That underappreciated local resource, UC Press, has just released a flurry of enticing books for film buffs in search of reading fare for their Big Sur vacations or an escape from the shallows of summer flicks. Top of the list from the California imprint is the paperback edition of I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies, a picnic box of lectures, NYU classroom discussions and diary entries that combines graceful writing, lacerating self-assessments and acres of insight. “Proclaim and scream out that you are talented and a poet of the celluloid strip, but not among us,” Ray (who directed Johnny Guitar, among others) would instruct his directing students at their first class. “I caution you against acting out the hoped for result before you have done the work. And confine your worries about it, as you do other acts of masturbation, to your private quarters.” (Now if only those words were plastered in the back seat of every limo in Hollywood.) A tad less accessible — more academic, if you will — is Placing Movies, an engaging, yet egocentric collection of reviews by Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. Since I continually debate with myself the purpose of film reviews — and the nature of good criticism — I find Rosenbaum's provocations fascinating. Take his essay on underrated critic Manny Farber, who wrote for a variety of magazines from the '40s, which concludes that Farber's pithy reviews didn't lure audiences to overlooked films or settle debates among film buffs. But they did, Rosenbaum writes, “contribute to the swarm of ideas that buzz around movies, inside our heads.” If you're looking for fascinating observations, this book's got 'em: Rosenbaum makes the point that both Orson Welles and John Cassavetes considered the actor rather than the director to be the key figure in filmmaking (an attitude also shared by Nick Ray). Esoteric, quirky, puzzling — that's Screen Writings, the final installment in Scott MacDonald's trilogy on independent filmmakers. MacDonald follows his previous sets of interviews with a collection of scripts and texts by the likes of Trinh T. Minh-ha, Yoko Ono and Michael Snow. These avant-garde explorations lose something — or, more accurately, take on a different meaning — on the printed page, outside the context of a theater. This one's of greatest interest to experimental filmmakers and students. The same readers will be mesmerized by UC Press' staid-looking reprint of a slim 1949 volume with the elegant title Painting With Light. This is the master's guide to getting powerful images on film, written by iconoclastic cinematographer John Alton, who shot the noirs T-Men and The Big Combo. More than a how-to for technicians, Painting With Light is a guide to how we see.
By Michael Fox