Leanne Shapton is a superbly talented and exceedingly well-connected New York-based illustrator and author – from 2008 to 2009 she was the art director of the New York Times op-ed page – who turns out surprising and remarkable books that often go on to become cult hits. Her first, Was She Pretty? (2006), explored jealousy through a series of line drawings. Her second, Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry (2009), was a mock auction catalogue that told the story of one couple's relationship, from first meeting to final break-up. Swimming Studies (2012) was a memoir of her teenage career in the pool, complete with weirdly evocative photographs of the author's many bathing suits, while the gorgeously colourful pine cones and leaves in The Native Trees of Canada (2010) were inspired by a 1917 government reference book she picked up in a secondhand bookshop.
Shapton's publisher, Drawn & Quarterly, is calling her latest book a Petit Livre – meaning, I think, that it is rather short. Size, though, doesn't matter a jot in her world, and Sunday Night Movies, a collection of monochrome watercolours, packs a hefty punch. It comprises just 78 paintings, each one of which is based on a still from a different film.
These are then placed end to end, as if to form their own movie, an effect that is boosted by the fact that one of the stills in question consists of a snatch of opening titles, another of the word "fin" and yet another of the 20th Century Fox logo. The result is a beautiful montage with a narrative that comes courtesy of the reader, unfixed and ever-changing.
But this isn't the only fun to be had. One of the most satisfying aspects of the book lies in working out which scene comes from which film (a complete list of the movies that inspired her can be found at the back at the book, should you get stuck). I recognised the hot-air balloon from the Ealing classic Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) immediately; ditto Richard Burton's cheekbones in Look Back in Anger (1959). A porthole neatly gave the game away when it came to the Titanic epic A Night to Remember (1958), starring Kenneth More. Somewhat tricker to recognise were scenes from A Christmas Carol (1951), The Servant (1963) and – this is one of my all-time favourite films! – All About Eve (1950). I was also completely unable to remember that it was in the great La Strada – director: Federico Fellini – that Giulietta Masina played a character called Gelsomina.
As you may have grasped by now, Shapton's book is a passionate valentine to old celluloid; you can almost hear the sound of the projector whirring as you turn its pages. But it's also a unique one, haunting and rather sly. Give it to your family's resident movie buff this Christmas. They will be intrigued and delighted, that's a guarantee.