Celluloid Atrocities October 2015: Film Biography Wishlist

biographiesBut who would I most like to hear from who have no real biographical works as yet?




Biographies 500

I read a lot of movie-related biographies and autobiographies—of directors and stars mostly, of course, because that’s the vast majority of available options—and sometimes get made fun of for it by my more literary friends. This is generally more a result of books on actors than it is on directors, as director bios tend to be more theory and technique-based, where books by actors are often more of the “I did this, and then I did this, and then this thing happened, and then I started dating this person” sort, and, in addition to how banal and asinine a lot of the “anecdotes” are, they are often poorly written besides. And yet, I harbor no embarrassment for my attraction to this sort of book, even if a lot of the time they do leave me sorry that I hadn’t read something else instead.

Though there are safe routes to take, of course; I’ve written in the past about my love of anything written by John Waters (Shock Value and Role Models especially) or Werner Herzog (Conquest of the Useless or Of Walking in Ice, though the new career-spanning interview Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed is also a pleasure), and a lot of the one-off titles I like from actors are also often directly related to those two directors: biographies of Divine (go with My Son Divine, written by Divine’s mother, over Not Simply Divine, which was written by his manager), Cookie Mueller, Klaus Kinski, that kind of thing. As you can see, I tend to gravitate toward cult figures, though outside that realm I’m a big fan of Lauren Bacall’s By Myself and Then Some and Roman Polanski’s Roman by Polanski, which can’t help but be interesting, considering the life he’s lived (though he is much too flip about the Samantha Geimer affair in that book, so perhaps read Geimer’s The Girl as a companion piece).

If we’re dealing with third-party biographies rather than autobiographies, I start leaning toward the auteurs: Richard Brody’s Everything is Cinema, about Jean-Luc Godard, and Stuart Galbraith IV’s sadly out of print The Emperor and the Wolf, a joint biography of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, are both favorites. But my favorite third-party biographer is Jimmy McDonough, who sadly only has four titles behind him as of this writing, with only two of the four being about film people. Those two are total knockouts, though: The Ghastly One, about grindhouse auteur Andy Milligan, ranks among my absolute favorite nonfiction books ever (and again is sadly out of print), and Big Bosoms and Sqaure Jaws, about Russ Meyer, is almost as good. (His two non-film books are Shakey, about Neil Young, and Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen.)

Starting about ten years ago, shortly after the release of Big Bosoms and Square Jaws, I started not-so-secretly hoping McDonough would tackle the subject of Jess Franco, the Spanish director of exploitation films who worked with the likes of Orson Welles, Christopher Lee, and Klaus Kinski over the course of his career, and yet is best known for horror/sex cheapies like Vampyros Lesbos or women-in-prison pictures like Barbed Wire Dolls. And while McDonough didn’t write it, I’m happy to learn that a biography of Franco was released in England a few months ago, Murderous Passions: The Delirious Cinema of Jesús Franco, and has been well-received. At press time my copy is still journeying across the Atlantic, so I can’t yet personally report on its quality, but it’s promising that it’s the first of two volumes (Franco did make something like 200 films over the course of 50+ years—it’s hard to cram all of that into one book) and comes from another renowned third-party biographer, Stephen Thrower, whose Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci was similarly admired.

Now, it’s admittedly kind of a pain to have to order books from England and have them shipped over here—the exchange rate and shipping can be a killer. (If you spring for the limited edition of Murderous Passions, you’ll be paying about $135 after shipping and currency conversion. Needless to say, I stuck with the standard edition.) This happens weirdly often, too, with the aforementioned Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed being another title I had sent from England soon after it was released. But at least there’s no language barrier there; I could write a whole different column on books on films and filmmakers that haven’t been translated into English. A couple that come immediately to mind are autobiographies from muses of 60s world cinema: Monica Vitti’s Sette Sottane (1993) and Brigitte Bardot’s Initiales B.B. (1996). Now, I understand that their not being bought into and translated for the English-language market could well be a reflection of their quality (or lack thereof), but especially in Bardot’s case its lack of availability here seems glaring: There are plenty of other books on Bardot available in the U.S. (though, maybe unsurprisingly, these books are more pictures than words), and it was translated into languages such as Chinese and Japanese. Hell, we even have Bardot’s dopey ex-husband Roger Vadim’s memoir about his conquests, Bardot, Deneuve, Fonda: My Life With the Three Most Beautiful Women in the World, but we can’t hear from Bardot herself, or not in English, at least.

But who would I most like to hear from who have no real biographical works as yet? I’d welcome a book by Claire Denis, who is smart enough to write a good book and has also led a singularly interesting life, working under such mavericks as Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch before herself becoming one of the world’s best directors. I do see an issue with mass-marketability on this one, though, or at least in the U.S., so how about a memoir by Sasha Grey? Yes, she’s only 27 as I write this, but already she’s more than qualified. For one, she’s terrifying to google, so if you want to safely learn anything about her, you’re out of luck. Two, she’s already written a book, 2013’s The Juliette Society, which is fiction (er, well, smut), and at least proves she’s a capable writer. Three, she’s long since established that she’s very smart, and has compellingly good taste in movies. Makes one wonder how and why she chose to make some of the most notorious and unpleasant (and, arguably, influential, which can pretty much only be viewed as a bad thing) porn movies of the past decade. Bonus: I bet this book would sell! (Jenna Jameson’s bio, How to Make Love Like a Porn Star, sure did, but I have no real interest in that one.)

Or how about Michael Kenneth Williams, best known as Omar Little from HBO’s The Wire? His post-Wire career has had him working with some of our most exciting directors, such as Paul Thomas Anderson, Steve McQueen, or Todd Solondz (though no one seems to be writing roles that are worthy of his talent), and he has one of the most interesting Wikipedia pages I recall encountering for an actor: Supposedly he spent the better part of a year homeless, was discovered by Tupac Shakur, and later himself discovered another of The Wire’s most memorable players, Felicia Pearson, aka Snoop. And try and tell me that you’re not interested in hearing the story behind the scar on his face.

So who does that leave for Mr. McDonough, since my proposed topic for his next biography was snatched by someone else, and most of what I’m calling for here are autobiographies, not biographies? Well, last I heard McDonough is working on a novel, which I’ll welcome with open arms when it comes. After that, maybe Rainer Werner Fassbinder? He compares Milligan’s films to Fassbinder’s in The Ghastly One, and, so long as we’re talking about interesting Wikipedia pages, Fassbinder’s is the granddaddy of them all. There are already plenty of biographies of Fassbinder, with Christian Braad Thomsen’s Fassbinder: The Life and Work of a Provocative Genius being the best one I’ve encountered, but there’s always room for another so long as it’s coming from someone as talented as McDonough. | Pete Timmermann

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