Sense of Movies: Filmmaking in the Hollywood Style
of Watching Films
McGraw-Hill Higher Education is a publisher specialized in instructional books for the higher education market. Even though Making Sense of Movies and The Art of Watching Films seem to have many things in common (they examine the same topics for educational purposes), there are some significant differences that I am going to bring out here.
With Making Sense of Movies, Robert Henry Stanley—who is Professor of Film and Media Studies at Hunter College of the City University of New York and the author of five books (including the well-known Celluloid Empire: A History of the American Movie Industry) wrote a very clear and appealing introduction to the aesthetic, historical, and theoretical aspects of Hollywood cinema. He begins with examining the pre-production phase, listing the different roles of the producer and evoking the difficult art of writing screenplays. Stanley thinks rightly that writers are not judged at their true worth, which is well exemplified by an edifying anecdote relating to Casablanca's screenplay: at the time, the Screen Writers Guild considered that the two most prolific writers (or writing teams) of a film could be allowed credit on a screenplay.
Furthermore, Stanley thinks that within the Studio system, directors are not really better-off than writers, for directors have almost no artistic freedom. Nevertheless, there are many exceptions to that rule, and Stanley evokes creators—often directors who come from outside the Studio system—who succeed in turning the Hollywood conventions into personal creations. Stanley evokes of course Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock or Elia Kazan, but he could also have evoked artists like Michael Curtiz who, even though their personal artistic trademarks may be less obvious than others, made films filled with small details departing from Hollywood conventions. For example, at the end of Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945), the conventional happy ending is tainted with a strange shot showing Mildred (Joan Crawford) walking across a room in which some cleaning ladies are scrubbing the floor. They symbolize Mildred's sealed fate, and this shot conveys the idea that just like those cleaning ladies, and despite the happy resolution of the film, Mildred will be a slave all her life. So when Stanley speaks of directors who succeed in imposing personal visions within a regulated system, is he really thinking of directors like Michael Curtiz too?
The main quality of Making Sense of Movies is the illuminating examples Stanley uses to underpin his introduction to Hollywood cinema. Stanley's examples are almost always apposite and rather developed (which is quite uncommon in this type of work). For instance, as is often the case in general books, certain aspects of the topic are neglected, such as the history of costume design: there is no mention of the status of designers or of the dates which stand out in costume design history (for example, there is no reference to the fact that in the 1960s, the use of store-bought or any kind of already existing clothes in films acted more and more as an alternative to the practice of designing and making costumes). Nevertheless, Stanley's examples of the roles of costume in films are so interesting and pertinent that they make you forget your possible frustration. In Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994), for instance, he shows how significant the small changes brought to Uma Thurman's outfits really are. He also tells the reader about the work of costume designer Anna Hill Johnstone in The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972), and how Don Corleone's clothes had to "indicate someone who wielded immense power but who cared nothing about fashion" [24-25].
Stanley's style becomes much more technical when it comes to the shooting phase (he refers to the different lighting sources, camera movement and angles, etc.), but it is still very clear and educational. In the chapter on the postproduction phase, an important part is dedicated to the musical score, and especially to Casablanca's score. For this film, composer Max Steiner had to orchestrate the song "As Time Goes By" many times, in different ways, all along the film. Stanley evokes in detail those different orchestrations, but beside the aesthetic considerations, he should have specified that Steiner hated this song and tackled it without conviction. Then Stanley could have used this anecdote to refer to the constraints exercised upon artists—and especially composers—in Hollywood, to the fact that they are simple employees in the service of the system.
Stanley's book ends with a history of Hollywood as an institution (divided into three parts: "The speechless era," "The studio era" and "The electronic era"), a chapter on the contents of films (with an appealing discussion on genre), and a very interesting chapter—or rather annex—on censorship.
The Art of Watching Film, by Joseph M. Boggs & Dennis W. Petrie, has many things in common with Making Sense of Movies: the same topics are examined, and the authors sometimes have similar ideas. Nevertheless, the latter is even more educational than the former. Each chapter ends with exercises on both general and specific questions. There are also more accounts of creators, which contribute to the human aspect of a book which is very theoretical in other respects. Finally, The Art of Watching Films is also more detailed as far as chapters on technique and acting are concerned. There is a very rich chapter on color for example. However, when it comes to contents and film analysis, it is somewhat superficial and slightly frustrating. The parts on feminism or psychoanalysis are so condensed that they give the impression of being just an accumulation of truisms. In other words, even though this book is supposed to address undergraduates and even post-graduates, some sections will certainly not live up to their expectations, unless they are really "inexperienced" in cinema. There is also a bewildering chapter called "Other special film experiences," in which the authors jumble in a dubious way the films which do not fit the category "contemporary mainstream cinema": foreign language or international films, silent films, documentary films, social problem films, etc. By the way, it is quite odd to see a part on animated feature films in this chapter (especially when it comes to Disney films!). This reflects the general incoherence of this chapter which consists of a hotchpotch of ideas and genres, which does not really serve the cause of "non-mainstream" cinema.
conclude, even though Making Sense of the Movies seems
less rich than The Art of Watching Films, the former is
generally more appealing than the latter, whose chapters on film
analysis are rather disappointing. Only young and green film buffs—or
even DVD buffs, for the authors keep stressing the importance of
DVDs and DVD supplements in their work—will fully enjoy it.
Nevertheless, both books may be profitably ordered by university