Thomson (The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder, 2009, etc.) brings his encyclopedic knowledge of film and idiosyncratic, allusive style to bear on this ambitious consideration of the history of motion pictures and their effect on the audience.
The author goes beyond mere survey and analysis to question what movies mean to us and how they have shaped our perceptions and beliefs. Thomson chronicles the development of movies from Eadweard Muybridge’s 19th-century photographic experiments to the phenomenon of Internet pornography. Along the way, he explicates the excitement and politically fraught evolution of Soviet cinema, the provocations of the European New Wave, the allure of film noir and the world-shaking product of Hollywood, but the author makes no attempt to give a comprehensive or strictly linear history of the medium. Thomson is more interested in making striking connections, looking deeply at particular films, such as Brief Encounter (a surprising subject for such intense scrutiny and indicative of Thomson’s iconoclastic bent) or the TV landmark I Love Lucy, to pursue the central question of his history: What does life in front of screens do to us? Thomson’s approach is lyrical and questing rather than academic; the book is accessible to anyone with more than a passing interest in the subject, written in a distinctive voice, learned and authoritative without pedantic dryness and touched with wonder and trepidation at the primal power of the image. Readers familiar with the author’s Biographical Dictionary of Film will be happy to note that Thomson’s beguiling knack for capturing the essences of our movie icons in poetic or provocative asides has not diminished, and the scholarship on display is first-rate. However, the heart of this unique overview is the author’s ambivalence about the power we grant those shadows on the wall.
A profound and richly satisfying reckoning with the movies and what they mean.
From the New Yorker film critic, a collection of critical essays that’s more than a miscellaneous roundup.
Denby (Snark, 2009, etc.) has selected only pieces from the magazine that flesh out his premise that mainstream American films today consist for the most part of obscenely expensive franchises, usually centered on comic-book figures, that have abandoned any attempt to interest adults with the visual grammar with which movies have told stories and developed characters for more than a century. “Conglomerate Aesthetics,” a 2001 essay published for the first time here, dissects the results: movies in which “content becomes incidental, even disposable,” that have more in common with TV commercials and music videos than the classic Hollywood cinema Denby lovingly (but not blindly) celebrates in comparison. He’s not incapable of enjoying contemporary films, however. “Romantic Comedy Gets Knocked Up” is a smart and generally positive appraisal of the Judd Apatow school of moviemaking, and the previously unpublished “Chick Flicks” gives a critically dissed genre its due (in both cases, with some feminist caveats). In this context, the individual reviews, ranging from Avatar to Winter’s Bone, and think pieces such as “Pirates on the iPod” (a glum look at the diminution of film-watching), have additional bite and significance. Among Denby’s particular strengths are an impressive ability to understand and convey the way directors employ spatial relations to make artistic points and a concern for the moral and social implications of film—the belief that “the nation’s soul was on trial in its movies” that he ascribes to the two predecessors who most influenced him: James Agee and Pauline Kael. Each gets an acute, appreciative assessment; Kael, a mentor who later told Denby “you’re too restless to be a writer,” receives a particularly shrewd and surprisingly balanced profile.
A must for movie lovers and more proof that Denby’s gifts are better displayed in a full-length text than in a short review.
An exhaustive and entertaining film-by-film history of an oft-maligned genre that refuses to die.
Horror films are about as old as the medium itself, and Konow (Bang Your Head: The Rise and Fall of Heavy Metal, 2002) begins with Universal Studio’s horror triumvirate of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney and continues to well-known modern-day horror films like The Ring and the Saw franchise. Along the way, he dissects dozens of great and not-so-great movies, including those by respected directors who entered horror only briefly (Polanski and Rosemary’s Baby, Kubrick and The Shining), by directors who went on to bigger things (Sam Raimi and The Evil Dead, Peter Jackson and Dead Alive), and directors who made horror their genre of choice (George Romero and Dawn of the Dead, John Carpenter and Halloween). For each film, Konow tells the story of how it came into being and why it works. But he is no dry cinephile; rather, he is an informative, knowledgeable fan. So why does a horror film work? We all like to be safely scared, and the right music helps. Would Jaws be Jaws without its trademark music? Obviously, the right makeup and a good story are important. But often, as Konow frequently points out, it’s what’s not there that counts: Rosemary’s baby is never seen; there’s not all that much shown in Psycho’s shower scene; there’s no music in the original Dracula, which makes it that much more unsettling. On the other hand, “Friday the 13th delighted in letting the blood and heads fly.” So maybe the rules are there to be broken. It’s such details that make the stories of these films so entertaining. Of course, there will be arguments: Is Se7en really a horror film? Where’s the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Why do those teenagers keep going into that dark room to be scared senseless?
A well-told account of the films that have scared the pants off generation after generation.
The film critic of the Boston Globe explores film celebrity and waxes philosophical about what it means to and for the rest of us.
Burr (The Best Old Movies for Families, 2007, etc.) has both a fan’s and scholar’s grasp of the history of film, and he travels along a celluloid highway that extends from the early days of Thomas Edison to Zac Efron. Of greatest interest to the author is our evolving notion of celebrity—of what celebrities mean. He cites few authorities to support his view of our psychology, however, and he freely employs locutions like we want and we expect throughout. Burr notes that the earliest performers were anonymous, until actress Florence Lawrence (1886–1938). After that, the author ably shows, the names became virtually all. At near fast-forward speed, he takes us through the careers and contributions of the pioneer generation (Lillian Gish, Charlie Chaplin, Tom Mix et al.), with some stops for closer looks at the rise and precipitous fall of Fatty Arbuckle, the arrival of the talkies and the emergence of the great screen presences of the 1930s and ’40s—Gable, Harlow, Cagney, Bogart and others. Burr examines how studios sought to homogenize and manage their performers’ images (we knew what we were getting in a John Wayne film), and he offers a lengthy analysis of, and tribute to, Brando. He then deviates a bit from his subtitle by looking at the varying natures of celebrity in TV and popular music. He also mentions the meltdowns of Cruise and Gibson and the difficulties for female actors (they must not age).
A focused history of films that occasionally flirts with—but does not wed—portentousness.
Fifty years after her death and hundreds of books later, are we any closer to understanding Marilyn Monroe (1926–1962)? Probably not, but this new biography brings the known facts up to date and offers a fresh, modern take on the tragic star’s life and choices.
For Banner (History and Gender Studies/Univ. of Southern California; MM-Personal: From the Private Archive of Marilyn Monroe, 2011, etc.), the tangled roots of Monroe’s contradictions—shy but lurid, innocent and calculating, user and used—originated in her childhood. The product of a family with a history of mental illness, she was passed around between foster homes (both good and bad) as well as an orphanage. She experienced sexual abuse, absorbed a variety of religious influences, and discovered that her lost-lamb look attracted every man she met. Although Banner occasionally plays psychoanalyst, it's only in an effort to see her subject from every conceivable angle. The author’s film criticism is insightful, particularly in showing how Monroe helped build (and would deliberately mock) her own public image. She examines how Monroe’s unique allure drew on popular tradition and looked forward to the Pop Art future. As for the big question—did Monroe commit suicide or was she murdered by Bobby Kennedy, or her psychoanalyst, or mobster Sam Giancana, or the FBI?—Banner offers no smoking guns. Instead, she gives reasons why all the scenarios, both official and otherwise, are as problematic as they are plausible. Though the author sometimes over explains the obvious, this flaw does not detract from the book’s forward drive or Banner's sympathetic intelligence.
Surely not the last word, but a complete and honest effort and a good starting place.
Actress, producer and director Marshall's frank and funny memoir about the path that led her from an ordinary childhood in New York City to Hollywood stardom.
Marshall never planned to get into acting. But her mother, who ran a neighborhood dance and acrobatics school for children in the Bronx, always believed that "every child should know what it feels like to entertain.” So she began teaching her daughter the rudiments of physical movement before she was 1 year old. By the time Marshall was a teenager, she and the other girls her mother taught had performed at churches, charity events and telethons; they had even appeared on the Jackie Gleason Show. Dancing, however, was not Marshall's passion. A mediocre student with no idea what she would do with her life, she went to the University of New Mexico, a college that "accepted anyone from out of state.” A few years later, Marshall was a divorced UNM dropout who had lost custody of her child, but she had also started to find her niche as an actress through involvement in community theater. She went to Hollywood to join her brother Garry, who was building a career as a comedy writer for TV and got bit parts in such classic TV shows as That Girl and The Odd Couple. She finally came into her own in the mid-1970s as the star of the hit sitcom Laverne & Shirley, and then in the ’80s and early-’90s as the director of the hit films Big and A League of Their Own. Marshall is as candid about her failures (which include a painful second divorce from writer/comedian Rob Reiner) and her weaknesses (like the one she developed for drugs) as she is about her successes. With gratitude for a life lived on her own terms, she writes, "I've been given my five minutes…and then some.”
The story of a great American actor whose art was burnished by an anguished life.
For McKinney (Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History, 2003), Henry Fonda (1905–1982) is very much a mystery: an affable common man on screen whose piercing blue eyes suggested dark depths. It was a face of wisdom and pain, which is why no one else has ever played Abraham Lincoln with so much quiet conviction. Fonda knew suffering, and he was the cause of suffering in others. He saw death up close—as a youth in Nebraska (where he witnessed a mob take over a local jail and lynch a black man) and as a soldier in World War II and in the suicide of his wife, Frances, a wealthy heiress who finally wearied of the demands of being Mrs. Henry Fonda. (A third wife, Susan Blanchard, would also divorce him for “extreme mental cruelty.”) Though well liked as an actor, he was chilly and distant as a husband and an apparent controlling terror to children Peter and Jane. He may not have liked himself that much either, as there were possible suicide attempts of his own. Through it all, Fonda greeted every struggle with either stoic Christian Science hardiness or dogged denial, plunging into work to keep from dealing with the domestic turmoil. The face said it all. No one ever had a problem believing him as an actor. “Fonda’s fate all along, his curse and his cure, has been to become the thing that haunts him,” writes the author in this excellent work of biography.
In rich, lyrical prose, McKinney deftly honors both the man and the mystery.
Veteran character actor Tobolowsky, perhaps best known for his role in Groundhog Day, offers a beguiling collection of autobiographical essays detailing his experiences in and out of show business.
The actor has plenty of rich material to mine—he has been held hostage at gunpoint by a lunatic, suffered an apocalyptic infestation of fleas, barely eluded a goring by a bull, and auditioned with a broken neck—but the delight of the book is the author’s voice: wry, discursive and full of generous spirit and curiosity. Tobolowsky recounts his various heartbreaks, struggles as a young artist and status as a bemused member of the human race with unfailing wit and gratitude for the richness and strangeness of life, marveling at the small miracles and surprising reversals that inform relationships and careers. Occasionally the author’s observations skirt along the fringe of New Age platitudes, but a leavening lack of pretention prevents the spiritual content from curdling, and there is always another jaw-dropping anecdote around the corner to carry the proceedings. Tobolowsky contributes intriguing insights into the absurdities of TV and film production (his description of acting against a green screen is particularly amusing), the politics of graduate school life and the perils of pet ownership, endowing both the most mundane and rarified endeavors with equally close attention and appreciation. His reminiscences of the early days of the AIDS crisis and the decline and death of his mother provide the collection with profound emotional ballast, but even in the heavier sections Tobolowsky’s light touch and effortless empathy delight and sustain readers’ engagement.
A copiously examined life rendered with humor and heart.
Douglas (Let's Face It: 90 Years of Living, Loving, and Learning, 2008, etc.) famously helped break the Hollywood blacklist when he insisted Dalton Trumbo—previously jailed for contempt of Congress and made an unemployable industry pariah due to his membership in the “Hollywood Ten”—be given sole screenwriting credit under his own name for Spartacus, rather than employ a pseudonym, as was common practice at the time. That act of courage is at the heart of this memoir about the creation of the epic film. The author’s evident pride in the matter is wholly justified, but the book’s true appeal lies in the off-camera antics of the storied cast and the candidly described aggravation and terror the production’s many complications engendered in Douglas, who, as the producer, had staked his reputation and financial well-being on the results. Among Douglas’ many headaches were the childish rivalry between stars Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton, who regarded each other with a curious combination of respect and utter hatred; the scene-stealing machinations of Peter Ustinov, whose efforts would net him an Academy Award; a scheduling standoff with a similarly themed sand-and-sandals epic starring Yul Brynner; and, most fascinatingly, Douglas’ frustration with director Stanley Kubrick, a replacement for Anthony Mann who alienated Douglas and much of the cast and crew with his high-handedness and lack of social skills, while ultimately delivering a technically accomplished and viscerally emotional masterpiece. Douglas is a fine natural storyteller, unafraid to portray his quick temper and nasty outbursts when the going got rough.
An entertaining and informative look at the troubled gestation of a film of both artistic and social significance.