It’s an old standby that if a person is truly a master at one thing, he’s probably not great at much else. But when it comes to cinema, the auteur’s role is to be good at everything — sound, writing, camerawork, etc. — while also maintaining an overarching vision. So it isn’t surprising that there are so many great books written by cinema’s most famous (and infamous) auteurs. The staggering variety, though, is surprising, albeit with one exception: there are still few books published by cinema’s greatest women auteurs. (Why in the hell is Agnes Varda’s Varda only available in French?) Nevertheless, here is a list of the greatest books ever written by auteurs. And if your favorite director’s book isn’t on here, maybe it wasn’t very good?
Andrei Tarkovsky — Sculpting in Time
Arguably the master of the long take — and I do mean arguably — Tarkovsky’s book establishes rhythm and time as the dual hearts of the film image. This book is the manifesto of a certain form of cinema that became increasingly current throughout the 1970’s, 1980’s, and into the 1990’s, culminating, again arguably, with Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse. It’s one of the great complaints against what would become the hyperactive editing style of Hollywood cinema.
The Writings of Derek Jarman
From October 30th through November 11th, the Brooklyn Academy of Music will run a much-needed retrospective of the work of Derek Jarman called “Queer Pagan Punk,” and that’s an apt description of the filmmaker’s work. But his memoiristic writings, too, in books like Dancing Ledge, Modern Nature, and At Your Own Risk, should be revisited STAT, along with the films.
The Plays of Elaine May
Elaine May, simultaneously one of our best and most underrated filmmakers, began her stage career while crashing classes at the University of Chicago in the 1950s. From there she struck up a friendship with Mike Nichols, a fellow “dead broke theater junkie,” and started writing plays and comedy. Their “mob and snob” humor, developed in new directions by May, infused many of her later films. But she also made bleaker features, like Mikey and Nicky.
Robert Bresson — Notes on Cinematography
This spare, aphoristic, elliptical collection of “notes” echoes Bresson’s own cinema. Bresson was truly a master of all facets of cinema, from sound design to directing actors, who are often referred to as “angels” for their affectless delivery. Here’s an example line from the book:
A too-expected image (cliché) will never seem right, even if it is.
Chantal Akerman — Chantal Akerman: A Family in Brussels
Akerman, in recent years, has experienced a resurgence, at least in New York City, not only with repertory screenings of the great Jeanne Dielman, but with DVD releases of her early films, like News From Home and Je tu il elle. This beautiful family memoir challenges the dearth of published writing by women auteurs, and I hope some worthy publishers picks it up soon.
Ingmar Bergman — The Magic Lantern
Bergman has become a gateway drug into auteurism with bleak films, like The Seventh Seal, that deal with death and illness, but his career was actually quite varied, especially if you look into the early comedies he wrote before directing.
From his autobiography, The Magic Lantern:
When a film is not a document, it is a dream. . . . At the editing table, when I run the strip of film through, frame by frame, I still feel that dizzy sense of magic of my childhood.
Ida Lupino — Beyond the Camera
British filmmaker Ida Lupino was a pioneer, not just for women filmmakers, but for filmmaking in general. She made seven films, most of them in Hollywood, and she acted in more than fifty. She even composed music! This book covers a lot of ground, and there is, honestly, a lot of ground to cover. Lupino considered herself “the poor man’s Bette Davis,” but she was infinitely more than that. She turned to directing after being suspended for turning down a role. From there Lupino encouraged her studio to address “issue films” that slyly nodded to her role as a woman filmmaker.
Sergei Eisenstein — Film Form: Essays in Film Theory
Eisenstein is the original master and is (to a degree) the “inventor” of montage. The language of film owes him an immense debt, and these essays provide one of the most lived-in commentaries on cinema at the time of its transition into sound.
Jean-Luc Godard — Godard on Godard
I’ve included very few “x on x” film books, mostly because they weren’t actually written by the filmmaker. I have to make an exception in this case, not only because Godard was a highly capable film critic for the journal Cahiers du Cinema, but also because his observations are crucial for the development of modern cinema. This book charts a turning point in the European perception of film.
François Truffaut — The Films In My Life
Too many film lovers pitch their tents in the no man’s land between Truffaut and Godard. Truffaut’s films, like The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, Stolen Kisses, Day for Night, and The Story of Adele H., came to heavily influence many European arthouse films in the 1990’s and 2000’s. This collection of film writings is indispensable.
Luis Buñuel — My Last Sigh
Buñuel’s My Last Sigh is one of the most amazing auteur autobiographies we have. A propagandist during the Spanish Civil War, friend to Pablo Picasso, Jorge Luis Borges, Salvador Dalí, and Federico García Lorca, Buñuel’s life was truly insane, and his observations about art and politics should be read and re-read ad nauseum.
The entire oeuvre of Anita Loos
This is also something of a cheat, but not really. Anita Loos may not have been a prominent director, but she is singlehandedly responsible for the careers of countless literary writers in Hollywood. And she invented the complex intertitle. She worked closely with D.W. Griffith, and she wrote dozens of seminal films. She also wrote the original book Gentleman Prefer Blondes, which Edith Wharton called “the great American novel.” She’s responsible for so much of the way we read, write, and make films. Anita Loos is basically the mother of American narrative.
Jean Renoir — My Life And My Films
Son of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Jean Renoir went on to become one of the greatest and most beloved filmmakers of all time. (His A Day in the Country is my favorite film.) From poetic realism to technicolor musical comedy, Renoir’s work is variegated yet always beautiful. My Life and Films charts a career that spanned from France to India and Hollywood.
Raul Ruiz — Poetics Of Cinema
Raul Ruiz (or Raoul Ruiz, depending on where he made his films), passed away in 2011, but his strange and fabulistic cinema, heavily influenced by Orson Welles yet still sui generis, continues to find new admirers. In this book, which is marked by Ruiz’s own deep commitment to reading, the director not only comments on globalism and the state of the industry, but also provides surrealist commentary drawn from ancient literature. Strange, yes, but also necessary.
Josef Von Sternberg — Fun In A Chinese Laundry
This is my pick for the greatest auteur autobiography. Josef Von Sternberg, who once said, “my camera shoots at point blank range,” was one of the most gifted, original, and widely hated filmmakers of his era. Some will come to this book to hear about how he launched the career of Marlene Dietrich, but they will stay for the dry, witty, often hilarious anecdotes and observations about his life and times. Fun in a Chinese Laundry reads like a novel written about a filmmaker, rather than an autobiography.
Andy Warhol — The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again
More a collection of thoughts, really, than an autobiography. But Warhol’s throwaway thoughts are worth a dozen autobiographies. It’s stuffed with crazy lines, like:
That forty-pound shopping bag of rice that I bought in a panic is still next to my bed.
Miranda July — No One Belongs Here More Than You
On the strength of two features, as well as this collection of stories, Miranda July has one of the best one-two combos on this list: the originality of her films is matched by the quality of her writing. As impressive a debut as we have in recent American cinema, Me and You and Everyone We Know was surpassed by The Future, which I think is one of the more underrated films of recent years. This collection of stories, as well as her other book projects, in conjunction with her films, points to a startlingly cohesive aesthetic perspective.
John Waters — Shock Value
This is the crucial book from the master of “bad taste.” “If someone vomits watching my films,” Waters writes, “it’s like getting a standing ovation.” Shock Value covers Waters’ friendship with Divine, his time in Baltimore, and his rise from Pink Flamingos to “sort-of” fame.
Werner Herzog — Conquest of the Useless
I’m not a big fan of Herzog’s more recent “soldiers of cinema” phase, which I find unnerving and unnecessary, but this journal of the making Fitzcarraldo is indispensable, and it shows Herzog in a state of delirium, which we can all agree is entertaining, at least.
Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich — This is Orson Welles
This is another sort of cheat, considering that this book isn’t written per se by Orson Welles. But it’s Orson Welles. And even if Citizen Kane was recently booted from the top spot (of greatest films) by the BFI megalist, Welles is still, without question, one of a handful of the greatest filmmakers ever. I wish more people would see Chimes at Midnight, which is one of my favorite films.
Leni Riefenstahl — Leni Riefenstahl
Riefenstahl is a controversial figure. She contributed to the Nazi propaganda machine with films like Triumph of the Will and Olympia, which, in retrospect are also works of genius and indisputable additions to the history of film language. In this book she details her historical motivations, personal friendships, and approach to filmmaking. At the very least any assessment of Riefenstahl should take her own words into account.
Kenneth Anger — Hollywood Babylon
This crazy genius book was banned in Hollywood for a decade before it was rereleased in the late 1970s. Emphatically not an autobiography, it’s basically a survey of scandal in Hollywood from 1900 to 1950 written by one our greatest queer experimental filmmakers.
Hitchcock on Hitchcock
Again, Hitchock didn’t write this book, necessarily. But I’m including it because 1) it’s Hitchcock and 2) it’s better than any of the films on Hitchcock that have come out recently.
Jerry Lewis — The Total Filmmaker
Why do young people not know about Jerry Lewis? Why is this book so hard to find?
From The Total Filmmaker:
Comedy, humor, call it what you will, is often the difference between sanity and insanity, survival and disaster, even death. It’s man’s emotional safety valve. If it wasn’t for humor, man could not survive emotionally. People who have the ability to laugh at themselves are the peoples who eventually make it. Black and Jews have the greatest senses of humor simply because their safety valves have been open so long.
Samuel Fuller — A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking
Samuel Fuller made roughly 30 films over a 40 year period, and this lively book, which won the 2002 non-fiction award from the Los Angeles Times, is one of the best autobiographies in cinema. In addition to groundbreaking films like Shock Corridor, White Dog, and Pickup on South Street, Fuller also wrote 11 novels.
Marguerite Duras — On Writing
Perhaps the most important contributor to the French New Novel, Duras is deeply respected in the literary community, and for good reason. But she also made great films, like Les enfants, Nathalie Granger, and India Song. Duras’ On Writing sounds like it is primarily about the art of writing, but the metaphors in this book cut both ways.
Frank Tashlin — The Bear that Wasn’t
Frank Tashlin, also known as Tish Tash, was probably most known for films like Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and Hollywood or Bust. But he was also a writer of children’s books, including The Bear that Wasn’t, a story about a bear who goes into hibernation only to wake in the middle of an industrial complex.
William Castle — STEP RIGHT UP!…I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America
There should be little debate that William Castle’s autobiography has the best title of all film books. And why shouldn’t it? It comes from the master of the B-Movie horror film and the inventor of cinema’s greatest gimmicks. Castle is the guy who notoriously handed out life-insurance policies to filmgoers who were afraid that they might die of fear while seeing his film Macabre.
Guy Debord — Society of the Spectacle
Innumerable critiques of the modern world are nothing but watered down variations on this book. Debord, an accomplished filmmaker in his own right, is more known for this book, which claims that “being” became “having” and merely “appearing.” Think of this the next time you make an “appearance” at a party.
Maya Deren — Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti
In 1953, Joseph Campbell edited a series of books for publisher Thames & Hudson. One of these books just happened to be by Maya Deren, one of the greatest experimental filmmaker of all time. Today, Divine Horsemen is considered among the founding texts on the “culture and spirituality of Hatian Voudoun.” I’d also recommend grabbing the collected writings of Deren, who was a considerable writer along with a necessary filmmaker who died too young.
Robert Flaherty — Comock: The True Story Of An Eskimo Hunter
Robert Flaherty was arguably the first great documentarian in cinema, and he’s still, without question, one of the greatest. His groundbreaking films, like Nanook of the North and Man of Aran, are copied even today — no, especially today — for the way they meld documentary and fiction. If you think The Act of Killing is somehow genuinely new, you should probably check yourself and watch Man of Aran. But Flaherty actually wrote this substantial, original work of oral anthropology before he made any of his seminal films.
Jean Rouch — Cine-Ethnography
Jean Rouch is probably the most influential director that no one ever watches. His form-blending documentaries, made over four decades from the ’40s to the ’80s, are probably the height of anthropological cinema. He spent of this time working with African subjects, questioning many Western assumptions about his subjects. He also skillfully analyzed the role of the camera in documentary film, the way its presence affects the subjects of the films. After studying with Claude Levi-Strauss, Rouch became the fifth person in all of France to get a degree in anthropology.
Hito Steyerl — The Wretched of the Screen
One of the most recent entries on this list comes from Hito Steyerl, a video artist of growing renown whose art films are somewhat inflected by auteurish tropes. This must-read of contemporary film writing uncovers how political struggle has been displaced into images and screens.
Dziga Vertov — Kino-Eye: The Writings Dziga Vertov
As the Western world fell in increasingly in love with narrative cinema, Dziga Vertov grew disenchanted with its overused, stagnant film language. This book unleashes the breadth of Vertov’s aspirations for cinema. He truly believed that his Kino-Eye approach to cinema could affect the evolution of mankind into “the electric man.” Maybe it happened after all?
Sally Potter — Naked Cinema: Working with Actors
In this book, British filmmaker Sally Potter self-consciously limits the discussion to her own experience with directing actors. But considering that this experience includes directing Orlando and Ginger and Rosa, I’d say it’s worth reading.