Talking Books and Movies with The Dissolve

Chicago-based film site The Dissolve describes itself as a “playground for movie lovers.” Launched in 2013, The Dissolve has dished up incisive essays and thoughtful commentary on both new and old movies. The Chicago Writers Conference is proud to highlight this local publication at tonight’s event, An Evening With The Dissolve. Writers Nathan Rabin, Tasha Robinson, Keith Phipps, and Scott Tobias will read essays on the best and worst that film has to offer. As a small preview, we asked tonight’s readers a few questions on the relationship between literature and cinema.

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Keith Phipps, Editorial Director

Best book about movies

My answer is always the same: Samuel Fuller’s A Third Face: My Tale Of Writing, Fighting And Filmmaking. Fuller was a newspaper copyboy, a crime reporter, a pulp novelist, and a WWII soldier before he directed his first film. You can see the influence of each profession in the great, tough, humane, sometimes outré movies Fuller made: Pickup On South Street, The Steel Helmet, Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss, The Big Red One, and many more. But even if you haven’t seen any of Fuller’s films—though you should—A Third Face is a great yarn, to use Fuller’s favorite word, told in the unmistakable, unpretentious voice of a man who lived it.

Best movie about books

This may not be the best movie about books, exactly, but the sequence in Hannah And Her Sisters wherein Michael Caine’s character embarks on an illicit romance with Barbara Hershey via an encounter at a used bookstore and a collection of e.e. cumming’s poems made me want to move to a big city because I imagined much of its residents’ time was taken up hanging out in gorgeous bookstores and having passionate thoughts about literature and one another.

What can movies teach us about writing?

A lot. A good movie is put together like good writing in ways beyond the words spoken by its character. Film has a grammar of its own, and in a good movie every shot has to count and every moment has to contribute, just as in good writing every word has to do work to justify its inclusion.

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Nathan Rabin, Staff Writer

Best book about movies

Is there a better book about the movies than Robert Evans’ The Kid Stays In The Picture? You bet your sweet ass there is not. Robert Evans’ exquisitely vulgar memoir of his preposterously eventful life and times is the gold standard for Hollywood tell-alls and one of the greatest books ever written about what it means to be an American. That The Kid Stays In The Picture then became a movie itself is the icing on the cake.

Best movie about books

In an abstract, hallucinatory way, David Cronenberg’s  Naked Lunch captures something powerful and ineffable about the insanity of being an author and the cracked bond between writers, readers and their art. It’s the film about writing, and writers, and books, that sticks with me the most; it has infected me on an almost biological level, and that seems appropriate, given the author and the filmmaker.

What makes good film criticism?

To me, good film criticism stands up on its own, independent of the film it is critiquing, or the reader’s interest in the film. It passionately engages with both the film and the audience and acknowledges that filmgoing, and filmmaking, is an inherently emotional, inherently subjective experience and does not pretend to provide a definitive answer as to a film’s fundamental worth. Good film criticism understands that it is the opening gambit in a lively conversation, not a pronouncement passed down from high atop the mountain.

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Tasha Robinson, Senior Editor

Best book about movies

Probably the one that had the most influence on me was Harlan Ellison’s Watching, because it strikes such a perfect balance of personality-driven criticism and societally-aware criticism. Ellison tends to bring himself strongly into everything he writes—he doesn’t pretend to any sort of objective remove—but he doesn’t fall into his own navel, either, thinking more about himself than about the films he’s writing about. And he doesn’t just do reviews, either. I grew up in a period where it seemed like all the popular writing about film was limited to reviews, rather than the more expansive, topic-driven essays that are so popular today. Ellison taught me how to use a single film as a door into broader issues and debate topics. But he’s also extremely entertaining, especially if you have a taste for irascibility.

Best movie about books

For me, nothing’s ever likely to beat The Princess Bride, which people seem to remember for the endless quoteability (“Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya! You killed my father! Prepare to die!”), the comic timing, the perfect casting, the swordplay, and the lively mix of humor and drama. But it’s also so specifically about a grandfather expressing his love with a book, and his cynical grandson learning not only about the value of books, but about how to accept that love. The framing story is less fun than Cary Elwes matching wits with Wallace Shawn, or Christopher Guest and Chris Sarandon evilling it up, but it gives it a real layer of depth, as it becomes clear that all this silliness and adventure is a present from one generation to another, in the form of a story. (The book is still better, though, both about that frame story and in other ways.)

What can movies teach us about writing?

Books are my first love, but one of the things I most have to admire about movies is the way they have to cut to the chase when it comes to getting a story started. A book can spend chapters at a time on exposition—one of my favorite writers, Margaret Atwood, has written entire books that just feel like exposition—but a film generally has to condense it down to a few lines so it can get the story started. Sometimes films teach us about terrible ways to handle exposition (dreary explanatory voiceovers, people having stiff conversations where they say things they both already know, for the viewer’s benefit), but at their best, they can be excellent primers in stripping a story down, finding what’s important, and getting it in front of the audience smoothly or smartly, so it isn’t noticeable. Good books can teach would-be writers how to get deep into characters’ heads; good movies can show how to get outside the characters’ heads without losing track of them, or their place in a story.

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Scott Tobias, Editor

Best book about movies

My favorite book about movies is Final Cut by Steven Bach, about the making of Heaven’s Gate. Bach was a senior VP at United Artists at the time, so he was there for the agonizing setbacks and drama that accompanied this notoriously troubled production. Beyond being a great blow-by-blow of the Heaven’s Gate debacle, the book also marks the end of a period where auteurs ruled Hollywood. The industry has been saner (and less surprising and inspired) since.

Best movie about books

There have been so many great movies about writers and the writing process that this is an arbitrary pick, but Barton Fink, by the Coen brothers, captures the torment of writer’s block—and the mind of the writer generally—with unsparing wit and insight. In addition to the paralyzing grip of not being able to write—even something as formulaic as a Wallace Beery wrestling picture—the film gets into soul-diminishing perils of writing garbage for hire and the pretensions of writers whose work falls short of their lofty conceptions of its truth and importance.

Is there a movie adaptation that you consider better than the book?

The Godfather is the classic example of a movie that’s far richer than the book, which collects some great anecdotes without the scope and artistry that Francis Ford Coppola brings to the table. But I’d like to trumpet Atom Egoyan’s adaptation of Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter. Banks’ book is terrific in its own right, with chapters that reveal the story through the perspective of various characters. Rather than trying to imitate Banks’ structure, which would be virtually impossible to do on film, Egoyan simply scrambles the chronology to where certain revelations can have the biggest impact.

 

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