The memes are coming, the memes are coming! I've been tagged for this meme, started by MovieMan, three times; twice unofficially (Ed Howard and Glenn Kenny cheated by tagging everyone under the sun), and one officially, courtesy of Bill at The Kind of Face You Hate. Anyway, the meme states that those who take part in it discuss their favorite books about film--- the books that helped shape the way we see the medium. I confess to not reading nearly enough about my preferred medium; most of the writing about film I read comes from the internet, which has its benefits, for sure. But it's also not exactly a substitute.
But that certainly isn't to say that there haven't been some books that made a big impact on me, especially at a young age. The most essential would be, naturally, the above pictured The Great Movies, by a certain critic named Roger Ebert, a writer who has found limited success in print and on television. I remember picking this book up as a 12 year old burgeoning cinephile and having my eyes opened to the powers of film; not just the latest piece of marketing that topped the box office, but to film as an art form. I remember being particularly struck by a passage from the opening:
"We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls. They allow us to enter other minds --- not simply in the sense of identifying with the characters, although that is an important part of it, but by seeing the world as another person sees it. Francois Truffaut said that for a director it was an inspiring sight to walk to the front of a movie theater, turn around, and look back at the faces of the audience, turned up to the light from the screen. If the film is any good, those faces reflect an out-of-the-body experience: The audience for a brief time is somewhere else, sometime else, concerned with lives that are not its own. Of all the arts, movies are the most powerful aid to empathy, and good ones make us into better people"
If I could trace it to a point, I'd say the reading of this book from cover to cover (which included many movies I'd never heard of, let alone seen, along with some I had, too) I began to realize that films needed to be thought of in a more abstract way. Reducing films to their elements; story, character, dialogue, direction, etc... is dubious. It's how these elements work in tandem--- or clash--- with each other that counts when trying to appreciate a film. This rocked my 12 year old world.
And the list of films in that book is very diversified, which gave me a taste of how eclectic cinema can be; all the different kinds of stories it can tell, from fantasy to realist-drama . Everything from Casablanca to The Exterminaing Angel; from Citizen Kane to Star Wars. The first time I ever heard the names Welles, Kurosawa, Bunuel, Dreyer, Hawks, Reed--- all courtesy of Mr. Ebert. I made it my mission to see most, if not all of these films (I still haven't seen a few--- Detour and the Up documentaries), and around the time of what I can only describe as a cinematic explosion is when I remember refining my aesthetic sense.
Moving on, another book that has been of great importance to me is a guide-book called Film Directing Shot by Shot: Visualizing From Concept to Screen by Steven D. Katz. Generally I dislike books of this ilk--- books that catalog 'formulas' for cinematic storytelling, but Katz's eloquence, knowledge of the subject matter, and lack of pretension is quite incredible. He breaks down what David Bordwell would call story-telling 'norms' into such simple, economic language that I'd say this book is almost essential for anyone looking to pick up a camera and make movies. He states over and over again that there isn't one way to make a film--- but he does make the (very true) point that a film maker needs to understand these principles, and why they are established principles, if they wish to break them. This is more than a book for aspiring film makers, it's a book that perfectly articulates how we tell stories visually.
It breaks down what Katz calls 'shot-flow'; how images relate to one another. It's not just a simple regurgitation of the dictionary definitions of "shot/reverse shot", "the 180 degree rule", or the like... though these concepts are included. Rather, through the use of storyboards (some from authentic films and some drawn up for illustrative purposes), Katz shows the readers how film can convey a sense of space, motion, and time. Quite incredible stuff.
Moving on to the last two books I have chosen for this here meme, two textbooks. But they're so much more than that--- highly encompassing accounts of film history and film form, written in a wonderfully personal style. The first, a book my school would never use because of its extraordinary quality--- the irreplaceable, essential Film Art by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, a mainstay of film academia for 30 years (my school uses a shitty book called Movies and Meaning for their basic cinema course).
This is just an astounding documentation of the different types of form modalities. A brief history of the medium (though a far more all encompassing account can be found in the duo's Film History) precedes an incredibly all-encompassing account of the basics of film-form--- as a starting point, one really couldn't do better than Film Art. And it's all written in Bordwell and Thompson's highly knowledgeable yet personable style; they break down such complex concepts to their raw essentials so beautifully that they deserve to be thought of as artists as much as scholars.
Plus, it's not rigid academia (which is probably why some in the academic community dislike Bordwell and Thompson), but a simultaneously personal and objective journey through the different aspects of film. For example, in the chapter about Cinematography (in the edition I have, at least), Bordwell uses examples as varied as The Crime of M. Lange, Wild Strawberries, Back to the Future, and Die Hard. In other film text-books I've read, this tends to come off as a trick the author uses to get the attention of the college age readers. "Look," the books cry "I'm talking about films you're actually familiar with in addition to these 'arty' ones!" The examples Bordwell and Thompson uses are both relevant and personal, as the examples in the text reflect Bordwell and Thompson's wonderfully eclectic taste in cinema. Plus, I just adore the two of them to pieces--- they're definitely the cutest Film Scholar couple I can think of.
I have taken exactly two courses in college that I can honestly say changed my life--- that is to say, these classes legitimately shaped my outlook on the world. The first would be the Astronomy class I took last fall, where every day I got a unique lesson in the workings of the Universe. The other class would be a History of Animation course I took to satisfy my Art requirement--- and the assigned book for the class, Cartoons: 100 Years of Animation by Giannalberto Bendazzi, is essential reading for any fan of animation and cinema.
Talk about an exhaustive account of the history of animation. Bendazzi goes by era AND by country, making connections between world animation and world cinema, going all the way back to the earliest days of both forms. Animation really does deserve more dues than it gets, as the history of cinema and the history of animation are so closely interwoven that they are almost one and the same. As a people, our first moving images were drawn ones.
And the class itself was just wonderful--- nothing like the Cinema 101 course I took my first semester at school, where my Professor pandered to the bad taste of my peers instead of attempting to enlighten them (not worth the effort, I guess). I expected similar things from my Animation class, but this Professor had a really acute aesthetic sense and an incredible knowledge of the history of the medium. We saw so much, from Disney to Chuck Jones to Miyazaki, to more obscure animation artists like Oskar Fichinger (whose abstract art-work inspired the Toccata and Fugue portion of Disney's Fantasia). He bored most of my peers to tears but I was enraptured by the films week in and week out--- I think it's the only class I've taken that I've never missed once, and it was early in the morning to boot. Not all of them were great, though some of them were, but they all had something noteworthy about them. He even showed some Méliès on the first day, which is certainly okay by me.
So these are my books, please do leave suggestions in the comment box for my illiterate ass.
I tag.... anyone who feels like doing it.