Bedtime Stories: July 2021
- July 21, 2021
What do book lovers have queued up on their nightstands and ready to read before lights-out? We asked one of them, and here’s what he said.
Pandemic-related travel restrictions (and, this year, a slowly healing broken ankle) have prevented me from visiting London for two years in a row now. So I’ve been traveling by book, ordering titles from imprints I admire from the U.K. and here at home. My summer-reading shelf contains mostly small-batch and indie-label titles that tend toward the alternative and meld the concerns of cinema and writing.
I'm following the comment of Alexander Kluge, in his Cinema Stories, that cinema is “immortal and older than the art of film.” This ideal indirectly informs the sense of hybridity between artforms connecting personal and collective image-making that I seek out in contemporary letters.
Nightjar Press publishes pamphlet-sized short stories as standalone publications and, to protect their limited editions in the post, they include charming, recycled packaging that pleasingly complements their handmade vibe. Wrapped with care in the cardboard cover of a blank VHS tape for international post from the U.K., I got copy #93 of Imogen Reid’s The Elevator, which is described on the cover, very accurately, by Jennifer Hodgson, as “a pocket grammar of cinematic menace.” Inside is a concise and effectively frightening noir dreamscape related in jagged prose poetry in which, among other things, a mysterious phone call out of David Lynch’s surreal universe turns the protagonist’s face from “youthful vigour” to “careworn fragility.”
Also from the U.K., Matthew Turner's Loom takes the form of montages between text and image that, for me, land in Kluge's cinematic zone of intersections between artforms — architecture, drawing, criticism, and fiction. This includes Turner's extraordinary descriptions of a "cored-out" London in which empty investment properties take on the eerie displacement of places "never lived in."
This makes them resemble online, fictional personas that have only virtual moorings in any idea of feeling at home, a haunted experience of digital displacement juxtaposed with drawings of coal-hole covers and diagrams of knots that splice together footage of the mundane and the surreal. Kluge writes that "cinema is itself an architectural art form" and casts "films themselves as buildings." So, too, are interesting books like Turner's places where we might feel we're exploring away from what's familiar, like haunted houses.
In Anna MacDonald’s innovative and poignant short novel, A Jealous Tide, published by Splice, a researcher from Down Under becomes obsessed with researching the archival materials of Virginia Woolf and walking through London in search of what she calls “the circling woman’s city.” The narrator also keeps an archive of her own on Esselte index cards, on which accounts of drowning are written. These threads and others converge in the W.G. Sebald-like cat’s cradle of threads drawing her back to London, with the site of Woolf’s suicide by drowning hovering over the book like a ghost, just offscreen.
For me, the index cards operate like a memory-montage wherein the researcher places herself in the dislocated webbing between these lives, like the invisible strands Woolf describes connecting people in her city in Mrs. Dalloway. Woolf, of course, was one of the most interesting early critics of the cinema. In her short essays on moviegoing (she watched 1920’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”), she realizes, “We see life as it is when we have no part in it…We are beholding a world which has gone beneath the waves.”
Splice also published the U.K. edition of the essay collection See What I See by the American critic and fiction writer Greg Gerke. It’s been published in the U.S. in an expanded edition this year by Zerogram Press. Gerke blends memoir and criticism of books and films in a refreshingly direct style that marks his writing as both pleasingly personable and unabashedly intellectual, whether he’s writing about the novels of William Gaddis or the cinema of Ingmar Bergman.
One of my favorite essays from the collection (and it’s difficult to select just one) concerns the anti-Hollywood style of Maren Ade in her hilarious and heady film “Toni Erdmann” (2016). Gerke is seeking to expand public space for serious ideas and modern(ist) alternatives to the dominant mode of the culture industry in both publishing and filmmaking.
Another book from England that, for me, opened new paths of thinking about the connections between writing and cinema was Melinda Mele’s translation of Lorenza Mazzetti’s London Diaries. Mazzetti was an important figure in the Free Cinema movement that flourished in the late 1950s and early 1960s in England, prefiguring the British New Wave through its focus on working people and its improvisational-feeling approach to “small is beautiful” cinema.
Mazzetti was a close creative collaborator and friend of Lindsay Anderson (“This Sporting Life,” 1963) and Tony Richardson (“A Taste of Honey,” 1961, from a screenplay by Shelagh Delaney). Mazzetti describes how, after talking her way into the Slade School of Art in London, she then borrowed/stole the filmmaking equipment and billed the school (without permission) for the printing of her first film, a version of Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
According to Mazzetti, the audience at the first screening was supposed to decide if she would be sent to the police or allowed to continue her studies. This winter, the beautifully produced and critically incisive London film journal Another Gaze will release Mazzetti’s The Falling Sky, translated by Livia Franchini, through its imprint, Another Gaze Editions, which focuses on “untranslated and out-of-print texts by women filmmakers.”
Somewhat closer to home is Justin St. Germain’s Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which contains a tonic mixture of criticism and personal exploration. The writer reflects on the literary and cinematic inheritance of Capote's problematic classic, subsequently revealing wisdom about the writing process and honestly grappling with the tangled mysteries of nonfiction (whatever that might mean) and art based on reality (whatever that is).
St. Germain’s book, in some ways a companion piece to his searing memoir, Son of a Gun, is deeply personal in all the best ways and includes sharp notes on the films made from In Cold Blood and about Capote, including the Maysles brothers’ revealing short documentary, “With Love from Truman” (1966). Meditating on his memoir’s composition in retrospect allows St. Germain to create another form of documentary project that reads like an essay-film.
A forthcoming title that provides a different take on America's city of movie dreams while subverting Hollywood’s version of Los Angeles is Lou Mathews’ Shaky Town, out in August from Tiger Van Books, a new imprint created through Prospect Park Books by Jim Gavin, the writer-producer of AMC’s beloved show “Lodge 49.” Mathews’ interconnected stories delve into the complexities of working-class L.A., exploring the lives and worlds of teachers, shopkeepers, Lorca-loving janitors, and retired park-bench storytellers.
In the moving “A Curse on Chavez Ravine,” the narrator relates the story of his Aunt Lupe’s one-woman battle against the redevelopment of her neighborhood to make way for Dodger Stadium. After going to court and chaining herself to her house during the demolition, she commissions a spell to be placed on the players that will last for generations. The curse won’t hurt anyone physically; it just makes these players slightly better when they’re on a team other than the Dodgers.
The story is characteristic of Mathews’ hilarious, compassionate, and deeply felt writing, but it stands as much more than a local rebuke to the film-industry version of Los Angeles promoted by that company town. His refreshing vision is ultimately restorative and recuperative of a different image-bank entirely by avoiding much mention of Hollywood at all. When that famous word, denoting all that glitters, finally appears, it's in the context of an alcoholic ex-teacher visiting the Hollywood DMV and the area's liquor stores.
The writers whose work I’ve found captivating in this second summer of the pandemic, when the prospect of travel remains uninviting and things are not at all “back to normal,” move in a space that also transports me. As a reader, I’m grateful to travel into alternative dimensions adjacent to the mainstream multiplex movies and popular novels that clog the streams of social media. These books remind me that cinema and literature are intertwined — but not in the cliched way that we expect from writers whose biggest dream, supposedly, is to have their work adapted into a bland, respectable movie.
Instead, these are writers and stories that feel modern and resistant to the logic of market forces and focus groups. These works might not be filmable. Good. They make a strong case for the notion that some of the action and heat in contemporary literature is shifting away from the media conglomerates and has been for some time. Besides, these conglomerates’ publishing arms are their least-important divisions, based, as they are, on the creation of that most wretched of products, “content.”
J.M. Tyree is the coauthor, with Michael McGriff, of Our Secret Life in the Movies (A Strange Object/Deep Vellum), an NPR Best Books selection, and the author of The Counterforce: Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice (Fiction Advocate). His essays have appeared in Brick, the Believer, Lapham’s Quarterly, Film Quarterly, and the BFI Film Classics series of books from the British Film Institute and Bloomsbury. He works as an editor at New England Review.