Conversations With the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood's Golden Age at the American Film Institute, edited and with an introduction by George Stevens Jr. (Knopf, 710 pages, $35). It's not exactly the snappiest or most evocative title you've ever come across, but then if you've ever heard George Stevens Jr. give a speech or answer questions in an interview, you know that he tends to seem like something between a State Department mouthpiece and the chancellor of a small, well-endowed junior college. That didn't, for a minute, stop him from amassing one of the truly invaluable collections of interviews of figures from Hollywood's greatest era (that is, the one in which its fantasies took charge of the world's dream life).
Nor are the denizens within all Hollywoodians or all moviemakers. You'll also find Jean Renoir, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Satyajit Ray, as well as writer Ray Bradbury and cinematographers George Folsey and James Wong Howe.
From the minute Edward R. Murrow yanked Stevens away from his legendary father's less-than-legendary biblical epic "The Greatest Story Ever Told" to run "the motion picture division of the USIA," George Stevens Jr. had the luck to be in on the ground floor of one of the greatest things ever to happen to American film -- the American Film Institute. Never mind its recent run of TV specials about best thrillers, movie quotes and miscellaneous whatnot, the AFI has done more for American film (in preservation alone) than any other single entity of our time. The only trouble with these AFI seminars with legendary film figures is that you don't know who's asking the questions (and considering that AFI alumni include the likes of ,4.3i Terrence Malick, Paul Schrader and David Lynch, that is no small deficiency).
But those answering the questions are the kind of list that could only have been convened in the '70s before most would begin to shuffle off this mortal coil: Hitchcock, Cukor, Wyler, Mamoulian, Walsh, Harold Lloyd, King Vidor, Fritz Lang, Howard Hawks, John Huston, Billy Wilder, Elia Kazan, Fred Zinneman, David Lean, Richard Brooks and Gene Kelly.
If the "inside" industrial interlocutors dictate that questions and answers can be disconcertingly technical sometimes, it also means there's a level of candor and revelation that isn't routinely found elsewhere.
An irresistible book, then, and a cavalcade of fascination for movie folk of all sorts.
Written Lives, by Javier Marias, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (New Directions, 193 pages, $22.95). For those of us largely unacquainted with a prolific 54-year-old Spanish writer who is said to be one of the world's best-selling writers, this elegant, witty and altogether superb book may be the perfect introduction. We are in classic John Aubrey "Brief Lives" territory here except that his subjects in these short essays are almost exclusively the lives of writers, whether Henry James (who, on his deathbed, thought he was Napoleon and dictated letters to his "brother" Joseph Bonaparte) or Malcolm Lowry "the most calamitous writer in the whole history of literature." Marias' subjects include Conrad, Dreiser, Joyce, Lampedusa, Conan Doyle, Stevenson, Turgenev, Mann, Nabokov, Rilke, Kipling, Rimbaud, Wilde, Mishima, Laurence Sterne, Emily Bronte and Djuna Barnes. And, at the end, he considers postcards of writer portraits, from a natural-seeming Dickens to the famous photograph of Samuel Beckett seated on the floor in the corner of a room, a "hounded man" with "eagle eyes which stare straight out with a truly animal expression, as if they did not understand the need for this moment of eternity or why anyone should want to photograph it."
Marias even charmingly admits that, at odd moments, the fiction writer within may have won out over the witness to the truth and nothing but. Even so, in this translation, he is a writer of savage exactitude and very sly, subtle wit -- a literary acquaintance not only worth making but as soon as possible.
-- Jeff Simon