If you’re a film nerd putting together a late summer reading list, look no further. There are a number of books here that could qualify as “beach reads,” chief among them a new novel from Quentin Tarantino. Others might be a tad heavy to lug to the beach, but they will be just as enticing at home. So let’s go swimming in a deep roundup of new books on filmmaking.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Quentin Tarantino (Harper Perennial)
Only Quentin Tarantino could return to a film just two years later and radically change the order of things, remove numerous noteworthy scenes while expanding others, devote a shocking number of pages to Lancer plot summaries, embark on a headline-grabbing press tour, and still emerge with a book as successful as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. As with any creation from Tarantino, there are moments of real reader discomfort here, many revolving around Cliff Booth and Bruce Lee; it wouldn’t be a Tarantino creation were it not problematic. When he’s not pushing buttons, there’s plenty of other sections that stand among his most memorable bits of writing. Consider an entertaining chapter devoted to famously alcoholic actor Aldo Ray, or another centered on Charles Manson’s desperate attempts to impress music producer Terry Melcher. From start to finish the novel is thoroughly engaging, often laugh-out-loud funny, and without question a satisfying expansion of the world of Hollywood––along with a surprisingly emotional, entirely different ending. This is not a standard novelization and for anyone who cares about the intersection of cinema and literature, it is simply unmissable.
Underexposed: The 50 Greatest Movies Never Made by Joshua Hill (Abrams)
I have always been a sucker for explorations of unmade or unfinished films, and Underexposed: The 50 Greatest Movies Never Made includes many of the biggies: The Day the Clown Cried, the Rolling Stones’ version of A Clockwork Orange, Spike Jonze’s Harold and the Purple Crayon, David Lynch’s One Saliva Bubble. Yes, many of these stories have been told before. But author Joshua Hill also highlights some newbies, like Steven Soderbergh’s Cleopatra 3-D, Steven Spielberg’s Oldboy, and Sofia Coppola’s Little Mermaid. A screenwriter himself, Hill writes with wit and insight, crafting a fascinating, deeply enjoyable dive into what-if cinema.
A Lot Can Happen in the Middle of Nowhere: The Untold Story of the Making of Fargo by Todd Melby (Minnesota Historical Society Press)
While most films from the Coen brothers would be deserving of a full-length making-of book, it’s no surprise that Fargo has received the treatment. As author Todd Melby explains in his new book, the production difficulties were numerous, from dialect issues to a disturbing lack of snow. Melby also delves into the brothers’ still-controversial decision to open the film with the words “THIS IS A TRUE STORY.” “Regarding the truthiness of Fargo,” Melby writes, “we have a ‘pretty close,’ a ‘yes,’ and a ‘yes’ with quibbles.” What’s the real answer? With apologies to Kumiko, “To Joel and Ethan, it didn’t matter if Fargo was true or not. What matters is they told us it was true.”
Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Lévy, illustrated by Frederik Peeters (SelfMadeHero)
One of the summer’s most anticipated graphic novel releases is a re-release—2013’s haunting Sandcastle, the inspiration for M. Night Shymalan’s Old. With it back in print, it’s easy to see why the story grabbed the filmmaker. As author Pierre Oscar Lévy writes in the preface, “One day, I got the idea to write a tale about vacationers stuck on a beach, stranded in a dimension where the scale of space or time had changed.” Lévy mentions Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel as an influence, and while that might make Sandcastle seem like atypical Shymalan fare, that is not the case. This is a simple but devastating graphic novel, and seeing how the man behind The Village tackles it has already proven to be the basis of much discussion––including our positive thoughts.
Norman Jewison: A Director’s Life by Ira Wells (Sutherland House)
One of the delightful Film Twitter-fueled developments of recent years has been the growing realization that Moonstruck is one of the great films of the 1980s. Indeed, the Cher-Nicolas Cage vehicle now seems to be acknowledged as the greatest film in director Norman Jewison’s fascinating, genre-hopping career. The making of the romantic comedy is one of the highlights of Norman Jewison: A Director’s Life, author Ira Wells’ lengthy appreciation of the 94-year-old Canadian filmmaker’s life and career. Wells astutely points out that following the release of his final film, The Statement, “Jewison seemed to be vanishing from the critical conversation.” However, he finds the director’s films—In the Heat of the Night, The Thomas Crown Affair, Fiddler on the Roof—to be as “lively as their creator.” Jewison’s five-decade career warrants serious respect, as A Director’s Life makes the strong case.
Becoming Alien by Sarah Welch-Larson (Cascade Books)
Sarah Welch-Larson’s examination of the Alien series, subtitled “The Beginning and End of Evil in Science Fiction’s Most Idiosyncratic Film Franchise,” is noteworthy for several reasons. For one, she covers all six films, including Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. (Sorry, AvP.) For another, she deftly connects Ridley Scott’s most recent entries to his first, as well as James Cameron’s, David Fincher’s, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s. “[E]ach film expands on the concept of evil set forth by its predecessors,” she writes, “complicating that conception, and retroactively enriching readings of the films that came before.” Finally, she zeroes in on the importance of characters like Ash, Bishop, and David as perhaps the fundamental figures of the entire saga: “The androids are the key to the entire Alien series. They reveal much about the attitude of human beings toward others not like them.”
A Light in the Dark: A History of Movie Directors by David Thomson (Knopf)
Make no mistake: Biographical Dictionary of Film kingpin David Thomson is prolific. Yet nearly every book he writes qualifies as major. His latest, A Light in the Dark: A History of Movie Directors, is Thomson’s best in years. While his analyses of filmmakers like Lang and Buñuel are typically insightful, it is his focus on figures from the New Hollywood era to the present day that proves most enticing. It is more than likely readers will often disagree with Thomson’s assessments, but his opinions are so sharp and so well-formed that reading them is downright exhilarating. His takedown of The Irishman is both brutally efficient and, thanks to a comparison with Netflix’s Ozark, genuinely surprising. Thomson is also unafraid to call out his own errors in judgement, or pre-judgement. Consider, his about-face re: late-period Terrence Malick: “I put off seeing A Hidden Life (2019), a three-hour contemplation of a humble Austrian farmer… I could tell from the trailer that it was beautiful, and I was wary of that in Malick by then. How stupid. A Hidden Life is an oratorio on farmland and urban prison, and on fragmented wide-angle close-ups that split time.”
Cinema’s Doppelgängers by Doug Dibbern (Punctum Books)
Doug Dibbern’s hyper-intelligent “counterfactual history” of cinema is a revelation. In Cinema’s Doppelgängers, Hitchcock never left Britain; Welles opened his career with Heart of Darkness, not Citizen Kane; and D.W. Griffith died before filming an adaptation of The Clansman. As Dibbern puts it, “[M]ost of what I’ve written never actually took place. At least not in this world.” The text is demanding, yet also thoroughly involving. “Re-imagining the canon … is always an overt act of invention, of imagining an alternative reality, of manufacturing a counterfactual world,” Dibbern writes. “Making artistic evaluations is itself an act of artistic creation.” While a great many of the artistic creations in Cinema’s Doppelgänger never actually happened, the book itself is a cinematic exploration to be treasured.
Tom Stoppard: A Life by Hermione Lee (Knopf)
It should come as no surprise that a biography of Tom Stoppard, the iconic playwright and screenwriter, is rather lengthy. Indeed, Hermione Lee’s text runs nearly 800 pages. It is also no surprise that a study of Stoppard’s path sees him encounter and collaborate with everyone from Laurence Olivier and Mike Nichols to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. (Though Stoppard received screenplay credit for Empire of the Sun and worked with Spielberg several times in the following years, they “never saw eye to eye about the film.”) What is perhaps surprising is how quickly one can zip through the book—a testament to Lee’s writing style and the many juicy details she’s uncovered about a legit genius.
Billy Wilder on Assignment edited by Noah Isenberg, translated by Shelley Frisch (Princeton University Press)
There is no question that Billy Wilder on Assignment is the most historically important recent book exploring the early days of a major filmmaker. It compiles, for the first time, Wilder’s writings as a young freelance reporter in 1920s Berlin and Vienna. The result is an incredible glimpse of Wilder’s mind at a key age. Of particular interest to cinephiles is his coverage of the likes of Erich von Stroheim. Here is but one example from this truly stunning collection, in which he analyzes why Hollywood was enthralled with a director who spent oodles of studio dollars: “Out of respect for his unique skills, people even buy into his moods. They don’t let him go. Perhaps they’re ashamed of being surrounded by so much levelheadedness. But now we have Chaplin and ‘Von,’ two geniuses full of caprices and quirks—marvelous, isn’t it? Just like in Europe.”
Ten Skies by Erika Balsom (Fireflies Press)
The second release in Fireflies’ Decadent Editions series of 10 books about 10 different films for each year of the 2000s (following Nick Pinkerton’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn) is a probing look at James Benning’s 16mm modern classic Ten Skies. Benning’s film, author Erika Balsom explains, is “ten 10-minute static takes of the sky.” As Balsom puts it, “The title says it all.” Among Balsom’s findings is that Skies “is a film that suffers more than most when shown digitally or small scale.” Indeed, she believes that “Benning’s choices regarding the exhibition of Ten Skies seem to acknowledge this danger.” Reading Balsom’s case study is strongly encouraged for anyone who has had the pleasure of seeing Skies.
Brat: An 80s Story by Andrew McCarthy (Grand Central Publishing)
Brat Pack icon Andrew McCarthy was always a likable presence onscreen, and if Brat: An 80s Story is any indication, that is true offscreen as well. That inherent likability comes through on every page, as McCarthy chronicles the early days of his career, his ascent to stardom, the Brat Pack peak, and the down years that followed. Interestingly, the most resonant sections in Brat involve his post-St. Elmo’s Fire days. There are amusing encounters (“James Spader took me to the Body Shop on Sunset Boulevard to see Glitter. The Body Shop was a strip club and Glitter was, yes, a stripper”), intriguing memories of the likes of Claude Chabrol, and some surprising revelations. It’s a fine book written by a solid actor who found his greatest satisfaction after leaving acting behind. (He is now an award-winning travel writer.)
Engineering Hollywood by Luci Marzola (Oxford University Press)
Luci Marzola’s Engineering Hollywood, subtitled “Technology, Technicians, and the Science of Building the Studio System,” is breathtakingly researched. She documents the easy-to-overlook role of technicians, engineers, and trade organizations in not only building the studio system, but successfully maintaining it: “The image we often invoke of a ‘dream factory,’ in which every aspect of production was contained within the towering walls of the Los Angeles studios, obscures the work of the hundreds of engineers, manufacturers, and trade associations discussed in this book.” This is an important reset in how we examine the successes and failures of the studio system.
New art books: Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and The Mitchells vs. The Machines
Two new releases from Abrams Books delve into the art and design behind two very different creative endeavors. The Art of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge by Amy Ratcliffe is a deep dive into the creation of the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge-themed lands at Walt Disney World and Disneyland. The sketches and concept art are so intricate and detailed that it is easy to forget the Outer Rim’s Batuu was developed for theme parks, not a new Star Wars film or series. Similarly, The Art of The Mitchells vs. The Machines by Ramin Zahed delves into character designs, location concepts, and, of course, menacing toys from the Netflix release. It’s a fine tribute to one of 2021’s most clever animated films. (My 11-year-old son is particularly enthralled with these books, along with another recent release, DK’s LEGO Life Hacks. Julia March’s rundown of creative ways to build things like tablet stands, paperweights, and photo frames is perfect for a LEGO obsessive like my son; here, finally, is a chance to put some of his many excess bricks to good use.)
Lessons From the Set by Usher Morgan (Library Tales Publishing)
This “DIY Guide to Your First Feature Film From Script to Theaters” was released in 2019, but is now available through Audible. Usher Morgan is a filmmaker himself and has compiled a useful breakdown of the entire process, from finding investors (“Picking the right partners is crucial”) to traversing the festival circuit (“Don’t assume a 100% rejection rate before you actually get to a 100% rejection rate”). There are many books that walk burgeoning filmmakers through the process, but Lessons From the Set is particularly impressive.
Scratches and Glitches by Jurij Meden (Synema)
Scratches and Glitches, a collection of essays from Austrian Film Museum curator Jurij Meden, is subtitled “Observations on Preserving and Exhibiting Cinema in the Early 21st Century.” Meden breaks down the many changes that have impacted both cinema exhibition and curation in recent years. While such a focus may sound dry, the writing in Scratches most certainly is not. Case in point: a chapter in which Meden ponders dual 35mm projection by merging prints of two Menahem Golan productions, Godard’s King Lear and Stallone’s Over the Top. One, Meden writes, “is the epitome of highbrow.” The other, “the epitome of lowbrow.” This new creation, dubbed King Lear Over the Top Dedux is found to be a gloriously endearing beast: “The juxtaposition of differences was striking, the juxtaposition of similarities that suddenly revealed themselves even more so.” This is but one example of how Scratches and Glitches subverts expectation.
The Legacy of World War II in European Arthouse Cinema by Samm Deighan (McFarland)
In The Legacy of World War II in European Arthouse Cinema, author Samm Deighan revels in the controversies and complexities that were explored by European filmmakers like Pasolini and Fassbinder. In addition to the usual suspects—Rossellini’s neorealist war trilogy, Night and Fog, (gulp) Salò—Deighan also examines 1980s entries like István Szabó’s Mephisto and Elem Klimov’s Come and See. It’s an essential study of some of the most powerful and historically significant films ever made.
Gripping summertime reads: A non-fiction stunner and six stellar novels
Summer is a fine time for paging through novels, of which you’ll find five scintillating examples here. But let’s start with the most emotionally affecting non-fiction book I’ve read in 2021: Elon Green’s Last Call (Celadon Books). Green’s account of a killer preying upon the gay community in early-90s Manhattan has the intrigue of a detective novel, yet the author also personalizes these victims with significant amounts of text for each. The result is a sad, deeply felt, extraordinarily memorable read. Now, onto the novels.
Phoebe Wynne’s debut Madam (St. Martin’s Press) is a wonderfully creepy, du Maurier-meets-Picnic at Hanging Rock page-turner. The Gothic drama is set at Caldonbrae Hall, a 150-year-old girls’ school perched on a cliff in Scotland, and practically cries out for a film adaptation.
Speaking of film adaptations, it is only a matter of time before Camilla Sten’s The Lost Village (Minotaur Books) is brought to the screen. The story of a documentary filmmaker examining a mysterious, remote village that saw all its residents vanish in the 1950s is deliciously creepy. Sten has crafted a real winner here.
Meanwhile, The Glass Hotel (Vintage Books) by Emily St. John Mandel is a complex puzzler about a Ponzi scheme and two half-siblings—and a heckuva lot more. With Hotel and 2014’s Station Eleven, Mandel is proving herself to be one of the 21st century’s boldest and most prescient authors.
On the lighter side is Mary Jane (Custom House), a 1970s comedy by Jessica Anya Blau about what happens when a rock star and actress wife descend on the home of a 14-year-old and her family for the summer.
Darker but no less involving is Maggie O’Farrell’s brilliant Hamnet (Vintage Books), which is set to be adapted for the screen by playwright Chiara Atik. O’Farrell’s “novel of the plague” is centered on Agnes, the wife of one William Shakespeare, and the death of the couple’s son, Hamnet. It is a stunning book, and could make for a magnificent film.
Lastly, Grady Hendrix’s The Final Girl Support Group (Berkley) is the horror fan’s must-read novel of summer 2021. It serves as both a tribute to the genre and a subversive, playful embrace of its cliches. Centered around a “final girl” and massacre survivor, Support Group is a speedy, pitch-black treat that is not exactly funny, but legitimately fun.
The latest Star Wars novels
The new “Star Wars Essential Legends Collection” from Del Rey is full of favorites from the pre-sequel trilogy days, none better or more important than Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire. The first novel set after Return of the Jedi was famously a smash hit. Thirty years later it remains a tightly plotted trilogy-starter that introduced blue-skinned Grand Admiral Thrawn to the world. (Thrawn and Luke Skywalker are featured on the new edition’s spiffy cover.) Speaking of Thrawn, and Zahn, the second book in his Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy series, Book II: Greater Good (Random House), recently dropped. It continues the compelling tale of Thrawn’s rise to power. Back to the “Essential Legends Collection”: The second and third books, Shatterpoint: Star Wars Legends by Matthew Stover, and Star Wars: Path of Destruction by Drew Karpyshyn, focus on Mace Windu and the Sith Lord Darth Bane, respectively. Lastly, the second book in the High Republic Series, Star Wars: The Rising Storm by Cavan Scott (Del Rey), continues the struggles of the Jedi in the wake of the events of Light of the Jedi. This new series is a winner, and Rising Storm is a solid continuation of the saga.
Blu-ray bonus: Irma Vep (Criterion)
It has been a few months since the arrival of the long-awaited Criterion edition of Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep, covered in detail by our own Matthew Eng. But I do want to mention the great booklet essay (online here) by critic Aliza Ma, wherein she astutely connects the 1996 Maggie Cheung-starrer with Assayas’s later work: “Assayas’s deep-dive inquiry into the essence of acting and dissections of on-screen personae in Irma Vep—of the interchangeability between masks and faces — found new iterations almost a decade later with Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria, and with Stewart in Personal Shopper.” It’s a wonderful essay about a truly great film. Let us hope his new restoration of demonlover will be announced for Criterion soon…