Acting as guest editor for the Modern Library, Scorsese has delved into his own library, selecting four out-of-print books that, while mainly focused on American film, highlight his wildly eclectic interests in film studies. Each has been stylishly repackaged with a new introduction.
One of these is “Memo From David O. Selznick,” focusing on the legendary producer who shepherded to the screen such vintage fare as “Dinner at Eight,” “Rebecca,” “Duel in the Sun,” and “Gone With the Wind” during his long, contentious career at RKO and MGM and as a maverick independent, and who was a a notorious micro-manager and a fanatic writer of memos.
“Gone With the Wind,” which provides the most riveting chapter in a book of Selznick memos, generated a storm of fiery correspondence. It was an epic production, and while such men as George Cukor (the original director) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (who reworked the script for three weeks) fell by the wayside, Selznick never flagged, dictating the most minute of production details, from camera angles to costume design, from on-the-set rewrites to Hollywood spin.
Vachel Lindsay was one of the earliest theoreticians of the cinema, and “The Art of the Moving Picture” is his idiosyncratic, at times prescient treatise on the nascent medium, first published in 1915 but now largely forgotten. Examining the dynamics of three types of films — what he terms “photoplays” of Action, Intimacy and Splendor — Lindsay laid the foundations for a new aesthetics of moving pictures, never losing sight of the raw excitement experienced by Hollywood’s earliest audiences.
Though Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” is now a cultural icon, its earliest screenings were a disaster. “It’s a monumentally unimaginative movie,” wrote Pauline Kael, who panned the picture in Harper’s. After the audience broke into spontaneous laughter at the April 3, 1968, New York premiere, Kubrick edited 19 minutes from the film, and it only caught fire at the box office after MGM’s marketing department revamped the ad campaign to target a younger demographic, printing psychedelic posters that dubbed the movie “the ultimate trip.”
In her history of the film, Stephanie Schwam has plotted out many such details, from Kubrick’s earliest collaborations with novelist Arthur C. Clarke to the complexities of the groundbreaking special effects, the vigorous debates the film generated among critics and many testaments from Kubrick’s admirers.
Even the best of film critics have lapses of judgment, and James Agee was no exception. But judging from this overdue collection of Agee’s film commentary and reviews — penned for the Nation and Time in the 1940s — even his throwaway reviews are filled with bold ideas and wildly original apercus.
Witness his review of “Jane Eyre” (a novel he’s never read, he says at the outset): “All you get,” he writes, is “a careful and tame production, a sadly Vanilla-flavored Joan Fonataine and Welles treating himself to road operatic sculpturings of body, cloak and diction, his eyes glinting in the Rembrandt gloom at every chance, like side-orders of jelly.”
At a time when only a handful of national film critics command the respect of sophisticated filmgoers, it’s especially salutary to consider the diverse, but all too limited, oeuvre of a critic whose weekly reviews conveyed an abiding passion for film, whose standards were exacting and whose writing style never ceased to surprise and astonish.