"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Reading the Movies Meme

So, I got tagged by Jeremy over at Moon in the Gutter for this meme that has been going around the blogosphere started over at The Dancing Image by Movieman0283 where you list some of the books about film that most influenced you. I thought that was a great idea and have listed a few books that certainly shaped me as a moviegoer and a film critic.

Midnight Movies by J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum: This was the first book of film criticism/history that I ever read and it really had a huge impact on me. I was just getting into David Lynch films and their chapter on Eraserhead blew my mind. It also pointed me in the direction of other great filmmakers like John Waters, George Romero and Alejandro Jodorwsky. In my mind, it still remains to be the best book on the midnight movie phenomenon written by two of the best film critics.

Harlan Ellison's Watching by Harlan Ellison: Ellison is known mostly for his prolific career as a writer fantasy and science fiction short stories but I am actually a huge fan of essays. This books collects reviews he wrote for a number of publications including The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Cinema, The Los Angeles Free Press, The Staff, and Starlog. He was a rare critical voice in genres of SF and fantasy, not afraid to slam sacred cows like Star Wars and Star Trek in his reviews while also championing cult oddities like Repo Man and Big Trouble in Little China. Being someone with insider connections he also exposed the sabotaging of films like Dune and Brazil from within their own studios. Not to mention his style of writing is entertaining as hell. It's one of the rare books of criticism that I read again and again.

Michael Mann by F.X. Sweeney: I have been working on a book about the films of Michael Mann for some time and every time a new book comes out I fear that it will basically eclipse all of the hard work I've done. This one came close - a fantastic coffee table-style tome with some gorgeous stills and rare, behind-the-scenes photos from Mann's personal archives. The book is short on factual, production details and has some decent analysis but is a definite, must-have for any fan of Mann's work.

Lynch on Lynch by Chris Rodley: David Lynch has always been a hard guy to pin down in interviews as he refuses to analyze his films and often gives obscure answers. Rodley spent a lot of time with the filmmaker and one gets the impression that he gained his confidence as he talks at length about his entire body of work. There is some great insights and fascinating anecdotes about the making of his films. An invaluable resource on Lynch.

The Making of Citizen Kane by Robert L. Carringer: Hands down THE best book about how this film came together. Carringer goes into exhaustive detail about every aspect of this film, including Orson Welles' experimental take on adapting Conrad's Heart of Darkness into a film. This is one of my favorite films of all time and this book really does it justice as Carringer examines just how groundbreaking it was in terms of film technique. Great stuff.

BFI Modern Classics: The Right Stuff by Tom Charity: I could create a whole list just of BFI books as they have done so many great ones. I single this one out in particular because not much has been written about this great, underrated film of the 1980s but Charity does a great job putting it into historical context and he also had a chance to interview the film's director Philip Kaufman. As a result, there is a wealth of anecdotal information about how the film came together and the challenge to make it.

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind: There's a reason why this book has popped up on a lot of people's lists - it's a fantastic, entertaining read of the hedonistic days 1970s Hollywood chronicling the rise of the film brats (Spielberg, Coppola, Lucas, Altman, et al). While it does tend to get a little too gossipy at times, it is still a helluva read and before this recent book on Hal Ashby came out, it was probably the best profile of this underrated filmmaker. I also found his look at Terrence Malick's career to be a interesting as well.

American Independent Cinema: A Sight and Sound Reader edited by Jim Hiller: There are actually a few of these readers and they are all great reads. Essentially, they are collections of review, interviews and essays that appeared in the pages of Sight and Sound magazine. This book is a great resource that saves you having to hunt down and pay for all of these back issues. I've been a big fan of the American indie scene over the years and this book covers a lot of ground including the usual suspects (Jarmusch, Linklater, Paul Thomas Anderson, etc.). I refer to it often.

The Battle of Brazil by Jack Mathews: There are actually quite a few really good books out there about Terry Gilliam and his films but this is probably the best one on one his films. If you have the excellent 3-Disc Criterion Collection edition of the film then this book is a great companion piece as it goes into even more detail (if that's possible) with a blow-by-blow account of Gilliam's struggle to get this film made within the studio system.

I'm a Lebowski, You're a Lebowski by Bill Green, et al: I LOVE The Big Lebowski and have been waiting for years for a book like this to come along. The officially sanctioned one by William Preston Robertson is pretty good but this one was written by fans for the fans and covers the film in very exhaustive detail, interviewing pretty much everyone involved while also tracing its rise as a cult film. The Dude abides.

BFI Modern Classics: Dead Man by Jonathan Rosenbaum: It's no secret that Rosenbaum is a huge Jim Jarmusch fan and he does justice to this great film by analyzing Dead Man in detail and also interviewing the filmmaker that provides all kinds of insight into how it got made and the meaning behind it. If you like this film, this is the book to get.

Nightmare Movies by Kim Newman: This is one the best overviews of contemporary horror films that I've come across. I only wish that he would update it but it is still a great read. Newman doesn't really go into great detail about these films but rather attempts to classify them in his own uniquely named genres/chapter titles. What it lacks in depth it more than makes up for in sheer volume of films mentioned so that you can go off and track them down. This is a really great read by a film critic I have followed for years.

Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film by Peter Biskind: Biskind is at it again, this time digging up considerable dirt on the Weinstein brothers and Robert Redford and Sundance. What Biskind did for 1970s American cinema, he does for 1990s American Indie cinema. This is another wildly entertaining read that is, again, steeped in gossip, but there is some really interesting bits, like how the Weinstein's messed up Guillermo Del Toro's horror film Mimic and the struggle James Mangold had making Copland. If you are interested in the films from this period, then check this book out.

There are many, many more I could list but these are the ones I could think of off the top of my head.


  1. As you already know, I have the Mann, Lynch, and Easy Rider... books.

    Must get Right Stuff, Dead Man and Down and Dirty, and I just added Ellison's book to my shopping cart.

  2. Awesome! Yeah, the Ellison book is great and Down and Dirty is an incredibly entertaining read.

  3. what a great list! A few I haven't explored on it that I'll be opening up now..

  4. In addition to the one-offs, you noted some great series here. Not just the BFI and the "_ on _" series (of which the Lynch book is a shining example) but also those fantastic Taschen books. They always draw my attention when I'm in a bookstore and I love their aesthetic, though surprisingly I don't own any. One of these days...

  5. Nightmare Movies is just fantastic, so frustrating it's OOP, nice to see another fan. I think I may prefer Ellison's essays to his fiction as well!

  6. Those look like some good books. I've very seldom read books about film. Maybe I should give it a shot.

  7. Mattson Tomlin:

    Thanks for stopping by and I'm glad you enjoyed the list.


    "but also those fantastic Taschen books. They always draw my attention when I'm in a bookstore and I love their aesthetic, though surprisingly I don't own any. One of these days..."

    They are nice, aren't they? In addition to the Mann one I also have the one dedicated Roman Polanski which is quite nice.

    Will Errickson:

    Ah, another fan of NIGHTMARE MOVIES. I really love this book and you're right, it's a shame it is OOP but a copy is easily attainable through Amazon which is where I track down my copy.


    Of any of the books, you should try Biskind's book about American films in the 1970s. It is a very entertaining read.

  8. Awesome pics JD...thanks for participtaing. Also, I hope you got my email back to you and saw that I put your Mann banner over at Moon's side panel.

  9. Jeremy:

    I got yer email and thanks for posting my banner on your site! Also, thanks for tagging me with the meme - I had a lot of fun thinking up which books to list and why.