Recent Non-Fiction Reads

I. Making Movies [1995] by Sidney Lumet ★★★★

This book on movie-making is by American director Sidney Lumet (1924 – 2011) who was probably best known for directing a number of “legal” films including 12 Angry Men [1957], Murder on the Orient Express [1974] and The Verdict [1982]. It provides a deep insight into the “magical” process of making movies, from deciding whether to do a movie (Lumet almost always decided “instinctively”) to the final editing process and running previews. Lumet was a “trier” and a “doer”. He tells us in his book that he did not believe in waiting around for opportunities and liked to create his own luck. His eagerness to create chances reflected the sheer variety of films he directed. Cinematic success is hard to pin down, he states. That is also his first lesson to us: “nobody knows what that magic combination is that produces a first-rate piece of work” [Vintage, 1995: 9]. Even a great script or a great star-actor does not guarantee success.

Referencing many of his films and his work with such actors as Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Al Pacino, Lumet divulges to us many “truths” about the film-making process. For example, he states that “the script must…keep you off balance, keep you surprised, entertained, involved, and, yet, when the denouement is reached, still give you the sense that the story had to turn out that way” [1995: 31], that “all good work requires self-revelation” [1995: 59], and that “there are no small decisions in moviemaking” [1995: 165]. Perhaps some of the nitty-gritty of the movie- making is not as interesting to read (there are pages on the impact of certain camera angles and the importance of tempo in editing), but other insight offered certainly makes up for any dullish bits. For example, it was particularly interesting for me to learn that the Murder on the Orient Express production hired the best ever sound technician to create real steam locomotive sounds for the scene of the departing train. That technician’s work was brilliant and he worked four weeks on some incredible train sounds. Unfortunately, that work also proved fruitless: after Lumet had heard the final version of Richard Rodney Bennett’s score, he chose the music over the sound and what we now hear when the train in the film departs Istanbul is the wonderful music instead (both do not combine).

The result? After finishing this book I now would love to watch Lumet’s film Death Trap [1982], based on a play by Ira Levin (who also incidentally borrowed the first part from a book by Boileau-Narcejac) with always brilliant Michael Cane and Christopher Reeve (see memoir Still Me), and his movie Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead [2007] with Albert Finney and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Making Movies is a “relaxed”, almost conversational book packed with lots of little “truths” about the film-making process: some fun, some painful and some more interesting than others, but all delivered with such passion that only a director who truly loved his work and was dedicated to it as an art form could have done.

II. Gomorrah [2006/2007] by Roberto Saviano ★★★★

Roberto Saviano wrote in his book: “I believe that the way to truly understand, to get to the bottom of things, is to smell the hot breath of reality, to touch the nitty-gritty” [Saviano/Jewiss, 2006/2007: 70]. He remained true to his words which also say a lot about his method. Gomorrah is a brutally honest account of one south Italian mafia that, since its inception in the very early 1980s, killed more people than “the Sicilian mafia…the ‘Ndrangheta …the Russian mafia…or the IRA” [Saviano/Jewiss, 2006/2007: 120]. The author dives deep into the heart of this mafia’s operations and the information gained by Saviano to write this book often came through extreme personal risk to himself since he worked in Gomorrah-controlled factories and witnessed horrific deaths when he was just a youngster. So he talks about the Secondigliano Alliance, the psychology of this criminal syndicate and the extent of its violence, touching on such topics as revenge wars, drug trafficking, the position of women and ecological crimes.

In the 2017 interview, Saviano said: “everything [criminal activity] today is not hidden, it is simply not observed, that’s the paradox”. This sounds particularly true when it comes to international trade. It was fascinating to read about the strong links existing between the Gomorrah-controlled fashion industry and the legal commerce operating worldwide. Saviano emphasises just how dependent the legal economy really is on the illicit: “the huge international clothing market….is fed by the System; the clans “produce garments and accessories identical to those of the principal Italian fashion houses”; “the Secondigliano clans have acquired entire retail chains, thus spreading their commercial network across the globe and dominating the international clothing market” [Saviano/Jewiss, 2006/2007: 38-39]. One example of this influence is the white tuxedo-style suit that Angelina Jolie wore at the Academy Awards in 2001. That suit was made by Pasquale, a tailor then working day and night for the Gomorrah in one sweatshop in Arzano and labouring on a very meagre salary. Saviano’s book is replete with the most eye-opening information on the operation of one almost unassuming, but very far-reaching mafia.

III. Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World [2020] by Matt Alt – ★★★

This non-fiction traces the history of Japanese inventions conquering the world, starting with Kosuge’s toys and Tezuka’s creation of Mighty Atom (1959), and continuing to the rise in the otaku culture, to such global sensations as tamagotchi and Pokemon, and to the birth of Internet platforms. Though the book clearly purports to explain why some Japanese products took the world by storm, providing concrete examples, it also rambles, contains too many sweeping generalisations, restlessly jumps back and forth in time and from topic to topic, often in the same chapter, and confuses the cause and effect of this or that global phenomenon. For example, there is this statement in the book: “Idols rule because mainstream Japanese pop is the product of a database that emphasises pleasure and escape over virtuosity and artisanship” [Crown Publications, 2020: 191]. Well, in reality, there is a very complex psychology behind the phenomenon of aidoru (idol) in Japan and it certainly cannot be reduced to mere preference for pleasure and escape over quality, and even all the intricacies of Japanese pop do not paint the full picture.

Alt also starts every other chapter with some story from an anime or a creator’s biography, which simply annoys, for example: “Shigeru Miyamoto was naked when the idea hit him. This was only natural, because he was sitting in a bathtub…” [2020: 124]. Yes. We get it. Pure Invention is “Jack of all trades, master of none”-type of a book, touching on a variety of different topics concerning popular Japanese creations, but without going into any depth and thus resulting in non-fiction that is surprisingly uninspiring and unsubstantial.

25 thoughts on “Recent Non-Fiction Reads

    1. Thanks, it was an insightful book. Who will know more about the behind-the-scenes of the movie-making than a man who directed some 40+ them and was nominated for 5 Academy Awards? Lumet definitely had many interesting observations to make. I do watch as many films as I read books, though I have become very choosy which films to watch in these past few years and am now “re-discovering” foreign classics.

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  1. Indeed there is no small decision in filmmaking! I loved reading about the train sounds🚂 in Murder on the Orient. Wow the sound technician made beautiful steam but the musical score was even better! This happens a lot in editing (my field) You have two really good options but you can’t use both. You must chyoooose☯️🤷🏽😊

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    1. Reading about film editing was indeed fascinating! I guess being a film editor one has to be prepared “to kill one’s darlings” quite often, he? In other words, eliminate all the needless elements no matter how great they may appear to be? It sounds like tough work. I’ve heard that Martin Scorsese has an unusual approach to editing with his team. He is definitely one of those directors believing that this stage of movie-making is quite paramount.

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      1. First kill your darlings, yes indeed. Eliminate that which does not serve your audience.

        Scorsese’s and long-time editor, Thelma Schoonmaker’s most famous edited scene is probably the boxing scene from “Raging Bull” They drew inspiration from Hitchcock’s Psycho shower scene, replicating the style of quick, jarring cuts to closeup. Alternating between bloodied faces, and insert shots of flashbulbs, fists and such. It makes for a very disorienting but visceral experience. Effective but To be applied Sparingly, of course.

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  2. Saw Michael Caine and Christopher Reeves in Death Trap! When it came out. Yes, dating myself – I was in grad school, recently married, when the first Star Wars movie, the only REAL Star Wars movie, came out. See Death Trap – cunning. I can’t believe I don’t remember the ending, so I’ll have to watch it again (or look it up, as we do now).

    Books about film from insiders are great. I owe an incredible amount to a little book called Shoot to Kill, by Christine Vachon, about how to make an indie movie. There is so much detail you’re ready to shoot your own when you’re finished reading. Sounds like Making Movies would add nicely to that. (The WIP is set in the worldwide film industry, and one of my reviewers commented that he, an actor, felt as if he was right there on set with me.) Thanks for the recommendation.

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    1. It must have been quite an experience seeing “Death Trap” as it came out in cinema! I hear the film is unnerving to say the least. I can’t wait to watch it. Actually one of the reason I was putting off seeing it for so long is that I read one commentary that the first half of the film reminds very much of Clouzot’s film “Les Diaboliques” (1955) and, since I watched that one, I thought I knew all the spoilers already (even though I don’t know Levin’s play). Of course, I know do want to watch it. And, thanks, I will check out “Shoot to Kill”!

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  3. Camorra or Gomorrah? I got a bit confused at first thinking the Campania criminal group was meant, but from image of Vesuvius I realised this was about Naples. Interesting they chose one of the biblical cities renowned for debauchery as their name—no pretense there was anything honest about what they were doing.

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  4. Such different publications, but certainly interesting. And about making films, and about attention to detail (analysis of the mafia), and even more about Japanese culture moving around the world. Excellent recommendations.

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  5. Loved your post, Diana, especially your review of Sidney Lumet’s book. It is one of my favourite books and I went and saw Dog Day Afternoon after reading the book. It is sad that the sound technician’s work for the movie ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ wasn’t included in the final version of the movie. It is sad when your finest work is rejected because of other reasons. Thanks for sharing your thoughts 😊

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