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Book Review: HOW TO READ A FILM

Since the arrival of its first edition in 1977, this book of James Monaco was greatly admired by film scholars and students. A number of revised editions have been published by the author later on in order to incorporate the revolutionary aspects of media and technology. The book covers the nature of art and how different art forms have shaped in accordance with cultural and economic changes. The book also draws lines among film and other art forms such as novel, theater, painting, and music.  Monaco has tried to define the nature of art as an abstract; this abstraction phenomenon creates a spectrum that reflects the manifestation of arts in reality.

Monaco divides the history of film into eight identical periods where he shows how film got geared up in each period with the blessing of technological inventions. The cultural conditions and film movements like Impressionism, Avant Garde, and New Wave have made huge contributions to lay a strong foundation of film. Monaco amazingly incorporated Expressionism, Neorealism, Theory of Montage and provided examples from the works of Eisenstein, Godard, Andre Bazin and other prominent filmmakers to discuss the functions and forms of film theories.

Monaco shows that the relationships among the artist, art work and observer can be understood through psychoanalysis. He divides art into three categories: performance art, representational art and recording art. Performance art happens in real time; representational art uses previously established codes and language but the recording art or film creates direct line between the subject and observer.

Monaco describes signifiers and signified, the trope, indexes, metonymy, and the gap between literature and film which semiotics is trying to bridge. So, film certainly is a kind of language as it communicates almost in a same manner that a typical language does. Monaco believes that some people learn to grasp visual images physiologically, ethnographically and psychologically in a sophisticated manner.

Monaco argues that film is an economical product. According to him, the production links the artist and the work; the consumption takes place between the work and the consumer. Eventually it draws a line between artist and the observer.

However, the psychological attention has shifted from the work and author to the work and consumer. Initially film fell under the popular culture but soon it was spread and reached mass culture. So the more people it could reach the more money it could make. Monaco also shows how films can be used for political influence. During the cold war, lots of spy films and science fictions were made (example: Invasion of the body snatchers, 1956) to carry out political propagandas.“Like all forms of mass entertainment, film has been powerfully mythopoeic even as it has entertained.” (Monaco, p 282)

James Monaco argues that anyone can see film but only the literates can read. To me, it is completely logical. The science of semiotics can be used to read films. Film deals with sign and syntax, symbols and connotations. Monaco describes signifiers and signified, the trope, indexes, metonymy, and the gap between literature and film which semiotics is trying to bridge. So, film certainly is a kind of language as it communicates almost in a same manner that a typical language does. Monaco believes that some people learn to grasp visual images physiologically, ethnographically and psychologically in a sophisticated manner.

Film has achieved the form of “Media” and it is has become a mass culture. Film can be read from the milieu of broader communication and entertainment industry as well. This communication environment has become too powerful and I support Monaco as he believes that technological evolution has made it possible.

Overall, “HOW TO READ A FILM” is a book that will help the readers to study film from different perspectives.Topics such as the science of the art, the language of film, the perceptual understanding and the complex history of film have been discussed thoroughly in this book. The latest edition has included a bonus chapter on new forms of media and multimedia where topics like virtual reality, cyberspace etc. are introduced and their propinquities to film are analyzed.

Reviewed by: Tusher Nabi Khan, Coordinator cum Lecturer, Department of Film and Television, Canadian University of Bangladesh.

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