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The Best Books About Movies, Ranked (Kinda)
Plus: A Tearful Assignment
Scott Feinberg and the Hollywood Reporter have put together a list of the 100 greatest film books of all time. Scott was kind enough to ask me to participate, which was both tremendous fun and mildly daunting; it’s safe to say this is the only time Steven Spielberg and I will be in the same jury pool.
One thing to keep in mind is that the lists that were submitted weren’t weighted or ranked, so this is more a catalog of the books most commonly found on people’s shelves than a competitive ranking of the greatest books ever written about the world of film. This is not a complaint: I think it’s actually more useful, in a way, as it gives people a more accurate glimpse of what folks have actually read. To wit: I have read eight of the top ten books, even if I’m not sure I’d put any of them at the tippy-top of my list.
Anyway, it was entertaining and daunting to pare down my bookshelves to the 25 most important entries. I’ll put my whole list in a note on Substack so as not to fill up a bunch of space in this newsletter. Here, I’d like to briefly make a case for one book that didn’t make the top 100: Robert Warshow’s The Immediate Experience.
Warshow was an editor at Commentary in the 1950s; The Immediate Experience collects his writings on popular culture for that magazine as well as Partisan Review and American Mercury. The book came together following his untimely death at the age of 37; its preface was part of an application he was submitting for a Guggenheim fellowship. As Lionel Trilling notes in his introduction to the collection, such statements of purpose can be almost tortuously awkward to write—justifying one’s work in the field of criticism can often feel a little silly, a fact I confront every time I explain to someone I’ve just met what it is, precisely, that I do—but Warshow nailed it.
“In this document, Warshow speaks of his relation to the movies with an intelligent simplicity which derives from his never having repudiated the passion for the screen that he had felt in boyhood,” Trilling writes. “In this he was like the other remarkable film critic of our time, who also died untimely, James Agee. There are great differences in the work of the two men, for Agee experienced the movies in an almost wholly unmediated way, while Warshow came to them with the questions of an avowed intellectual and a highly politicized intellectual at that. But the two men are at one in their unabashed response to the charm that the art had for them, not merely in special instances of high success, but entirely, in all its range.”
Which brings me to Warshow’s most famous adage: “A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man.” This is a, perhaps the, fundamental truth of criticism. For all the stylistic analysis and discussion of cinematic techniques, for all the efforts to find parallels and throughlines with previous works by the same director or writer, a work of art eventually comes down to a very simple question: does it work for me or doesn’t it? Vocalizing how and why it works is the trick.
My favorite of his essays is probably “Movie Chronicle: The Westerner.” In a few brief pages he capably explains the looming myth of the gunfighter ranging through the American West, the appeal of this figure whose “melancholy comes from the ‘simple’ recognition that life is unavoidably serious.” He also nonchalantly articulates what would become a defining principle of the critical mindset for most of my lifetime: “The truth is that the Westerner comes into the field of serious art only when his moral code, without ceasing to be compelling, is seen also to be imperfect.” This isn’t quite the definition of an antihero but it’s close enough for modern purposes and it’s why John Ford’s The Searchers, which debuted a year after Warshow’s death, remains for many the greatest Western of all time.
On this Friday’s episode of Across the Movie Aisle, we talked about some of our favorite short films, and it really demonstrates why I love this show: in a million years I never would’ve guessed what Alyssa and Peter picked to discuss. I hope you give it a listen!
I reviewed The Continental: From the World of John Wick this week. The whole endeavor makes a pretty compelling case that most of the time we’re better off with a long movie instead of a short miniseries.
A programming note: there will be no Bulwark Goes to Hollywood podcast this week. That just means you have an extra week to listen to last week’s episode with Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker, the guys who made Airplane!
Best Buy is getting out of the video disc business, both in stores and, a little more surprisingly, online. As a longtime and very vocal advocate for physical media, this is a bummer. And a reminder to support retailers like Diabolik DVD in addition to boutique labels like Criterion and Shout Factory if you want to ensure that physical media will survive.
One of the more interesting avenues certain publications have traveled to make money is monetizing their archives by optioning stories for feature film or television adaptations. For instance, Texas Monthly is looking to generate 10 percent of its operating revenue via such deals next year; Richard Linklater’s festival darling Hit Man is based on one of their stories.
Assigned Viewing: Tears of the Sun (HBO Max)
I could’ve sworn I’d assigned this before but I can’t find it in the archive so maybe it just hasn’t been streaming. But now is as good a time as any to watch a movie about righteous violence unleashed upon wicked people who rape and murder civilians in the name of ethnic cleansing. Not too many movies close with this epitaph: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” It is a shame that so many so often need reminding.