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A Subjective List of Books about Film May 5, 2010

Posted by Michael Rennett in Film.
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Last week, Jessica Barnes on Cinematical posted a query asking readers about their favorite books about film.  Instead of posting in the comments section, I figured that it would be best to make my own list with explanations for each on my own blog.  Other blogs, like The Dancing List, have created their own exhaustive lists, I wanted to limit my list down to books which both personally inspired me and fit under a few other limitations:

A)     No biographies (sorry, but I prefer reading analysis over an individual’s story no matter how talented that individual may be)

B)      Nothing in the canon of great books.  Great works like Hitchcock/Truffaut have gotten enough press and they don’t need any extra help from me.  I’d rather find my own influences than just reiterating others’ selections.

C)      No edited collections of previously existing works.  It would really be too easy to list Barry Keith Grant’s Auteurs and Authorship:  A Film Reader or Braudy & Cohen’s Film Theory and Criticism which include some of the seminal works of film criticism that have ever existed.  Of course these are essential articles that are included, but they can be found in various collections.

D)     The book must discuss cinema.  Baudrillard, Freud, and Lacan are all essential reading for film students, but they don’t discuss film on their own.

With that said, let the list begin…

1.  Lester D. Friedman, The Jewish Image in American Film (1982) and Hollywood’s Image of the Jew (1987)

It would be completely remiss of me to ignore these two works since they both strongly contributed to my decision to go into film studies in the first place.  Both books are great overviews of how the Hollywood industry has presented Jewish characters throughout its history.  Of particular importance is how the early Jewish immigrant producers like the Warners, Fox, and MGM presented Jews in their films when they were so willing to assimilate into American society.  Freidman also doesn’t shy away from negative portrayals of Jews on film, such as Jewish gangsters.

2.  Murray Smith, Engaging Characters:  Fiction, Emotion, and the Cinema (1995)

Smith’s book focuses on the concept of audience empathy, particularly analyzing the hows and whys of a viewer’s connection to a fictional film character.  Smith details the aesthetic decisions filmmakers make in order to strengthen these connections (editing, cinematography, etc.).  He centers much of his discussion on Hitchcock’s works and incorporates numerous stills to emphasize his case studies.  It’s a very easily digestible book and really helps tell viewers the reasons for their engagement with cinema.

3.  Paul Wells, Understanding Animation (1998)

While I have heard Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston’s The Illusion of Life to be the Bible for animators, I find Wells’ Understanding Animation to be the Bible for animation studies.  Wells breaks the medium (not genre!) down into different approaches (narrative, technical, representation, audience reception, comedy) and seamlessly moves from one approach to the next.  If you’re interested in studying animation or just interested in animated films, then this book is a must-read.

4.  Mark Allinson, A Spanish Labyrinth:  The Films of Pedro Almodovar (2001)

While numerous books breaking down Almodovar’s work exist, Allinson’s seems to cover the career of the Spanish auteur most thoroughly.  Instead of a chronological study of Almodovar’s films, Allinson breaks them down according to content and visual construction.  It requires a greater knowledge of Almodovar’s films since he jumps from one film to another within his analysis, but it’s easier to read about one topic before moving on to the next.  In fact, this approach reminds me of the dilemma I had while writing my thesis, when I originally structured my argument by film before revising it to cover each main topic.

5.  Marijke de Valck and Malte Hagener (eds.), Cinephilia:  Movies, Love, and Memory (2005)

This is the only edited collection on my list, but each essay provides a fascinating look at cinephilia both within films and within audiences.  My favorite, since it applied the most to my thesis, is Jenna Ng’s “Love in the Time of Transcultural Fusion:  Cinephilia, Homage, and Kill Bill.”  I also found intriguing works in de Valck and Hagener’s introduction, Elsaesser’s “Cinephilia or the Uses of Disenchantment,” Sutanya Singkhra’s essay on Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, Elena Gorfinkel’s essay on Todd Haynes, Wes Anderson, and Paul Thomas Anderson.  Lucas Hilderbrand’s work on bootlegged films also provides an interesting look at a neglected (and illegal) part of the cinema-spectator relationship.

6.  Karen Paik, To Infinity and Beyond!:  The Story of Pixar Animation Studios (2007)

Most of the Pixar-related books out right now cover the history of the studio from its humble beginnings to Hollywood’s most interesting current studio.  Unlike many of its peers, Paik mixes the history with analysis of the work.  Paik mostly uses interviews with the filmmakers involved with each creation to form this basis, but it provides a fascinating look at the studio’s short films and features up through Cars (2006).