"Three Books..." is a new series in which we invite writers to recommend three great reads on a single theme.
Summer, with the unfurling of each week's new potential blockbuster, is a season when it's difficult to avoid the presence of movies. Some of us find ourselves racing on Monday mornings to read the weekend grosses. But for all the ways movies consume us, it's rare to find good, serious writing that analyzes our relationship to them. The three books I'm recommending do just that.
'Pictures at a Revolution'
Pictures at a Revolution, by Mark Harris, hardcover, 496 pagesFirst up: Mark Harris' Pictures at a Revolution, which examines the five movies that vied for the Oscar in 1967. Two of them, Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, were radical departures from anything anyone had ever seen before, while two others, Doctor Dolittle and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, were vestiges of a dying Hollywood. (The eventual winner, In the Heat of the Night, was a compromise.)
The book's convincing premise is that the battle in the movie theaters helped focus the larger generational battle; a lot of smart older critics didn't get Bonnie and Clyde or The Graduate — at least not at first. But young audiences did. We saw something in those films we needed: a set of images that spoke to a deep and as-yet-unrealized dream of the kind of cool, rebellious people we wanted to become.
'Movie Love in the Fifties'
Movie Love in the Fifties, by James Harvey, paperback, 464 pagesFinally, James Harvey's Movie Love in the Fifties is simply the best movie book I've ever read. Harvey, the Samuel Johnson of film writing (and the only writer to whom I've ever written a fan letter), writes to reveal not just what the movies were doing half a century ago, but what they were doing to us. Just as Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate touched "the fantastic in ourselves," so did the long stream of delicious melodramas that ran through the 50s — Imitation of Life, Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden, A Place in the Sun — films that now make that supposedly conformist decade seem like a long pleasurable dream in which we were acting out new, darker — yet more sensitive — versions of ourselves.
The near-ecstatic pleasure of reading Harvey is to see how many of the images from that decade — the bra Janet Leigh wore in the opening scenes of Psycho, the way Doris Day sang "It All Depends on You" in Love Me or Leave Me — spoke to the way films were trying to push a new, more brazen sexuality, even into domestic roles.
The knowledge behind Harvey's book reinforces the knowledge behind Harris' and Shepard's: We're always somebody in the movies before we become that somebody in real life. We see a part of ourselves reflected in the boldest films; we seize on it and allow it to inhabit us. That's why, even in a season composed almost entirely of overstuffed blockbusters, we hold out hope for the movie that will touch the fantastic in ourselves.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Bridget Bentz.
Nosferatu, by Jim Shepard, paperback, 216 pagesMovies have that power to shape us, but how they do it remains a mystery. Jim Shepard explores that mystery beautifully in Nosferatu, a novel about F.W. Murnau, the German silent film director who created the first — and still the best — of the Dracula films.
Shepard's book contains at least one insight that applies as easily to today's blockbusters as to those of 1921:
"Douglas Fairbanks' flying carpet already bores today's young," Shepard writes in the voice of Murnau. "We're no longer astonished by the technically unheard of." Instead, "we look for the fantastic in ourselves."