The New Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson
Thompson’s big, bulky, fiercely opinionated tome is the definitive movie reference book, even if his tastes run mighty persnickety (I just randomly opened to a page in the middle and found this comment, re Paul Newman: “I am skeptical of such blue-eyed likability”). But it is a thorough, comprehensive work, the result of a lifetime of viewing and understanding cinema, and the skill with which he combines filmography and criticism is astonishing.
IDEAL COMPANION: The American Cinema by Andrew Sarris is less exhaustive but no less fascinating, finding the chief American booster of the auteur theory ranking and contrasting American filmmakers from the beginning of the sound era through its publication in 1968.
Pictures at a Revolution by Mark Harris
Harris is one of the most insightful film writers working today (few think pieces get at the inherent trouble with movies today like his brilliant Esquire essay “The Day the Movies Died”). His first book examines the birth of the “New Hollywood” movement in a rather ingenious fashion: by simultaneously profiling the five films nominated for the Oscar as 1967’s Best Picture. Two were rabble-rousing films from young and inventive directors (The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde), two were “social change” pictures from the old guard (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In The Heat of the Night), and one was a big, bloated musical extravaganza that exemplified all that was wrong with studio production (Dr. Doolittle). In his cinematic “intercutting” of their five stories, he paints a full and riveting picture of modern movies’ turning point.
IDEAL COMPANION: J. Hoberman’s brainy The Dream Life deals with the same period within a wider scope, taking a broad view of the Sixties and (partially) the Seventies, but drawing clear lines between the movies and the historical, cultural, and social moments that shaped them — and vice versa.
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind
Biskind’s account of “how the sex-drugs-and rock ‘n’ roll generation saved Hollywood” is a dishy treat, equal parts appreciation and gossip, filled with fascinating stories of that brief period when Hollywood handed the keys to the kingdom over to a bunch of passionate neophytes. Endlessly informative and compulsively readable.
IDEAL COMPANION: The Movie Brats by Michael Pye and Lynda Myles is a little harder to come by — it’s out of print, having been written roughly contemporaneous to the events in question. But it’s worth tracking down: by profiling the six of the key auteurs of the era (Coppola, Lucas, DePalma, Milius, Scorsese, and Spielberg) in their prime, Pye and Myles capture something of their infectious passion and love for the cinema.
The Other Hollywood by Legs McNeil and Jennifer Osborne
This “uncensored oral history of the porn film industry” (heh heh) makes for a fascinating mirror to the Biskind and Pye/Myles volumes — here, too, was an industry that came of age in the early 1970s, only to see its “golden age” fall to commercialism in the go-go eighties. Colorful, smart, and laugh-out-loud funny, The Other Hollywood is also a must-read for Boogie Nights fans (play spot-that-inspiration!), and its riveting tale of the MIPORN operation, in which two FBI agents went undercover as porn producers and found it more seductive than they’d anticipated, is a Boogie Nights/Donnie Brasco combination movie just waiting to happen. Bonus: Co-author McNeil was also behind the essential punk rock oral history Please Kill Me .
IDEAL COMPANION: For another alternative history of seventies cinema, check out Jason Zinoman’s Shock Value , which looks at the less reputable but no less innovative filmmakers (Carpenter, Craven, Hooper, et al) who made exploitation horror into an art form.
Spike, Mike, Slackers, & Dykes by John Pierson
John Pierson was at the forefront of the next truly exciting moment in indie cinema, the indie movement of the late eighties and early nineties, serving as a “producer’s rep” (getting unknown pictures in front of people who could make them known) for such films as She’s Gotta Have It, The Thin Blue Line, Roger & Me, Slacker, and Clerks. That film’s director, Kevin Smith, serves as a kind of Greek chorus for the book, popping up every couple of chapters for entertaining conversational interludes with Pierson, whose reader-friendly business sense and evocative storytelling creates a you-are-there portrait of an exciting, seemingly anything-goes period.
IDEAL COMPANION: Sharon Waxman’s Rebels on the Backlot relies more on second-person accounts, and has thus been disputed in some quarters, but it’s an awfully good read anyway. She focuses, Movie Brats-style, on six key filmmakers of the indie-to-studio migration (Tarantino, Soderbergh, Fincher, PT Anderson, David O. Russell, and Spike Jonze), masterfully capturing that movement’s combination of art and commerce. And the stories about Russell’s legendary clashes with George Clooney are not to be missed.
For Keeps by Pauline Kael
No writer did more to elevate the consideration of movies as art — and to make that consideration an art form itself — than the great Pauline Kael, who spent twenty-plus years at The New Yorker redrawing the boundaries of film criticism. This doorstop volume (1200-plus pages) collects all of the essentials, and a good many treats besides: her verbose and brilliant take on Bonnie and Clyde, her hyperbolic yet persuasive praise of Last Tango in Paris, her fascinatingly nuanced struggle with Straw Dogs, the entirety of her controversial Citizen Kane appreciation, and “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” which may well be the single greatest piece of film writing ever, period.
ALTERNATE OPTION: For Keeps is long out of print, and a bit of a hassle to lug around, so there’s something to be said for last year’s The Age of Movies: Selected Writings . It’s not as comprehensive, but all of the must-haves are there — and, bonus, it’s available in e-book form, for those of us who always want to have some Kael at our fingertips.
Awake in the Dark by Roger Ebert
Ebert is the most renowned film critic of the post-Kael era: enthusiastic yet tough, eloquent yet approachable, knowledgeable without showing off. This 2006 collection assembles dozens of his finest reviews, along with a number of terrific think pieces (his case for a Pulitzer Prize for film is awfully compelling) and his terrific early profiles of legends like Robert Mitchum and Lee Marvin.
IDEAL COMPANION: Ebert showed his skills as a curator match his as a critic with Roger Ebert’s Book of Film , a marvelous 1997 collection of his favorite film writing (both fiction and non), featuring everyone from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Susan Sontag to Tom Wolfe to Elmore Leonard to Louise Brooks to Leo Tolstoy.
From Reverence to Rape by Molly Haskell
Haskell’s unflinching and unforgiving examination of the female image onscreen was first published in 1974, and it has only grown more accurate and disturbing in the years since, which haven’t exactly been a watermark era for women in film. Haskell’s close-reading is tough and analytical, but it’s not off-putting either. She does what the best cultural writers do: she makes you see the world through her prism, both as you read and long after you’ve put the book down.
IDEAL COMPANION: Once you’re in that kind of analytical mind-frame, you might be ready to tackle Robert Kokler’s dense A Cinema of Loneliness , which examines the films of Arthur Penn, Oliver Stone, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Robert Altman, but with a heavy emphasis on the social changes and political conditions within which those works were created.
The Jaws Log by Carl Gottlieb
Spielberg’s 1974 Jaws shoot was one of the most notoriously difficult productions up to that time, which is why this first person account by Carl Gottlieb (who co-wrote the screenplay, and co-starred as Mayor Vaughn’s right-hand man) is so valuable. It’s also fast and funny — Gottlieb’s roots were in improv comedy — and captures the tribulations and irritations of location shooting as few other volumes have.
IDEAL COMPANION: Long before “behind the scenes” pieces were de rigueur, Lillian Ross chronicled the making of John Huston’s Red Badge of Courage — first in a series of New Yorker pieces, then the book Picture , which collected and expanded them. Candid and fascinating, it offers up proof positive that the struggle between art and commerce has some mighty deep roots.
Making Movies by Sidney Lumet
Still, there’s nothing like getting a director’s take on the process of filmmaking — and no one has put it to the page with more warmth and wisdom than the late, great Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon, Network, 12 Angry Men), whose wonderfully conversational guidebook strolls leisurely through development, technique, editing, and working with actors. His affection for the craft emanates from every page, and the story of how he got that incredible performance out of Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon’s telephone will-dictation scene is worth the cover price alone.
IDEAL COMPANION: The story of how Robert Rodriguez became a Hollywood player on the basis of a $7,000 Spanish shoot-’em-up became indie legend, and he tells it with crackling energy and unflagging enthusiasm in Rebel Without a Crew , which combines his production diary (including the time he spent as a “human lab rat” to raise funds), a written version of his “ten minute film school,” and the film’s annotated screenplay.
Those are our “must-have” movie books — what are yours?