Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Books on Film

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.


bill r. said...

Great list, Ryan, but apart from that, this line:

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...

stuck out for me, because I had a very similar experience in college. Among the films taught in my Cinema 101 class were:

True Romance
El Mariachi
Chungking Express
The 400 Blows

...and some indie film, the title of which I can't remember, that was a rip-off of Heavenly Creatures. Obviously, the Ford and Truffaut films belonged. And I love Fargo. But for Cinema 101? And fucking True Romance and El Mariachi??? Our textbook had a still from Citizen Kane on the cover, but we didn't watch it, or any Welles. No Hitchcock, no Chaplin, no Hawks, no Dreyer, no Lang, no Griffith, and on and on and on. It was madness. Absolute madness.

Ryan Kelly said...

Well, at least my Professor DID show Citizen Kane. And he gave me my first ever dose of Bunuel with Belle du Jour. But dude... we watched Donnie freaking Darko! And Memento! Richard Kelly and Chris Nolan should be kept far away from film academia. How can we be surprised by the poor taste of the masses when the bad taste is TAUGHT to them?

And yup--- all the masters you mentioned (with the exception of Welles) my professor didn't see fit to show any of. Exactly one silent film--- The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (good film, but a strange choice for the course's lone silent picture). I took the class in fall of 2006, and Altman died in November of that year, but my Professor didn't see fit to so much as MENTION Altman.

Plus, he dissed Spielberg the first day, which put him on my bad side right off the bat. Just another poseur trying to show off how much he knows about cinema by dissing the most successful director of all time (which is not to imply that all criticism of Spielberg is empty--- I have more than enough of it myself).

In terms of modern film makers, though, Wong Kar-Wai is probably the most appropriate.

bill r. said...

I personally believe that the Coens are a better choice for modern filmmakers (and I like Nolan, for the record), but, regardless, this is Cinema 101!! And not a single Hitchcock film? That is nothing other than completely fucked up.

Anyone who acts as though Spielberg doesn't have serious, no-fooling filmmaking chops is a lunatic, and is not to be trusted.

Ryan Kelly said...

Yeah, the Coens are appropriate, too. Though personally I would have gone with Blood Simple or Barton Fink (even The Hudsucker Proxy, criminally underrated). Which isn't to say I don't adore Fargo.

But yeah, no Hitchcock in Cinema 101 is beyond inexcusable. This man practically invented a cinematic language all his own. Plus, for illustrative purposes of cinema, there's really no one better. Yes, his films are plot driven to an extent... but what sticks out after a Hitchcock film is a face, an expression, a key, a a necklace... ultimately, images are what drives his story instead of plot mechanics, which is just window dressing for the larger issues going on.

And yes, you just can't deny Spielberg's talent--- at the very least, give the artist his dues, if not the art (I think he was bad talking War of the Worlds, specifically--- like Munich didn't happen!)

bill r. said...

Plus, for illustrative purposes of cinema, there's really no one better...

That's exactly right. I also kind of think Melville would be great, too, but Hitchcock is more obviously and easily appropriate. He's a perfect film-teaching tool, really, and in no way would the students feel like they were taking their medicine.

I think he was bad talking War of the Worlds, specifically--- like Munich didn't happen!)...

Or War of the Worlds, for that matter. It's flawed, but still great, even if only in stretches. If you can't see that, then I don't know what to say.

Ryan Kelly said...

Oh, I think so too--- though I'm willing to overlook many of its so-called 'flaws' because it's such a complete emotional experience, for me. Both War of the Worlds and Munich are among the most sophisticated cinematic expressions of 9/11 and what it's done to this country. Though I'll confess to not having really understood the brilliance of War of the Worlds until after I saw Munich. They're really two sides of the same coin.

bill r. said...

Just so you know, when I said "you" in my previous comment, I didn't actually mean you. I mean, you know, people.

Ryan Kelly said...

Yeah, I figured, because I'm pretty sure I've gone on and on about my love for that movie and Spielberg in general at Cinema Styles.

Though, again, while my Cinema 101 course was crap the History of Animation course more than made up for it. And the book is one of the only two I bought for school that I've bothered to read most if not all of since I actually stopped taking the class (the other book is an indispensable Economics textbook I have).

Krauthammer said...

My Hispanic film teacher dissed Griffith, Chaplin, Keaton and Hitchcock specifically, and all American film pre-1970s in general for being to "entertaining" and not "socially minded."

Ryan Kelly said...

Wow--- just wow. The ignorance of that is just incredible.

The only one I can swallow as not being socially minded is Keaton--- but look at the way he pokes fun at Southern propriety in Our Hospitality. But to deny Keaton's visual innovation is like denying cinema itself.

I think it was Rosenbaum who said that no film artist painted a more accurate portrait of what it meant to be poor than Chaplin. If one could criticize him, it's that he sometimes takes that portrait of class and makes it messagey in parts of Modern Times and The Great Dictator, and pretty much all of Monsieur Verdoux.

And it's hard to believe Hitchcock is still being written off as a mere 'entertainer'. I thought we were finally past that. And, while being socially minded is not a criteria for great art, just look at The Lady Vanishes, The 39 Steps, and Frenzy for satires of British mores and class.

And on what planet Griffith isn't socially minded, I don't know. He even connects the racial intolerance in Babylonia, Judean times, and the St. Batholomew's Day Massacre in France with the (at the time) modern day struggle of Women's rights. If that's not socially minded, I don't know what is.

How sad is it that three of us have more knowledge about the medium than the people who were supposed to be teaching it to us? In terms of education, we're really lowering our standards (and this is why a high school diploma doesn't mean the same thing it used to, and soon a Bachelor's won't mean shit, either).

Krauthammer said...

I actually didn't hate the class, and grew to like the professor. But he definately defined "art," or at least his favorite term "high art" as something that explicitly attacked the status quo, everything else was just "entertainment."

I think there was also a problem with pandering, as you call it, "to the bad taste of my peers." I mentioned Spirit of the Beehive, which he didn't screen, out of class and he confided with me that while he loved the film itself, he was disheartened by how previous classes had responded to it. I ended up getting most of my classic Hispanic cinema knowledge out of class.

Ryan Kelly said...

I like to think of myself as a socially minded person, and sensitive social portraits are definitely important to me. But, at the same time, there's no real criteria for greatness.

It's cool that your school offered specific classes like that. They just stuck the theatre guy from my school with the cinema class, as though they're the same.

Joel Bocko said...

Bill & Ryan,

Glad to see the love for War of the Worlds. I had a better time watching that movie than I had in any other blockbuster (increasingly a nihilist, sour, overly-enamored-with-CGI genre) this decade. But on coming out of the theater, I raved, calling it the best blockbuster I'd seen since Jurassic Park and a girl I'd seen it with - not at all a movie person by the way, let alone a cinephile - said I must have terrible taste in movies then. (We were not really friends at the time but - surprisingly - we are good friends now.)

This general response, while violent in the particular, was not altogether uncommon - Ebert wrote the film off by saying he didn't like tripods and then going on to rave about the over-indulgent, inert, inept King Kong remake. War in the Worlds was a reminder that good storytelling and imaginative craftsmanship still can have a place in the popcorn movie - but sadly, despite (I think?) decent box-office, the message seems to have gone unheeded.