one I connected with immediately. Although we are of slightly different ages and backgrounds, much of his own discussion of his early love of cinema was very familiar to me. This is the most recent text on my list, but I'm confident it is one I will continue to enjoy in the future.

2 comments:

MovieMan0283 said...

These books sound fascinating (and I've had my eye on some of them for a while - particularly Rosenbaum's "canon"). Does A Cinema of Loneliness posit New Hollywood's "modernism" in relation to Old Hollywood's classicism or to the postmodernism of what came after - or both?

Marc Raymond said...

Thanks for the comment. In regards to Kolker, the first edition (1980) posits New Hollywood modernism against the classicism of the past. The newer editions (1988 and then 2000) discuss the postmodernism as well, especially in the new chapter on Spielberg (the first addition had a chapter on Coppola instead).