Biographical Dictionary

Book Bag: David Thomson’s ‘The Big Screen’ and His Five Favorite Books on Film

The critic and author of the seminal Biographical Dictionary of Film returns with a sweeping history of the movies, The Big Screen. He picks five books on film that you would enjoy.

The Deer Park By Norman Mailer

I want books you would enjoy reading even if you knew next to nothing about the movies. In that spirit, I start with a novel—Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park (1955)—about an Air Force flier who goes to Hollywood. It’s a vivid description of the place, its talk and sex, and its compromises. Look for a director, Charles Eitel, a man of principle who will name names to keep working.

A Life By Elia Kazan

Who knows, Eitel may have been based on the real figure of Elia Kazan, who wrote A Life (1988), the most compelling show-business autobiography I know. Kazan was a great director: A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman on stage; On the Waterfront and East of Eden on screen. He knew everyone and tells their stories with himself as a tortured betrayer—after all, Kazan did name names.

Zona By Geoff Dyer

We need a whole book on one film, to show just how much can be seen there. So I’m picking Geoff Dyer’s Zona (2012), a wonderful, funny, and profound account of how he has lived with Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker for years, ruminating on what t means and how it works. I think I prefer Zona to Stalker, but you can learn so much about the life and suggestion of a film from this unique book.

From Reverence to Rape By Molly Haskell

Time for a sensible survey. There is nothing better than Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape, published in 1974 but still essential and readable. It’s a history of how Hollywood has portrayed female characters over the ages, and in the process, it’s a tribute to the movies Haskell likes best: the romantic and screwball comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Read this book and you’ll want to see the films again: from The Awful Truth to His Girl Friday.

Notes on the Cinematographer By Robert Bresson

Finally, here’s one you may not know: Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer (1975). It’s very slim, comprised of a gathering together of proverbs or rules about how to make a movie. Don’t read it too fast. You need to think about every passage. But the book is full of wisdom and a strange, straight-faced humor so that when you’re done you will be ready to see some Bresson movies—A Man Escaped, Mouchette, Pickpocket