Building a Film-Book Library

I never went to film school. I’ve never taken a class, not even a lowly film-appreciation course in which one watches Citizen Kane and all the other warhorses of cinema. I am, in short, an uneducated, ill-informed moron when it comes to movies.

But you knew that already.

Obviously, I’ve absorbed much from watching movies themselves, but I’ve also learned a great deal from reading about film.

This is both a document of my film education and something that I hope will help guide people who are intimidated by the thousands of film books available — from omnibus guides to explorations of single works. (You can find Slate’s discussion on a similar topic here.)

While I own some theoretical texts, I’ve found them difficult reading and generally not terribly insightful. The selections in this essay are almost universally geared toward the general reader and are light on jargon.

Looking over the list, it’s clear to me that I value these books not for the correctness of their opinions but for their authors’ openness, the freshness of their thinking, and their compact, expressive styles.

I’ve picked telling samples from many of these books and authors, but I didn’t choose favorite or extreme examples. These are basically representative excerpts drawn from essays/reviews chosen at random.

Essential Reference

Videohound’s Golden Movie Retriever: The settler of a million wagers, and the standard for general movie reference. Comprehensive and extensively indexed, Videohound covers the basics for virtually any movie available on DVD or video. This is basically the print equivalent of the Internet Movie Database, but in many ways more useful. The caveat: The ratings are worthless, a reflection of only the conventional wisdom about a movie. Cult classics and great pictures with limited appeal don’t get their due. (2006 edition: $24.95.)

The Film Encyclopedia, by Ephraim Katz, Fred Klein, and Ronald Dean Nolen: If Videohound is the dictionary (and perhaps thesaurus) of movies, this book is cinema’s concise encyclopedia. A great reference work focusing primarily on people and terms. It has no value as a tastemaker. (Fifth edition [2005]: $30.)

Nearly Essential

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, by David Thomson: The grumpy old man of the movies. He likes virtually nothing, is often shockingly lazy in updating entries, and is frequently far too dismissive. Still, this book is invaluable as an opinionated complement to The Film Encyclopedia, and it’s great for starting arguments and discussions. Thomson’s language is precise, sharp, polished, efficient, and tough, to the point that careful reading is often required to extract meaning. You won’t find a better writer on the movies, even if he makes virtually every picture sound like a waste of time. (Fourth edition [2004]: $22.95.) On Jim Carrey:
“He is an authentic clown, enormously energized, furiously ‘on,’ yet curiously reliant on others for his material.”

Time Out Film Guide: Somewhere between Videohound and Thomson lies Time Out’s guide. Expansive but not comprehensive, discerning and smart but not pissy, this is the volume to get if you only can only buy one movie book. (That is not to say: “This is the only book you need.”) (14th edition [2005]: $29.95.)

The Craft

Making Movies, by Sidney Lumet: The journeyman director of Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network offers in his 1995 book an accessible and smart introduction to the art of filmmaking. It serves as a straightforward how-to guide for directing, a primer on how to watch movies on a technical level, and a remembrance of a distinguished career. ($13.)
“If my movie has two stars in it, I always know it really has three. The third star is the camera.”

In the Blink of an Eye, by Walter Murch: This brief text is undoubtedly among the most illuminating pieces about movies that I’ve ever read. It is certainly not a manual, but it introduces the basic concepts of editing — one of the most critical but under-appreciated elements of filmmaking. The premise is deceptively simple: Cut a shot when people would naturally blink. The only hesitation with In the Blink of an Eye is the price for such a slim volume. (Second edition [2001]: $13.95.)

The Critics

Everybody has critics they love or loathe. If you like a particular critic, seek out any anthologized work, particularly if it’s not widely available online.

Some of my favorites:

Roger Ebert: His reviews of new releases seem more and more scattershot as the years pass. Roger seems to be devoting most of his passion to side projects such as his Overlooked Film Festival and his every-other-week Great Movies series. If you’re dismissive of America’s most prominent film critic, with that ever-present thumb, you owe it to yourself to read some Great Movies essays — thoughtful and in-depth. Two volumes of those essays have been collected in book form ($16.95 each), but there’s nothing in them that isn’t on his Web site. Jim Emerson contributes vibrant if infrequent commentary to the site and is often more compelling than Roger. Ebert’s annual “movie yearbook” (2006 edition: $22.95) collects the past two years of pretty much everything he’s written, and it’s a hell of a lot more user-friendly than his Web site. Roger Ebert’s Book of Film (1996, $30) is a good but somewhat unsatisfying scrapbook and sampler of the whole range of movie writing; it’s a good starting point for any film lover, but it is by its nature wildly unfocused. From the Great Movies essay on The Conversation:

“This movie is a sadly observant character study, about a man who has removed himself from life, thinks he can observe it dispassionately at an electronic remove, and finds that all of his barriers are worthless.”

Pauline Kael: Arguably the most influential film critic of the late 20th Century, and probably the most fun to read, whether you saw the movie in question or not. She had a passionate, personal style that was wholly idiosyncratic, and she wasn’t afraid to be deeply offended — almost wounded — by movies, or to fall in love with them. Selected long-form reviews are collected in For Keeps (unfortunately out-of-print), while capsule reviews can be found in 5001 Nights at the Movies ($29.95). You might also consider grabbing the DVD collection The Complete New Yorker ($100), which will get you the complete Kael and a shitload of cartoons, too. From her essay on The Exorcist:

“Shallowness that asks to be taken seriously — shallowness like William Peter Blatty’s — is an embarrassment. When you hear him on TV talking about communicating with his dead mother, your heart doesn’t bleed for him, your stomach turns for him.”

Stanley Kauffmann: At first, I found the essays by New Republic critic Kauffmann curiously unfinished. They seemed too open-ended, dispassionate, and insubstantial. Second readings usually proved me wrong. He might be the polar opposite of Thomson, except that his writing is similarly dense and careful. Regarding Film ($25) covers the period from 1993 to 1998. From a review of Natural Born Killers:

“When his film leaves his hands, it is finished, but he wants it to be as wild, as unpredictable, as seemingly spontaneous as anything can be that is put in cans and shipped to thousands of theaters.”

Stuart Klawans: I haven’t spent as much time with Klawans’ work as I’d like, but what I’ve read of his essays from The Nation is unusually engaged. He was one of the few critics who seemed to truly get Magnolia, and he made a compelling, highly contrarian argument that it was best read as a comedy. He often looks at movies from unusual perspectives, exploring not only the text but the context. His recent collection Left in the Dark ($15.95) covers 1988 through 2001. From a piece on Election, putting himself in the head of a studio executive:

“As much as you might love Election, you probably would avoid the next project that reminded you of it.”

Jonathan Rosenbaum: A film critic at the Chicago Reader, Rosenbaum is among the most political film commentators working today. He’s provocative and unpredictable, and has the endearing quality of admitting that he’s sometimes wrong. Unfortunately, very little of his work is available online, and the collections of his essays aren’t organized in a way that will be meaningful to many readers. Probably the best place to start is his 2004 book Essential Cinema ($35).

“But what if Do the Right Thing doesn’t have any heroes or villains? What if it doesn’t propose any particular action as being the right thing? What if, in fact, it postulates — as I believe it does — that given the divisions that already exist in the social situations the film depicts, it’s not even possible for any character to ‘do the right thing’ in relation to every other character?”


The British Film Institute: Easily the most consistent publisher of high-quality books on movies. The BFI Modern Classics and BFI Film Classics series are excellent — short (generally less than 100 pages) analysis of a single film by a single writer. Some (such as Salman Rushdie’s take on The Wizard of Oz) are deeply personal; others serve as little more than explications of plots and themes; and a few (such as Camille Paglia’s essay on The Birds) are joyously idiosyncratic, if a little silly. From Paglia’s book:
“The pencil is the Victory trident with which she spears men, as well as the trophy phallus that she knows very well how to grind down.”
The BFI World Directors series is exactly what you’d expect, focusing on the work of individual directors, including Culture Snob favorite Atom Egoyan.

Cambridge Film Handbooks: This series attacks individual movies from multiple angles, featuring essays and articles from a variety of perspectives, publications, and authors. Films in the series range from Fargo to Tokyo Story. The four volumes I have (Rear Window, The Piano, Do the Right Thing, and the Godfather trilogy) each contain five major essays and a collection of reviews.

Wallflower Critical Guides: The British company Wallflower Press is a promising enterprise that might eventually rival the British Film Institute in the breadth and depth of its titles dealing with movies. There are presently two “critical guides” — one on contemporary North American directors, and one on contemporary British and Irish directors — as well as cinema books dealing with specific countries, directors, and movies. I only have the North American-directors volume, and it shows a welcome concern with themes and motifs. It makes an astute connection, for instance, between Carl Franklin’s seemingly-worlds-apart One False Move and Devil in a Blue Dress, noting that they both deal with “the manner in which setting influences character and action.”

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