My last job had a lot of downtime which meant a lot of reading. Luckily there is an endless trove of books to read on the subject of film. Here are a few samples of some of the best I read. Also, I noticed that most of these choices are from the birth to the golden age of Hollywood. Seems like a happy accident but it is also a good way to learn what came before in today’s age of filmmaking.
Five Came Back by Mark Harris
The first of two Mark Harris works, here is a true story about five Directors who had a hand serving in World War II. What’s amazing is how all of these guys saw some truly horrendous stuff and still managed to deliver content for the military. But we do get to see how the war shaped their careers afterwards and also how it shook their personal lives. George Stevens in particular is pretty downbeat as he went from ‘Rah-Rah’ patriotic man to suffering from severe PTSD. Not everything is bad though as we get to see how much of a curmudgeon John Ford was and John Huston got into some serialized style adventures in Italy. Maybe people wouldn’t be down on a film based on middle aged Directors but this makes the argument on how even the most ‘mundane’ people can shape a war.
Pictures at a Revolution by Mark Harris
The second Mark Harris book, which confusingly I made since it is actually his first, this outing showcases how the industry was literally hitting a new wave in 1968. While the Hollywood system was still churning out projects like Doctor Doolittle or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner; a new era formed like a flash flood with groundbreaking hits in Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate. This is such a riveting book to read because it is essentially part behind the scenes and part cultural look at filmmaking at a specific time. The problems Bonnie & Clyde had to get into theaters, how Sidney Poitier’s two films (also In the Heat of the Night) help change the views of African Americans on film, and the truly awful time it was to create Doctor Doolittle could all be books themselves. The latter in particular had me tickled because Rex Harrison was such an asshole on set throughout filming and the film was plagued with so many issues. Oh I forgot to mention that all five of these films also were in contention for Best Picture in the same year? Maybe 1968 wasn’t the greatest year in film overall, but clearly these five films help shaped what would come in the next decade.
The Searchers by Glenn Frankel
I honestly had no idea that John Ford’s The Searchers was based on a true story. So it comes as a surprise when you read Glenn Frankel’s account on how a child’s life is changed forever after being kidnapped by Native Americans is more compelling than the actual film. Don’t get me wrong, The Searchers is marvelous and one of the prettiest movies put on celluloid. It is hard to put this down though when things go bad to worse and then slightly amazing as we read on about this kid.
Rebels on the Backlot by Sharon Waxman
Just like Pictures at a Revolution, Sharon Waxman’s book is part behind the scenes and part look into history. This time though it is specifically on the 1990s and how six independent filmmakers changed Hollywood forever. Maybe it is because I am a fan of all of these Directors, but everyone in this is fascinating to read and how much of a headache they caused to get their first films on the ground. Quentin Tarantino on Pulp Fiction, Steven Soderbergh changing the landscape with video, and David Fincher’s ill timed Fight Club are subjects that deserve their own book. My favorite though is on Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich as the entire subject is how no one, and I mean NO ONE, could figure out what the fuck this movie was about. It is funny how when you read up on all of their early careers you wouldn’t expect that these guys would someday lead Hollywood as the top tier creators of our day. At least the studios didn’t think so that is.
The Inventor and the Tycoon by Edward Ball
One man help create the movies as we know it and his name was (hard to spell) Eadweard Muybridge. Author Edward Ball does exhaustive research on the man who, on a dare, showcased motion in film. That and the man was more than likely insane. Ball recounts the severe mental issues Muybridge had as an adult and how, later in life, his experiments with film became more outlandish. Oh and he also murdered a man in cold blood as well. So obviously the inventor of the motion picture was not the healthiest man around. Personally I’m looking forward to the 2016 film Flying Horse focusing on Muybridge’s crime with Ralph Fiennes in the lead role and Benedict Cumberbatch as the victim.