November Books

Anne Wiazemsky and Jean-Pierre Léaud in Jean-Luc Godard’s La chinoise (1967)

Conjunctions and juxtapositions between the moving image and the written word are central to the work of Jean-Luc Godard. They’re practically the modus operandi of the later, essay-like films, but in the early ones as well, “every so often the action slows down, the characters start to read books (or at least quote from them), look at pictures, engage in philosophical conversations,” writes Fredric Jameson in his preface to Reading with Jean-Luc Godard, which “catalogues the sources of those quotations, those conversations, those enigmatic sentences over which protagonists and even the narrator—Godard himself—brood for a time.”

Reading with Jean-Luc Godard, edited by Timothy Barnard and Kevin J. Hayes, gathers brief essays on more than a hundred books Godard referenced in his work, and it’s coming out next week—and will only be available—from caboose, the Montreal-based independent publisher that in just the past few years has given us such essential titles as The André Bazin Reader, the accessible primer Montage, Découpage, Mise en Scène, and the recently updated edition of Godard’s Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television.

Let’s flag one more forthcoming title before turning to the new and noteworthy books already on the shelves. Ben Rivers: Ghost Strata and Other Stories, a cycle of films on view at Jeu de Paume in Paris through Sunday, will be complemented by Collected Stories, which Fireflies Press will release next month. Rivers has invited fourteen writers who have influenced him over the years to respond to one of his films in any way they’d like. At ArtReview, Vanessa Onwuemezi introduces her contribution, a response to Rivers’s 2006 film, The Coming Race. Her task, as Onwuemezi sees it, is “neither to make a word-for-word swap, to translate the story of the film into text directly, nor is it to intellectualize it, but to take inspiration from it and make it anew in another form—not a copy but a translation; not an imprint but a relation.”

Novelists and Critics

In a brief piece for Sight and Sound, Nicole Flattery takes a quick look at the film criticism of four novelists. Graham Greene reviewed movies for the Spectator throughout the late 1930s, and Hilary Mantel held down the same job from 1987 to 1991. Renata Adler was the chief film critic for the New York Times for just one year (1968–1969), and Andrew O’Hagan wrote about new releases for the Daily Telegraph for two years, starting in 1999. Looking back in 2004, he wrote that “the screenings became slightly painful to me. I started waking up in the middle of the night and sneaking downstairs in search of class acts: Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, Ray Liotta in GoodFellas, Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop . . . and everything would be great up until about five minutes into a screening of Kevin & Perry Go Large, when I’d realize, once again, that no loss can be more painful than the loss of one’s illusions.”

In 2010, Sight and Sound polled fifty-one critics and came up with a list of the best film books of all time. Topping that list was David Thomson’s periodically revised Biographical Dictionary of Film, and the most recent edition—the sixth—came out four years later. “I’m sure some future scholar will produce an admirable thesis comparing the changes in—and evolution of—what has come to be, along with everything else, a vicarious and incremental autobiography,” wrote Geoff Dyer. “The Dictionary is not only an indispensable book about cinema, but one of the most absurdly ambitious literary achievements of our time.

As Leo Robson pointed out in the White Review in 2017, Thomson is also the author of “an account of Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic and the 1966 World Cup Final, a treatise on acting, histories of Nevada and Hollywood, a memoir of his London boyhood, a mythopoeic fantasy about Warren Beatty, a piece of very high-end fan fiction entitled Suspects, studies of Psycho and the Alien movies, and biographies of figures as varied as Laurence Sterne and Nicole Kidman.” Graham Fuller put Suspects on his Sight and Sound ballot, noting that “one can learn more about the iconography of film noir” from the 1985 novel “than from many worthy textbooks.”

Thomson’s new book, The Fatal Alliance: A Century of War on Film, “has an arc and a central argument,” writes Mark Athitakis in the Los Angeles Times, but “it’s not as user-friendly a genre survey as a moviegoer could hope for. Nobody comes to Thomson for cozy listicles of ‘top five problematic Vietnam movies.’ But his career-long dedication to writing pithy biographical encyclopedia entries means the book seems to leap habitually from film to film without filling out its assertions. No sooner has he called out the subtle provocations of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp or Gallipoli than he’s off to visit Private Ryan, the River Kwai, and a dozen more less-familiar war stories. When he slows down, though, The Fatal Alliance can be bracing and surprising.”

Nearly two decades before he wrote the book he remains best known for, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (1947), Siegfried Kracauer reviewed films for the Frankfurter Zeitung and wrote essays, short stories, and two autobiographical novels. “In its exploration of unmoored subjectivity,” writes Johannes von Moltke in the New York Review of Books, Ginster (1928), the first novel, “joins the great modernist attempts to craft new figures from the ravages of the early twentieth century, from Franz Kafka’s K. to Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities to the New Women of Irmgard Keun’s late Weimar novels. The most apt comparison, though, is arguably not literary but cinematic, as befits the work of a film critic turned novelist. In more ways than one, Ginster resembles one of Kracauer’s favorite film characters, Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp, who was a touchstone of his writing and thinking about identity.”

We’ve mentioned the new translations of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s novels Boys Alive (1955) and Theorem (1968) more than once here, but let’s quickly note that Dustin Illingworth has recently considered them as a revealing pair for the New Left Review. “Pasolini built upon his literary inheritance before utterly razing it such that neither nostalgia nor mythology could gain a footing,” he writes. “Reading the novels back-to-back is like a cold plunge after a scalding bath.”

Women on Stage and Screen

A few weeks ago, a clip featuring a literal showstopper went viral. British talk show host Graham Norton asked Judi Dench if she might give the audience a little Shakespeare, and after taking just a moment to gather herself, she recited Sonnet 29 to a room stunned into reverent silence. The occasion for Dench’s appearance on the show was the publication of her new book, Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays the Rent, which the Observer’s Stephanie Merritt calls “a gloriously entertaining tour through the canon in the company of perhaps the most experienced living Shakespearean actor.”

“Tips on how to speak iambic pentameter, memories of the great actors and directors she’s worked with over the years, and musings on the inner lives of Shakespeare’s numerous heroines are interspersed with industry gossip, reflections on triumph and disaster, and personal meditations on love and loss,” writes Michael Simkins in the Guardian. “Mischievous and convivial, Dench delights in sending up [her interviewer, director and fellow actor Brendon O’Hea] whenever his questions become too probing or pretentious. After hearing of her two tilts at Lady Macbeth, O’Hea remarks ‘You adore this play, don’t you?’ ‘Love it,’ she replies. ‘Beautifully constructed, terrific story, great part, short, no interval, pub. Heaven.’”

Lena Horne: Goddess Reclaimed is the latest book from Donald Bogle, the author of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in Films (1973) and Brown Sugar: Eighty Years of America’s Black Female Superstars (1980). “From her earliest onscreen persona,” writes Maya S. Cade for the Cut, “Horne navigated being a prototypical symbol of Black sensuality, uplifting figure for Black audiences, and educator of Black plight. With great affection for the star in his third substantial writing on her, Bogle challenges us to consider that Horne is not simply defined by the limitations of what she couldn’t achieve, and that we should look to her continuous reinvention as a sign of resilience in a racist industry.”

Writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Hannah Bonner notes that while both Vanessa Schneider’s memoir My Cousin Maria Schneider and Elisabeth Subrin’s film Maria Schneider, 1983 (2022) “consider Maria Schneider’s effect on women, in Subrin’s film, ‘women’ is a plurality, as opposed to Vanessa Schneider’s singular ‘I’ or ‘you.’ Though I do not take umbrage with either approach to biography, interpretation, or translation, one must acknowledge how Maria Schneider recurrently shuns the spotlight in Vanessa’s text, but not in . . . Subrin’s film.”

“Despite a title that may come off as objectifying,” writes Matthew Spektor in the Atlantic, Laurence Leamer’s Hitchcock’s Blondes: The Unforgettable Women Behind the Legendary Director’s Dark Obsession “is in many ways empathic and thoughtful, and he seems ready to train a generous eye on these actresses, to extract them from Hitchcock’s shadow without shoving the director under the wheels of his own limousine . . . The problem is, Leamer doesn’t quite bring enough to the table. He doesn’t have much in the way of new information, and however nobly he strives to foreground the women in Hitchcock’s orbit, the book comes to life only when the director emerges from the wings to reclaim the stage.”

Writing about Kate Andersen Brower’s Elizabeth Taylor: The Grit and Glamour of an Icon for the London Review of Books, Bee Wilson wonders, “what if Taylor was right to think not only that there was more to her life than movies, but that her greatest role lay elsewhere? Brower devotes two chapters to her work to raise awareness and funds for people with HIV and AIDS, and when you see this laid out in detail, it’s hard to imagine any Hollywood celebrity has ever put their fame to better use.” On a related note, Writers on Film host John Bleasdale talks with Nancy Schoenberger about the book she cowrote with Sam Kashner, Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century.

VHS and Peak TV

For the Guardian, Andrew Anthony talks with Peter Biskind, the author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ’n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (1998), Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film (2004), and now, Pandora’s Box: How Guts, Guile, and Greed Upended TV, the story of the rise and fall of Peak TV. In the Los Angeles Times, Chris Vognar notes that Easy Riders “in particular creates the sensation of grasping the big picture of a heavily mythologized time and place in pop culture. But Biskind can also get sloppy, and Pandora’s Box finds him at his sloppiest . . . And yet. Biskind is just about incapable of being boring, and Pandora’s Box skims along with snarky vigor.”

In the New Yorker, Michael Schulman finds the new book to be “as unsparing as Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, and the thesis of the two books is the same: Hollywood’s golden ages don’t arise from the miraculous congregation of geniuses. The industry’s default setting is for crap. Occasionally, the incentives change just enough to allow a cascade of innovation, but those incentives inevitably shift back to the norm.” In Pandora’s Box, “the #MeToo movement is a passing plot development. But it’s the engine behind Maureen Ryan’s galvanizing Burn It Down: Power, Complicity, and a Call for Change in Hollywood . . . Ryan—like Biskind, a longtime entertainment reporter and a Vanity Fair contributor—focusses less on the machinations of high-powered monsters than on the assistants and junior writers who endured their misbehavior.”

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project (2019), one of eight films by Matt Wolf we’re presenting on the Criterion Channel, delves into the archive of tens of thousands of VHS tapes of live television feeds recorded by an activist with a passion for preserving history. While working on what he’s called his favorite of his films, Wolf pulled images now collected in a new book, Input, and Talkhouse is running an excerpt. “Marion was an unlikely futurist,” he writes. “During her lifetime, many people considered her project merely the hoarding obsession of a pathological amateur historian. Others realized her recordings were a prescient gift to the future.”

Talking to Dalya Benor in Metrograph Journal, painter and Input publisher Matt Connors says that “people just assume that anything that’s broadcast is saved. When that hits—that this stuff is actually lost otherwise—that’s when it becomes like, ‘Wow, this is really serious,’ and the shift from hoarder to historian happens in people’s minds.” Daniel Burgos interviews Wolf for Screen Slate: “I’ve been working with archival media from the ’80s and ’90s for a long time,” he says. “VHS is disintegrating. People say it, but I experience it.”

Second Looks

Last month’s books roundup opened with early word on My Name Is Barbra, the 992-page memoir Barbra Streisand spent ten years working on. As you’ll have heard, it’s out now, and the New York Times’s Wesley Morris calls it “explanatory and ruminative and enlightening. It’s shake-your-head funny and hand-to-mouth surprising.” One bone more than a few reviewers have had to pick with it is that there’s no index. But My Name Is Barbra has got one now, and you’ll find it at Air Mail.

The New Yorker’s Richard Brody has recently reviewed two books mentioned last month. “One major virtue of the film historian Foster Hirsch’s teeming new book, Hollywood and the Movies of the Fifties, is to bring the output of this extraordinary decade back into the forefront of attention,” he writes. “In the best Hollywood movies of the fifties, there’s a fury, a wildness, a violence (sometimes physical, principally emotional), a sense of resistance to a stifling or menacing order, a sympathy with the free spirit of youth and a view of its subjection to oppressive norms . . . Why didn’t American critics of the time see this?”

Meantime, “the best thing” about Matt Singer’s Opposable Thumbs: How Siskel & Ebert Changed Movies Forever is “the way that it highlights some of the basic quandaries that critics confront (or avoid) daily,” writes Brody. “These fundamental conundrums of criticism involve questions about specialism, authority, personality, art, and business. And, with Siskel and Ebert, these dilemmas came into play long before the duo joined forces on television.”


Peter Cowie, the author of more than thirty books on film and a frequent contributor here, has a new biography out, God and the Devil: The Life and Work of Ingmar Bergman. Critic Karsten Meinich talks not only with Cowie but with Liv Ullmann as well. For more book-related listening, turn to Radio Atlantic, where Hanna Rosin asks Jordan Peele and sci-fi author N. K. Jemisin about Out There Screaming: An Anthology of Black Horror, and to the LARB Radio Hour, where Kate Wolf and Medaya Ocher talk with poet Dorothea Lasky about her new collection, The Shining, “an ekphrastic ode to Stanley Kubrick’s classic film,” and with filmmaker Anna Biller (The Love Witch) about her first novel, Bluebeard’s Castle.

The Los Angeles Review of Books also previews Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body, the first book by artist, filmmaker, and writer RaMell Ross (Hale County This Morning, This Evening). MACK, the book’s publisher, calls this collection of writing, photographs, and conceptual works “a chronicle of the American South that is both mysterious and quotidian, a historical document and a radical imagining of the future.”

Let’s wrap with a rollicking excerpt at Talkhouse from Agents of Chaos: Thomas King Forçade, High Times, and the Paranoid End of the 1970s, wherein Sean Howe tells the story of how Forçade, the founder of one of America’s foremost counterculture magazines, financed but also nearly derailed Lech Kowalski’s first feature, D.O.A.: A Rite of Passage (1980), the documentary shot during and around the Sex Pistols’ 1978 U.S. tour. “Forçade thought the Sex Pistols were the first sign of the Armageddon and the complete disillusionment with the American government, and this was going to be the beginning of chaos,” Ted Cohen, who was the director of artist relations for Warner Brothers at the time, tells Howe. “And it wasn’t a mercenary kind of thing—he really thought he was filming a documentary on the collapse of Western civilization.” To which Howe adds: “This did not, unsurprisingly, align with Warner Brothers’ own plans.”

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