*Danger, Will Robinson: Affiliate Links Ahead! I’ve put together an easy list of books for you to grab on Amazon, and when you buy through my links, I make some cash. For full disclosure, scroll to the end of this post!*
Books on film, about films, for filmmakers, for film lovers…
Now that we’ve been doing my version of film school for a bit, I think it’s best we apprehend the right materials, don’t you?
Whether you read on a kindle (I think you’re weird) or the slowly browning paper it was meant to be printed on, these are the Top 10 Books on Film I recommend for those looking to sink their teeth deeper into the world of movies.
Helpful Amazon links included – even for those of you who’d commit the ultimate sacrilege and download them to your iPad (David Lynch is judging you).
Top 10 Books on Film for Students, Filmmakers, Critics, and Movie Lovers
Film Art – by David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson
If you want to start with the basics, then start with a textbook. Yes, this costs an arm and a leg (a used copy at any college-area bookstore will be far less), but it is, in my opinion, the best introductory textbook on the market. I don’t know a good Intro to Film class that doesn’t require it and I don’t think any student of film should begin without a primer. David Bordwell is the predominant critic of our time (yes, that’s a big opinion, but I believe it), and his work here with Kristen Thompson is easy to digest and covers all the bases. It is the ultimate book on film.
What They Didn’t Teach You at Film School – by Camille Landau and Tiare White
This may seem sacrilege coming from a girl who went to not one, but TWO film school programs, but let me tell you – this is necessity. I was gifted What They Didn’t Teach You… upon graduation by my colleague (filmmaker/playwright/director Rebekah Suellau), and it has proved the best little assistant in times of need. You may know everything about a camera, the script, and how to tell a story – but do you know how to get the money to make your movie? Do you know what it takes to really get a film made? Now you do, ’cause you’ve got this handy little book.
Narration in the Fiction Film – by David Bordwell
Did I mention my utmost respect and admiration for David Bordwell? Consider this the deep cuts. Narration in the Fiction Film is a deep, poetic study of how the camera and filmmaker come together to tell an effective story. If Film Art provides the entry to understanding film as an art form, this is Bordwell’s own critical opus on how that works. Not to mention, it makes a gorgeous coffee table book (and costs way less than the textbook). Need more Bordwell? Keep up with his regular criticism online.
The Empty Space – by Peter Brook
This isn’t a book on film at all. Peter Brook, the director and cofounder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, is writing about theatre in The Empty Space. But if you are at all interested in the art of storytelling – be you aspiring director, actor, designer, or writer – this is the book you should be annotating. There is no better analysis of how actors move across a space, how that movement affects the viewer, or how the illusion of time/space/narrative is created and executed. A must read (and a must own – you will want to write on every page).
The Screenplay of a movie you respect; And one you don’t.
Everyone should read a screenplay* once in their life. Especially if you’re one of those people who contend that books are better than their adapted screen versions. I recommend first finding the screenplay of a film you love. I recently picked up a copy of Jacob’s Ladder at my used book store, and it gave me a new appreciation for the film – every effect that was written in the script, and how the director chose to interpret it was illuminated. If you ever thought directing wasn’t artistic, this should change your mind. Then, pick up the screenplay of something you either didn’t understand or simply didn’t like. I have a hatred of the beloved Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy (#sorrynotsorry). Reading the scripts back up some of that dislike, but it also gives me an understanding: the gaps between what made it to the screen and what was left on the page, what wasn’t in the writing that may have made the visual all the better. Either way, you’ll see the all the revelations and through every crack.
*Note: You’ll ideally want to get your hands on the original “spec” script – not the shooting script. A shooting script will lay out the camera angles and production choices (useful), but won’t allow you to see what the director initially had to work with – that’s the brilliance of this exercise.
A Genre Book
I can’t choose your favorite genre for you (horror), but you should get to know the ins and outs of at least one. Be it classic noir, horror, slapstick comedy, horror, or romance (how about horror?), understanding how a particular class of film has evolved over time will grow your knowledge of character, social issues, and hell – even your philosophical take on life (have I mentioned how deeply I feel about horror?). Here are two of my favorites – Noel Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror and Raymond Borde’s A Panorama of American Film Noir.
The Studs Terkel Interviews: Film and Theater
Studs Terkel was the real deal. He was big-time in Chicago, reigning King of the local radio. What he was best at was conducting a damn good interview. This book is one I go back to time and again. Not a book on film, but on those who make it, interviews with the likes of Buster Keaton, Lillian Gish, Fellini, Ian McKellen, Edward Albee, Marlon Brando, and even Arnold Schwarzenegger fill the pages of this 364 page volume. When I need filmic inspiration, I pull this one off the shelf.
A Book on Still Photography
If you’re going to learn about film, you should learn about photography; before an image learns to walk, it stands still. I could recommend about a hundred wonderful books on the subject (and encourage you to seek out those by Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, Henry Cartier-Bresson, Sally Mann – the list goes on), but I’m going to suggest you start with John Szarkowski’s The Photographer’s Eye. I first met this book in a survey of photography class. Initially published as the accompanying book for the 1964 exhibition at the MOMA, it has proven so much more. Photographs by the likes of Bresson, Steichen, Evans, and Strand are narrated by Szarkowski in a way that truly teaches the language of an image. It was out of print, but now completely affordable and available on Amazon.
White: Essays on Race and Culture
There is no studying this medium (or any, for that matter) without understanding its societal implications and limitations. Richard Dyer does just that in White – taking on an industry that was in all honesty, built on technology that favors white skin (seriously – it’s in the chemical make up of the film). I don’t think I’d ever teach any class on film without including at least one chapter from this well-researched, interesting, terribly relevant book. If you’re going to study film under Nazi Germany, read this along side it. If you’re going to watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster that has only one black member in its cast, this is your companion. It is a must.
Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia
Let’s call this one extra credit – Jonathan Rosenbaum, my favorite bygone Chicago Reader critic, is not to everyone’s tastes. Goodbye Cinephilia is for the hardcore watchers, the weirdo critics, the ones that want to believe film is art and art is the future and the past and the present and blah, blah, blah – pretentious art stuff. But really. This is where criticism can take you. Rosenbaum’s essays on everything from Hitchcock’s last film to “what dope does to movies,” are funny, deep-diving, honest, creative, sometimes stretching, and always a reflection of how much the man loves film. And that’s what criticism, this blog, and a good book on film, are all about.
What are your favorite books on film?
List them in the comments so we can get a great reference list going. If we get enough, I’ll make an updated list with your picks, too. Let’s keep this film school easy, breezy, fun, and free 😉
*This post contains affiliate links – I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com. Of course, I stand by every film, dvd, or book I link you to, and hope you’re cool with this – if not, don’t click!*