RAIN TAXI, Spring 2013
Reviewed by Scott Bryan Wilson
"Reading Films: My International Cinema, Vol. 1"
As the pronoun in the title suggests, Douglas Messerli's massive collection of film essays is less a book of criticism and more a journal of one filmgoer's reactions to and experiences with cinema. In his introduction, Messerli reveals himself to be far more than a casual film enthusiast -- supporting the repertory theaters and watching DVDs as a last resort, seeing films as many times as possible to start to really "see" them, and preferring to watch "serious films" alone. He doesn't define "serious films," but I would consider the majority of the films he writes about in the collection to be so -- works by important international directors like Bela Tarr, Jacques Rivette, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Corneliu Porumboiu, and by established masters such as Bergman, Renoir, Resnais, Ford, and Tarkovsky. Additionally, Messerli writes about silent film, a few Hollywood classics, and current American films, and he smartly addresses the American western, including several films by the under-recognized master Budd Boetticher.
While readers won't necessarily agree with all of Messerli's thoughts, one of the best things about such a big collection of short reviews (there are almost two hundred films covered in just over six hundred pages) is seeing what the author finds in works you are familiar with -- his chapters on Andrei Rublev, Last Year at Marienbad, and Satantango make observations on these films that I've missed, despite the fact that I've seen them all several times. Many of his chapters add up to little more than plot summaries with a few personal observations thrown in, but even these are enjoyable to read, particularly if you haven't seen one of these films in a while; reading this book on the train, I delighted in flipping around randomly, and in the space of twenty minutes I got to relive four Bergman films I hadn't seen in ages.
Messerli's notion that most film reviewers don't take the time to immerse themselves in films enough to write about them accurately and enjoyably is another clue to how serious he is about cinema -- he mentions that he's seen Vertigo over a hundred times yet hasn't attempted to write about it. Messerli's book succeeds because it isn't presented as anything other than a cineaste's thoughts on various films -- there's no intrusive and unwelcome theoretical slant, no overall cohesive structure to the order of the essays; furthermore, while Messerli writes about many directors' most famous films, in many cases he writes only about a director's more obscure or less successful works (e.g. Ford's Four Sons, Scorsese's After Hours). The result is a collection that any serious filmgoer will enjoy.