What Are the Best Books for Documentary Fans?
Over at Indiewire’s Criticwire blog, I participated in another survey this week, the latest asking, “If someone’s looking to buy a film-related book for the cinephile in their life this holiday season, what would you recommend?” As I’m known there for running this outlet and being “the doc guy” to my peers, I felt the need to include a book for the documentary fan specifically. I went with the old standby:
While 20 years behind the times now, the best read on the history of docs is still Eric Barnouw’s ‘Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film’ (if you’re fine with something more textbook-ish, you can later go with Betsy McClane’s recently updated ‘A New History of Documentary’).
The Barnouw was my “textbook” for classes on documentary in both my undergrad and grad programs, and as I say it’s still the most enjoyable read if you’re looking for an introduction. Of course, even more academically minded fans can also go with Introduction to Documentary by Bill Nichols, and anyone looking for something much lighter and certainly more modern than Barnouw might be interested in Marsha McCreadie’s Documentary Superstars.
Otherwise, there’s not a whole lot for the doc dorks that isn’t focused on documentary filmmaking or really heavy discourse on documentary ethics. Some that I’ve liked and mainly picked up as assigned or recommended by professors include Michael Chanan’s The Politics of Documentary and the compiled New Challenges for Documentary. A necessary book on a specific section of docs, I also recommend Chris Berry’s The New Chinese Documentary Film Movement: For the Record.
As for books and essays about specific films, which might be the best for the casual but very interested doc fan, there’s William Rothman’s Documentary Film Classics, which features chapters on Nanook of the North, Land Without Bread, Night and Fog, Chronicle of a Summer, A Happy Mother’s Day and Don’t Look Back. There’s the BFI Film Classics books on the Maysles brothers’ Salesman and Grey Gardens, Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, Harry Watt and Basil Wright’s Night Mail and Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia.
And there’s the compiled Documenting the Documentary, which includes close readings of many works, including Nanook, The Man with a Movie Camera, Triumph of the Will, The Plow That Broke the Plains, Titicut Follies, Sherman’s March, The Thin Blue Line, Roger & Me, Paris is Burning and many others. There’s even an essay on the mockumentary This is Spinal Tap.
For profiles on specific filmmakers, you can go with Megan Cunningham’s interview compilation The Art of the Documentary, in which you’ll find conversations with such leading directors as Errol Morris, Ken Burns, D.A. Pennebaker, Albert Maysles and Chris Hegedus, along with editors and cinematographers. There’s also Rothman’s Three Documentarians: Errol Morris, Ross McElwee, Jean Rouch. And a number of whole books on the lives and work of the likes ofRiefenstahl, Robert Flaherty, John Grierson, Joris Ivens, Werner Herzog, the Maysles brothers and more.
The aforementioned Documentary Superstars concentrates on Herzog, Morris, Albert Maysles, Morgan Spurlock, Michael Moore, Frederick Wiseman, Peter Davis, Alan Berliner, Peter Davis, Kevin Macdonald, Davis Guggenheim, Amir Bar-Lev, Sacha Baron Cohen, Spike Lee and others.
Of course, I assume a lot of people who are into documentary films are more likely to simply read nonfiction books of any number of subjects that interest them. I tend to enjoy nonfiction literature to fiction in the same manner that I prefer documentary to fiction films most of the time. I’ve just been turned onto the work of Erik Larson (I’m currently reading In the Garden of the Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin), whose writing I consider to be more of a literary equivalent to documentary cinema than the majority of nonfiction authors.
This post is intended to be as much of a call for suggestions I’m unaware of or missed as it is a series of picks recommended by myself. It’s also the start of a discussion on books and films to get your favorite doc dork or documentary lover this holiday season. Wink, wink…