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How to Read A Film (James Monaco) - 1: Film as an Art

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This is going to seem a bit redundant but MLeary asked me to post it. Blame him. First i tried to move it from the old threads and then it imploded in reverse, twice i believe, IIRC. Anyway, here it is, Chapter One again, if it sinks, that's OK... Let's aim to finish reading and post something about chapter two within a week or so.

stef wrote:

This small review is put together much quicker than i would have wanted to, and is in no way comprehensive, but here are some garnered nuggets as well as some opposite views i took from the first chapter.

Topics: The Nature of Art; Ways of Looking at Art; Film, Recording and other Arts; and the Structure of Art.

Summaries:

The Nature of Art - Here are some things i highlighted.

"Art is what you can't define." - Robert Frost

The ancients recognized seven activities as arts: History, Poetry, Comedy, Tragedy, Music, Dance and Astronomy.

The word "art" has had many things attached to it and has gone thru many changes in meaning (the art of war, medical arts, fine arts, etc), and it seems that as science developed, the narrowing of the concept of art continues.

Quote from Walter Pater: "All art aspires to the condition of music." I do not agree with this statement, that is, if i understand it.

"Photography, film and sound recording taken together have shifted dramatically our historical perspective." and today, we have a spectrum of arts that looks like this: the performance arts (which happen in real time), the representational arts (which depend on established codes and conventions of language), and the recording arts (a more direct media between subject and observer).

Ways of Looking at Art - Here is something i had a hard time grasping. On page 28 Monaco says "the more mimetic an art is, the less abstract it is." He then goes on to create a graph in which design and architecture are the most practical kinds of art and music is the most abstract. It seems that anytime you try to put something on a graph you are immediately limiting it's capabilities and creating a black and white, when in art, the way i perceive it is gray. Referring to music as the most or least abstract depends on how much the listener understands of the craft of music itself, and beyond that, how simple or hard the music that's being built is to follow. And this desription also seems to go against what Monaco later says - "all arts are inherently economic products and as such must eventually be considered in economic terms." If you consider how many CDs are made and sold each day, you might not consider music the most abstract of the arts.

He later uses rap music to further illustrate his point, but again, i see this as a failing point. He says that hip hop is art but it is hardly music because it has no clear melody or harmony. (i'd like to hear the hip hop he listens to because that is flat out wrong.) He then goes on to say, "Maybe rap makes the point that the one essential element of music is rhythm. Perhaps we should consider Rap, at least in one sense, as the last gasp of abstraction -- ironically, the only truly popular expression of the avant-garde abstractionist tendency." This is a narrow minded view of art, music, music production, and why people in our culture consume what they do.

The sports anaology (pg 34) - i loved this. the basic "theme" is repeated every time a game is played which only reinforces the ritual aspects of the drama -- that the "plot" is not preordained simply increases the possibilites and the element of suspense. Makes us see how in being a sports junky you are actually taking in a form of modern day art -- performance art, that happens in real time.

The Structure of Art - i highlighted the following:

"Film, sound recording and video, then, have had profound effects on the nature and development of nearly all the other, older arts and have in turn to a considerable extent been shaped by them. But while the spectrum of arts is wide, the domain of film and the recording arts is even wider. Films, records and tapes are media: that is, agencies or channels of communication. Whole art may be the main use to which they are put, it is clearly not the only use. Film is also an important scientific tool that has opened up new areas of knowledge. It provides the first significant general means of communication since the invention of writing more thn seven thousand years ago..."

"As a medium, film needs to be considered as a phenomenon very much like language..."

"Film may not have grammar, but it does have a system of codes. It does not, strictly speaking, have a vocabulary, but it does have a system of signs..."

what are these codes and signs? i'm excited to get going.

At the end Monaco ducks all the potential tomatoes: "Poetry is what you can't translate. Art is what you can't define. Film is what you can't explain. But we're going to try, anyway."

That's some flighty stuff.

Anyone have any other initial impressions?

I think it's funny that the film that most recently stuck with me is entitled "Code Unknown." And here we are trying to study the codes and tropes that stem from film's complexities.

Finally, here are some new words i learned in the first chapter, some of which i have heard before but may have been chicken to use: mimetic, verisimilitude, and trope. Great words.

-s.

Edited by stef

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Initial impression:

He talks a lot about how what drives art is a search for "the essence of art" that can be visually distilled into an abstraction. Such that all art tends towards abstraction because art is "looking for itself" in some sense. I don't know if I agree with that. He claims that this is essential in understanding film history for some reason, but I can't remember his argument. I will double check tonight.

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Just to recap, was the consensus that this was "the daddy" of film books, cos I might try and buy one

Matt

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I picked up a copy of the 2000 edition recently (substantially updated) and have read the first 400 or so pages. Does anyone want to discuss it still / again - Stef?

By the way the book now has a website www.readfilm.com. The reason being that in his updating he's been keen to talk lots about the technology that has emerged in the last 25 years (since the first two editions were written).

Matt

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I would be more than happy to give it a try again. I've read several chapters but never all at once. It's a lot like many other film books i have, which i've read in portions but never all the way thru.

It's a great read, and i have to say that it blows up your film-speak something fierce. Which is a fantastic lift for that extra zip we sometimes need when wanting to qualitatively express ourselves around here.

-s.

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This is the second thread attempting this discussion but I am up for giving this a try again.

For those of us who may not own a copy of the latest edition you can view the book in pdf format at the site. The only difference is that it does not allow you to view the frame shot examples or the diagrams.

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Cool

Let's do it. I'm not sure reading what I have so far has greatly "blown up my film-speak" (which is a shame cos Lord knows I could use it), but its given me a greater appreciation for a number of things, that I couldn't quite explain yet. I did keep thinking as I was re-reading "I'm going to have to read this a few times until it sinks in". Which is a shame when the book in question is several hundred pages long.

Anyway...

How shall we do this?

Matt

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I won't be able to read anything of my choosing for two weeks and two more days. Schoolwork. Probably won't see that many films either (although i am getting out tonight for Maria Full of Grace!) Whatever way we did it last time didn't work -- i'd say, read some and post anything you find thought provoking. We're bound to have some discussion sooner or later.

-s.

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Yeah the next two weeks looks like it will prove unfruitful for me as well. I think your suggestion is "the way forward".

Matt

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