Books on Film Criticism

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Matt Zoller Seitz compiled a personal list of 14 books on film criticism. If it's good enough for Matt-friggin'-Zolller Seitz, it should be good enough for, well, me.

Of interest:

From Calgari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, by Sigfried Kracauer Princeton / The Monster Show: Revised Edition, by David J. Skal
University Press, 1947 / Faber & Faber, 2001

I put these two books on the same slide because they indulge in similarly bold leaps of critical imagination. Rather than pursue the usual historian’s causal relationship of “A led to B, which in turn led to C,” these authors work more like psychologists, treating entire civilizations as if they were individuals, and looking at how history and culture influence each other, and how in certain cases culture might be able to predict history. Sigfried Kracauer’s book “From Calgari to Hitler” suggests that German Expressionist cinema is a sort of snapshot of the German psyche in the ’20s, prior to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, and that if you study it closely, you can see evidence of longings, fears and nightmare disturbances that Hitler and his followers would tap into, then channel. (Dr. Calgari, the character whose last name appears in the book’s title, was a hypnotist.) Originally published in 1993, David J. Skal’s “The Monster Show” is similarly audacious, suggesting, among other things, that the Universal horror films of the 1930s — which were often set in a geographically nonspecific nightmare Europe filled with magic, superstition, hateful mobs and hideous beasts — were a kind of collective premonition of World War II and the Holocaust.

The Art of the Moving Picture, by Vachel Lindsay
Kessinger Publishing (1922)

This 1922 book by poet and sometime cultural critic Vachel Lindsay might have been the first to treat the then-new medium of moving pictures as an art form, one that was potentially as rich, complex, mysterious as far older ones, and whose physical and aesthetic properties were only starting to be understood. The highlight of the book might be “The Motion Picture of Fairy Splendor,” which examines the relationship between film storytelling, magic, myths, legends and bedtime stories.

From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in Movies, by Molly Haskell
Reinhart and Winston, 1974

One of the most original books of film criticism, and easily one of the best-written, Molly Haskell’s “From Reverence to Rape“is a book-length equivalent of that great line about how Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, only she did it backward in high heels. Filling in areas of film history (and criticism) that were often neglected before she published this slim volume, Haskell writes about the image of women — and the screen image and careers of famous female movie stars — from the point of view of a feminist, and a realist.

Negative Space, by Manny Farber
Praeger, 1971

If you’ve never read Manny Farber, Negative Space” is a hell of a place to start. Sui generis, the original of originals, and a rare critic whose work is provocative and engaging no matter what he was writing on, Farber was one of the most important of the postwar American critics — a writer who, like Andrew Sarris, insisted that the subject matter, budget or intent of a motion picture had absolutely nothing to do with its quality — that true art could be concealed within films of off-putting technique, low budgets and disreputable subject matter (‘termite art,” he called it) and that the films that were intended to be respectable, to make people feel like good and noble citizens, could in fact be uninteresting, even morally and aesthetically toxic. He also writes perceptively about the compositions, cuts, music and overall feel of a film, which seems like no big deal until you think about how much film reviewing, past and present, reads like book reports.

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