The Film Doctor's top 10 favorite film books

Movieman0283 of The Dancing Image tagged me to respond to his excellent "Reading the Movies" meme. I've been slow to respond, due, in part, to being intimidated after reading the lists from the likes of Campaspe, Glenn Kenny and Richard Brody, but also because I don't really remember books that profoundly affected me long ago. So this list will combine influences as well as good film books I've read recently.

1) I mostly grew up reading the movie satires in Mad magazine.

Recently, while rewatching Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, I realized that that film is already a Mad satire of the nuclear arms race, making it the ultimate cinematic tribute to the magazine. Roger Ebert has confessed to Mad's influence, as can be seen from his quote that I found at Wikipedia:

"I learned to be a movie critic by reading Mad magazine . . . Mad's parodies made me aware of the machine inside the skin--of the way a movie might look original on the outside, while inside it was just recycling the same old dumb formulas. I did not read the magazine, I plundered it for clues to the universe. Pauline Kael lost it at the movies; I lost it at Mad magazine."

2) Speaking of Pauline Kael, my parents left copies of The New Yorker lying around the house, so I also grew up reading her reviews religiously.

When I left home for Sewanee Academy in Tennessee, I arranged to have The New Yorker sent there too, much to the derision of my dormmates. If nothing else, Kael taught me how movie reviewing can be an art unto itself. Also, you should always be fearlessly honest to your gut response to a film, no matter what kind of trouble it might get you into later. I like Reeling, although For Keeps is probably the best introduction to her work.

3) Walker Percy's first novel The Moviegoer was also a big influence on me. An existential work that borrows from Kierkegaard and Albert Camus' The Stranger, The Moviegoer helped me fall for New Orleans years before I visited the city, and Binx Bolling's nonchalant spectator attitude toward life was a pleasure to absorb:

"In the evenings I usually watch television or go to the movies. Weekends I often spend on the Gulf Coast. Our neighborhood theater in Gentilly has permanent lettering on the front of the marquee reading: Where Happiness Costs So Little. The fact is that I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie. Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too met a girl in Central Park, but it was not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man."

While not technically a film book, though Perelman includes some movie appreciations amidst his humor pieces, Most of the Most of S. J. Perelman is still a great stylistic influence for writing movie reviews, so I reread this book frequently. I also like to read Lester Bang's criticism for the same reason.

5) With A History of the French New Wave, Richard Neupert provides an excellent introduction to one of the best film movements. I especially like his discussion of Jean-Pierre Melville.

6) Since I tend to have an obsessive interest in everything related to Bonnie and Clyde, I enjoyed Mark Harris' Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. What exactly did Arthur Penn and Warren Beatty argue about all day when they should have been shooting the movie? Here's a quote:

"Beatty and Penn's discussions often concerned aspects of the script as small as which word in a line should be emphasized or as unquantifiable as the tone of a particular moment. A flourish, a camera angle, a reaction, a grace note--no issue was too trivial to stop both men in their tracks. `What else is making a movie,' Beatty said, `except attention to detail?'"

7) I've used Mascelli's classic The Five C's of Cinematography in my video production class. He neatly diagrams the basic syntax of camera work. Also, I like the very formal 1950s look of the photography (lots of severe haircuts).

8) I just read Howard Suber's The Power of Film during a trip to the beach. His alphabetized entries concisely examine how heroes, villains, and other aspects of classic movies form patterns of use for future screenwriters, and I liked the way he kept bringing up The Godfather as an example.

9) Anthony Lane's collection Nobody's Perfect shows why he's perhaps the best stylist/film reviewer writing today.

10) Is there a better compendium of film criticism than Phillip Lopate's American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now? This is the place to learn not only of the history of the form, but also of the film critics who are scary good, like Manny Farber.

Other books that almost made the list: Nicholas Christopher's Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City, Bernard F. Dick's Anatomy of Film, Stanley Kaufman's Regarding Film, and Sidney Lumet's Making Movies.

Here are five excellent bloggers I'd like to tag:

1) Dr. K of Dr. K's 100-Page Super Spectacular

2) Dr. North of Spectacular Attractions

3) Dennis Cozzalio of Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule

4) Hokahey of Little Worlds

5) Chuck Tryon of The Chutry Experiment


T.S. said…
Stellar list. I'll be adding a few of these to my library queue very shortly. And it's a stroke of genius to include Percy's novel, which is on my bookshelf and which my eyes skipped over as I was assembling my own list. (I remember working as a cashier at my local theater and re-reading it, dog-eared pages and all, in between crowd rushes.) I'm glad you've put a spotlight on it here.
Thanks, T.S. I slightly David Lettermanized the meme by making it a top ten list, but it is good to share one's library with the film blogosphere.
Richard Bellamy said…
FilmDr - I enjoyed your list. I have been planning on buying Pictures at a Revolution since I read a review of it, and I will definitely get the cinematography book for my film club.

Thanks for tagging me - but most of all thank you very very much for calling me an "excellent" blogger. I will continue to try to live up to that qualification. As for the meme, I saw it a while back and posted my list last month without being tagged - and here it is. Enjoy
My pleasure, Hokahey. Thanks for the link.
Dan North said…
Thanks for the tag, Doc. I'll add the meme to my to-do list. I fear it might be quite a disreputable list of faves, though...
I look forward to it, Dan. My list includes comics, humor writings, and a novel, so I doubt that your list could be more disreputable than mine.
Joel Bocko said…
Yes, there is definitely no such thing as "disreputable" here, Dan! List away...


You and some of the other bloggers who responded to me have made me itch to read The Moviegoer. I think it will probably be the next book I read; I'd seen an excerpt in Ebert's anthology of great film writing (which, interestingly, not a single blogger has mentioned, including me) which I enjoyed but the excerpts I've read on blogs in the past few weeks have really hooked me.

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