A ‘cinema’ shelfie

8th March 2019

John Wyver writes: Prompted by social media posts and World Book Day (and I know I’m a little late), above is an image of two of my bookshelves. These are part of my ‘cinema’ selection, with the volumes ordered in a way that makes sense to me even as it may be baffling to pretty much anyone else. I thought that through today (when I ought to be getting on with some writing of my own) I might compose a ‘reading’ of the two shelves, starting at the top left. I’m not going to comment on every volume, and I apologise if the image definition isn’t sufficiently good to allow you to make out each of the titles and authors.

Films & Feelings by Raymond Durgnat: this is a 1967 collection of the inimitable critic’s writings, perhaps not quite as essential as his A Mirror for England (which lives on another shelf, with the British cinema books) but inspiring nonetheless.

Personal Views: Explorations in Film by Robin Wood: along with Victor Perkins, Robin Wood was one of the first critics I read that really opened up cinema for me as a world of endless fascination and beauty. This is a collection of essays about Godard, Mizoguchi, Tourneur, Welles, Ophuls and others. It’s a beautifully produced volume published by Gordon Fraser in 1976, and this copy was de-accessioned from Ealing Technical College Library, allowing me to purchase it second-hand for £1.25.

Theories of Authorship: A Reader, edited by John Caughie: a 1981 collection, published by Routledge & Kegal Paul, as the company then was, in association with the British Film Institute. How I pored over the essays in this when it first came out: the dossier on John Ford, with writings by Sarris, Wood, Wollen, Comolli and Narboni; the groups of essays on auteur-structuralism; and a brilliant selection of pieces headed ‘Fiction of the author / author of the fiction’, with Barthes’ ‘The death of the author’, Nick Browne’s essay on Stagecoach, and important pieces by Sandy Flitterman and Pam Cook (the only ones by women writers, out of a total of 32 chapters).

A little further along there is a group of volumes about feminism and film, from each of which I learned important insights: Women in Film Noir, edited by E Ann Kaplan; Women’s Pictures and The Power of the Image by Annette Kuhn; E Ann Kaplan’s Women & Film: Both Sides of the Camera; Feminism and Film Theory by Constance Penley, and also her The Future of a Illusion: Film, Feminism and Psychoanalysis; Melodrama: Stage, Picture, Screen, edited Jacky Bratton, Jim Cook and Christine Gledhill; and Dirty Looks, edited by Pamela Church Gibson and Roma Gibson.

Following which are three books from Richard Dyer: his 1977 edited volume, Gays and Film; Stars, 1979; and Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society, 1987. All were published by the BFI and the changes in their formats speaks so much about the growing confidence of the Institute as a publisher and of film studies more generally. I am especially fond of the slim volumes from the mid-1970s, which I bought as I was beginning to wrestle with the complexities of theory.

The Movie Book of the Western, edited by Ian Cameron and Douglas Pye: although I loved watching westerns before a BBC2 John Ford season late on Sunday nights in – when? – 1972 perhaps, it was seeing the great director’s works week after week that made me love both Ford and the genre. If pressed, and permitted only a single film on my desert island, I would have to take The Searchers (1956). The two best books on the western – Jim Kitses’ ground-breaking Horizons West and Philip French’s definitive Westerns – live on another shelf (because they’re smaller and can sit alongside more compact books), but this is a hugely valuable and readable collection, assembled in 1996 and produced in that distinctive Studio Vista house style.

Next along are two more recent books about the western: Back in the Saddle Again: New Essays on the Western, edited in 1998 by Ed Buscombe (who taught me so much about American cinema) and Roberta Pearson, and the slightly disappointing Ride, Boldly Ride by Mary Lea Bandy and Kevin Stoehr, published by University of California Press in 2012.

Screening Sex by Linda Williams and The Erotic Thriller in Contermporary Cinema by Linda Ruth Williams; these two volumes seem fated to live next to each other on my shelf, even though they are by two different authors. The second maps a genre that is still relatively little written about (or maybe I don’t read the right things). The first is the more theoretical of the two books, and builds on Linda Williams’ revelatory Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the “Frenzy of the Visible”, which I realise I certainly once owned, loaned to a friend, and never had it returned. So that’s a note for my next online visit to Abebooks.

Stage to Screen – Theatrical Origins of Early Film – David Garrick to D.W. Griffith by A. Nicholas Vardac: jumping down to the second shelf, the first book on the left-hand end is a Da Capo paperback reprint of Vardac’s 1949 book that was originally published by Harvard University Press. Vardac, I suspect, is not much read today, but this is an enormously rich study of the intermedial relationships between the 19th century stage and the first years of film. The questions about stage and screen that Vardac examines remain central to my work as both a producer and an academic.

The Dream That Kicks – The Prehistory and Early Years of Cinema in Britain by Michael Chanan: I vividly remember reading, and puzzl;ing over, this allusive and in some ways eccentric study when it first came out in 1980. A decade before the Elsaesser volume, next to it, it spoke to me of a cinema that I had next-to-no sense of, and a Marxist cultural analysis that I was just beginning to understand. The cover image is deeply strange, of ‘Dr Raymond Ditmars prepared for filming an Aquarium Subject. The scientist and camera are draped in black to prevent reflection.’ Similarly disconcerting was Chanan starting the book with Dylan Thomas’ poem ‘Our Eunuch Dreams’, which precedes the first line that quotes Oliver Cromwell: ‘One beam in a dark place hath exceeding much refreshment in it.’ I wonder if any other study of early cinema cites the Civil War leader?

Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, edited by Thomas Elsaesser with Adam Barker (who doesn’t get a name-check on the front): next to Chanan to the right is an absolutely foundational book for me – a BFI collection published in 1990 that drew together much of the most important work to that date about the fundamental reassessment of early film. The near-legendary 1978 FIAF meeting in Brighton was the stimulus for most of that investigation of the first years of film, to which Barry Salt, Ben Brewster, Tom Gunning, Charles Musser, André Gaudreault, Miriam Hansen, Yuri Tsivian, Jacques Aumont and others made (and in many cases continue to make) such important contributions – and they are all represented here, in a framework laid out primarily by the great Thomas Elsaesser. I have returned again and again and again to this volume, and shall ever do so.

Film Before Griffith and Film and the Narrative Tradition by John Fell: Fell, like Vardac, is far from a fashionable figure to read on early film these days, in part because his scholarship may be thought to have been superseded by the writings exemplified by the Elsaesser volume. But there’s a great deal of interest in both volumes, which are elegantly written and entirely accessible.

Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company by Charles Musser: one of the great monuments of cinema scholarship, about whatever period, elegantly written and crammed with framegrabs (from a time when this was far from standard); this is the 1991 University of California Press paperback.

The Image in Early Cinema – Form and Material, edited by Scott Curtis, Philkippe Gauthier, Tom Gunning and Joshua Yumibe: this is the most recent collection of papers from the biannual conference of Domitor, the international society for the study of early cinema. It brings together presentations made at the 2014 conference in Chicago, assembling some of the latest research in the field. Among the contributions I found especially interesting are Jennifer Peterson on landscape films; Joshua Yumibe on the colour palettes of fairy and trick films; Dimitrios Latsis on Muybridge’s panoramas of San Francisco; and ‘The Lantern Image between Stage and Screen’ by Artemis Willis, which circles around an aspect of the field mapped out by Vardac (above).

Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts by Ben Singer: this is a terrific study of American culture between 1880 and 1920, embracing film serials, the sensory impact of the city, amusement parks and much more, and along the way offering the most accessible and comprehensive engagement with ‘the modernity thesis’ that I’ve read.

Parallel Tracks – The Railroad and Silent Cinema by Lynne Kirby: Lynne is now a high-flying television exec (and a friend), and this wonderful 1997 book demonstrates what a loss to academic film studies she was. As I opened it just now I found a private view card for an exhibition of Rineke Dijkstra and Massimo Vitali at The Photographers’ Gallery (when it was still in Great Newport Street) on 3 December 1997. One of my oddities is that I leave invites like this, and postcards too, which I’ve used as bookmarks, in the books that I read them with – exactly so that I can be surprised by them two decades later.

Exporting Entertainment – America in the World Film Market 1907-1934: Kristin Thompson’s pioneering study of international distribution was published by the BFI as this hardback in 1985, and I see from a pencil note inside that I paid £16 for it in October 1986. It’s now available as an open access .pdf, courtesy of David Bordwell’s invaluable website, but for reasons that I’d find it hard to detail but which seem entirely sensible to me I continue to enjoy seeing the actual book sitting on this shelf.

The Genius of the System – Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era: there have been many books published on the production processes of the major studios, but Thomas Schatz’s 1989 volume, on the right-hand end of the lower shelf, is still the best overview that I know – rigorous scholarship, a focus on finance, fine thumbnail portraits of the moguls, plus a number of great anecdotes,

I might still add some more, and I think I’ll return to the format at some point soon, choosing another pair of shelves.

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