Critic Ann Hornaday’s clear-eyed, unpretentious guide to watching cinema is a long overdue call for thoughtful appreciation in our time of media overload.
Talking Pictures: How to Watch MoviesPublisher: Basic Books
Author: Ann Hornaday
Length: 304 pages
US Release date: 2017-06
Moving pictures are everywhere now. Whether it’s the YouTube videos your kid watches on their laptop when they should be doing homework, or the true-crime series you binged all weekend, or that disappointing date-night rom-com you saw two nights ago and already can’t remember the name of, there are more TV shows, movies, and video “content” (that vile word, reeking of corporatized banality) than people know what to do with now. We’re swimming in the stuff.
But even though the water-cooler factor of all this frantic locking of eyeballs to screens is at an all-time high, nobody is really talking about it much beyond “wasn’t that funny?” or “did you see that coming?” It’s almost as though people just don’t have the time or tools for talking about what they’re watching. That’s one of many factors that makes Ann Hornaday’s Talking Pictures such a vital book for this moment.
Firstly, Hornaday isn’t talking about video but rather movies. As in, “let’s go to the movies”. As in, that vessel which just about all the great creative disciplines pour themselves into. Hornaday points this out in her introduction: “film is an amalgamation of almost every mode of expression -- painting, theater, dance, music, architecture, photography, and writing.”
But it’s not just the banquet of cinema that Hornaday wants to dig into. She's crafting a handbook for how to watch movies, and how to appreciate them. That involves unbraiding the weave of sound and vision into its component parts. So, the book is cut into chapters on each of what she has designated as the seven building blocks of film, both seen and unseen: The Screenplay, Acting, Production Design, Cinematography, Editing, Sound and Music, and Directing.
If that sounds didactic or textbook-like, be assured it’s not. (Though if Hornaday was ever hired to produce a primer for the study of cinema, those American school districts that haven’t yet banished everything except STEM curriculum and classes glorifying American exceptionalism would be well-served to buy it in bulk.) For one, Hornaday is less interested in providing a lecture on each element than she is in providing an entry point for analysis. Each chapter is then split into component parts highlighted by a few key questions for the viewer to ask themselves. These range from “Was it beautiful and should that matter” in the “Pleasure Principle” section of the Production Design chapter to “Did the movie make sense?” in “What’s Going On?” from the Editing chapter.
In the hands of a lesser writer, this approach could have turned stale and rote within pages. But instead of an Introduction to Cinema slog that’s too outré for the average reader and too pedestrian for the film buff, Hornaday cuts to the quick. Her writing is brisk, friendly, and incisive, in the manner of the best daily newspaper writers. That approachable style comes as no surprise, as she’s been the film critic for a number of papers (currently the Washington Post) and won a Pulitzer Prize for it. It also helps that she wasn’t a movie buff to begin with but came to the calling later.
Like all superior newspaper journalists, Hornaday assumes nothing of the reader besides that they are an individual of average intelligence with some basic knowledge of the world and a curiosity to know more. She wears her learning lightly, but still with authority, dropping not just the names of relevant movies and moviemakers, but showing an instinctive knowledge of their characteristics that go beyond the encyclopedic. Her book can flip easily from quipping about lusting after the copper pots in the yuppie fantasy kitchens of Nancy Meyers movies to rhapsodizing about the cinematography in the work of Nigerian filmmaker Andrew Dosunmu and feel perfectly comfortable doing both. Building on that cool-for-school foundation, she makes a solid and impassioned argument for not just why movies matter, but why it’s worth paying attention to them.
Hornaday establishes credibility early on in Talking Pictures with a few dictums that are hard to argue with. Like: “I hate plots. I love stories.” Or: “Bad movies are about characters. Great movies are about people.” Her rules on screenwriting: It’s almost impossible to make a good movie out of a bad screenplay; avoid narration wherever possible; don’t insert unnecessary second act complications just to prolong the conflict; don’t follow the rules. And of course: “Overweening good taste … can be just as oppressive” as no taste at all. It helps also that the roll call of moviemakers she continually returns to in order to make a point about superior craftsmanship (Tom McCarthy, the Coens, Bigelow, Scorsese) are as hard to argue with as her examples of inferior craftmanship (editing in modern dance or action movies, the dialogue of James Cameron, almost everything about Adam Sandler).
Talking Pictures could be construed as a class but it isn’t a lecture. In that, Hornaday is primarily invested in spurring an interest in the study of the art that she so clearly adores. Because of that, she wants to invite interest in the exacting, convoluted process of moviemaking:
Just as it takes all day to achieve the Meg Ryan “I woke up this way” tousled hair style, it takes months of painstaking work to write a script that, once realized on screen, feels fresh and spontaneous.
Hornaday’s writing could be described in much the same way: Fresh and spontaneous enough to make you think that it was all just dashed off in a matter of days (unlikely) instead of painstakingly crafted over months if not years (likely).
For people who go to the movies and (even better) like talking about them afterward, Talking Pictures is a must-have. For those of us who study and write about the movies, it’s a reminder of why we bother.