Book Review: The Cinema and Directing by Kim Jong-Il

This post is one that serves a few purposes. First, it is to turn you toward Open Culture. If anything is out there and legitimately free of charge they’ll tell you about it. It was in their posting that I discovered that not only did North Korean autocrat Kim Jong-Il write film theory but also directed some films. I read this shorter work first and will see his Godzilla film soon.

You can read my review of this book on Goodreads.

You can view or download a .pdf of the book here.

Book Review: Damnation by Janice Lee

As I have mentioned in the past, the only time I will stray from writing directly about film on this site is only in such a way that it still ties back to film. Therefore, when I was informed about Janice Lee’s book Damnation, I had to jump at the chance. Damnation is a book telling a fragmented narrative through prose poetry influenced by the works of filmmaker Bela Tarr. Tarr being the renowned Hungarian filmmaker (He also recently won BAM Awards for Best Director and the Lifetime Achievement Award).

Usually, I approach Prefaces/Forewords and Afterwords/Appendices as optional, however, they come most highly recommended in this book. They are quite informative with regards to the process and have great insights into the work, and Tarr as well.

That’s not to say that the narrative cannot stand alone. In fact, if you are familiar with Tarr this is a tale you’ll definitely enjoy a great deal. However, something that is referenced in the afterword, written by collaborator Jared Woodland, is of note: he refers to this work being one in “the genre of Bela Tarr.” That is a most astute encapsulation, not only of the book but of Tarr’s work; for the true greats seem to work in an arena all their own.

As I read it, I found that although the book is called Damnation it culls influence from many of his works to form this story, and sure enough in the back it lists the references as four films (Damnation, Satantango, The Werckmeister Harmonies and The Turin Horse). It also struck me that since this is a pastiche, my long-burning question about what the best introduction to Tarr would be has found an answer, and it is Damnation by Janice Lee.

However this book is not inundated in its influence. For in any work that’s considered an homage there has to be some personality or spin from the author herself to make it work, and this book absolutely has a personal touch. It paints with Tarr to tell the author’s tale.

Any cinephile, whether familiar with his work or not, should enjoy the book as well for the poetical styling of the prose; the images wrought play out like a film. Scenes begin and are cut, and one can see the cuts within scenes. It’s a living embodiment of Eisenstein’s theory of poetry as a verbal montage.

The tale-such-as-it-is is interesting. It’s phrased as such because the narrative doesn’t follow a conventional form. There are incremental repetitions of locales and characters, who all have designated labels rather than names. However, it’s also because Tarr created stories-such-as-they-are. The works referenced especially are multi-character tableaux wherein the personages ruminate on the various existential and metaphysical questions at play.

The book offers neither setting nor location to lend it a timeless quality, as it follows the universal theme of decay. Yet, even with this tonal portrait of the commonality of disintegration, it’s still a page-turner, and not just for the cinematic elements within for there are many equivalencies in the writing technique that make it a cinematic as well as a literary document.

One way in which the flow is manipulated is that towards the end the vignettes become smaller and intensify. This portrait of a dying town on the verge of apocalypse, painted in labels, inviting involvement/creation, is quotable and filled with descriptives of sound again making it audiovisual, but passages about stench and texture bring you into a literary realm anew. Its staying in the present tense and insisting that you proceed, without stopping; also makes it cinematic.

Tarr may have just recently retired, but aside from the work he is doing to teach young filmmakers at his school, his legacy can be felt here, and in the countless other artists he will continue to inspire. The obsession for Lee and Woodland isn’t over either, for they are currently writing a book on Tarr’s long takes in Satantango. So aside from a work of fiction he inspired there will now be a scholarly, cinematic work on one of his masterpieces.

It’s a joy, and not a wonder, that sketches of frames (re-created storyboards) from Tarr’s films are found in the appendices of the book as well. For the book is not only drawing from said images but expounding on them, creating new ones; a new tapestry. The power of Lee’s work is as undeniable as the films that inspired her and are truly a gift to us all. Do yourself a favor and seek this book out, you’ll be glad you did.

For more information on Janice Lee you can visit her website. Damnation is available for (pre-)order at Amazon here.

Book Review – Pre–code Hollywood – Sex, Immorality, & Insurrection In American Cinema 1930–1934

One parallel I’ve recently noticed that exists between non-fiction writing and filmmaking is that the question of scope is very much relevant to both. If you want to truly convey your message and your narrative, you had better not lose the reins and have control of where you are taking your audience/reader.

What’s most impressive about Pre-Code Hollywood is that while it covers a vast array of topics it’s always tying back to cinema. If one is to attempt to be comprehensive in covering the how and why advertising and film had perhaps their wildest, most defiant short span in America then many things need to be accounted for: what the films were (including a vast array of subgenres); why they were which touches on many sociopolitical upheavals worldwide during this volatile time and what industry politics and machinations were that allowed producers and studios to so openly scoff at the Production Code in its early years.

In short, there is a lot to discuss and there is virtually nothing this book leaves uncovered. There were a number of subgenres that truly mark this period like Prechment Yarns, Gangster Films, Prison films, those are fairly well-known, but then there’s also the Dictator Craze, the subversive traits running through many films, the Depression-tinged tales, whether in large or small doses, that touched on obvious or at times more timely side effects of the economic hardships facing the nation and the world.

While those kinds of effects may all seem obvious it was also a time that was revolutionary in film. Sound was new and the one-liner and fast-talking dame were coming into vogue. It was a time where there was a craving for the morality play of the Three Little Pigs from Walt Disney and also for the inappropriate innuendo of Mae West; in short, pretty much anything goes.

This creative bedlam, of course, could not last. The brushback, and how that all came to a close, is also included. It’s truly rare that in the history of anything that a four-year-period can be so crucial, yet here is one. I had, of course, learned of the inception of the Production Code and of this period, but for years had only the vaguest notion of what this era was truly like and why, even having seen many of these films. With this book you’ll walk away with a much deeper and richer understanding of it. For not only was it a wondrous, yet brief stint, but it also set the stage for the true Hollywood Classical style to emerge.

Book Review – The Keystone Kid

From Time to time when a book should happen to overlap into the realm of film in some way I will take occasion to review it if recommended.

I’m not one who is usually prone to reading memoirs. However, when doing research for a personal writing project, the very same one that inspired Poverty Row April, I came upon a fascinating memoir called The Keystone Kid by Coy Watson, Jr.

Starting from his father’s emigration from Canada to California and how Coy, Sr. met his mother, through the arrival of the film industry in southern California, in Edendale not Hollywoodland as of yet, to later milestones; this book offers a fascinating and unique look at the artform when it was being created essentially on the fly. I will try and preserve most of the surprise for you the prospective reader, but I will note that one of the incredible revelations is that Coy Sr. was quite the intuitive creative force behind-the-scenes in the formative years of the film industry.

As for Coy’s childhood recollections, the descriptions are vivid and free from embellishment. His tone is an impressive combination of childhood wonder and elderly reminiscence that you could sit and read (or imagine yourself listening to) for hours. It’s one thing to make a simple declarative statement, for example, when he discusses how much love was in the Watson house, but he really makes you feel that and the playful, fun and adventurous early days of film. While the tale is told anecdotally there is also a certain plotting to it. Certain things, like Watson’s interest in photography, are setup then followed up upon later.

The Keystone Kid (2001, Santa Monica Press)

Aside from the wonderfully moving storytelling, the book also does serve as a significant document in film history illuminating not only Coy, Senior’s status as a pioneer, but also serving as a reminder that even before the Barrymores, this was the first family of film with all nine of the Watson children gracing the screen in more than 1,000 films. Yes, that’s one thousand not one hundred.

There are some amazing things in the book that will leave you awestruck and they could’ve only happened when films were young, and they could only be reported by someone who lived it. It’s a fascinating, wonderfully enjoyable book that’s highly recommended for all fans of film.

Book Review: Poverty Row Studios 1929-1940

As I mentioned on Monday, this is the book that inspired me to take a closer look at Poverty Row studios and seek out more of those films. However, the book itself does deserve some highlighting.

Clearly, when you’re dealing with non-fiction film writing there will be some occasions when an opinion will be espoused that you don’t agree with, but the only way you agree with everything is if you write it yourself. The book is informative, engaging, at times funny, and very well cross-referenced, which is good when many of these studios had crossover actors, studio heads, writers and the like.

The introductory paragraphs give you a great overview of the company’s history, as long or short as it may have been. There are synopses and cast and crew listings for most all titles included in the volume and occasional synopsis/reviews for some films.

The introduction to the book itself states that it does not include Mascot or Monogram films (for the purposes of my theme I may seek those out myself) mainly because dedicated volumes to said studio were put out by the same publisher so it would prove redundant. Also not included is Republic Pictures who was close to being in between a major studio and a Poverty Row studio absorbing many debt-ridden indies and having some big budget films later in its existence.

The stories both on the business end and of the films are told conversationally, cordially and with enthusiasm, which makes it a very fun read indeed.

Book Review: Stephen King Goes to the Movies

On occasion when I read a book that links either tenuously or directly to film I will review it here.

When Stephen King Goes to the Movies was initially set to be published the impression that it gave was of a book that would be as much a memoir/behind-the-scenes as it would be a regurgitation of some of his better known tales. After it was published it became clear that a great majority of its 600-plus pages were just the tales reprinted. It seems as if it was a book churned out to meet with some contractual obligation (i.e. more the publisher’s idea than King’s), which is not to dismiss it entirely, but a writer so prolific releasing an anthology of previously published works is not that common.

Of course, anyone unfamiliar with The Mangler, Hearts in Atlantis: Low Men in Yellow Coats, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, 1408 and Children of the Corn this volume will be well worth checking out. Those of you who have read those tales it is suggested you merely take the book out on loan from the public library and read the brief introductions that accompany each tale in the book.

Not to say that there isn’t some entertainment value in these introductions. King remains, as always, humorous, humble, and at times, self-deprecating. While you do get very good insights in small doses it is nowhere near the amount of detail he could’ve provided say if he had profiled his story Trucks and subsequently his directing of the cinematic adaptation of it, Maximum Overdrive.

Perhaps the epitome of the lack of detail in the book is that in the table of contents you see a page designation for Stephen’s Ten Favorite Adaptations of his work. When you turn to the aforementioned page literally all you get is the 10 titles listed and no commentary as to why these stand out, except for the rare case of coincidence where one story was included in this collection and thus got an introduction.

Again there are things to be gleaned from it. Just reading through it very quickly created four pages worth of notes based on the facts and opinions learned. It’s just not worth dropping eight bucks for the paperback when libraries are still free. Even if it is just a glorified “New Foreword by the Author” edition of many of these stories give it a read and knowing exactly what to expect your opinion may thus be enhanced, there is some gold in dem darn pages just not as much as there could be.

Book Review- The Wimpy Kid Movie Diary

You never know what you’re going to get when you purchase a book that ties into the release of a film that purports to be a diary or some other kind of making of chronicle. Some I flip through are quite flimsy (like alleged shooting scripts with too many photos and goofy formatting), some are quite great (like the Hugo companion). Usually, the book being written by the author of the adapted book is a good indicator.

Thus, what surprised me most about Jeff Kinney’s book about The Diary of a Wimpy Kid wasn’t that I liked it (though I have not read the books, only saw the films) but how detailed it is, yet also accessible. Kinney describes much of the filmmaking process through all three phases of production simply yet precisely. However, aside from tricks of the trade, he also makes the journey personal discussing both his journey with the character and the books and then the films. He goes on to include a bit about the affinity and coincidences in chronology that exist between Gregg Heffley and Zachary Gordon, the actor who plays the role.

Here again you also have another author discuss why changes were made to the narrative when transcribing it to the screen and being fully in support of them. However, Kinney has perhaps the simplest, most bulletproof fanboy block of them all “If everything that happened in the book happened in the movie why would you want to see it?” He also talks about the difficulty in casting Gregg because he recognized that the character had to start as severely flawed but still likable and I believe that balance was struck.

Aside from the specifics of the productions, which prove that movie-making is always hard work (as if that needed proving) I really liked getting a glimpse into the creative process, which is shown not just on Kinney’s part but the first film’s director and the young cast (Gordon and Robert Capron wrote essays as their characters, which are dead on). Aside from the insight that illustrate how the film came into being I think this really is a great book for kids. If they already like the series and are interested in seeing how movies are made you won’t find the elements of production explained more directly, plus discussing concepts in conjunction with a film they’ve seen make it easier to learn.

This is a quick, enjoyable read that is worth seeking out for fans of the series or if you’re just looking to get your feet wet learning the basics of filmmaking. The edition I read had some Rodrick Rules content added but it wasn’t a significant amount so I wouldn’t hold out for a second update and just get it now if you’re interested.

Book Review- The Complete Greed

There isn’t too much I can personally say about The Complete Greed that hasn’t already been said by those cited on the back cover of the book, namely: The New Yorker, Fritz Lang, Take One, Sight & Sound, Maurice Bessy (at the time director of The Cannes Film Festival), Henri Langlois (at the time curator of the Cinémathèque Française), Peter Bogdanovich and Jean Renoir.

However, one unique perspective is that I, unlike all those cited on the back of the book, have yet to see the extant, eviscerated version of Greed. I remember my interest being piqued in film school but also accompanied by a built-in reticence to see something that was less than von Stroheim’s grandiose vision for it. That combined with the fact that it is currently only available via re-seller on VHS in the US has put it low on the priority list for me. However, when I was on Amazon one day and saw that a used, though in great shape, copy of this book was available for the staggeringly low price of $4 I had to jump on it.

After having read it I must say it is quite a feat indeed. Having never seen the film I now feel like I have and what’s more it conveyed both the wonder of the story as it exists and the agony of the seeing the version the world has been robbed of.

The more complete cuts of Greed are among the holiest of holy grails in the film world. I now have a sense as to why that is and add that to a growing list of cuts I wish to see unearthed.

Book Review- Through a Glass Darkly by Jenny Worton

With book reviews I will typically limit myself to books that are about a film, filmmaking or filmmakers. However, there will be the occasional tangential exception and this is one of them. Through a Glass Darkly is one of the most famous films by Ingmar Bergman, but many of his films are very adaptable to the stage, and already have been either while Bergman was living or through the Ingmar Bergman Foundation.

Bergman himself was also every bit as much a man of the theatre as he was of the cinema. As for the adaptation it is written by Jenny Worton and the first thing of note is that it is easier to recommend for fans of Bergman and the piece. I picked up this brisk 72-page play at The Drama Book Shop for $18, which is not cheap so that’s the first grain of salt with which to take the play.

However, for the most part the play does manage to translate the palpable drama of the tale from screen to stage. There are a few head scratching decisions though; the story is neither moved in time or locale but there are I believe three profanities, only one of which really rings true given the situation. There is also the occasional awkward piece of dialogue, but for the most part it reads like Bergman’s tale. It must also be stated that the edition I read has a disclaimer within it that states dialogue may have altered between rehearsal process and debut.

There’s also the double-edged sword of sparse scene description, which gives productions a bit of freedom but also can at times catch the reader unawares as certain scenes perhaps seemed more minimalist at first and then developed.

Another pet peeve of minimal importance is that the biblical quote that inspired the title is nowhere to be found. In the film there is a title card at the start, but here there’s no textual allusion to it at all. No food for thought, only an assumption that we may know it. Now, this may be the playwright not wishing to impose some sort of multimedia aspect on anyone seeking to produce it. However, that is becoming more common in the theatre and might be a nice touch.

Granted it’s not Bergman adapting himself, which would be ideal, but it is a very good take on the tale. If you’re a fan of Bergman or the theatre it is worth looking into indeed in spite of a steep price.

Book Review- The Film Sense by Sergei Eisenstein

Eisenstein’s The Film Sense is a book I had never even seen in print anywhere before. I happened to find it when I was in Brazil searching through a rather large bookstore’s film section. You know a bookstore is good when you find many foreign language offerings, and I was able to pick up quite a few film texts in English there.

Sergei Eisenstein is likely the only filmmaker whose work as a theorist is of equal importance. Aside from spear-heading montage as the defining element of film, he wrote extensively about it and it’s all brilliant stuff. His angle in this book is tremendous. In it he seeks to create a “film sense” by drawing on elements of other art forms. Much of the writing actually does have to do with music as he is discussing how incorporating sound and music will co-exist with picture cutting.

There are many brilliant talking points. First, he touches on word and image, which is similar to a touched upon topic in Film Form, here he examines examples of montage in other artforms. Then he talks about synchronization of the senses, which is how film can, will and should play on all our senses, especially given this new development. In a perhaps revolutionary way he also discusses color in literature and in music and relates it to film, even though at this writing color was an abstract concept seen in shades of gray.

The writing flows beautifully and is just brilliant in terms of observation and the sources from which he draws. He illustrates how cinema must be the culmination of all other artforms and draw from them. I will admit it gets a bit dense with the both the in depth musical discussion, as I am more intuitive rather than well-versed there, and a bit with the montage flow diagrams and shots, having seen some of the films helps but the point does usually come across regardless.

Also, this is a rare book where the appendices are not only a must read but brilliant. They include: shot sheets, treatment sections of un-produced works, outlines and a very detailed bibliography for further reading.

All in all this is a fantastic book that is worth seeking out for serious aestheticians, filmmakers and film students. I found it endlessly fascinating such that I made many notes and underlined significantly and considered further analysis of the text but will leave it as this brief recommendation instead.