When filmmakers write…
A taxonomy on books written by directors
By Elena Lazic
Reading time 19 Minutes
Since its production in 1967
Since its production in 1967, Joseph L. Anderson’s Spring Night, Summer Night was virtually impossible to find and almost entirely forgotten. Today, exactly 50 years later, Nicolas Winding Refn’s restoration and distribution work brings the film to all MUBI subscribers. Yet the name of the film’s director has been known to cineastes long before this new re-issue. Joseph L. Anderson is the author of The Japanese Film: Art and Industry, a book described by noted film scholar David Bordwell as “the definitive study in any Western language of the Japanese cinema.” Written with Donald Ritchie in 1959, this work has seen several new editions, and remains the reference for anyone looking for a comprehensive introduction to Japanese cinema from 1986 to the present day.
Filmmakers writing about cinema are not exactly rare - autobiographies by film directors are abundant. Yet only a few have written about film in a scholarly, less personal manner, the way Anderson has.
The most obvious examples go back to the 1950s, when the Cahiers du Cinema’s writing roster was made up almost exclusively of future film directors. François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, but also Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette, were all writing for the magazine in its early days, whilst simultaneously pursuing their filmmaking ambitions. These writers would go on in the next decade to comprise the French New Wave.
In the summer of 1962, just three years after his massively influential directorial debut The 400 Blows, François Truffaut conducted an interview that would help to redefine the standing of another, older artist’s work. Although the films of Alfred Hitchcock were successful at the box office, they were largely considered cheap, vulgar and without substance by a crushing majority of film critics. American film critic legend Pauline Kael famously rejected Hitchcock as a mere entertainer, and her description of Notorious as “great trash, great fun” is one of the most positive things she ever wrote about his films. The Cahiers du Cinema writers, however, loved Hitchcock’s work and became his key champions.
It would take Truffaut’s extensive interview, conducted over a week, for the rest of the world to finally see the light and agree with the young French cinephiles. The book didn’t so much put Hitchcock on the map as help map out the filmmaker’s aesthetic and obsessions over an immense filmography. Over 300 pages of interview transcripts, Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock (also known as Hitchcock/Truffaut) discusses Hitchcock’s life and work in depth, from his childhood and his first silent films, to his British sound films and his move to America. After Hitchcock’s death in 1980, Truffaut added a final chapter discussing Hitchcock’s last works, and a very moving preface attesting to the way the ‘Hitchbook’ had indeed succeeded in giving the late director some overdue respect.
Few of the examples cited in this piece are as selfless as Truffaut’s, and it would be foolish not to expect something a little self-involved from his contemporary Jean-Luc Godard. But it would also be wrong to ignore JLG’s intense passion for cinema. Godard was only nineteen years old when his film criticism was published for the first time in 1949; three years later, he would be one of the youngest writers published in the then-new Cahiers du Cinema. Godard on Godard (1972) regroups JLG’s work as a film critic up until 1959, when he dropped regular criticism in order to shoot Breathless, and also includes the occasional pieces and manifesti he would write later in his career. As an insight into the ideas of a filmmaker now rather secretive and whose deeply intellectual work can be difficult to grasp on its own, Godard on Godard is an essential book for anyone interested in the thoughts of a man who has always been far ahead of his time.
The Cahiers crew weren’t the only filmmakers to have very specific ideas about what cinema was and could be in the transformational moment of the 1960s. By the middle of the decade, in Italy, Pier Paolo Pasolini was already an established filmmaker, poet and writer, with published works of fiction as well as essays. Although this approach would become more aggressive later in his career, his work already looked to recover the sex and violence always present within Italian life. His movies dealt with intricacies of history and ideology which years of post-war puritanism had attempted to erase. Italy was still largely conservative at the time and did not approve of Pasolini; even though his first two features Accattone and Mamma Roma did not directly deal with religion, their no frills treatment of the life of prostitutes and pimps was considered extremely obscene, even prompting calls for more restrictive censorship laws.
Pasolini’s third feature signalled that his relationship to Christianity was much more nuanced and complex than one of outright rejection. The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) is a biography of Jesus Christ told from the perspective of the apostle St. Matthew. Far from a totally negative portrayal of the Son of God, the film shows Pasolini struggling to reconcile his love for Him with his incomprehension for some of His actions. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards and is still featured on the Vatican’s list of 45 great films to this day.
Indeed, although Pasolini’s cinema was greatly controversial at the time, it seemed as though the director himself was on a much higher plane. As polemical as his films might have been, they were always more poetic than didactic; although it is essentially a biopic, and with all the dialogue taken directly from the Gospel of Matthew, The Gospel According to St. Matthew is most of all a totally visceral experience.
A speech called ‘The Cinema of Poetry’ delivered by Pasolini in June 1965 - and transcribed in Cahiers du Cinema just a few months later - outlines his vision of a poetic cinema. In it, Pasolini compares the language of cinema to that of literature and notes that while for spoken and written language there is a dictionary in which every word is given a precise meaning, there is no such thing for images in cinema - it is up to filmmakers to create their own languages. He compares the poetic possibilities of cinema to the ‘free indirect discourse’ of literature, wherein “the author penetrates entirely into the spirit of his character, of whom he thus adopts not only the psychology but also the language.” As examples of such an approach in cinema, Pasolini dissects films by Antonioni, Bertolucci and Godard – his analysis of the latter’s work in particular is astonishingly perceptive and clear. But politics are never far off with Pasolini: he soon points out how this assimilation between director and protagonist in a sort of ‘free indirect discourse’ can become a dangerous means for the bourgeois filmmaker to identify with the whole of humanity, conveniently ignoring class lines.
Pasolini’s commitment to intermingling poetry and politics
Pasolini’s commitment to intermingling poetry and politics reflects his own cinema. A decade later, in the US, film scholar Laura Mulvey would change film theory forever with her own, much more detailed analysis of the ways in which cinema always adopts and promotes a specific social position – and the outlook that goes with it. Away from the political turmoil of the 1960s, and emerging from the context of Second Wave Feminism, Mulvey would concentrate her efforts on sexual rather than class or political differences. Published in 1975 in British film theory journal Screen, Mulvey’s essay ‘Visual and Other Pleasures’ was the first to introduce the now almost mainstream notion of the ‘male gaze’ – the male and heterosexual outlook adopted by most of classical Hollywood cinema – and its implications for women on and off screen.
With that essay (republished in her collection of essays Visual and Other Pleasures in 1989), Mulvey argues that in most of Hollywood narrative cinema, men function as agents of change – they lead the action, move the film forward towards its resolution – while female characters are only there to be looked at. For them, the film stops in moments of contemplation. They are stripped off their agency as human beings, and reduced to objects existing only for the visual (or scopophilic) pleasure of heterosexual men behind the camera and in the audience.
Much of this work on the male gaze would be echoed in Mulvey’s film Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), which reverses the dynamic of the filmmaker-turned critic but fits nicely alongside the work of Godard, Pasolini, et al. Unusually narrative-driven for an experimental British film of the time, Riddles follows a young woman as she learns to deal with domestic life and motherhood. The film is feminist in its narrative but also in its form, its entire aesthetic built on a conscious attempt to create pleasures other than the domineering scopophilia of classical Hollywood cinema. For example, in contrast with the objectified and silenced women of Hollywood, disembodied female voices are here heard in voiceover – the film thus accentuates the existence of women as talking, independent subjects rather than objects to be looked at. Laura Mulvey is not considered a major director in the manner of a Truffaut or a Pasolini, but examples of women film scholars who have also directed movies are rare, presumably because the field of film studies was and still is so predominantly male.
Film criticism wasn’t faring any better in terms of gender equality in the 1970s, but one of the most celebrated critics of the time was a woman. Writing at The New Yorker for more than 20 years, Pauline Kael never directed a film, but she was a mentor to Paul Schrader and encouraged him to write film criticism. Under her recommendation, Schrader earned an M.A. in Film Studies at the UCLA Film School. His master thesis would be published as Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer in 1972. Four years later, he would write Taxi Driver.
The idea of transcendence is central to Schrader’s cinema. Several of his films (American Gigolo, Cat People, even Taxi Driver) see their lead character involved in matters that range from the disaffected and transactional (American Gigolo) to the grisly and downright depressing (Taxi Driver). In the final act, the character makes a decision which does not in any way help them with the situation, but offers them satisfaction on a higher plane than that of material reality. Travis Bickle’s decision to kill the pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) in Taxi Driver does absolutely nothing to ‘wash all this scum off the streets.’ But for Bickle, killing this pimp makes him feel like the ‘somebody’ he always wanted to be (this final act has nothing to do with helping Jodie Foster’s Iris, who needed Sport to get work and a place to live). Similarly in American Gigolo, male escort Julian (Richard Gere) ends the film in jail and with no money to his name. When he finally opens up to the woman who has been trying to get close to him during the entire movie, none of his problems are solved, but he finds happiness on another level than that of transactional capitalism.
Such (non-)resolutions at the end of both films are, in their natural state, of the order of the transcendent. They are invisible, immaterial and ineffable. Viewers can only perceive and understand them in films through what Schrader calls ‘transcendental style’, a series of visible and material cinematic techniques. In his book, Schrader argues that filmmakers all around the world and across cultures have developed strikingly similar techniques to express the transcendent. Through deep analysis of works by Yasujirō Ozu, Robert Bresson, and Carl Theodor Dreyer, Schrader outlines a common language of the transcendent. This arguably quite academic work offers valuable insight into Schrader’s own output as screenwriter and director, his interest in the transcendent running through his entire filmography – up to and including his latest film First Reformed.
Robert Bresson would publish his own book about cinema just three years later. Heralded by many as one of the best ever books about filmmaking, Notes on the Cinematographer is a collection of aphorisms about filmmaking — Bresson’s succinctly summed up discoveries which he wrote down so as not to forget them and lose his way in his unrelenting search for ‘real’ cinema. His exacting and careful choices of words give a vivid sense of his perfectionism and enthusiasm for film, and the book though slender leaves a strong impression on anyone passionate about cinema. One favourite, which is still painfully relevant today: “A whole made of good images can be detestable.”
In the 1990s, two other legends of cinema would gift the world their personal insights into the art of making movies. In 1963, just a few months after Truffaut’s encounter with Hitchcock, film critic / programmer / soon-to-be-filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich conducted his own serious interview with the British director, to go in a booklet accompanying the screenings he was organising at the Museum of Modern Art. Later, again in a manner quite similar to Truffaut, Bogdanovich interviewed Orson Welles with the intention of publishing a book about the filmmaker. Although these extensive friendly chats were recorded in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the book was only published in 1992, seven years after the death of its subject, and on the demand of Welles’ mistress. Only then did Bogdanovich finish transcribing the hours of recording, resulting in 1400 pages of interviews edited down to 300 by famed critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. This is Orson Welles is nevertheless a treasure trove of insights into moviemaking from the man who directed his first masterpiece Citizen Kane at only 26 years old.
Boasting a structure quite similar to Godard on Godard, the book The Architecture of Vision regroups writings by and interviews with Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, many of them available in English for the first time in the 1996 English edition. The book was just the first volume of a larger Italian series, which itself was based on a French, six-volume editorial project. This intensive work on Antonioni and his cinema started with the ‘Antonioni project’, a multimedia initiative that was first presented at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival before touring the world. The passion that powered this project in the 1990s seems to have somewhat failed to persist in today’s discussion of cinema classics – the filmmaker’s decision to generally let his work speak for itself certainly did not help in that regard. Perhaps a silver lining of this relative absence of popular recognition is the intelligent, detailed, and rather intellectual nature of The Architecture of Vision. Although accessible to most fans, the book thankfully does not sacrifice specificity and complex ideas for a more general and crude celebration of Antonioni as an undisputed hero of cinema – the filmmaker’s humility and capacity for self-analysis are much more illuminating and productive than any certainty one might have been looking for going in.
Structured around a series of questions (“If Gertrud is such a great failure, how is it so great?” “Is Dreyer quoting Botticelli?”), Carl Theodor Dreyer's Gertrud: The Moving Word (2008) offers an intertextual and speculative reading of a film very negatively received by most but loved with intense passion by a few others – an illuminating key into an arguably difficult work.
Far from complete, this list would be unacceptable without mention of one of the most vibrant, prolific, and continuously inspiring writers and directors of all time. Sergei Eisenstein died too young at 49 years old, but not before pioneering one of the founding principles of cinema as we know it today: montage. Eisenstein believed that the succession of images in a film (the editing) could do more than simply expose the story. This “collision” of images had the potential to create emotions and ideas which would not be present in each image considered on its own. Far from being selfish with his thoughts and theories, Eisenstein was obsessive about transmitting them to others and to future generations, out of a terrible fear that people would stop pushing the art form and would instead let it regress to the state of simple, vulgar distraction. He wrote down his theories about cinema with contagious enthusiasm and urgency, compiling his most important texts in The Film Sense in 1942, and in Film Form, published posthumously in 1949 and the richest of the two books.
An illuminating passage in the chapter ‘Film Language’ denounces films that are made of ‘individually fine shots’ which have no connection between each other in montage: “The better the shots, the closer the film comes to a disconnected assemblage of lovely phrases, a shop window full of pretty but unrelated pictures, or an album of post-card views.” The book’s translator sums up Eisenstein’s determination well in his introduction: “Once Eisenstein chose cinema as the supremely expressive medium, he undertook to wage upon it, as upon a battlefield, a perpetual war against the evils of dishonesty, satisfaction, superficiality.” The other books detailed above are proof that generations after him did not fail Eisenstein. Yet reading his texts today, more than half a century after his passing, feels like a necessary reminder of the possibilities of the medium, and a vital reassertion of our right to demand more from cinema.
Elena Lazic is a freelance film writer from France living in London who has written for Little White Lies and MUBI, among other outlets. She is also an Associate Editor for Canadian feminist outlet The Seventh Row.
Art by Sophie Mo