Understanding Movies (8th Edition) – Louis Giannetti

3 out of 5

A competent, though understandably dated, textbook that can assist with “learning” film analysis.

I “got into” film accidentally, I’d say. I mean, not that the majority of us get into different forms of media purposefully, I suppose, but what started with an obsession with Bruce Willis – the nervy watching of an R-rated flick at a friend’s house (Die Hard 2) that blossomed into a love for his everyman persona – and encouraged sneaking in other R-rated actioners into the parents’ bi-weekly Blockbuster trips, started me down the path of recognizing how certain movies just looked better, or moved better. I think when you start pursuing one particular avenue (which in my case was lots of 90s-era Bruce clunkers), it’s easier to notice such things in comparison, and as my brain was already wired to sort and catalogue things, details like directors and writers and whatnot stuck out, and then I’d find new alleyways down which to track my obsession. By the time I got to a point where I considered myself obsessed with movies, I’d built up this back catalogue of irrelevant knowledge, and then the formative world wide web and newspaper reviews of movies that weren’t advertised on TV and references to names like Kubrick in articles or interviews continued me on my journey…

I skipped some totally “necessary” stuff, though, and mostly watched what interested me, for better or worse. When I was into my young adult years and chatting with others, for sure there were other film fans, as well as your casual watchers, and I’d often be caught off guard by both of those general grouping talking about films like Citizen Kane, or other seminal flicks. These were the things I’d skipped – that I’d read about, and knew I should watch at some point, but was too busy viewing the things that were more grabbing, filling in my referential catalogue of horror and B-action. Assuming that other obsessives as well as casuals would also be watching what they wanted, when had they had time to view all these Hitchcock movies?

Oh: a college film class.

And that’s what this textbook is. It’s every reference any film student has made, paired with the base catalogue of terms to enable analysis of those classic movies. It’s well written – it’s never dry – and it’s paced well, moving through both the technical (lighting; photography) and creative (acting; scripting) side of things, then using those pieces to get into some chapters on putting them together for understanding a composition as a whole. This means the book is also rather surface level, of course: while the independent scene wasn’t as flush when this book was written / updated (late 90s) as it is now, there still was an independent scene, but it’s shushed way to the periphery in the history the book covers, along with any genre that isn’t one that gets top billing – drama, comedy, romance. But what it does cover is done so acceptably, and while I might consider the technical stuff just hitting the top and most obvious layer – that is, things that are likely apparent to anyone who is already obsessively film-watching, just granted the technical terms for them – each chapter gives some formative info on how things evolved from the “start” of cinema up to the present, and that’s context that really has to either be experienced through watching films from each era, or read about in a textbook such as this. I appreciated that this was always bound up with each chapter’s subject, instead of forcing the reader (or class) to start out with some dry history lesson.

What sticks out, reading this from a modern viewpoint, is the ingrained, indirect sexism and racism, much moreso the former than the latter. While the text covers cinema from different cultures, and points to these two problems – sexism and racism – in film itself, it’s the casual wording that gives things away, talking about how women are still fighting for their place in the industry, while praising particular stars primarily based on their looks; encouraging understanding the viewpoints of international cinema and then categorizing a country almost wholly with some key attributes. I do, admittedly, see this more as indicative of the era in which it was written – we’re more aware of these biases now, for which I’m glad. …And then also sad, realizing I probably spoke the same way, and probably still do more often than I realize. What’s – interesting? ironic? dispiriting? – is how many of the directors and actors that are praised in the text are now known as abusers in one form or another.

Something that’s less excusable, though, for a book that’s claiming to be a source of fact, is how much of it is opinion. Yes, there are facts on lenses and film stock; and then there are “facts” where the writer wholly dismisses one thing or another for completely subjective reasons, or just as often… no reason at all. An offhand comment will brush Something off as hacky or schlocky, and to a reader who is maybe new to that Something, that comment suddenly makes that opinion a fact, and forevermore – so and so is a hack. It’s pretty shameful. Though I kinda sorta suspect many textbooks have this problem to varying degrees. It’s especially problematic – this being an example – when the text is written to be entertaining, but presented with an officious tone so as to sound intelligent; i.e. it’s more likely someone will actually remember things this way.

Ideally, then, a reader has some analytical skills of their own, and uses this book as a complement to their own learnings (and opinions). It’s definitely a good way for giving one the structure for “proper” film analysis, and helps to fill in some gaps on the grand changes cinema has scene along its way.