Thursday, June 25, 2009

Books on Movies

Nearly a month ago MovieMan0283 at The Dancing Image began an interesting meme with his very detailed and thoughtful post about his favorite books on film.

I’ve been brooding on this topic, and reading the terrific blogs of others who’ve contributed to this meme, but I’m at a loss as to how to contribute. At the risk of sounding like a dolt, my own collection of film books is quite small, and despite all the ransacking of libraries I’ve done over the years, I can’t really say that any particular book has made that big an impression on me or been a powerful influence on my judgment of classic films.

I suppose there are probably five kinds of books that movie buffs have available to them. The first is subjective essays by professional critics. I’ve read very few of these and what I’ve read has never been a big influence on my own appreciation of film. This may only mean that I am too opinionated myself.

The second kind of book is more an objective encyclopedic survey of films. I find these to be more helpful to locate facts on films, which interests me more. One that comes to mind is “The Paramount Story” by John Douglas Eames (Simon & Schuster, NY 2002). This book has lots of detail on every single movie ever made at this studio, lots of photos, and also brief synopses of the plots of the films. Another book in this vein is “Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck” by Ella Smith (Random House, NY, 1985), which covers the films of her career, though provides more detail on some movies than on others, again with a lot of photos. These types of survey books are useful because they cover a lot of ground and give lots of facts. To anybody not interested in old movies, they might read like a car manual.

The third kind of book is the coffee-table type book on a particular film, like “Gone With the Wind” or “Casablanca”, full of photos, lots of fun for trivia fans, but usually not too in-depth. I’ve read a few of these, own a few, but again, can’t say they’ve provided any profound insight.

The fourth kind of book is the movie star biography or autobiography. Read lots of these, enjoyed some, but was always disappointed at the lack of coverage on the actual nuts and bolts activities on the set by these actors. Most of these biographies have a lot to do with the stars’ personal lives, in which I must confess (again, at the risk of sounding like a dolt), I am only minimally interested.

All the gossipy detail of love affairs and scandals is not going to tell me what I really want to know, which is, was that you or a stunt double in that scene? What is it like just sitting while they set the lights? What are the rehearsals like? Do you have a read-through around a table, like stage actors do? How many takes did that funny slapstick bit require? Was that little bit of business you did in that scene your idea, or did the director come up with it? Nuts and bolts of what it’s like to make a movie. That’s what I want to know.

I suppose it’s unfair to expect an actor to come home from work and write an essay about everything that happened on the set that day and what he feels about it. A plumber wouldn’t want to re-hash his day on paper and evaluate and analyze everything. He just wants to have a beer and unwind. I expect it’s the same for actors.

The last kind of book is the memoir of a particular movie. There aren’t too many of these, but I think it might be my favorite kind of film book. Three that I can think of off the top of my head are “The Making of the African Queen: Or How I Went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind” (Alfred E. Knopf, NY, 1987) by Katharine Hepburn about her experiences on location shooting “The African Queen,” “The Sense and Sensibility Screenplay and Diaries” (Newmarket Press, NY, 1995) by Emma Thompson about her experiences writing, being involved in production, and acting in “Sense & Sensibility”, and “To See the Dream” (Harcourt, Brace and Company, NY, 1957) by Jessamyn West on the filming of “Friendly Persuasion.”

These books are written in journal or diary form, and they give both factual detail and subjective opinion of what is happening. What makes these books so intriguing is that they are first-hand accounts of a particular film, and not the researched work by someone not involved with the film. These books tend to be more observant of small details, and more passionate in tone.

Hepburn’s book was written long after the filming of “The African Queen”, so it doesn’t have quite the immediacy of the other two books, but it carries her unique style of description and bold opinion. Thompson’s book is fascinating for the detail it gives on the day-to-day (nuts and bolts if you will) job of making a movie, and in some places, is drop dead funny. I’ve read it over a few times, and it remains a favorite.

West’s book on the making of “Friendly Persuasion” I’ll go into a bit more because I’ve only recently blogged on this film (see here), and because it’s an excellent book on many levels. She discusses not only film, but literature and contemporary (1950s) society. Both Thompson and West are writers, so they bring to their subject matter a certain ease and confidence in their ability to explain themselves.

West, however, is a neophyte when it comes to making movies, so her foray into this world is far more emotional and fascinated. Thompson and Hepburn are film veterans, so they have a slick way of glossing over what is old to them but might be completely new to us. West, in her unfamiliarity and bewilderment of the movie world, takes us on the journey with her and we see through her amazed eyes this strange way of life.

Jessamyn West, author of “The Friendly Persuasion”, the novel on which the movie was based, was originally not supposed to have any involvement with the film, which was fine by her because the book had been written ten years previously, she had moved on to other projects, and she was a kind of self-described loner who preferred her quiet life in northern California with her husband and her current novel.

Director William Wyler persuaded her to come down to Hollywood and help as a technical advisor and interpreter of the Quaker world, but she ended up writing most of the screenplay as well, with tweaking from Wyler’s brother Robert. This begs the question as to why Michael Wilson was eventually given the writing credit in the film when most of his script was actually trashed, but West never answers that question because it happened after she wrote the memoir. She also describes watching some scenes filmed that, unbeknownst to her at the time, were later dropped from the film.

West writes of the elegant Hollywood of the 1950s, of behind-the-scenes intrigue, lunches at The Brown Derby, the relationship between Wyler and his right-hand man brother, and of his assistant Stu, who was West’s guide to this strange world. West also ruminates on the Quaker world, and shares her amusement that Wyler and his staff seem to think she is like her main character of Eliza, even though West grew up in a modern southern California community of the 20th Century, far removed from Eliza’s Indiana of the Civil War.

West also writes a little of her own background, her years of her writing apprenticeship in bed while struggling with tuberculosis. She writes about her parents, and particularly with a rare mixture of humor and anguish over her mother who at the time suffered with mild dementia. West’s rambling stream-of-consciousness style covers a lot of ground, is at times very funny and at other times deeply moving and even tragic. Her writing style has a modern feel to it, quite unlike the more structured memoirs of decades ago.

She describes that first embarrassing shock of hearing the actors say her lines out loud, that feeling many screenwriters and playwrights feel when the words they’ve only heard in their heads are first heard out of the lips of someone they do not even know. It’s a spine-tingling, exciting, and vulnerable experience all at once.

She recounts battling chronic migraines, of floating in the hotel pool while the sound of Lucy and “Our Miss Brooks” floats from the televisions in the rooms. There is much self-deprecating humor as she compares the hotel pool to Walden Pond and herself to Thoreau in the wilderness. Robert Wyler is Bronson Alcott, and William Wyler is Emerson.

She describes taking Gary Cooper to a Quaker meeting, and how he seemed to enjoy the contemplative silence. Later she took Dorothy McGuire to a meeting, and astutely notes the difference in the two actors:

“He didn’t look about at all, but centered down into the silence. Dorothy, after her visit, spoke to me of the various attitudes and responses of the Quakers as she had observed them at meeting and of those she intended to use in her portrayal of Eliza in the meeting scene…Pragmatically, her way may turn out to be better than Cooper’s. But I understand Cooper’s way better. I must become the character I write about, not put a set of observations on paper. However, there is no necessity for using either method exclusively…Cooper’s method traditionally is regarded as the feminine one of intuitive identification; Dorothy’s as the masculine method of rational observation and selection. Dorothy was a craftsman, Cooper an artist, insofar as their methods were unmixed. But what method ever is?”

West writes of the scene she disliked, which she “cannot stomach” and that is the scene where Cooper and Tony Perkins get attacked by the Hudspeth girls. It’s a scene that stands apart from the rest of the movie, and now we can see why: West didn’t write it. It’s one of the very few remaining scenes from an earlier version of the script (which was originally a Frank Capra project).

West describes going on location, and of helping to choose extras to play Quakers in the meeting house scene. “First of all, you are choosing bodies and faces. You are choosing flesh. The camera will look at flesh, flesh which neither speaks nor acts. This is as near to an auction block for slaves as I’ve ever been….”

She describes Wyler’s directing of little Richard Eyer in the meeting house scene where the boy leaps up, shouting “God is Love!” to get attention. Wyler acted it out himself a dozen times, “each time he was eight years old.”

“I have watched him, too, directing a scene, with exactly that same self-forgetting love and admiration in his face you see I the face of a mother watching her -- unequaled -- child.”

These are the kind of first-hand, immediate and intimate musings you don’t get from the autobiography written many years later, colored by time and a changed viewpoint. You don’t get it from the coffee table books of movie stills and trivia, and you certainly don’t get it from the scholarly, but too detached writing of a professional critic. Unlike those other books, this kind of book tells you what it was like to make this or that movie. That’s all I want to know.


Joel Bocko said...

What a great post! I am only catching up to it now, but I quite enjoyed it - your classifications of the different kinds of movie books was astute (even if there's often overlap, of course) but better yet was your detailed recounting of the fascinating-sounding "Friendly Persuasion" book - which I've never read, having also not seen the movie.

I have more use for the coffee table tomes and critical analyses than you do, but I agree that in a certain way, these behind-the-scenes "nuts and bolts" - but with a pluse - approach is the most satisfying.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, MovieMan, and thanks as well for putting forward such an interesting, and challenge, meme. Your final compilation of books on your July 10th post is fascinating. Terrific that so many knowledgable movie fans took the opportunity to contribute.

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