Never before have we had someone on the Bookshelf feature who has admitted to stealing a book because it was so engrossing. Okay so it was accidental theft, but it still counts, right? Today we have brilliant Canadian director Jonathan Van Tulleken whose directorial work includes that of Misfits and Top Boy. He was keen to show us his books, and you can totally see why – he bloody loves them! If you’re not logged on to Amazon by the end of reading this article, I’ll eat my hat. Take it away Jonathan.
Mark Z. Danielewski: House of Leaves
A friend of mine gave this to me whilst I was in film school, suggesting that it was the only truly scary work of art he’d ever encountered. I’d only just got into watching horror films because I’m a terrible coward; a glimpse of Exorcist III seen sneakily through the banisters when I was eight terrifies me to this day. Also, to be honest, I was skeptical about the power of a novel to really scare; to cause a jump and the sense of building tension and terror that necessarily precedes it. Surely that must take sight and sound?
House of Leaves showed me how foolish that idea was. I screamed out loud whilst reading it on the subway at rush hour, which luckily is not that uncommon on New York City public transport. The dedication on the first page, “this is not for you” is apt. It’s a book that invaded my dreams and years later still creeps into my thoughts whenever I’m alone in a dark house. It is almost impossible to describe, a series of fake academic essays, a love story, a haunted house tale. This is all combined with a layout that unravels as the story does; pages turn upside down, words collect in spirals and change color, footnotes go on for chapters and become stories in themselves.
Along with Kubrick’s The Shining, it allowed me to see that horror is worthy of art. That it didn’t need to be relegated to the cultural equivalent of a fairground ride; a simple mechanism to make people scared. It allowed me to confess my love of the genre openly and to feel content directing and writing it. The novel is also surprisingly funny, in a perverted sort of way, and illustrates nicely (particularly in a scene where a Pekinese dog is murdered) that sometimes horror is comedy, except that the punchline is a scream instead of a laugh.
I don’t have a copy as I have now bought it six times. Each time I end up giving it away to friends after imploring them to read it.
Nicholson Baker: The Anthologist
I’m a horrible procrastinator. Directing is fantastic for this as it’s largely an endless series of immediately or imminently approaching deadlines that you’ll get fired for failing to meet. The shot must be done in five minutes, the scene must be done in 10, the colour of the wall has to be chosen 30 minutes ago, the actor is right there, eyeballing you, waiting for the note. A decision has to be made.
Unfortunately the other half of my work is writing. This is awful; a seemingly infinitely distant deadline, the very opposite of the ever present “now” of filming. My first feature script was commissioned with a pay cheque and the words “take as long as you need.” A big mistake; give me an inch and I’ll take four years.
The Anthologist is the only book I’ve ever read to fully capture the true terror, sadness and hilarity of procrastination. It’s about a man who has to write a forward to an anthology of poems and instead ends up writing a novel about not writing the forward to the anthology of poems, that in the end is the forward to the anthology of poems.
It sounds boring. It isn’t, it’s brilliant. A work of genius made to a look like a piece of whimsy. It’s made me love poetry and even understand it a little. It’s all those things people want their work to be; funny, poignant, sad and beautiful. It also made me feel good, and not alone, about not doing the work I’m meant to be doing. Which is alright by me.
It is, again, one of those books which is not on my shelf, as I keep giving the bastard away.
Jon Link and Mick Bunnage: Modern Toss
I love this book. It started as just a toilet book in my apartment but the problem is you don’t want people to hear you laughing on the toilet and this made that impossible. You also want to keep flicking through it after you’ve finished and taking a book out of the toilet felt unhygienic. So I got a new addition for the living room but then I enjoyed the strips so much that I started cutting them out and framing them, completely destroying the book. So now the one in the toilet is the only real copy. Which I guess is a compliment in a way.
It has a deceptively casual approach that is the key to comedy. The off-the-cuff-ness allows spontaneous laughter. I’ve tried to remember this in my directing; a certain looseness, immediacy and slapdash quality (even if if synthetic to the actual process) really helps the humour. It is also proof to me that anything, no matter how offensive, can be funny given the right handling. A comedian once said to me “write like your parents are dead.”
Tim Key: 25 Poems, 3 Recipes, and 32 other suggestions
I only have one friend who’s written a book so it felt churlish to not include it on my list. It also happens to mean a lot to me, so I don’t even have to lie. The author/comedian Tim Key and I have been making short films together for over a decade. The first film I ever made, that wasn’t actually bad, was based on a poem in this book, about a nice man called Malcolm with an exceptionally large penis.
I’m biased but it’s a fantastic work and Key’s a genius. My dad loves it also and enjoys reading the bawdier sections out loud. The book embodies, with its meticulous design and layout, the approach I try to apply to the films I’ve made with Key. Beauty and craft when combined with the bizarre can lead to some very funny results – or at least something exceptionally strange. This book is both of these things and the result is utterly ideal.
Alexander MacLeod: Light Lifting
I started reading this in an airport bookstore whilst casually perusing before a flight. It was only when I was halfway across the Atlantic still reading it that I realised I had accidentally shoplifted, so engrossed had I been. I’m never sure about irony but it feels in the ironic vibe when an author writes something so compelling that people don’t pay for his books.
Regardless, this collection of shorts that are largely set in Canada (where I’m half from) defies superlatives. When I describe it I get excited, bounce up and down and smack my lips together in a gesture of something being tasty. I then generally give my copy to the person I’m talking to, so I’ve made up for my initial theft by buying the book multiple times and then giving it away.
Anyway, every short story in this book could be an independent film. To be honest I am almost loath to share it with a wider audience. Starting out as a director I only made shorts, and I looked for inspiration everywhere, questing for that idea that would make the perfect piece of bonsai cinema – this book is rammed full of those ideas.
The stories capture how we’re shaped, more often than not, by a vast series of tiny moments rather than one big event. This book is an excellent reminder to me that a small incident unpacked can actually yield far more narrative and truth than any sprawling epic. It also heartily supports the philosophy that to get anything done in this world you need to be deeply unbalanced. Which I condone.