When I first became interested in film, seriously interested, there were not many books on the subject, at least not in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Arthur Knight’s The Liveliest Art, published in the late 1950’s, was one of the first books on the subject I read. I discovered names like Griffith, DeMille, and others. I did find a copy of Rudolph Arnheim’s Film as Art at a local library around the same time or not soon after. Other than that, you were pretty much limited to film star biographies.
Within a couple of years, I was probably around sixteen years old now–I began traveling by subway into the City (Manhattan), a Mecca for film lovers, discovering films and filmmakers whose works would most likely not make it over the East River into Brooklyn; foreign films like La Guerre est Finie, Cul-de-sac, Mademoiselle, King of Hearts, and Hunger (all 1966). Manhattan was a whole new world for a budding film freak. Times Square was loaded with movie theaters, the Upper East Side had the latest and trendiest theaters, and in the Village, you had the more adventurous theaters showing experimental, independent, and foreign as well as repertory. New York City was a gold mine filled with celluloid dreams.
And then there were the bookstores! In Manhattan, many of the bookstores had a section dedicated to books on film which I began to devour! A few years later in the late 1960s, I found the mother lode of bookstores: it was called Cinemabilia, located on Cornelia Street in Greenwich Village (years later they relocated to 13th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues near the Quad Cinema). Here was a small, cramped store dedicated to movie memorabilia, movie stills, lobby cards, posters, and books, and not your average movie star biographies, either. They had books on directors, the history of movies, the art of filmmaking, film analysis, even books imported from England. There were magazines like Films and Filming, Sight and Sound, and Films in Review, among some other short-lived and long-forgotten publications.
Of all the books I read over the years, the following five film books were the most influential books I read in those early days, shaping my thoughts and feelings about film.
The American Cinema: Directors and Direction 1929 – 1968 (Andrew Sarris)
For many years, this was my bible, though I never agreed with Sarris’ low rating of Billy Wilder (he later reconsidered). Sarris was the guardian of the Auteur Theory in America; the concept that the film director who has final control, in theory, of all elements of the film is the “author” of the movie. This, of course, ticked off plenty of screenwriters and other artists who all contributed to the making of a film. Today, I see film as more of a collaborative art. Still, the director is the man in charge (at least until the studios get their hands on the film).
Hitchcock (Francois Truffaut) & Hitchcock’s Films (Robin Wood)
I lumped these two books together for the obvious reason. They were groundbreaking at the time taking Hitchcock seriously as an artist, more than as just a commercial entertaining filmmaker. Both books were the first of their kind; Truffaut’s book-length interview covering the directo’s entire career, and Robin Wood’s study was the first serious critical look of Hitch as a film artist.
Billy Wilder – Alex Madsen
This book was part of the Cinema One series, published in the United States by Indiana University Press. Madsen’s book on Wilder was a critical study. Along with Hitchcock, Frankenheimer, and a few others, Billy Wilder was a name I recognized early on and who work I have admired ever since. Madsen’s book is long out of print, but if you find a copy, it is essential reading.
I Lost it at the Movies (Pauline Kael)
It may seem odd to have both Sarris and Kael on the same list since in life they had little use for each other and came at film from different perspectives. However, both were serious about film as an art, and fascinating to read. Kael’s writing is thoughtful, passionate and snarky. This collection, her first, contains both thoughtful reviews and some fascinating long pieces including Are Movies Going to Pieces.