“A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies” by Martin Scorsese & Michael Henry Wilson (1995)
Quite simply the greatest work––in any medium––about cinema. It delves into the medium like nothing else does. I experience a rush of excitement every time I watch it, a feeling that cinema is alive in a way none of the other arts are. Not a line is wasted, the progression is seamless – argument after argument, interview after interview, extract after extract. When the end arrives there’s only thing that you want to do: start again…
“Thunder on the Left: The Making of Reds”by Peter Biskind
Technically, this is a piece of film journalism, not film criticism. But it is impossible for us to have film criticism if we do not read about films, the way they’re made, from the on-set efforts to the back-stage tensions. This is why it is essential for all critics to read Peter Biskind’s work. Biskind has written my favorite biography (Star on Warren Beatty) and a wonderful book about the New Hollywood (Easy Riders & Raging Bulls). Here, he’s writing about Warren Beatty and the making of Reds. This is a riveting, entertaining, emotional and informative exploration of the history behind cinema’s greatest epic. It tells both the big history (the political backdrop, the feat of the shoot) and the little history (trivia and memories). Biskind is admirable because he never loses sight of the small things. He knows that there’s nothing bigger than details, and that, in Beatty’s case, everything matters.
Transcendental Style in Film by Paul Schrader
How do you show the Spiritual? Paul Schrader went on an intellectual quest to answer this question, looking at the cinemas of Bresson, Dreyer and Ozu. He came back with the best response anyone has ever come up with. There’s great rigor and structure to the arguments but, perhaps foreshadowing his brilliant future as a filmmaker, Schrader does not shy away from powerful evocations of the Transcendental. This is the perfect balance between the academic and the personal; it makes a powerful case that the two reinforce each other, and that we must appeal to both to engage audiences eager to learn about film, but not necessarily well versed in film history.
“Of Dinosaurs and Ships: Steven Spielberg, Large Things, and the Digital Mise-en-Scene” by Robert Kolker
from A Cinema of Loneliness
This book by Robert Kolker might just be my favorite book ever written about film art, and out of all the pieces it collects, this essay on Spielberg stands out the most. Kolker understands the dynamics at play in Spielberg’s body of work and explores them with great care. He never comes to easy conclusions, nor does he falls into the clichés usually applied to the work of so-called commercial cineastes. Steven Spielberg is an enigma, and we’re still realizing how much he’s influenced filmmakers and audiences alike, how much he’s shaped the imagination of his viewers; even how much his films have slowly become their own form of ideology. If you want to understand the workings and impact of a director that is both a master and an iconoclast, this is the essay to read.
Ghosts by Paul Auster
from The New York Trilogy
Yes, Paul Auster is a novelist, and yes, Ghosts is one of the novellas the comprises The New York Trilogy. But don’t be fooled: Auster is a passionate cinephile and a former aspiring filmmaker, with a knowledge of movies that very few filmmakers ever have. Ghosts echoes the sheer angst of film noir and is a masterclass in writing a film as a novel. In many ways, it is the reverse of a film adaptation: Auster re-telling of all the sensations and images he’s experienced from Fuller to Wyler.
But for this entry I’m thinking of a specific description. The main character Blue recalls a picture he’s quite fond of: Tourneur’s Out of The Past. Although it’s presented as fiction, this is simply one of the most poetic and lyric piece of film criticism I’ve ever read. Film criticism is sometimes guilty of the very thing it often denounces in film: over-rationalization. Although it’s crucial for us to be able to analyze a film, deeply debate it, it’s equally important to embrace the magic of celluloid. And no one writes about it better than Auster, here, in The Book of Illusions, and in the rest of his outstanding bibliography.