Regarding contributions to film studies and literature, I found 2012 to be a fairly bountiful year. Though I only read in their entirety but three new volumes of film criticism and analysis, each one offered up a wealth of insight regarding their chosen subjects and the areas to which they are linked. Indeed, in many cases the writers courageously ventured beyond the basic parameters of their topics, illuminating relevant and even revelatory connections both within and beyond the world of cinema. When at their best, these books made me marvel at and ponder not only the principles of great cinema, but also important aspects of life, humanity, and art that make great cinema (and great writing) so valuable to the beholder. These are not only great film books, but also simply great books.
Of them, Geoff Dyer’s Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room is easily the most accessible, written in Dyer’s familiar dry, wit-infused style. In what is essentially a scene-by-scene commentary on Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 masterpiece Stalker, Dyer discusses his personal observations and thoughts regarding the film and the array of feelings and ideas it fires in him. As he does so, he commendably remains fearless in declaring his tastes and opinions – filmmakers as renowned as Buñuel, Godard, Kieslowski, the Coen Brothers, Von Trier, and even Tarkovsky himself (specifically regarding his 1983 film Nostalghia, which Dyer describes as being “so far up itself”) are dismissed as being overrated or overly pretentious. But while in some parts Zona gives way to the delicious bitterness and irritation that makes Dyer so fun to read even if you don’t necessarily agree with him, in others he expresses with tangible sincerity and emotion the immense awe and respect he unfailingly continues to hold for Stalker, which I can certainly relate to given my own love for the film (which, rather than Dyer’s literary reputation, enticed me to pick up the book in the first place). Additionally, there are plenty of asides and tangents devoted to cinema, art, travel, faith, memory, and more, many of which contained in amusingly lengthy footnotes that sometimes run for several pages. In his refreshingly unconventional fashion, Dyer merges criticism with autobiography, making the reader acutely aware of the many ways in which the relationship between art and individual is forged and cultivated as one both gains more experiences from life and connects those experiences with special works.
Virtually worlds away from Dyer’s free-flowing, conversational style is the tone of many of the pieces contained within Robert Bresson (Revised), the newly upgraded edition of James Quandt’s comprehensive text on the French master. Coinciding with an amazing retrospective of Bresson’s work at the TIFF Bell Lightbox earlier this year, the book gathers pieces from scholars and critics like Susan Sontag, P. Adams Sitney, André Bazin, and David Bordwell that range from analyses of Bresson’s themes and methods to in-depth studies of individual films. Often, the writing veers towards the academic, theory-heavy variety, and I’ll freely admit that I found some of the pieces quite tiring to get through. However, other pieces are much more reader-friendly and provide some fascinating material on Bresson’s remarkable career. Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed the pieces dedicated to Bresson’s mysterious early period as an artist: Colin Burnett’s Bresson in the 1930s: Photography, Cinema, Milieu, which explores his career as a photographer for advertising campaigns overseen by the likes of Coco Chanel, and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Affaires publiques, which examines his little-seen comedic short film from 1934. Other highlights cover the opposite end of Bresson’s life, with Kent Jones’ A Stranger’s Posture: Notes on Bresson’s Late Films, Serge Daney’s The Organ and the Vacuum Cleaner, and Shigehiko Hasumi’s Led by the Scarlet Pleats: Bresson’s L’Argent all delving into the filmmaker’s intriguing late period. Nicely rounding out the volume are interviews between the man himself and such figures as Jean-Luc Godard, Paul Schrader, and Michel Ciment, a symposium moderated and edited by Quandt, and tributes from admiring filmmakers ranging from Michael Haneke to Louis Malle, who, when speaking of Pickpocket, boldly states “For the duration of the projection, Bresson is God,” to Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who, in their salute to L’Argent, describe the terrible influence of money and, as a contrast, the redemptive power of debt and transaction – facets of Bresson’s final masterpiece that are carried over into both the Dardennes’ films and those of Aki Kaurismäki. Between the Lightbox retrospective and the book, by the time I finished the latter, I found myself much more informed about a filmmaker whose work is, for me, still something of an acquired taste, yet an area of world cinema I very much look forward to continuing to study. With Quandt’s formidable volume sitting on my shelf, I feel pretty well prepared for that particular pursuit.
A few months later, I dug into another collection of pieces devoted to a French filmmaker: Olivier Assayas, edited by Kent Jones and released in conjunction with both Assayas’ book A Post-May Adolescence: Letter to Alice Debord and his most recent film, Something in the Air, which I caught during TIFF in September and reviewed for Row Three. This was easily the most satisfying and consistently well put-together of the film books I read this year, with piece after piece showcasing some incredibly intelligent and compelling film writing of the kind that I myself constantly hope to achieve. Jones’ introductory essay, Westway to the World, alone stands out as a major highlight of the book, so on-the-nose and revealing is its assessment of the French New Wave, the burden of legacy that Assayas and other post-New Wave filmmakers had to face, and the evolution of Assayas’ unique approach to human experience and perception, which Jones aptly links to the sensations of motion, lightness, and energy that characterizes so much of his work. From there, the book launches into a marvelous succession of pieces on Assayas’ early films, with Glenn Kenny covering Desordre, Jeff Reichert L’Enfant de l’hiver, Alice Lovejoy Paris s’éveille, Michael Koresky Une nouvelle vie, and Jones L’Eau froide. I was most grateful to receive primers on two of Assayas’ most underrated films, Clean and Boarding Gate, courtesy of Nick Pinkerton and Gina Telaroli, respectively, while savoring Kristin M. Jones’ piece on Fin août, début septembre, B. Kite’s original comparative analysis of Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, der Speiler and demonlover, Geoffrey O’Brien’s lovely piece on L’Heure d’été, and Jones’ tantalizing one on Something in the Air. Just as Jones stresses Assayas’ choice to place character and narrative over any cinephilic or superficial priorities (a good strategy for any filmmaker, especially one living and working in a post-New Wave France), this book’s essays remain closely focused on Assayas’ work as well as the various experiences he places his characters in and portrays in his jolting, lively manner. The enthusiasm and respect Jones and company express for Assayas’ work is highly infectious, as is the filmmaker’s simple belief that truly great movies are not about other movies, but life. Once readers finish this book, they’ll be hard-pressed not to adopt that same view for themselves as they begin the inevitable retrospective of Assayas’ work and rediscover the freshness, cleverness, and sincerity of this remarkably talented artist.