James Monaco | How to Read a Film: Movies, Media and Beyond

book_monaco.jpgThe strong points of How to Read a Film are Monaco’s broad definition of topics relevant to film studies and his careful attention to technical detail.







736 pages. New York: Oxford University Press 2009. $29.95 (paperback) (4th ed.)

When the first edition of James Monaco’s How to Read a Film was published in 1977, it was hailed as an instant classic: Richard Gilman called it "the best single work of its kind," and Janet Maslin noted Monaco’s ability to collect "an enormous amount of useful information and assemble it in an exhilaratingly simple and systematic way." Although many books about film have been published in the intervening 30-plus years, How to Read a Film remains an indispensable source of information, and at $29.95 a real bargain as well.

The strong points of How to Read a Film are Monaco’s broad definition of topics relevant to film studies and his careful attention to technical detail. This is not a quick and easy overview or coffee table book, although there are plenty of illustrations and diagrams. That’s not a criticism, but a heads-up to potential readers that they need to be prepared to do a bit of work to get the most benefit out of this book.

Some chapters have changed more than others since the original edition. Among those which remain close to their original form are the chapters on film in relation to the other arts, the language of film (using a semiotics approach) and film theory: they have been updated but not radically restructured. The technology chapter retains information about many "antique" technologies which will be most useful to students of film history and criticism. We’re not likely to stop watching films created on film any time soon, even if young filmmakers are far more likely to shoot video.

The chapters on film history and media (including television and video) have undergone more extensive revision, although given limitations of space and focus, they can only provide a brief overview of their subjects. The final chapter, dealing with the digital revolution, is less satisfactory. Monaco seems to feel that the wrong side is winning, which makes the chapter less useful than it might be. Certainly everyone is entitled to their opinion, and it’s useful to discuss how film and video differ, but too much pining for the old days and antagonism toward the new only alienate the most likely consumers of this edition, namely current students who will spend some if not all of their time working with digital media.

The greatest flaw in How to Read a Film is the limited consideration given to cinema outside the United States and Europe. I suspect this is partially an artifact of the limited range of films available to be seen in the U.S. when the first edition was written. Today, DVDs and streaming video have made world film much more widely available to everyone, and if the first edition were being written today, it would probably include much more about films from Latin America, Asia and Africa. But it doesn’t, and it’s hard to imagine How to Read a Film getting much longer, so readers with interests in those areas will need to consult some of the many books on national cinemas available today to supplement the general principles presented in this book. 

Additional information and materials related to How to Read a Film, including several substantial excerpts from the text and instructions for ordering the accompanying DVD (this review is of the book only), are available from http://www.readfilm.com/. | Sarah Boslaugh

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