Buy, Borrow, Bypass: Books for Film Buffs

Anyone who’s had to listen to me for any period of time knows that I’m not just an avid film-watcher, but also spend a lot of time with the history of cinema. It fascinates and excites me. Particularly the history of horror, but not only. In case you were also interested in following the hundred-ish year history of film, here’s some books that’ll get you well along the way to being as exhausting to be around as I am!


The Monster Show:  A Cultural History of Horror by David J. Skal

See? Edward Gorey. (Go look up his "Gashlycrumb Tinies")

See? Edward Gorey. (Go look up his “Gashlycrumb Tinies”)

I picked this book up from the library even though I had just checked out a massive stack of books. Partially, it’s because I’m a horror nut, and a cultural history of horror pushes pretty much all the buttons I’ve got…but if we’re really honest with ourselves, I grabbed it because the edition I found has an Edward Gorey cover. You just don’t say no to Edward Gorey.

Inside the terrific cover is a fantastic book, which goes all the way back to the traveling freak shows and extremely sketchy carnivals at the turn of the century, where horror as a cinematic field arguably had its birth, and then it slowly comes forward from there. It touches on everything I could want, exploring the life of Lon Chaney and the making of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein (which is a cinematic masterpiece) and goes on from there. The style is exciting and compelling. No details are wasted or glossed over, but we never get bogged down in anything either. It’s rapidly become one of my favorite books, full stop. (This of course means that I resent a little bit having to take it back to the library, dammit. I’ll have to buy a copy very quickly. And so should you.

Verdict: Buy



Chaplin: A Life by Stephen Weissman

chaplin Another library find. Like Buster Keaton, Georges Méliès, and the Marx Brothers, what fascinates me about Charlie Chaplin is not only the astounding talent he brought into a very young field, but also that he survived to watch that field change. A biography of a person like this is an amazing history of the evolution of cinema (and, occasionally, the innovators themselves being made obsolete by the march of progress. So many were put out of business by movable cameras, for one thing. So many more by the arrival of sound).

Sadly, I couldn’t even finish the biography. A strangely scattershot book which with every chapter danced all over Chaplin’s personal and cinematic life, it was very frustrating to try and find the straight-line of his life in it all. It was done to make points and draw connections between moments of his life and his later work, but in a very messy fashion. It takes the tension away, too. There’s no excitement when he gets his first break because before that, you’ve been discussing his later films and his fame and his fortune. Obviously, you know on some level that all that is coming, but I tend to think good biography lets you suspend your previous knowledge of the subject for a bit while being taken along for a ride.

I was very frustrated and abandoned the book, because it had given me just enough of a glimpse of Chaplin’s life to want to explore it in a good biography. That’s next for me.

Verdict: Bypass


Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebook, Collections, and Other Obsessions by Guillermo del Toro and Mark Zicree

del-toro-cabinet-of-curiosities-book-cover1Unlike the other two, this one isn’t particularly a history of cinema, but it is in many ways a history of one filmmaker’s career. Cabinet of Curiosities is a vast interview with the astonishing filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, who is someone I idolize. Along with the interview, it is a collection of pages from his notebooks, which he has kept for all his films, full of pictures and ideas and musings. I’ve been reading them for years now, because a few pages at a time are included on the DVDs for things like Hellboy IIPan’s Labyrinth, and his latest, Pacific Rim. I’m the dweeb standing two inches away from my television, squinting a these pages and pouring through them. The book also includes photos of del Toro’s Bleak House, a home he bought and stuffed full of monsters and movie props and artwork and books, you name it. I’ve seen video snippets and photos from inside, and have decided to go there when I die. (It’ll be okay. As a ghost, I’ll fit right in.)

I got to lay hands on this book very briefly but didn’t bring it home, because I had no money and Barnes & Noble gets all moody when I try to walk out with armloads of books. It is absolutely sumptuous and fascinating and, I think, invaluable for anyone who is creative in any fashion. Even if you aren’t a filmmaker, there’s a lot in here to look at and think about. Even if you aren’t creative, this book is practically a work of art and should be worshiped.

Look, I think you should build a small shrine to this book. Okay? But not in, like, a weird way or anything. You know. Tasteful shrine.

Verdict: Buy 


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