A periodic round up of interesting and notable books about film, including biographies, histories, critical assessments, and more.
I have to confess from the off that, apart from Daniel Day-Lewis’ typically spellbinding performance (if that’s even the right word for what he does) and the meticulous detail and cinematography that made the film a joy to look at, Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln left me rather cold; perhaps if I had read Lincoln: A Cinematic and Historical Companion (Disney Editions, distributed in the UK by Turnaround www.turnarounduk.com) beforehand, my viewing experience would have been richer and more rewarding.
The book opens with earnest forewards by Spielberg and producer Kathleen Kennedy, and is thereafter divided into two sections, each in two parts. Part One, ‘Players on the Stage of History’, features full page colour photos of the film’s main players in the style of 19th century portraiture, which highlights just how closely the actors resemble the people they portrayed, who are seen in smaller photographs on the opposite pages. It’s intriguing that the filmmakers felt the need for such verisimilitude in the casting, as other than Lincoln himself and a few other major figures, very few viewers could know or would care how closely the actors resemble the people they’re portraying, but it’s indicative of the seriousness with which accuracy was pursued. This section also features brief biographical notes that focus on these chief players, which along with Part Two, ‘The Road to the Thirteenth Amendment’ (the book’s longest section), provides very helpful, enlightening details about the characters involved in and events leading up to the crucial vote to abolish slavery, facts which are absent from the film.
Parts Three (‘Filming Lincoln’ ) and Four (‘Bringing History to Life’) focus on the production of the film, which is recounted primarily through interviews with the creative team conducted by author and documentarist Laurent Bouzereau (The Making of Spielberg’s Jaws). The film was unquestionably a labour of love for all involved with huge efforts made to get every period detail meticulously correct, and it’s always satisfying to see a behind the scenes team receive their due. It’s a shame however that more effort wasn’t expended on constructing a tighter narrative with characters who were easier to identify, but regardless, this is a handsome book which most Lincoln and U.S. Civil War buffs will covet.
Once seen, the films shot by master cinematographer John Alton aren’t easily forgotten; his work on crime classics including The Big Combo, T-Men and He Walked By Night have been revered by generations of noir aficionados and fellow cinematographers. Alton used his palette of darkness and light to augment narratives in a way that many have aspired to but few have equalled, in a hotel room lit by the hypnotically sleazy pulse of neon through a window, in a deep focus shot of a sewer tunnel lit by a receding flashlight, or in darkness split by a muzzle flash.
Alton’s Painting With Light (University of California Press, www.ucpress.edu), originally published in 1949, was the first technical guide written by a Hollywood insider, and while much of Alton’s ‘how-to’ is now positively quaint thanks to the changes wrought by the rampant march of technology, it nevertheless provides fascinating insights into the mechanisms of the studio system and just how this wizard of black & white cinematography achieved some of his startling, timeless images.
Alton considered himself an artist at a time when Hollywood functioned as an industrial enterprise, which brought him into conflict with his studio bosses and other members of the American Society of Cinematographers (even the title of this book irked many of its members, who felt he was pretentious and overreaching in his self-assessment). He began work on The Birdman of Alcatraz alongside director Charles Crichton in November 1960, but star Burt Lancaster and his producing partner Harold Hecht replaced Crichton with John Frankenheimer after a week, and after one day on the job Frankenheimer fired Alton, citing incompatibility; thus ended, at the age of only 59, the career of one of the greatest cinematographers who ever worked in Hollywood.
The foreword by cinematographer John Bailey (Groundhog Day) and introduction by critic Todd McCarthy provide much insight into the life of the enigmatic Alton, who lived to the age of 94 but shunned all attempts to coax him into the limelight until very late in his life, when he relented after being feted along with other significant cinematographers in the documentary Visions of Light in 1993. As McCarthy writes, “Painting With Light may be outdated in spots as far as the how is concerned…but the what and the why are universal and not influenced by changing technology”.
As with John Alton, most of the directors featured in Nat Segaloff’s Final Cuts: The Last Films of 50 Great Directors (BearManor Media, www.bearmanormedia.com) ended their careers with a whimper rather than a bang; the quality of Segaloff’s research elevates the book from a mere recounting of grim biographical facts to an engrossing and sobering look at the ignominious ends suffered by many great filmmakers.
The overwhelming impression Final Cuts leaves one with is just how badly the careers of many feted and successful directors ended. A few, like Robert Altman, were wildly inconsistent at any rate, and the fact that he ended on the mediocre A Prairie Home Companion rather than the dreadful Pret A Porter was really down to chance rather than a pronounced downward career spiral; a very few directors, like Sidney Lumet, actually ended on a high note (Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead). Altman and Lumet were exceptions, however, and the fates suffered by Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, Richard Brooks and James Bridges are more typical, all of whom were inspired, often brilliant directors who either lost their creative mojo or lost touch with contemporary audiences by the time of their final films. Other directors fared badly because of their overwhelmingly self –destructive natures (Nicholas Ray, Sam Peckinpah), or because of an inability or refusal to follow the rules (Orson Welles) or, as in the case of Michael Powell, because he made a film that was considered shockingly inappropriate (Peeping Tom) and effectively destroyed his reputation.
It’s interesting to contemplate what the final films by many of today’s top Hollywood directors such as Ridley Scott, Tarantino, Todd Phillips, or Christopher Nolan might be; the industry certainly hasn’t become any kinder or forgiving in the 21st century. Perhaps Final Cuts can be updated every 15 or 20 years, or subsequent volumes can appear, highlighting the fates of a new generation of directors, and if that came to pass, here’s hoping the torch will be passed to a writer with Segaloff’s sensitivity and insight.
Intrepid Laughter: Preston Sturges and the Movies (University Press of Kentucky www.kentuckypress.com). This reprinting of Andrew Dickos’ examination of the life and films of the remarkable Sturges, creator of some of the greatest American film comedies ever, is an excellent entry point for those wishing to find out more about what made the man tick. Beginning with a concise biography before moving on to examinations of his screenwriting and directing, Dickos skilfully gets to the heart of the man and his work in a brief 132 pages.
If you haven’t yet watched Sturges’ films (the censor enraging The Miracle of Morgans’s Creek is a great place to start), you’re missing out on a sublime viewing (and listening) experience; watch them and then read this, or do it the other way around, but watch them.
Firestorm: American Film in the Age of Terrorism (Columbia University Press www.cup.columbia.edu). Virginia Tech cinema professor Stephen Prince’s cogent examination of American fiction and documentary film post 9/11, originally published in 2009, is a fair and balanced look at how the American film industry has been affected by and reacted to the 9/11 attacks, the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the U.S. government’s increased militarism and disregard for civil rights.
Prince makes his liberal political stance clear, and he calls the Bush administration to account repeatedly as part of his analysis of the many fiction and non-fiction films (and TV programmes, including the execrable 24) that deal directly with the altered American reality of the ‘00s. Unsurprisingly, it’s pretty clear that the most significant films have been non-fiction. This is a solid addition to contemporary film scholarship and cultural studies, and would greatly benefit from being brought up to date to include post 2007 releases including Kathryn Bigelow’s Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, the hit TV series Homeland, and others.
Film Noir – The Directors (Limelight Editions www.limelighteditions.com). I’ve been dipping in and out of this excellent reference volume, edited by noir authorities Alain Silver and James Ursini, for months, so it’s about time I included it in the column. The book covers the work of 28 directors in individual essays by a variety of contributors – mostly academics – and primarily assesses directors well-known for their work in noir (Huston, Hitchcock, Fuller, Lang, Preminger). There are also examinations of the work of a few lesser known directors (Ida Lupino, Felix Feist, John Brahm) and the book features a lot of excellent photographs, many of them behind the scenes, posed and otherwise.
Different authors means different styles, with some going for close textual readings of the films and others opting for broader overviews, and while this inconsistency doesn’t detract from the book, some of the entries are stronger than others. While there are now seemingly as many books about noir as there are films in the canon, this is a worthy addition and one which I’ll continue to reach for regularly.