Boston & New York: Bedford / St. Martin’s
Reviewed by Gerardo Del Guercio
Few texts run into their fifth edition with as much influence than the original than does Bernard F. Dick‘s Anatomy of Film. Dick’s textbook is a concise analysis of the various layers of film that college professors and film students will find invaluable to comprehending that movies are a complex form of communication that utilizes various techniques and metaphors that allow film-viewers to appreciate a film even decades after its initial release. Moreover, Dick compares popular movies such as Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995) with Doug McGrath’s Emma (1996), both of which are based on Jane Austen’s Romantic novel Emma (1815), to demonstrate how different directors use the same source to express a similar idea by using assorted narrative and cinematic devices. Bernard F. Dick asserts that a film becomes canonical because it appeals to viewers sub-consciously. A film’s narrative, camera angles, genre, sequencing, rhythm, tone, allusions, and directorship are only a few non-verbal devices that filmmakers incorporate into their movies to draw their audience into the production.
What makes the fifth edition of Bernard F. Dick’s Anatomy of Film a completer text than the previous four editions is that it gives more focus to independent films; includes a new section on documentary and genre, more analyses on film adaptations of literary works, and a section on contemporary film criticism. Furthermore, the latest version of Dick’s book also contains three appendixes that list the names of the directors and films referenced in the text, two sample student papers, and an updated list of online resources and citations. The appendixes are especially useful given that students have a quick reference point for their research. Such innovative additions compliment Dick’s thesis that his intention is “to help students develop an appreciation and critical awareness of film with a brief, clear, and enjoyable text” [v] into a more contemporary context and to suit the fluctuation in taste between generations.
Bernard F. Dick defines film as a form of communication that has various meanings in different contexts that “can still be considered fiction even though it is derived from fact” . Although Dick’s contention may seem somewhat contradictory it is actually a very solid argument. Dick implies that all films can be considered fictitious since every director’s interpretation of a factual event always strays from the actual occurrence. Films therefore imply a hybrid act that varies in viewpoint depending on who has written the screenplay, directed the movie, or stars in it. The most common type of film is the narrative film. Narrative films are especially interesting because the interpretation of a story varies depending on who chronicles the events. A story’s context and sequence tend to vary from the original whether it is by tone of voice, or by focusing on one character more than on another.
Setting films into genres is a problem encountered by most film students. According to Dick the two movie types students have the most difficulty classifying are independent and international films. Independent films are, among other things, movies that are “self-supported” , “free of external control or influence” and are usually a stance against commercial movie-making. Independent films are self-financed, low-budget, and typically include a non-recognizable cast. Categorizing a film as independent is extremely difficult considering that a self-supported movie can eventually become a major blockbuster. A few examples of independent films that later generated huge box-office results are Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2003), Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s The Blair Witch Project (1999), and Joel Zwick’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2001). Dick explores such films that originated as self-sustained projects and later became major motion pictures to demonstrate that just because a movie produced large revenues does not mean that the film originally received a large production budget.
International films emerged in the United States shortly after the Second World War Foreign films entered American academia during the 1950s and 1960s when professors and serious art students began classifying US films as market place movies meant only to generate large box-office revenue. Movie productions changed drastically with the rise of Italian neo-realism. Italian neo-realism produced films that “were shot on the streets, in apartments, trattorias, and so forth, since there were no sound stages in Rome” . World War II left unparalleled destruction across Italy and filming movies outdoors added a degree of realism that Hollywood was unable to match. Most post-war international films dealt primarily with survival and loss, which provided no happy ending. Basically, an international film is a movie produced by any other country other than the United States. International films consequently provide a useful artistic alternative to Hollywood movies that appeal to audiences that appreciate films for their form and use of cinematic devices.
A film’s formal elements—and how those devices are employed—determine the movie’s connotative meaning. The Columbia Film logo, for instance, connotes that the film about to be presented is a big-budget Hollywood production with a cast of popular characters that have likely appeared in blockbusters before. A production logo is designed to prompt cues from the audience as to what to expect from the movie. Another cinematic device that adds to a film’s connotative meaning is the sub-text. A sub-text is “a complex structure beneath the narrative consisting of the various associations the narrative evokes in us”  that adds a multi-layered feature to the film. On the surface, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) appears to be a movie about a woman who escapes with a $40,000 bank deposit and is later murdered by a cross-dressing young male. Sub-textually the audience is actually viewing a psychologically complex
Casual moviegoers typically term Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho a horror thriller filled with murder and suspense. Serious film viewers would instead view Psycho as a study of a psychologically deranged man whose assimilation with his mother has led him to pursue one goal: to protect the fetus which is actually himself. It then becomes evident that the main difference between a casual and a serious moviegoer is that the serious moviegoers will gauge the film based on its sub-textual meaning while the casual moviegoer will focus mainly on the movie’s surface.
The film director’s role in movie production is a topic that has been debated for several decades. Film critics have used the term auteurism to explain the theory that “the director is considered the primary creative force behind a film” . Auteurism appeared after World War II when the French rediscovered great American cinema. France was especially impressed with how “Hollywood directors could be—and frequently were—handed a screenplay, a cast, and a crew (none of which they had personally selected) and still managed to leave the stamp of their personality on the films” . Dealing with such important factors that directors were unable to control made the task of adding their own style to the films they were directing even more difficult. Directors like Orson Welles and William Wyler impressed France most. André Bazin devised the equation that “author + subject = work” . Film scholars have found auteurism a problematic theory given that a director is always influenced by other directors and writers, making the supposition that the director is the principle driving force of the film impossible.
Film professors and film students will find that the fifth edition of Bernard F. Dick’s Anatomy of Film is an invaluable guide that serious moviegoers and undergraduates must read. Dick’s clear and concise writing style makes very complex cinematic theories easily understandable. Furthermore, Dick’s excellent use of examples from films helps explain the concepts and techniques explored throughout the text. Even casual film viewers will arrive at a much more complete understanding of the film industry and cinematic techniques that construct an artistic film once the have read Bernard F. Dick’s book.