Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Reading movies

Thomas C. Foster is the University of Michigan English professor responsible for such books as Read Literature Like a Professor and How to Read Novels Like a Professor. His latest book, Reading the Silver Screen, takes a similar approach, but with films rather than novels as his subject. It doesn't work as well this time, but he does make some interesting points, most notably the one contained in his title: By giving attention to detail, we can "read" movies in much the same way we read novels.

Most people just watch movies for entertainment. They enjoy the story, or not, then forget about it. Even when it is a film they love to watch again over and over, like Gone With the Wind or The Princess Bride, they still watch it for entertainment, nothing more. Foster's point is that even an entertaining film like The Bourne Identity or Blazing Saddles will reward us if we watch it more than once and pay close attention to the details. How is the plot constructed? What role does the music play? How much does the story depend on words and how much on what we see?

"I would argue that reading movies proves to be the harder task since they roll relentlessly forward, twenty-four frames to the second, with no pauses for reflection," Foster writes. "If you stop to analyze what just happened, you miss what's happening now." With a novel, you can stop at anytime to reflect, or you can reread what you just read as many times as you want.

As an occasional leader of film discussions, I find I watch a movie once just for its entertainment value. If I find myself thinking about questions raised by the film, I watch it a second time to determine how suitable it would be for a group discussion. Then I will watch it again for a third or fourth time with pen in hand, taking notes about anything in the movie that might be worth talking about. If a DVD has a director's commentary, I will listen to that, too, for insights into the movie.

Foster discusses a great many films, both recent ones like Birdman and The King's Speech and older classics like Safety Last! and The Magnificent Seven. His book, published in 2016, is similar in format to David Thomson's How to Watch A Movie (2015), which mentions many of the same films. Foster's book may seem more like a college class, yet Thomson's is more intellectual and will appeal more to those who take movies very seriously. For the rest of us, Foster may have more to offer.

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