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How to Watch a Movie
How to Watch a Movie
David Thomson
Knopf, 2015
256 pp., $24.95

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Asher Gelzer-Govatos


A Perplexing Guide to Movie-Watching

This primer suffers from a severe case of ADHD.

For four of the five years I taught high school, I offered an elective class on film history to students. Though centered on the development of the medium from a business and aesthetic perspective, from the Lumiere brothers to the Coen brothers, the class also doubled as a crash course in the skill of understanding film. Students would learn to analyze shots, recognize cuts, and describe the effects of mise- en-scène. Teaching this class, I quickly discovered two facts: the students had never learned to read films with close attention, yet they were hungry to learn how to do so.

It does seem odd that, for all the energy our schools pour into teaching kids literacy, they rarely think to train students in how to understand images—especially in a society where pictures often seem ascendant over words. In spite of the flood of visual data that washes over us every day, it feels difficult to find the education necessary to make sense of the rising tide. For those wishing to deeply understand film, the best method has long been that of the autodidact: a long slow process of watching the films that matter, and reading the critics who have marked paths of knowledge before us.

Given the relative rigor of this process, it would be nice if the broader public had a one-stop shop to teach them, quickly and easily, the basics of how to understand film. David Thomson, veteran film critic and author of many books, gives it a go in How to Watch a Movie. Unfortunately, the book's potential usefulness as a guide for the perplexed is limited by the fundamental confusion that lies at its heart. How to Watch a Movie cannot decide whether it wants to be an instruction manual for those just beginning to love film, or a reference-heavy tome for the already initiated. In the end, it works as neither.

The problems start at the structural level. Though a brief book, How to Watch a Movie attempts to cover the act of watching film in its entirety. This means that Thomson ...

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