'Reading the Silver Screen' From a Man Who Really Knows How to Teach
Thomas C. Foster’s little narrative method is a smart bit of teaching in a book that’s filled with great teaching techniques.
Reading the Silver Screen: A Film Lover's Guide to Decoding the Art Form That MovesPublisher: Harper Perennial
Length: 400 pages
Author: Thomas C. Foster
Publication date: 2016-11
We need more books like Thomas Foster’s Reading the Silver Screen. A book like this one helps to bridge gaps between academic study and general knowledge. In this case, however, it also offers an important corrective for academic study.
You may know Foster as the author of the successful How to Read Literature Like a Professor and its follow-up How to Read Novels Like a Professor. In a world where we may be less and likely to be required to take a humanities course in college, both titles serve an important function offering clear, practical advice to the everyday reader on how to approach literature as more than mere entertainment.
Reading the Silver Screen works in basically the same way, but it may be even more important than Foster’s previous books. After all, most of us have an intuitive sense that novels and poems demand some rigor, whether or not we know exactly how to approach them; in contrast, film is a subject we’re often encouraged to consume as “mere” entertainment. In fact, in the book’s preface Foster imagines a character, Dave, who sums up what most people feel about movies like Mad Max: Fury Road: “Art? I don’t think so. Art is those foreign guys. Bergman, Fellini, who’s that Japanese guy? Maybe Woody Allen. You know, dull stuff.”
Foster steps in right away to correct Dave: “There is a misconception in the culture that if we study the works we read or watch or listen to, we will kill our ‘simple’ or ‘pure’ enjoyment. Seriously? Then why do all those music geeks tear into the meaning of songs by Pink Floyd or Tupac, or the Beatles or Pearl Jam […] Far from spoiling the fun, you’ll likely double or triple it” (xx).
It turns out the fictive Dave is an important figure in Reading the Silver Screen. We follow him throughout the book as his thinking about Mad Max deepens: “Well, this is not Max’s scene,” he comments some 100 pages in. “He’s gonna always be the outsider, but that’s okay with her in charge.” We are Dave, and as he begins to see past the surface of films so do we.
Foster’s little narrative method is a smart bit of teaching in a book that’s filled with great teaching techniques. He takes us through an exhaustive list of film components, one at a time, laying them out separately so that we get a complete sense of how one works before moving on to another. He models the process of analysis, showing us how scenes and sequences work in The Bourne Identity and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or pointing out all the “variety of ways characters are impeded, excluded, caught, trapped” by the imagery in Casablanca. He does this not once or twice in a chapter, but over and over again, so that by the time we’ve followed him through his hundredth analysis, we’re able to make the moves for ourselves.
He also teaches us to think for ourselves, as when he teaches us the value of comparing and contrasting as a strategy for thinking about art, comparing the soundtrack of 2013’s The Great Gatsby with its predecessor from 1974. Finally, once he’s taken us through all of this material, he even offers us a chance to “Put it to the Test” by putting our own analysis of Argo -- using all the tools we’ve learned -- up against his.
Foster simply knows how to teach, and by the end he’s taught the “Daves” among us how to read cinema. That’s an accomplishment in itself. But it turns out that academics can be equally as guilty as “Dave” of dismissing popular culture as “mere entertainment”.
Foster’s previous books bring to bear the academic ideas and techniques of formalism (or new criticism) on reading literature. Formalism argued for seeing a literary work as a kind of machine, one made up of a number of potential “parts” that, when combined in different ways, create an experience, a meaning or a sensation. According to formalism, in order to understand how any given machine works, we must study the parts and their interactions closely, a process termed “close reading”.
Formalism, and especially close reading, serve as the foundations of literary study, which makes them an excellent place to start teaching a non-academic audience how to read more “academically”. Yet as topics of study, these fields have been largely abandoned by academics in the last 50 years, as scholars have pushed into new fields, from psychological criticism, to reader-response criticism, to deconstruction, and cultural studies. All of these later approaches rely implicitly on close reading, and yet too often we as academics take this technique and the theory out of which it grew for granted (or worse yet, pretend it no longer has any real relevance).
That might be a workable situation for the study of traditional literature -- poetry, drama, novels -- since at this point most students of traditional literature simply absorb close reading techniques whether or not they’re formally taught how to use them. The trouble is, literature isn’t as “traditional” as it once was. As Foster himself notes in his preface, a whole host of “new” (leaving aside that some of these, like film, are over 125 years old now) media and multi-media artistic forms have sprung up in the form of popular music, video games, television, and film.
As Foster further argues, none of these “new” forms is quite like the old ones: “Movies are movies. They are not novels, biographies, short stories, dramatic plays, comedic plays, musical theater, epics, comic books, […] confessions, photography, painting, or holy texts” (xxvi). As the formalists argued about poetry, film “speaks its own language, which, like every language, obeys a grammar, or set of rules, that is particular to this language. We need to understand the rules of that language, the grammar of film, in order to fully decode the language and understand what movies do and how they do it” (xxvi).
In short, we need to establish some close reading strategies for these new media, to define terms the same way the new critics once defined metaphor and slant rhyme: so we can communicate effectively to others about what we “read”. Unfortunately, as these new forms came along, we in the academic world have jumped to talking about whether Jurassic World presents an outdated representation of women or what The Hunger Games may have to say about our collective political consciousness (both important questions, by the way) that we sometimes forget to stop and think about how these forms work, well, formally.
Foster’s book reminds us of this missing link, but more importantly, it supplies this missing link. Perhaps, if we’re lucky, in a couple of more years we can look out for a work from him on reading video games.