Thursday, August 22, 2013

Book Review

'How to Read a Film,' by James Monaco; Fourth Edition, OUP, 2009

Although this is not a site for reviews, occasionally we shall take up the responsibility to familiarize ourselves with certain seminal works in the field of cinema and its understanding.

The book showcased here is aptly one of the best modern candidates for that.

James Monaco, as a Professor of communication studies, saw cinema as the apex of mass-communicative effort in the modern society. 

He wanted a primer encompassing all sides of cinematic activities both from the makers' and the receivers' ends. 

He also visualized cinema in the greater context of human expression, psychology and interaction. 

The result was How to Read a Film.

The book is neatly divided into seven sections, followed by two appendixes and an index.

A short look at the chapters is enough to see the extent of this mammoth work. 

It starts with the old question - What is art? 

To answer that, it puts cinema in the context of traditional arts and shows its relation to each.

Monaco classifies all major art-activities into six abstraction levels – from most practical, functional ones such as architecture to the most abstract art of music. 

Interestingly, he could show how film as a medium, and as an art, fits all the abstraction levels as per the particular genre.

It is necessary to understand cinema at a technical level. 

Until and unless one knows what it takes to make a film, one can never relate to it fully as a medium of communication. 

And the tension among the three axes of communication – the maker, the viewer, and the film – would never be fully understood.

The next section in the book takes us there.

 Beginning with Image Technology and sound Technology, the following chapters- The Lens, The Camera, The film Stock, The Soundtrack, Post Production, Video and Film, Projection – talk in details about the film craft. 

A Basic overview in making a film prepares the reader for the next step – how films make meaning to viewers.

Is cinema coded in a language? Do images have their own grammar? 

Is that grammar universal and natural, or are they culture specific and arbitrary? 
Is cinema itself a master language? 

How far one can translate from one language to another – from word to image?
 Is cinema form or content? Is it the medium or the message? 

Or is it both, as Marshall McLuhan proposed in his famous statement, "The medium is the message?" 

Chapters on Signs and Syntax try to answer these questions.

Cinema, unlike many other forms of creative expression, is a money-intensive collaborative art. 

That makes it a full-fledged industry. Salability of a particular instance of creative expression ensures its existence in the first hand. Thus, what started as personal becomes public. 

Market dictated the form and the content through the history – from Lumière and Méliés to today's critical, personal cinema vis-à-vis Hollywood blockbusters.  

How to Read a film discusses this aspect from some fresh points of view.

After the grand tour through this history, the book returns to where it began- the necessity of cinema in human life. 

It talks about the choices – Cinema as idle art, as utilitarian expression, as critic of culture and society, and finally as critique of itself .

The last two sections in the book – Media : In the Middle of Things, and Multimedia : The Digital Revolution, are later additions in the new edition.

In the Media section, Monaco tries to show film's relation to the other media of mass communication, ie, newspaper, radio and TV. 

When one is informed that the total revenue earned from TV and radio from movie and song reruns amounts to more than half of the total earning in the movie industry, one understands the sheer hugeness of the media conglomerate and film's symbiotic position in that.

 Monaco taps into that to show the reality.

The last section carries this forward to the realm of new media, sharing, piracy and copyright issues. 

He rips many myths off in this section of the book.

In short, How to Read a Film is a book to have for all. It offers something for everyone, beginning from the serious academic student to the overworked assistants and pas on the floor.

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