Books for the big screen

Posted on November 15, 2015


My contribution to a “musings” column in the Weekend Reading section of The Hindu…

I fell in love with Pauline Kael’s writing when I read her six-page response to The Godfather, Part II.  (“Review,” in this case, is too diminished a word.) On the third page, she said, “I began to feel that the film was expanding in my head like a soft bullet.” Many people write about metaphorical mental disintegration when faced with great art. “It was mind-blowing,” they might say. Or, “My head just exploded.” But Kael tells us not what happened but what is happening. When we read her, it’s as if we are in a seat alongside, witnessing her violent reactions. No other writer has pinned down the sensory effects of cinema the way she did, which is why the titles of the compilations of her work sound pornographic. Taking It All In. Deeper into Movies. I discovered her in a compilation titled, aptly, For Keeps. We’ve been together, Kael and I, happily ever after.

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When the Shooting Stops… The Cutting Begins: A Film Editor’s Story is a book from the other end of the spectrum, from the maker’s viewpoint, written by Ralph Rosenblum and Robert Karen. Rosenblum edited several Woody Allen films, and his insights into his craft are required reading for everyone who thinks an editor is someone with a pair of scissors entrusted with the job of pruning the length of a film, the cinema’s answer to a hedge trimmer. Rosenblum reveals that he’s actually a topiarist, a shaper of movies. When he started working on Annie Hall, it was a “chaotic collection of bits and pieces that seemed to defy continuity, bewilder its creators, and, of all Allen’s films, hold the least promise for popular success.” Rosenblum plunged into that chaos and found a film that went on to win four Academy Awards, and is today a touchstone for wry romantic comedy.

Writers At the Movies: Twenty-six Contemporary Authors Celebrate Twenty-six Memorable Movies, edited by Jim Shepard, is what it says it is. JM Coetzee discusses The Misfits. (“The camera stays on the side of the men; Roslyn is so far away that she is almost swallowed by the expanse of the desert.”) Julian Barnes talks about Madame Bovary. (“Where other actresses give us a sort of pouty boredom that yet seeks to flirt with the audience, [Isabelle] Huppert offers severity, anger, and an irritation raised to the condition of nausea.”) Best of all, Salman Rushdie whisks us over the rainbow to visit The Wizard of Oz. He calls the film – not the book – his “very first literary influence,” when he was still in Bombay, living with the Wizard, his father Anis Ahmed Rushdie, “a magical parent of young children… prone to explosions, thunderous rages, bolts of emotional lightning…” This isn’t writing about the movies. This is about how movies can move you to write.

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