Friday, January 01, 2016

The Little Black Book of Movies

The Little Black Book (Movies)--critic Chris Fujiwara's yearlong project, involved 62 critics, historians, filmmakers, enthusiasts choosing to write short entries (250 to 300 words) on 1,000 of what they considered seminal moments in 100 years of cinema. This can be anything from a "key scene," a "key film," a "key event," even a "key person;" the films can range from all over--silent and sound; color and black and white; Hollywood and otherwise; mainstream and alternative. Contributors include Fujiwara himself, Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum; Australian critic Adrian Martin (Rosenbaum and Martin recently co-edited a book Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia); critic Dennis Lim (formerly of The Village Voice (back when working for the publication actually meant something (no disrespect meant for surviving critic Mr. Hoberman)), presently Editorial Director at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York); critic David Ehrenstein (Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928 - 2000)); critic Brad Stevens (Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision); L.A. Times web editor Tim Cavanaugh; Aruna Vasudev (founder/editor of Osian's Cinemaya: The Asian Film Quarterly; founder and director of Osian's Cinefan Film Festival), journalist, film critic and novelist Kim Newman (Anno Dracula); longtime film writer and lecturer Fred Camper; film critic and curator Paolo Cherchi Usai (The Death of Cinema); Filipino filmmaker and historian Nick Deocampo (Oliver (1983) and Cine: Spanish Influences on Early Cinema in the Philippines) and, heh, yours truly.

Frankly, I'm surprised to have been at all involved in anything this impressive. The book is a heavy black-bound beauty; the cover (seen above)--well, I've long since stopped being a big fan of Demme's serial killer flick (partly because of all the copycat serial-killer flicks it spawned in its wake) but for an image depicting the very essence of cinema viewing, I find the film's poster difficult to best: Jodie Foster with tawny eyes wide open in an unflinching gaze, a lovely Death's Head moth sealing her lips tight. "Silence!" the image seems to proclaim. "We're at the movies, and the time for talking is done."

Inside--well, inside the contents are, if anything, even more fabulous than the cover. The first entry is startling: "The Death of Cinema" by Paolo Cherchi Usai. He talks about how from the very beginning (the date of this particular event is 1895) films were made and as quickly destroyed, and how destruction of this footage--a worldwide phenomenon, but a particularly acute tragedy in the Philippines, where classic film prints are sliced up and used as New Year's Eve party trumpets--is an irreparable loss. But, he adds, there are worse crimes than the mere physical destruction of film prints...

Other entries include obvious key scenes such as the "Over the Rainbow" number in The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939), which Kim Newman considers "one of the greatest song performances in all of cinema;" key films such as Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952), for which Brad Stevens provides a remarkably concise analysis of the director's narrative strategy (he chose the film because it "provides the best evidence of Kurosawa's ability to communicate challenging ideas through audacious large-scale structures"); key events such as the 1994 debut of Turner Classic Movies (according to Tim Cavanaugh "it mainstreamed cinephilia")--but there are equally interesting entries on lesser-known films (or less conventional entries on better-known films) as well.

Nick Deocampo chooses as his key event "The first public film exhibition in Asia" (July 7, 1896), goes on to describe the circumstances of the exhibition and its consequences. His reason for choosing this moment: "The arrival of film in Asia helped shaped the identity and culture of people in the region." Considering in the case of the Philippines how film has become one of the most popular art forms (second, I suppose, to song--third to television, if there's anything in Philippine-made television nowadays that can be called art (and there is, but not much of it)), I can only agree with his assessment.

Brad Stevens picks the imprisonment of Alfred Hitchcock in 1905. Hitchcock was known for his anecdotes, and one of his most famous--and possibly most revealing--concerns his being locked in a prison cell for five minutes at the tender age of six. Stevens' reason for choosing the moment: "it connects with several aspects of Hitchcock's work." Stevens proceeds to tell us what was especially traumatic about the incident, and how this may have affected several of Hitchcock's key films.

Fred Camper chooses a scene from Chuck Jones' 1948 classic Mouse Wreckers, about two mice who decide to drive a cat insane through the sheer force of mis-en-scene--upside-down furniture, unsettling window views, and the like (I wonder, though, how much this short was influenced by Robert Heinlein's "--And He Built A Crooked House"), reasoning thusly: "Jones' vision, turning on control of physical space, gains a hilarious and ecstatically disorienting expression here." I've always loved this cartoon short, long before I even knew of Jones or auteurism or the magic of incongruous imagery; Camper pretty much put my unvoiced affection into words.

Camper also writes passionately about arguably one of the greatest of noirs, Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955)--not so much about the violence, or the famous explosively radioactive ending, but about the opening image, of Mike Hammer's car speeding through an "isolating darkness." His reason: "The obliteration of space in the opening scene resonates throughout the film; without firm ground, threats can appear everywhere, and morality is impossible to maintain."

Adrian Martin chooses to write a breathtaking passage (among many excellent ones) on one of my very favorite films, Ritwik Ghatak's Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star, 1960), about a young woman who moves from deep depression (she's the sole breadwinner in a family of five and too goodhearted to prevent anyone (her family included) from taking advantage of her) to utter despair. Martin writes, "No one but Ghatak would have filmed this bleak scene in such a restless, disconcerting way."

Jonathan Rosenbaum writes about arguably the single most startling (and hilarious) moment in Francois Truffaut's Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player, 1960), the death of a gangster's mother, and comes away with this startling (yet somehow reasonable, after you give it a moment's thought) statement: "Truffaut proves conclusively that you can do anything in a movie." 

Eddie del Mar as Crisostomo Ibarra and Leopoldo Salcedo as Elias in Gerardo de Leon's Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not, 1961)
My first of seven contributions involves a single shot in Gerardo de Leon's flawed yet great adaptation of the Rizal novel Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not, 1961), of Sisa and the leper outside the church. The reason I chose it: "This scene is a superb example of Gerardo de Leon's mis-en-scene, and the way his compositions can sum up themes, characters, relationships."

I have to give credit where credit's due; it was film historian/archivist Teddy Co who first pointed that shot out to me--he called it "The greatest shot in all of Philippine cinema." I could think of a few others I prefer, myself, at least two of them included in this book...but in terms of complexity of detail and thematic reach, the shot is an impeccable choice.

(Note: copies are available at Fully Booked in Powerplant Mall, Makati City)

First published November 2007


Oggs Cruz said...

Ouch, it's $40 in Amazon. But from this post, I'm guessing it's worth the buy.

Noel Vera said...


I hope to post a few more notes on some of the little gems I found in the book--along with notes on my own contributions.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your kind remark about my Ghatak entry, Noel! Having just been in Jjubljana with several of your countrymen, I now have some choice films by Raya Martin and others to catch up on at last ...

I also enjoyed your fine entries in the mammoth LITTLE BLACK BOOK!

Noel Vera said...

Thanks, Adrian! Hope you can write about Raya's films--or at the very least, post here what you thought of them.

I've seen A River named Titash on the big screen, thanks to the Indian Embassy in Manila, which didn't have the slightest idea of what they were showing (there were maybe ten of us in the theater). I'm hoping they push through with the project of releasing the rest of Ghatak's films. I particularly want to see Ajantrik.

Patrick said...

I happen to saw it on Barnes & Noble (20% off) today. Might try to buy it during this holiday season.

digitalburyong said...

hi sir -- I read almost half of it in Fully Booked High Street and got really impressed with the selection. And it surprised me that a foreign critic wrote about Ebolusyon Ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino. Great stuff.

Noel Vera said...

I could suggest you buy it, but who am I to say? I couldn't afford a copy myself.

You could pass the word on to friends.

Yes, that surprised me too. But Lav is vastly more appreciated in Europe than in America.

Noel Vera said...

Patrick (previous post was for Chard)--please do! And thanks, both of youse!

digitalburyong said...

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i wish to buy it but yeah the price is too hefty (at least in my position). like your book, i only finish reading film criticism compilation in libraries. and sure -- i passed the word to friends. in fact, lyle sacris asked me what is it i am reading ('cause i'm halfway through) and if it is good. i said yes and that he should buy it (for me).

Alexis A. Tioseco said...

noel, can help you out with ajantrik and other ghatak dvd copies. can discuss more via e-mail!

really great to see your participation! look forward to the further notes on your entries in the book.

adrian, hope you enjoy the films! was a pleasure to finally meet and discuss cinema with you.

chard, how much does it go for in fully booked, if i may ask?

digitalburyong said...

hi alexis, i think it costs around 1500-2000 pesos. i'm not sure. i just read it without intention of buying. :D

Oggs Cruz said...

I saw one in National Bookstore for P1,350. I'm saving up to buy this one, it really looks worth it.

Noel Vera said...

Great! And thanks.

digitalburyong said...

whoa, so it costs cheaper in national bookstore (obviously). i got so conscientious i think i'll buy it. haha. someone should've thought of giving it to me as agift.

Noel Vera said...