Interview with Breixo Viejo about Film Books: A Visual History
Managing Editor Matthew Young addresses a few questions to our newest author about his book…
M.Y.: When and how did you become interested in the subject of books about film?
B.V.: My fascination with film books goes back to the early 1980s. As soon as I began watching films, I began reading about them. When I was a kid I loved to flick through the film encyclopedia The Movie: The Illustrated History of Cinema, which was published as a partwork by Orbis in England between 1979 and 1983, and shortly translated into Spanish by Planeta. My father used to purchase the issues at the newsstand every week, and I remember I couldn’t wait for the week to end, so I could see the next issue!
Of course, this early passion only became a serious interest years later. In 2000, while I was a graduate student at the New School for Social Research, I started writing my PhD dissertation about the film music project that Hanns Eisler and Theodor W. Adorno undertook during the early 1940s here in New York. As a result of that project, they co-wrote the seminal book Composing for the Films, published by Oxford University Press in 1947. During my archival research, I found original materials about the troubled publication process of Composing for the Films, and shortly after I became seriously interested in the history of cinema literature in general.
I was amazed to learn that the first scholarly books on film were published in the 1890s. What were some of the most surprising books you discovered in your research?
They were different surprises for different reasons. Some books were remarkable, as you say, for the early date of publication: William and Antonia Dickson’s History of the Kinetograph was published in New York in 1895; Auguste and Louis Lumière’s Notice sur le Cinématographe, in Lyon, two years later. Some other titles were surprising for their rarity: Victor Allemandy’s Wonders of the Deep (London, 1916), for example, describes the 1914 Nassau expedition in which the Williamson brothers took the first underwater motion pictures; Arthur Meloy’s Theatres and Motion Picture Houses, published in New York that same year, is an illustrated treatise on how to properly build “movie palaces”.
I was particularly astonished by the beautiful design of some of the European avant-garde film books: Jean Epstein’s Bonjour Cinema (Paris, 1921), for instance, or Hans Richter’s Filmgegner von Heute, Filmfreunde von Morgen (Berlin 1929). Oskar Kalbus’ two-volume Vom Werden deutscher Filmkunst (1935) is uncommon because it challenges the classical notion of book: it was published as a cigarette card album that could only be completed with the participation of the reader…
What were your goals while writing the book?
There were two main goals: to show the immense diversity of cinema literature and to demonstrate that film books are among the main protagonists of cinema history –not a mere appendix to it. Film Books, in fact, can be read as a history of cinema sui generis: it’s just that, instead of focusing on films, I have concentrated on film books. I wanted to challenge the conventional historiography of cinema which, in my opinion, has been too focused on films and film directors. We now know that archival materials such as scripts, production contracts, and distribution deals are essential to understand film history. Producers, screenwriters, cinematographers, composers, actors… well, there wouldn’t be movies without them! If we adopt an economic perspective on the movies, then those apparently insignificant lobby cards, posters, and soundtrack vynil albums become key objects to comprehend the film industry and movies as commodities.
A third goal, which only became evident while I was writing the book, was to challenge the idea that there was not cinema literature during the silent era. My research demonstrates quite the opposite. Before World War I, cinema literature was extensive enough to justify a “Motion Picture Bibliography” (as compiled by Sinai Gershanek for the Motography journal in 1916). By 1927 there were literally hundreds of titles in several languages –English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Czech, Danish… Although my research was geographically limited to the Western world for obvious reasons, I wanted to include books in all these languages to avoid the cliché of the film book as an American or British invention.
Your study includes all kinds of books about film, but necessarily just a few of the most important examples of each genre. How did you decide what to include and exclude?
That was probably the most difficult task while writing this book: the selection of titles. And I guess it’s going to be the main topic discussed by some of the readers. Why did he include that insignificant title? And how could he forget my favourite film book? But, as I explain in the “Introduction”, I never intented to do a list of the Best Books on the Movies ever. I don’t think a canon is possible – not even desirable. I think rankings can be limiting and misleading.
Having said that, I did my selection following those two goals I’ve just mentioned: to show the diversity and the importance of cinema literature in film history. Needless to say, I have taken into consideration what the international community of film scholars and moviegoers has written about this subject. The seminal books by André Bazin, Siegfried Kracauer, François Truffaut, Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovski, Gilles Deleuze… had to be included. The five books selected in the “Best Film Book” survey published by Sight & Sound in 2010, for example, were also selected in my book –even though I disagree with the fact that David Thomson’s A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema (1975) was voted the best book of the poll. I chose some books, such as Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylone (1959) for its poetics and mise-en-page, rather than for its historical accuracy. I also decided not to repeat authors and subjects. I have explained in detail my selection criteria in the last two pages of the “Introduction”.
How do you hope your study will change the way we think of books about film, not only in terms of their content but also as physical objects worthy of collection and preservation?
Some film books are art objects and should be treated as such. It’s a pity to see that most public and university libraries still underestimate the importance of the film book. Even the librarians of important cinémathèques around the world keep throwing away the dust jackets because they think DJs are unimportant –and a trouble for them when labeling call numbers on spines! My hope is that Film Books will change this situation. Photography books have been considered artistic artifacts for many years now, and I think it’s time now that the same happens with film books.
Now, as a researcher, I have to say that this underestimation of film books has been, paradoxically, an advantage: I have had fast access to many rare, out-of-print, unique titles –an access that would be unthinkable were I researching, let’s say, artist’s books. The funny thing is that Epstein’s and Richter’s are artist’s books! As a film book collector, it was also convenient, of course. I’ve been able to purchase true gems of cinema literature for a few bucks!
The one most widely read genre, I would guess, is collections of film criticism. Who would you say is the most insightful movie reviewer of them all, past or present?
Yes, collections of film criticism are very popular, particularly here in the United States. James Agee, Otis Ferguson, Pauline Kael, Stanley Kaufman, Andrew Sarris… It’s difficult for me to say who was the most insightful of them all. I particularly like the writings of Amos Vogel, who was more a film curator than a film critic as such, but who also wrote tirelessly about the movies. His Film as a Subversive Art (1974), which collects mini-essays on over 600 art films, is a favorite of mine. Another genre that has been widely read is the “History of Cinema” book. I think David Robinson’s World Cinema (1973) and David Cook’s A History of Narrative Film (1981) are also very good, especially if we consider that both were written in the pre-home video era.
Reading your book suggests possibilities for a follow-up, perhaps about film magazines, for instance. Do you have any such plans?
Yes. My goal is to write a trilogy –on film books, film magazines, and film scores. Despite the importance of film journals in cinema history (how can we understand the French New Wave without knowing the history of Cahiers du Cinéma?), no comprehensive studies on international film journals have been published yet. There are some monographs on specific magazines, such as the influential British monthly Close Up (1927-1933), but not a general visual history of this type of publication. And yet film scholars and moviegoers worldwide know the crucial role played by magazines in film history: Sight & Sound, Iskusstvo Kino, Bianco e Nero, Sequence, Positif, Film Culture, Nuevo Cine… the list is extensive indeed. Not to mention trade magazines like Variety, founded in 1905, or technical journals such as American Cinematographer, whose first issue came out in 1920 (both magazines, by the way, are still running). The peculiarity of the cinema journal is that it intrinsically is a collective endeavor –unlike film books, which tend to be the result of an individual effort. From the 1920s to the 1950s, magazines were also the platform where young screenwriters and film directors first became involved in serious debates about the ontology of the film medium.
What about the book on film scores?
That’s a particularly difficult project, because the format in which film scores have been recorded has changed throughout history. Some of the early musical compositions for the screen only exist as written scores; others only survive as the sound tracks of 35mm film prints. Vinyl recordings became very popular in the 1950s, it’s true, but we know that films were screened with original music as soon as “cinema” was born in the 1890s. The variety of formats and editions of film scores –from 78 rpm slate records to the digital CD– is what makes that book specially difficult and… so exciting!
Breixo Viejo is a Senior Research Associate at the School of European Languages, Culture and Society in University College London, and an Adjunct Professor of Film Studies at the School of the Arts, Columbia University, New York. He has extensively written on film aesthetics, avant-garde cinema, and the work of Luis Buñuel, Joris Ivens, Alain Resnais, Samuel Beckett, and Jim Jarmusch. He is currently co-editing with Jo Evans the book Luis Buñuel: A Life in Letters, to be published by Bloomsbury in 2017, and writing the first critical biography on the Catalan cinematographer Néstor Almendros. He is an avid film book collector and the author of Film Books: A Visual History, recently published by Oak Knoll Press.