What books should you read to be Visionary Movies literate? Send us your suggestions. Here are some of our thoughts in several categories.
Books on Myth and Film
There aren’t many books that focus exclusively on this subject, and those that do, tend not to be well written. Here are a handful that are uneven in quality, ranging from first rate essays to bland Jungianism.
Celluloid Heroes and Mechanical Dragons: Film as the Mythology of Electronic Society by John David Ebert (Cybereditions.com, 2005) This book focuses on those films which function as the cultural equivalent of dreams and nightmares about our machines.
Return of the Heroes: The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter and Social Conflict by Hal G.P. Colebatch (Cybereditions.com) Here, Colebatch sees these particular films as actually carrying conservative messages which appeal to the masses, thereby showing that they aren’t as “liberal” as we have perhaps been led to believe.
The Astrology of Film: The Interface of Movies, Myth and Archetype by Bill Street and Jeffrey Kishner (IUniverse, 2004)
Illuminating Shadows: The Mythic Power of Film by Geoffrey Hill (Shambhala Books, 1992 [out of print; try Abebooks.com]) This book is more traditionally “Jungian,” focussing on flakey stuff like Field of Dreams.
The Journey of Luke Skywalker: An Analysis of Modern Myth and Symbol by Steven A. Galipeau (Open Court, 2001) A Jungian reading by a Jungian analyst. Pardon me, did I just yawn?
Recommended Film Books
On Specific Directors:
Stanley Kubrick: A Biography by John Baxter (Carroll & Graf: 1999) Definitely the best biography on Kubrick yet. Baxter is a good storyteller and he knows what details are important, unlike Vincent LoBrutto, whose biography is wooden and boring by comparison.
Stanley Kubrick Interviews edited by Gene D. Phillips (University Press of Mississippi: 2001) Kubrick never gave many interviews, and this collection contains most, but not all, of them. That said, it is an excellent collection of conversations from the master of contemporary cinema. Kubrick’s erudition and intelligence are evident on every page. He really was as smart as his films would lead you to suspect.
Kubrick: The Definitive Edition by Michel Ciment (Faber & Faber: 1999) This is a beautifully illustrated volume, one of the best pictorial digests on Kubrick’s work so far. (The only drawback is that there are not enough color photographs). And Ciment’s structuralist analysis of Kubrick’s leading themes is skillfull and intelligent. Highly recommended.
Eyes Wide Open: A Memoir of Stanley Kubrick by Frederic Raphael (Ballantine Books: 1999) This is a fun account of how Kubrick drove screenwriter Raphael up a wall with his nitpicking and microanalyzing. On the other hand, it is a deliberate attempt to write a character assassination of Kubrick by a man who obviously did not like him.
Stanley Kubrick: The Complete Films by Paul Duncan (Taschen: 2003) The emphasis on this book, as always with anti-intellectual Taschen, is on the visuals, not the text, but aside from Ciment’s book this is the best collection of photographs from Kubrick’s films.
Kubrick by Michael Herr (Grove Press: 2001) This brief book was written by Herr largely to counteract Raphael’s unflattering portrait. It is good, well-written (as is everything by Herr) and to the point. One only wishes it were longer.
The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey selected by Stephanie Schwam (Modern Library: 2000) There are actually two different versions of this book, the earlier one having been edited by Jerome Agel in 1970. They have similar material, but not exactly, so it is worthwhile to get them both.
Steven Spielberg: The Unauthorized Biography by John Baxter (Harper Collins: 1997) Baxter’s biographies on film directors are among the best ever written, and this is certainly the best biography on Spielberg currently available. The only problem with it is that Baxter does not like Spielberg and so his hostility shows through so often that it becomes annoying.
Steven Spielberg Interviews edited by Lester D. Friedman and Brent Notbohm (University Press of Mississippi: 2000)
FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA
Francis Ford Coppola: A Filmmaker’s Life by Michael Schumacher (Three Rivers Press: 1999) The best biography on Coppola so far. Schumacher’s book is detailed and full of interesting anecdotes.
Coppola: A Biography by Peter Cowie (Da Capo Press: 1994) A competent bio.
The Apocalypse Now Book by Peter Cowie (Harper Collins: 2001) An excellent collection of materials relating to this film. The only thing it leaves out is discussion of the mythological aspects, which Ebert’s book attempts to rectify.
Mythmaker: The Life and Work of George Lucas by John Baxter (Avon Books: 1999) This is another one of those excellent Baxter bios, although this one, like his Spielberg bio, is also marred by his antipathy to the subject.
Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas by Dale Pollock (Da Capo Press: 1999) This is a competent bio, well done and informative.
George Lucas Interviews edited by Sally Kline (University Press of Mississippi: 1999) A good collection, although sometimes Lucas can be a boring interview.
James Cameron: An Unauthorized Biography by Marc Shapiro (Renaissance Books: 2000) The problem is, this is the only Cameron bio in existence, and it is mediocre, but readable.
David Cronenberg: A Delicate Balance by Peter Morris (ECW Press: 1994) This slender little volume is an embarrassment; it is neither well written, nor interesting, but unfortunately it is the only Cronenberg bio in existence. Surely, this is an egregious error on the part of film biographers, for Cronenberg is one of the best and most intelligent filmmakers alive today, and no one has yet undertaken to write the biography that he deserves.
Cronenberg on Cronenberg edited by Chris Rodley (Faber & Faber: 1993) This is a very good collection of interviews with one of the most eloquent directors in the business.
Herzog on Herzog edited by Paul Cronin (Faber & Faber: 2002) This book is a sheer delight, for Herzog is so eloquent and interesting about his life and art that it is a model collection of interviews. The conversations are expertly edited by Cronin, and arranged in chronological sequence, so that it doubles as an autobiography. Highly recommended. (There is still no really good biography on Herzog in English).
On Culture and Myth
Visionary movies are inherently mythological. Here are two or three sources that focus on the interface between culture and mythology. Campbell has been especially influential on movies. (Note the bedside copy of The Hero With a Thousand Faces in Tim Burton’s recent Big Fish.)
The Hero With A Thousand Faces
By Joseph Campbell
A major 20th Century classic, describing the archetypal hero journey. â€œA hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from the mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.â€ In other words, the structure of many Visionary movies. [ buy at Amazon ]
A note on Joseph Campbell: Campbell’s rich approach to story, art, myth, and culture is very useful to the Cinema Discourse approach, and you would do well to delve into his work. Here is a very brief guide to get you started:
The Power of Myth. This book, based on discussions between Campbell and Bill Moyers, is an oversimplified introduction, but a good first start. Also available on video and audio, and occasionally rebroadcast on PBS TV stations.
Myths To Live By. A collection of lectures, also a good introduction and overview.
The Hero With A Thousand Faces. The fundamental book for understanding Visionary movies.
The Masks of God. A monumental four-volume work surveying the sweep of human experience from early shamanism to the divide between East and West, and then onward to our modern condition. Reading it carefully is better then a four-year college education.
For a brief discussion of Campbell’s influence on George Lucas and Star Wars, see Campbell, Star Wars and the Myth
For more on Joseph Campbell and a complete listing of his writing, go to the web site of the Joseph Campbell Foundation, jcf.org.
The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light: Mythology, Sexuality, and the Origins of Culture
By William Irwin Thompson
From Amazon: “In this book, William Irwin Thompson explores the nature of myth. Acknowledging the persuasive power of myth to create and inform culture, he weaves the human ability to create life with and communicate through symbols with myths based on male and female forms of power.” buy at Amazon
The Alphabet vs. The Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image by Leonard Shlain
In this book, Shlain articulates his thesis that the more literate a society is, the more correspondingly misogynist it becomes. Our present society, therefore, is becoming so enamored of Images–especially in film–precisely because it is slowly becoming illiterate.
There is some discussion as to why novels often translate poorly into movies. One of the best is in Tom Wolfe’s essay “My Three Stooges” in Hooking Up.
However, most Visionary movies build on themes found in classic literature. There is so much literature of relevance one hardly know where to begin, so we will start with a very few and build this section on your suggestions.
The Iliad and The Odyssey
With the exception of Troy, The Iliad is less directly influential on movies, but it goes along with The Odyssey, a source of countless films in which the protagonist journeys through dangers to return home. (Think of 2001: A Space Odyssey  or Apocalypse Now ). Try the Robert Fagles translations. (From Amazon: “Here Mr. Fagles has achieved a translation which is not only easy to read and understand, but which retains the poetic lyricism of the original.”) [ buy at Amazon ]
Romance of the Three Kingdoms
By Lo Kuan-Chung
Written in China about four hundred years ago, Romance is the model for the rise and fall of empires that underlie countless epics from Star Wars to Hero. It opens: “The world under heaven, after a long period of division, tends to unite; after a long period of union, tends to divide. This has been so since antiquity. When the rule of the Zhou Dynasty weakened, seven contending kingdoms sprang up, warring one with another until the kingdom of Qin prevailed and possessed the empire. But when Qin’s destiny had been fulfilled, arose two opposing kingdoms, Chu and Han, to fight for the mastery. And Han was the victor.” (Find the entire work online at threekingdoms.com) [ buy at Amazon
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Unqestionably the prototype for the monster slayer movie, although in this version the monster wins and everybody dies.
The books of Philip K. Dick
Dick has deeply investigated the human/technology interface, a major theme of Visionary movies. From the Philip K. Dick web site: â€œSince Ridley Scott turned “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” into the science fiction classic “Blade Runner,” seven of Philip K. Dick’s novels or short stories have made their way to the big screen. To date, these films have generated over $1 billion in world-wide box office and ancillary revenue. This astounding success is the result of combining Visionary stories with talent from the world’s finest film directors, studios and stars. Steven Spielberg, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise, John Woo, Ben Affleck, and Harrison Ford are only a few of the illustrious names associated with these projects. Completed Films: Blade Runner (1982) based on “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Screamers (1990) based on â€˜Second Variety.â€™ Total Recall (1992) based on â€˜We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.â€™ Confessions dâ€™un Barjo (French, 1992) based on â€˜Confessions of a Crap Artist.â€™ Impostor (2001) based on â€˜Impostor.â€™ Minority Report (2002). Based on â€˜The Minority Report.â€™ Paycheck (2003) based on â€˜Paycheck.â€™â€ http://www.philipkdick.com/
The End of the Novel
There has been a lot of observation of the â€œend of the novel.â€ It is our contention that the energy of our culture has moved from the novel to movies. See Ebertâ€™s essay â€œThe Twilight of Western Literature,â€ which begins: “Surveying with one glance the current state of western literatureâ€”and by literature, I mean novels, poems and plays, but also the traditional nonfiction modalities like the literary essay and the great work of philosophyâ€”compared to what it looked like in, say, the first half of the twentieth century, what strikes one is an appalling decline in overall quality.â€
Here are some discussions of the current state of the novel and of literary culture. Send us your thoughts on the subject and suggestions for additional material.
â€œThe Democratization of Cultural Criticismâ€
By George Cotkin
Chronicle of Higher Education, From the issue dated July 2, 2004
George Cotkin, a professor of history at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, asks, is cultural criticism today dumber, snarkier, and more commercial than that of the 1940s and â€˜50s? Of course our answer is that culture criticism is in decline because it is not addressing movies, where the culture is.
A Readerâ€™s Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose
By B. R. Myers
A must read about the pretentiousness and awfulness of the contemporary literary novel. From Amazon: â€œâ€¦ In this updated version, Myers goes beyond merely taking on such literary giants as Don DeLillo, E. Annie Proulx, and Cormac McCarthyâ€¦â€ See John Ebert’s review of this book, “Corpse Washing” on Amazon.com under “Customer Reviews.”
â€œMy Three Stoogesâ€ from Hooking Up
By Tom Wolfe
Tom Wolfe again attacks the contemporary literary novel. â€œIn 1989 Wolfe outraged the literacy community with an essay in Harperâ€™s magazine called â€œStalking the Billion-footed Beast.â€ In it he argued that the only hope for the future of the American novel was a Zolaesque naturalism in which the novelist becomes the reporter — as he had done in writing The Bonfire of the Vanities, which was recognized as the essential novel of America in the 1980s.â€ From http://www.tomwolfe.com/authbio.htm
The Gutenberg Elegies by Sven Birkerts
A series of well-written essays that try to assess the effects upon reading and writing of the shift to electronic “culture.”
There are numerous anthologies of movie reviews, and we are looking forward to your suggestions. Here are two to start.
For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies
By Pauline Kael
The most important modern film critic, but also controversial. Some say she too often gets it wrong. One of Kaelâ€™s contributions was championing the American movies of the 1970s that brought together the seriousness of the European auteurs with American naturalness to launch a new approach to movies. For Keeps is culled from other collections, so if you get only one Kael book, this is it.
From Amazon: â€œFor Keeps is a dazzling anthology of reviews and essays by Pauline Kael, Americaâ€™s most important movie critic. This hefty book contains a fifth of Kaelâ€™s total output. It reprints all of her most famous reviews, including her controversial treatments of Last Tango in Paris, The Long Goodbye, and Nashvilleâ€¦.â€ [ buy at Amazon ]
The Great Movies
By Roger Ebert
From Amazon: â€œâ€¦This invaluable volume gathers 100 of the Pulitzer winnerâ€™s mini-essays composed since 1997, revised and updated, to form a love letter that could only spring from decades of devotion.â€ -Jeff Shannon [ buy at Amazon ]
Again, there are many choices here, and we welcome your thoughts. The ones we are listing here are those that help even the non-screenwriter understand â€œstoryâ€ and mythic structure.
Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting
By Robert McKee
The book that everyone says is a must. You saw McKee in a cameo in The Orchid Thief
From Amazon: â€œâ€¦ In Story, McKee puts into book form what he has been teaching screenwriters for years in his seminar on story structure, which is considered by many to be a prerequisite to the film biz. (The long list of film and television projects that McKeeâ€™s students have written, directed, or produced includes Air Force One, The Deer Hunter, E.R., A Fish Called Wanda, Forrest Gump, NYPD Blue, and Sleepless in Seattle.)â€¦â€
The Writerâ€™s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers
by Christopher Vogler
Vogler adopts Joseph Campbellâ€™s Hero Journey from Hero With A Thousand Faces as model for the Visionary movie.
From Amazon: â€œâ€¦ Vogler asserts that â€˜all stories consist of a few common structural elements found universally in myths, fairy tales, dreams, and movies.â€™ â€¦ thereâ€™s no doubt that Voglerâ€™s notion, based on psychological writings by Carl Jung and the mythmaking philosophy of Joseph Campbell, has been profoundly influential.â€¦â€ [ buy at Amazon ]
Myth and the Movies: Discovering the Mythic Structure of 50 Unforgettable Films
By Stuart Voytilla
More of the ideas in The Writerâ€™s Journey. [ buy at Amazon ]
Writing the Blockbuster Novel
By Albert Zuckerman
From Amazon: â€œWriting the Blockbuster Novel is part fiction-biology textbook, part cookbook. Its author, Albert Zuckerman, dissects the commercial bestseller, then provides recipes for each discrete elementâ€¦.â€ [ buy at Amazon ]
More on a Literary Canon
What should we read to get the most from movies? The idea of a â€œliterary canonâ€ has been under attack by postmodernists for several decades. Are we the better for it? Let us know your thoughts. In the meantime, here are several pro canon books and material from Columbia Universityâ€™s Masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy course.
By David Denby
From Amazon: â€œDavid Denby, New York city movie critic and journalist, entered Columbia University in 1991 to take the universityâ€™s famous course in â€˜Great Books.â€™ This is the course that, in preserving the notion of the western canon without apology to multiculturalists and feminists, has been an unlikely focus of Americaâ€™s culture war in recent yearsâ€¦.â€ [ buy at Amazon ]
The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages
By Harold Bloom
From Amazon: â€œDiscussed and debated, revered and reviled, Bloom’s tome reinvigorates and re-examines Western Literature, arguing against the politicization of reading.â€ [ buy at Amazon ]
From the Columbia University web site:
Masterpieces of Western literature and philosophy
Popularly known as â€œLiterature Humanitiesâ€™â€™ or â€œLit Hum,â€ this yearlong course offers Columbia College students the opportunity to engage in intensive study and discussion of some of the most significant texts of Western culture. The course is not a survey, but a series of careful readings of literary works that reward both first encounters and long study. Whether class work focuses on the importance of the text to literary history or on its significance to our contemporary culture, the goal is to consider particular conceptions of what it means to be human as well as the place of such conceptions in the development of critical thought.
The principal objectives of Literature Humanities are to teach students to analyze literary texts and to construct intellectual arguments. An interdepartmental staff of professorial and preceptorial faculty meets with groups of approximately twenty-two students for four hours a week in order to discuss texts by Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Herodotus, Thucydides, Aristophanes, Plato, Vergil, Augustine, Dante, Boccaccio, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Austen, Dostoevsky, and Woolf, as well as Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament writings.
ILIAD (U. of Chicago, tr. Lattimore)
HOMERIC HYMNS (Hopkins, tr. Athanassakis)
ODYSSEY (Harper, tr. Lattimore)
THE HISTORIES (Penguin, tr. de Selincourt)
ORESTEIA (Aeschylus I, U. of Chicago, tr. Lattimore)
OEDIPUS THE KING (Sophocles I, U. of Chicago, tr. Grene)
MEDEA (Euripides I, U. of Chicago, tr. Warner) ISBN 0-226-30780-8
HISTORY OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR (Penguin, tr. Warner)
SYMPOSIUM (Hackett, trs. Nehamas, Woodruff)
LYSISTRATA (Signet, tr. Parker) ISBN 0-451-52789-5
BIBLE: Revised Standard Version (Meridian) (GENESIS, JOB, LUKE/JOHN)
Virgil, AENEID (Bantam, tr. Mandelbaum)
Augustine, CONFESSIONS (Oxford, tr. Chadwick)
Dante, INFERNO (Bantam, tr. Mandelbaum)
Boccaccio, DECAMERON (Penguin, tr. McWilliam)
Montaigne, ESSAYS (Penguin, tr. Cohen)
Shakespeare, KING LEAR (Pelican)
Cervantes, DON QUIXOTE (Penguin, tr. Rutherford)
Austen, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (Oxford)
Dostoevsky, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (Vintage, trs. Pevear & Volokhonsky)
Woolf, TO THE LIGHTHOUSE (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich)