September Books

Marilyn Monroe

The week begins with welcome news of a tentative agreement between the Writers Guild of America, the union representing more than 11,000 screenwriters, and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the trade association bargaining on behalf of the major studios and streamers. This is a significant first step toward ending the WGA strike that began on May 2, but as Brooks Barnes and John Koblin report in the New York Times, it’s going to be a while before Hollywood is up and running again.

The 160,000 members of SAG-AFTRA, the actors’ union, remain on strike, and at the moment, no talks with the AMPTP are planned. “In addition to actors, more than 100,000 behind-the-scenes workers (directors, camera operators, publicists, makeup artists, prop makers, set dressers, lighting technicians, hairstylists, cinematographers) in Los Angeles and New York will continue to stand idle,” write Barnes and Koblin. But the distance between the positions of the WGA and the AMPTP on a wide range of issues—streaming residuals, staffing, AI—was vast, and the fact that the two sides have found common ground, however shaky for the time being, should offer hope.

Writing for the New York Review of Books, E. Tammy Kim cautions against misreading the long and rich history of clashes between management and labor in the entertainment industry. Focusing on a conflict in the late 1930s and early 1940s between an upstart studio and its creative talent, Jake S. Friedman’s The Disney Revolt: The Great Labor War of Animation’s Golden Age is “a kind of double biography, with Walt Disney on one side and Art Babbitt, the studio's leading artist, on the other,” writes Kim. “Over the course of The Disney Revolt, Friedman's storytelling starts to feel ill-matched to the stakes. By giving equal weight to Walt and Babbitt, he reduces a confrontation of power—mustachioed celebrity CEO (though Disney's $100 billion future wasn't yet foreseeable) versus unknown, underpaid artists—to a personality clash.”

New and Forthcoming

The season brings two vital collections and news of more intriguing titles to come. Reverse Shot is celebrating its twentieth anniversary with an online symposium, a film series running at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York through November 26, and a new book, Reverse Shot: Twenty Years of Film Criticism in Four Movements, with contributions from Mark Asch, Andrew Chan, Beatrice Loayza, Tayler Montague, Vikram Murthi, Adam Nayman, Nick Pinkerton, Genevieve Yue, Farihah Zaman, and others.

Throughout October, the Cinematheque in Copenhagen will present a retrospective of work by Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, and on October 7, the film journal Balthazar will release an accompanying dossier. Gathering more than forty texts from contributors including Thom Andersen, Nicole Brenez, Pedro Costa, Serge Daney, John Gianvito, and Andy Rector, the special issue will be freely available online, though print copies will be on sale in Denmark and can be ordered from elsewhere. “Huillet and Straub were traditional practitioners and modernist image thinkers,” write editors Oscar Pedersen and Viktor Retoft in their preface. “They carried a switchblade in one hand and a love letter in the other.” Let’s note here, too, that another Straub-Huillet retrospective will run in Brussels from October 5 through 26.

John Akomfrah, whom Hyperallergic’s Dan Schindel calls “one of the leading anticolonial voices in cinema,” will represent Great Britain at the Venice Biennale next year, and James Harvey has a new book out entitled simply John Akomfrah.James Benning says he’s spent the last nine months writing a book, a boy and a battery. Neil Young has spotted that title—lifted from the 1959 book Raymond F. Yates wrote for young scientists—in Benning’s 2011 film Twenty Cigarettes, and Dick Hebdige notes that Benning first bought a used copy of Yates’s book in 1980, “when he learned from Annette Michelson that it was Hollis Frampton’s favorite book.”

Working with editor John Joseph Adams, Jordan Peele has curated Out There Screaming: An Anthology of New Black Horror, and it will arrive next week. Tiffany Sia’s On and Off-Screen Imaginaries, featuring a foreword by Jean Ma, will be out in February; Alonso Duralde’s Hollywood Pride: A Celebration of LGBTQ+ Representation and Perseverance in Film is coming in May; and Carrie Courogen’s Miss May Does Not Exist: The Life and Work of Elaine May, Hollywood’s Hidden Genius will hit shelves in June.

Singular Visions

Fireflies Press, the independent publishing house that gave us Pier Paolo Pasolini: Writing on Burning Paper last fall and is currently midway through its series of Decadent Editions, has a new title this month, Whit Stillman: Not so long ago. For Seth Katz at Slant, the “real value” here is “in the lengthy conversation between Stillman and the book’s editor, Cyril Neyrat, and in the thoughtful examinations of the former’s work that follow,” while the “biggest surprises in the book come in the Metropolitan dossier” put together by Haden Guest. The book has prompted Le Cinéma Club to ask Stillman about five of his favorite films.

Craig Baldwin: Avant to Live! documents the life and work of the filmmaker and curator best known for Other Cinema, the series of screenings Baldwin has presented in San Francisco since the 1980s. As online exclusives, Cineaste has posted reviews of two books, one about a director and the other by a director. David Archibald took notes as Ken Loach shot and edited The Angels’ Share (2012), and he even followed the filmmaker and his team to Cannes, where the film won the Jury Prize. John Hill notes that Archibald calls the writing of Tracking Loach: Politics/Practices/Production “an act of solidarity.” The “importance” of Cinema Speculation, Quentin Tarantino’s blend of memoir and criticism, “as a commentary on 1970s American movies will fade,” writes Charles Maland, “but it will become an even more important self-portrait of the director as a young man.”

The current issue of Bookforum, the first to appear since the magazine was revived, features Dennis Lim’s review of Ian Penman’s widely lauded book on Rainer Werner Fassbinder. “Not unlike Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden,Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors blurs the boundaries among criticism, biography, and memoir,” writes Lim. The book is “a reminder of how insular and impoverished much film criticism is and has been, how tied to hidebound conventions of description and evaluation. Penman is by no means Fassbinder’s most insightful exegete: he tells us little that we don’t already know about these much-discussed movies. But he says a great deal about what it means to live with them.”

Harry Smith

Bookforum also gives us Sasha Frere-Jones on Cosmic Scholar: The Life and Times of Harry Smith, the first comprehensive biography of the artist, filmmaker, anthropologist, collector, mystic, and, as Dwight Garner puts it in the New York Times, “a hard moth to pin to the specimen board.” The author of Cosmic Scholar is John Szwed, who has been teaching anthropology, film, and African American studies at Yale for more than a quarter of a century. “Just as important,” writes Gerald Peary at the Arts Fuse, “Szwed is a veteran biographer of the most inscrutable of artists, having books out on both Miles Davis and Sun Ra.

Harry Smith is best known for putting together Anthology of American Folk Music, a collection of three double-LP box sets released in 1952. It sold poorly, but its influence remains immeasurable; Bob Dylan alone has recorded covers of at least fifteen of the eighty-four songs in the Anthology. In 4Columns, Ed Halter notes that many “first discover Smith through avant-garde cinema, as he has long been revered as one of the form’s greatest practitioners, an artist who revitalized the art of animation not once but twice, first with his early hand-painted films, later with his intricately choreographed cutout collages. P. Adams Sitney, Annette Michelson, Noël Carroll, and many other scholars have performed extensive hermeneutics on his cinematic output, which has proven to be as richly intertextual as anything by Joyce or Nabokov.”

Smith died in 1991 at the age of sixty-eight, but his first solo exhibition won’t open until October 4. On view through January 28 at the Whitney, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten will offer “Smith’s most elaborate film, a four-projector symphony called Mahagonny, completed in 1980,” writes Frere-Jones. “Though Smith began as a pioneer of non-objective aesthetics, creating many films that never even used the lens to capture live action, Mahagonny features many human beings doing their thing, and serves as an unintentional documentary of life at the Chelsea Hotel. [Rose ‘Rosebud’ Feliu] and Patti Smith and various denizens of the hotel appear, with the whole thing (sort of) synchronized to a recording of Brecht and Weill’s Mahagonny.

Hollywood Lives

Yunte Huang’s Daughter of the Dragon: Anna May Wong's Rendezvous with American History is a “biography embedded in cultural criticism,” writes Jennifer Szalai in the New York Times. The U.S. Mint released an Anna May Wong Quarter last year to commemorate the first Chinese American movie star, and Gail Tsukiyama reimagined Wong’s life story in The Brightest Star, a historical novel published this summer. Another biography, Katie Gee Salisbury’s Not Your China Doll, will be out in March.

“Though Huang sets Wong’s rising career against the backdrop of pervasive anti-Asian sentiment in America,” writes Mayukh Sen in the New Yorker, “he mostly avoids simplifying her into an easy icon of empowerment or an object of pity. Nor does he judge her for the concessions that she made in her choice of roles.” Daughter of the Dragon “has its lapses. But it soars when Huang resists treating Wong as a hapless victim of American history and digs deeper to reveal the shrewd, resilient soul beneath.”

In her latest Vanity Fair column, Old Hollywood Book Club, Hadley Hall Meares reads between the lines of Ginger: My Story, the 1991 autobiography by Ginger Rogers, and Steps in Time, Fred Astaire’s 1959 memoir. “A straight-shooting, slightly preachy teetotaling Republican,” Rogers “expounds extensively on the miracles she witnessed as a Christian Scientist (the warts on her husband’s feet were cured!) and the hard work that made her a top box office attraction,” writes Meares. Astaire’s book is “on the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s self-deprecating and deceptively easy-breezy, with golf and his love of horse-racing and hobnobbing with blue bloods taking up as many pages as his on-stage career.”

Bing and Billie and Frank and Ella and Judy and Barbra is Dan Callahan’s new book about six great American singers, and four of them had exceptional Hollywood careers. Sheila O’Malley’s conversation with Callahan at is less about the movies than about what each of these unique talents did with their voices and their assessments of each other as performers.

Writers on Film host John Bleasdale talks with Jeanine Basinger, who has written for us about Ingrid Bergman and Armageddon, the 1998 film directed by one of her former students at Wesleyan, Michael Bay. The latest of Basinger’s many books is Hollywood: The Oral History, cowritten with another former student, Sam Wasson.

One Film, One Book

David Bordwell recommends The French Dispatch, the latest addition to Matt Zoller Seitz’s Wes Anderson Collection. Seitz is “not only a dynamic critic but an imaginative book-maker, with daring conceptions of design and illustration. His gifts are apparent not only in this series but in his nearly phantasmagoric compendium on Oliver Stone and in his more austere but no less forceful The Deadwood Bible.

The essays in Haunted by Vertigo: Hitchcock's Masterpiece Then and Now, a collection edited by Sidney Gottlieb and Donal Martin, “approach the master’s film from broad yet intersecting angles, allowing the reading and cinematic audience into the colorful patterns that weave the filmic narrative threads into a magnetically composite unity,” writes Dávid Szőke for Film International. Literary Hub and Vanity Fair, in the meantime, are running excerpts from Erin Carlson’s No Crying in Baseball: The Inside Story of A League of Their Own: Big Stars, Dugout Drama, and a Home Run for Hollywood.

Three Novels

Fred Otash, the cop, private eye, Hollywood fixer, and inspiration behind Jack Nicholson’s character in Chinatown (1974), has been popping up in James Ellroy’s novels for a while now, and in The Enchanters, he’s investigating the death of Marilyn Monroe. “A little bit of James Ellroy can be a lot: the hepcat tough guy lingo, the contortionist plotting, the headfirst plummet into seedy sex, scandal and nihilism,” writes Chris Vognar in the Los Angeles Times. “But when he’s on, as he is [here], a sort of fever takes hold of the reader.”

Parul Sehgal, who reviews The Enchanters for the New Yorker, has not caught the fever. “Ellroy creates a world and refuses to enter it,” he finds, though it is “rare to encounter a portrayal of Monroe unconcerned with diagnosing, rescuing, or rehabilitating her.” Monroe, “who could have been the book’s making, is instead its undoing—which is, consoling thought, an odd sort of triumph on her part.”

Writing for the Times Literary Supplement, Paul Quinn calls Arabian Nights of 1934 “the latest in a remarkable sequence of sui generis texts by the poet and critic Geoffrey O’Brien that constitute a cultural history of our seduction by various media.” At the back of Arabian Nights, there’s a list of “226 pre-Code films whose story lines, imagery, and snatches of dialogue are freely recombined to construct the montage, or ‘fantasia,’ that forms the main body of a text that is essentially a kind of cinematic tour or dream sequence.” O’Brien refers to the two main characters whose thoughts we listen in on, seventeen-year-old Dorothy and eighteen-year-old Aloysius, as “astral surrogates” of his parents, and he tells William Blick in Film International that the book is “a collage of what was floating through people’s minds as they sat in the dark absorbing all those thousand and one plot twists.”

Anna Biller (The Love Witch) was developing her third feature when the pandemic shut it down. She then rewrote the screenplay for Bluebeard’s Castle, the story of Judith Moore, a romance novelist whisked off to a Gothic castle by a charming baron, as a novel. At first, “I was careful not to write anything I wouldn’t want to film later,” Biller tells Alexandra Coburn at Screen Slate. “But as I was writing the book I got so absorbed that it stopped being a vehicle to make a film.”

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