The book on film

Director Martin Scorsese presents a new series of books about film, starring James Agee, Vachel Lindsay, David Selznick and "2001."

Published May 10, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

"I reserve the right to be expansive," Steve Earle said on Saturday. The ex-junkie, ex-con singer-songwriter was giving a presentation at the New Yorker Festival of Books at a Manhattan club called Float. As I recall, he was discussing the difference between story songs and less narrative ones. But in declaring his "right to be expansive" he hit on the pleasures of watching an artist who's been around a while move through the world. Every so often, Earle would play a song on his acoustic guitar, and his voice has never sounded as wonderfully delicate or as hard. Yet when he talked about his current life -- he's been writing poetry (a haiku a day), teaching a class at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music and running a record label (which has the terrific South Philadelphia band Marah on its roster) -- he came across as all over the place, which is to say generous and interested and up to his ears in the cause of art.

Earle has become an elder, and the best kind -- a cultural icon at midcareer who manages to find a little time away from his own work to talk up his old bluegrass heroes and help out sweaty young rock 'n' rollers. There has always been a loveliness about the great artists who take their audiences along with them to other work: Kurt Cobain endlessly fawning over the long-lost Raincoats, Woody Allen's upcoming theatrical presentation of Marcel Ophuls' 1970 documentary, "The Sorrow and the Pity" and, not least, film-professor-to-the-nation Martin Scorsese's new Modern Library series devoted to the movies. As the series editor, Scorsese has chosen four books, with more to come, devoted to his beloved cinema: "Agee on Film," "Memo From David O. Selznick," Vachel Lindsay's 1915 book "The Art of the Moving Picture" and "The Making of '2001: A Space Odyssey.'" Each volume contains an introduction by a different film critic, including David Denby and Stanley Kauffmann.

A showcase of film criticism from the 1940s, the memos of a Hollywood producer, the first book to discuss film as art and a compendium of documents surrounding a sci-fi epic might say more about Scorsese than it does about American movies. The latter two especially must appeal to whatever part of Scorsese's brain thought "Kundun" was a really good idea. The "2001" book, with Stanley Kubrick interviews, source materials, histories and various ephemera, probably only matters to diehard fans (of which I am not one) or the student of special effects, who might be able to get something out of bits of info like "the Oxberry animation stand equipped with a 65 mm Mitchell camera was used for shooting backgrounds of stars, Earth, Jupiter, the Moon, as well as for rotascoping and shooting high contrast mattes."

Poet Lindsay's "The Art of the Moving Picture" is so arcane and weirdly old-fashioned it probably could have stayed out of print; read it in an attic if you must read it at all. Having previously written odes to the first movie stars, Lindsay wanted film to aspire to the greatness of painting and sculpture. His eccentric, finger-wagging task is to point filmmakers to very specific, usually forgotten works of art. Like a doddering docent in a musty museum, he directs his tour group to some Venetian equestrian statues, proclaiming, "Look upon them and ponder long, prospective author-producer." Kauffmann's introduction calls him "dated and cranky," though often hilariously so, as when Lindsay rages against musical accompaniment to the silents, suggesting that the audience just talk instead. Go out and get the Lindsay book if, like Scorsese, you're always phoning up the warehouse of obscurity that is Facets in Chicago to order videos you can't scratch up anywhere else. But if, like me, you spent most of the new Sandra Bullock movie wondering how to get your hair to look like that, you're only going to need or love the two volumes of the Modern Library series that follow.

Reissuing "Agee on Film" is Scorsese's only obvious move. A collection of journalist and novelist James Agee's film writing between 1941 and '49 (mostly for Time and the Nation), the book generally consists of reviews of movies I've never heard of made by people I don't care about. Its value is the value of all great film criticism, from Pauline Kael to Libby Gelman-Waxner -- namely, a visceral insistence on what movies can be or do.

The smartest film critics are able to dissect what is high-minded and profound about movies, while never forgetting that the appeal of celluloid is often lurid and violent and beyond all reason. In his 1948 piece on Laurence Olivier's screen version of "Hamlet," Agee has the nerve to celebrate what the movies can do for Shakespeare instead of the other way around. Writing about 19-year-old Jean Simmons' Ophelia, he notes that she "is a product of the movie studios exclusively. Yet she holds her own among some highly skilled Shakespeareans. More to the point, she gives the film a vernal freshness and a clear humanity which play like orchard breezes through all of Shakespeare's best writing, but which are rarely projected by veteran Shakespearean actors."

One of Agee's best reviews, that of "National Velvet," finds him in love with Elizabeth Taylor, for whom, he admits, "I have been choked with the peculiar sort of adoration I might have felt if we were both in the same grade of primary school." This despite the fact that he sees her as somnambulant and a limited talent. But film is alchemy, not rocket science. Agee writes, "Since I think it is the most hopeful business of movies to find the perfect people rather than the perfect artists, I think that she and the picture are wonderful, and I hardly know or care whether she can act or not."

"I have learned to avoid trying to improve on success," producer Selznick wrote of adapting Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" for the screen. "One never knows what chemicals have gone to make up something that has appealed to millions of people, and how many seeming faults of construction have been part of the whole." The book of Selznick memos, originally published in 1972, is repackaged with an introduction by Roger Ebert and makes a nice companion to the Agee. The book is arranged chronologically between 1926 and 1965 -- the studio system's golden age -- and follows his career from MGM to Paramount, RKO, MGM again and his own Selznick International.

In this assortment of memos to actors, directors, writers and other filmmakers, Selznick manages to live out the god complex so often associated with producers while at the same time exhibiting a constant and touching sense of detail. Here was a man pledged to movies, to everything about movies. That meant money and promotion and popularity, but it also meant how stories are constructed and told. Selznick cared. There's a lot of the juicy, megalomaniacal behavior the reader would hope for in the rantings of a Hollywood mogul, the tastiest being a letter to David O. Selznick from Ingrid Bergman written by David O. Selznick -- i.e., a letter to himself from himself. "I forgot everything you had done for me," he has her apologize.

And yet Selznick's memos during the making of "Gone With the Wind" contain wise, sophisticated thoughts on narrative structure. What is kept out of a story is just as important as what is kept in, and Selznick's notes on what to steal from Mitchell's book and what to drop are insightful, not to mention wickedly funny. Noticing that Mitchell tends to repeat herself, he informs writer Sidney Howard, "An outstanding case of this is the repetition of what you might describe as 'nights of love.' Certainly, I think one scene of husbandly rape is enough. How the hell we can even use one is going to be a problem."

That nights-of-love euphemism also highlights one of the other pleasures of the Selznick memos. His struggles call forth what it was like to make movies in the middle of the century, telling stories about life and its racier bits before motion pictures could use any old word. The "damn" controversy -- whether Clark Gable's Rhett Butler can utter the "Frankly, my dear" line -- is instructive. Selznick's letter to the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America is fascinating propaganda from a truly other world. "I do not feel that your giving me permission to use 'damn' in this one sentence," he wrote, "will open the floodgates and allow every gangster picture to be peppered with 'damns' from end to end." (At which point Al Pacino's Tony Montana, reading along over my shoulder, pissed himself laughing and fell to the floor.)

Making America safe for sacrilege. In his tales of, to use a nice word, innovation, Selznick's memos read not unlike the journals of Lewis and Clark. New countries are being discovered, streams forded, mountains crossed. We forget, nearly a century later, how the movie pioneers had to invent so much from scratch, and one of the joys of Selznick's ravings is how those inventions unfolded. For example, who now thinks about the fact that in order for sound pictures to be made, soundproof soundstages had to be constructed? And so, when Paramount's new and only soundstage caught fire, Selznick recounts his boss, B.P. Schulberg, hitting on the idea of shooting in the middle of the night, because they don't call it silent night for nothing.

James Agee wrote in 1945, "I will probably always like the films of David Selznick better than reputedly condescending aesthetes like me are allowed to like such things; for I think that more than most things that come out of Hollywood they show both genuine talent, as distinct from mere professionalism, and a genuine love for movies, as distinct from mere executive concentration on them." That is what makes "Memo From David O. Selznick" the most valuable member of Scorsese's series. Concerned with everything from Gable's shirt collars to Marlene Dietrich's hair, Selznick, like Scorsese, is so in love with pictures he can't help reminding the reader why she fell in love with movies in the first place. And fandom doesn't get any more expansive than that.

By Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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