Late gift ideas: books for your cinephile friends


If you're a procrastinator like me you've probably not done your holiday shopping yet and expect to get around to it sometime in January. And if you're a cheapskate like me you're thinking of making gifts out of things you got free in the mail. For me that would be film books, and there were some good ones that came out this year that I might be wrapping up as presents for my unwitting film fan friends.

So what better way to celebrate this season of peace on earth good will to men than with cozy tomes about Werner Herzog, known for saying things like, "I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony; but chaos, hostility and murder" and "Do you not then hear this horrible scream all around you that people usually call silence?" and "Look into the eyes of a chicken and you will see real stupidity. It is a kind of bottomless stupidity, a fiendish stupidity. They are the most horrifying, cannibalistic and nightmarish creatures in the world"?


These are all quotes from "Herzog on Herzog" (2003; Faber and Faber; $16), edited by Paul Cronin, an excellent book but one I will not be giving to anyone because it didn't come free in the mail and I would have to pay for it. Instead, I would consider the equally bizarre and illuminating "Every Night the Trees Disappear: Werner Herzog and the Making of Heart of Glass"  (2012; A Cappella; $24.95) by Alan Greenberg.  Back in 1975  when he was a young, adventurous cineaste Greenberg somehow found himself in Herzog's creative fold while the filmmaker was planning and making "Heart of Glass" (1976), a film remarkable even by Herzog's standards because the entire cast performed under hypnosis. Greenberg intercuts parts of Herzog's script in progress with actual events that happened on location, and it's hard to tell which is more visionary or weird. A sample:

"Herzog had been having some disquieting fears about Thusis. The fears were not about the town, in fact, but about a road sign posted on the edge of the town.The sign was blue and said THUSIS. Whenever it entered his mind, the sign would grip him into a state of terror."

And that's just as things are getting started. An excellent introduction to those who might know Herzog only from his role in "Jack Reacher," and for those who know a lot about him but can never know enough.

For a more analytical approach to Herzog, Eric Ames's"Ferocious Reality:Documentary According to Werner Herzog" (2012; University of Minnesota Press; $75 cloth, $25 paperback)  might serve as a satisfying complement to Greenberg's account. It begins with Herzog's famed "Minnesota Declaration" in which he clarified his positions on filmmaking with statements such as "Cinema verité is devoid of verité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants."  and "there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth" and the always helpful "Life in the oceans must be sheer hell." Ames analyzes the notion of "ecstatic truth" from Herzog's first, unreleased documentary "Game in the Sand" (1964) to his 3D experiment "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" (2010), and he both demystifies the concept and renders it more profound.

Andrei Tarkovsky might not be as funny as Herzog, but he is at least as cryptic and visionary. Many were frustrated, mystified, bored, transported, and all of the above by his meditative sci-fi film "Stalker" (1979), in which the title guide takes two men through a post-apocalyptic wasteland called "the Zone" in search of a place where dreams come true. Or maybe they don't.

One of those beguiled by the film is Geoff Dyer, whose "Zona: a Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room" (2012; Pantheon; $24) is a remarkably personal, exhaustive, illuminating, infuriating, and often funny scene by scene breakdown of the film accompanied by acute analysis, personal anecdotes, subjective interpretation -- in short an excellent example of someone who doesn't see the same film as you do, and why should he, since everyone's viewing is unique, and in his case, some are more rewarding than others.

Finally, for those who prefer the big picture to bits and pieces when it comes to film books,  there is "The Big Screen: the Story of the Movies" (2012; Farrar, Straus and  Giroux, $35), David Thomson's personal history of screen media in general (or "movie" as he calls it). Like Dyer, his approach is both analytical and personal.


Thomson regards film more from the point of view of formal issues, whereas Ty Burr's"God's Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame" (2012; Pantheon; $28.95) takes on the same subject more  from a cultural point of view, as a study of the evolution of  the  notion of celebrity. Thus while Thomson's book ranges from Eadweard Muybridge to "Call of Duty," Burr's starts with Florence Lawrence, the "Biograph Girl" of 1909, and ends up with Snooki. The two overlap and illuminate each other, providing a big picture indeed.


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