Friday, August 17, 2012

Unpacking my (film) library

A visitor to my home would be forgiven for thinking me a literati. The bookshelves on the first floor are lined, mostly, with novels (flanked by some philosophy and art history). I don't think of this as a "collection," though, and my personal attachment to these volumes is a little chilly. I have never thought of them as particularly valuable or irreplaceable, and I am not sure that all of these novels, taken together, enjoy much of the personality of a collection. They are a bunch of books I read once and (mostly) enjoyed. And then I put them on a shelf. I am happy to still have them, to open a page and reread a paragraph and have the themes and the characters and the world of the story come flooding back to me. But they don't tell much of a story about me.

It's upstairs, with the film books on my office bookshelves, that I am to be found. Walter Benjamin, in his essay "Unpacking My Library," identified the book collector as one who has a special relationship with the collection as material forms with their own kind of life. This is why his essay identifies the activity of collecting with the unpacking of books: the handling of them, the appreciation of them as artifacts as well as repositories of knowledge. None of my film books (to my knowledge) is particularly valuable in monetary terms (although until recently, Gilbert Adair's out-of-print Flickers went for a pricey amount on Amazon). But many of them have a place in my personal history that, for me, far exceeds exchange value, and even anything that is actually written in them. "Not that they come alive in him," Benjamin wrote about the books of a collector, "it is he who lives in them."

The first film books I owned were about Charlie Chaplin, whose films I fell in love with, at age 12, after seeing and liking the Attenborough biopic; Peter Haining's Charlie Chaplin: A Centenary Celebration contains all sorts of beautiful film stills from the Chaplin movies I had enjoyed on VHS in the darkness of my suburban bedroom on a 13" television screen - plus plenty of stills from Chaplin films that weren't available at my nearby mom and pop video store, but that I could imagine by looking at the images in this book:

French cinema was what I fell for next; I saw my first Truffauts and Godards while I was a senior in high school. I can hold Eric Rohmer's Taste of Beauty in my hands and have all that personal history flood right back to me; a few underlined passages (and even the creases on certain pages, and certain folds on the paperback cover) remind me of being in certain places and times and reading this -- and also at how deadly seriously I took this book when I was about 21 years old. There was a six-month period (at least), a long time ago, when every film I saw I judged on the aesthetic principles articulated in this book. Not recommended as an approach! Nevertheless, this book still helps me understand Rohmer's cinema, and winding my way through Rohmer's sometimes dense academic prose prepared me well, in retrospect, for my first film theory classes:

Apart from Chaplin's autobiography (which I did a book report on in eighth grade - I have sadly lost my copy of that book over the years), my first memorable acquisition of a biography was Bernard Eisenschitz's Nicholas Ray: An American Journey. I bought it because I really liked Rebel Without a Cause and They Live By Night, and read it all the way through even though I hadn't seen any of the other films. (I promptly re-read it, several years later, after having seen the rest of Ray's work). I remember reading his chapters on The Lusty Men and On Dangerous Ground and just from his descriptions I knew that I would love the films (and I eventually did):

During my PhD years I grew fond of small paperback books of film criticism and theory from the 1960s and early 70s -- books that contained mostly "impressionistic" auteur and genre criticism but also the first flowerings of theory. My battered copy of Peter Harcourt's Six European Directors (which still contains some of my favorite writing on Godard) is my favorite of these:

Often used books contain inscriptions bearing the names of recipients. I recently bought a copy of Garson Kanin's book on Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in a local used book store. Several weeks later, when I finally opened it, I noticed that it had been signed, dedicated, and dated in 1972 by Kanin to its owner, a man named Jonathan Phelps (likely the Atlanta radio broadcaster who passed away last year at the age of 83). So, here is a book signed by Kanin, who not only wrote about Hepburn and Tracy but also knew them intimately, and was instrumental in creating the public mythos of their relationship. And he wrote Adam's Rib! It's sad that this book had to be orphaned, but I'm glad it ended up with me: 

I think any cinephile should be able to trace a very important part of a personal history, a way of thinking about movies, through all the film books he or she has owned.