Film

Meet Me at the Fair: In Praise of Film Books

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I’m holding in my hands a novelization of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s masterpiece A Matter of Life and Death. It’s an elegant, slim hardcover, published in 1946. The author credited is Eric Warman. I’m familiar with movie novelizations, of course, but I think of them as having had their heyday in the Sixties and Seventies. In truth, they’ve been around since the days of silent cinema. Either way, it’s fascinating to see one from 1946 — for a title that was extremely hard to see for many years, no less. (Happily, the film is now out on Criterion, and all is right with the world.)

I haven’t read this novel, and I don’t plan on buying it, but it does feel good to be able to hold the delicate little thing in my hands. It’s just one of the books on display at the Metrograph’s first annual book fair, being held this Saturday and Sunday at the Lower East Side cinema. The idea of a book fair grew out of the theater’s plans for its own bookstore, which is located on the second floor. “We always wanted to have a bookstore that had a large section of rare books, that would rotate often, so every time you looked, there was a good chance of finding something that wasn’t there before,” says Jake Perlin, Metrograph’s artistic and programming director. “Then, by coincidence, three incredible collections came our way, so we had an office full of books which I would show off to people. One after the other, their eyes would light up, and I thought a fair was the best chance to put it all out at once.”

The fair contains about 2,000 individual items — “hundreds of books and over a thousand periodicals, roughly,” says Perlin. There are also some posters as well as some VHS cassettes — from art documentaries to an old and very fuzzy copy of Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy, which was how many of us discovered it back in the day. (That film too is now available on Criterion.) There are piles and piles of Sight & Sounds from across the decades, as well as a sizable collection of the legendary French journal L’Avant-Scène Cinéma, which dedicated each issue to one specific film. (And the film in question wasn’t always an obvious choice. Among the titles featured: Adolfas Mekas’s Hallelujah the Hills!)

Film books (and magazines) used to be quite popular, with bookstores often priding themselves on the breadth of their film-related offerings. Some bookstores even specialized in film and entertainment. In part, that’s because the genre was an ecosystem unto itself. You had in-depth academic studies on the work of specific directors, movements, or countries. You had memoirs and biographies, some dishier than others. You had novelizations. You had “making of” books. You had reference volumes, like the various Leslie Halliwell and Leonard Maltin guides. You had big heavy coffee-table books filled with stills and fine photography. You had published screenplays, which, in the days before the wide availability of films on video, were often the best way to make sure you got your plot details and quotes right.

And you had anthologies of criticism. Many of us were introduced to Pauline Kael not from reading her reviews in the New Yorker but from reading them in collections such as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Reeling. Similarly, Andrew Sarris, who had his celebrated perch at the Village Voice for decades, probably gained as many acolytes from his legendary book American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929–1968 as he did through his weekly reviews.

There are numerous reasons why many of these subgenres have since been obliterated. The bottom fell out of the published-screenplay market with the dominance of video; novelizations were a casualty soon to follow. (Examples of both do still see the light of day, particularly for blockbuster-type films: Star Wars novelizations have always been a thing.) Nowadays, few people are interested in reading collections of film reviews — let alone paying to purchase them — when so many reviews are available on the internet for free. Close studies of directors’ works or individual films or periods of filmmaking do still exist, though perhaps not in the numbers they once did. You also do get variations on the “making of” book — interesting recent ones have been dedicated to High Noon, La Dolce Vita, Network, and Caddyshack. Meanwhile, some savvy writers have fused the coffee table–book concept with artful criticism and produced lovely hybrids: Matt Zoller Seitz’s big, beautiful Wes Anderson Collection, filled with interviews, essays, and stills, remains the foremost study of that director’s work.

Perusing the books and magazines at the Metrograph fair has a certain nostalgic glow to it, but visiting a place like this is not entirely a matter of basking in the past. You’re reminded of how much more of everything is out there, beyond the confines of our convenient screens, which may seem boundless but are in fact quite limited. The democratization and preservation that the internet once promised now seem like pipe dreams. True, it’s now easier than ever to publish your work online, but the cacophony of voices and the sheer disorganization of the digital experience means that this work often can’t find its audience. We’re all now directed by bots toward that which is most popular or controversial — precisely the kind of tunnel-vision phenomenon the internet was once supposed to combat.

Meanwhile, the notion that our work will live on digitally seems dodgy at best. Sites go down, or are bought, or are redesigned. Archives are nuked with the touch of a button because nobody can monetize them. Recently, a couple of writer friends and I realized that years and years of our online work quite simply does not exist anymore.

The internet can still be a wonderful resource. Online journals like Senses of Cinema and Cléo publish some of the most insightful pieces you’ll find about both new and old work. But we ignore film books at our peril. If you want to find the best writing on Luchino Visconti, you still need to go to the books written by Monica Stirling and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and others. Peter Bondanella and Millicent Marcus’s tomes on Italian cinema remain the best sources for in-depth analysis of that country’s films. Robert Phillip Kolker’s A Cinema of Loneliness is the sharpest study of American cinema in the Seventies. Once upon a time, Spike Lee used to publish a book about the making of each of his films; his volumes on Do the Right Thing, She’s Gotta Have It!, and Malcolm X are essential to understanding those pictures, as well as his work in general. I could go on and on. Why am I mentioning these specific books? They’re all ones I’ve had to reference in the past week alone.

Anecdotally, there does seem to be a newfound surge of interest in film books — related, perhaps, to the renaissance  in repertory moviegoing and physical media. (The Metrograph is just one of the theaters in the city that has benefited from renewed cinephile interest in 35mm prints.) “The response to the bookstore and our book events with authors has been terrific,” Perlin says. “I always think of the scene in Day for Night when Truffaut gets a delivery of film books on the set. One can go a few days without seeing a film, but those days need to be filled with reading about them.”

 

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