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Book Review: Understanding Movies

“Understanding Movies” by Louis Giannetti is used in more than 500 college campuses around the world. The leading American film schools – University of California in Los Angeles, University of Southern California (USC) and New York University – use the textbook in their filmmaking classes.

Targeting filmmaking students as well as film lovers, the book is a great reference to understand why movies turn out the way they do, and what kind of thoughts and efforts go into their making.

Giannetti takes us in a historical journey into the art of making a film. The book is divided into 11 chapters covering all aspects of filmmaking: photography, mise-en-scène, movement, editing, sound, acting, etc. Each chapter contains screenshots of movies that illustrate the topic being tackled, giving the reader concrete examples of how films are made and why some tricks or techniques work, while others don’t.

In the photography section, Giannetti explains the difference between various angles, their meaning and their impact on the viewer. For instance, the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu often uses angles four feet from the ground, so that an actual observer would view the events seated Japanese style. By this, he differentiates himself from other directors’. Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, Pedro Almodovar – to name only a few – have each different techniques. Many elements determine what a good shot is. Leading lines, golden ratio, lights, shapes and movement are all essential for a good image.

In the chapter on movement, examples are given of how Akira Kurosawa used nature’s movements – such as water, wind, fire, smoke and snow – in the background of his shots. The movement of the camera, the facial expressions of the actors and the group movement, are all made to reflect the director’s point of view. If you get the right motion in the right emotion, you get your shot cinematic.

The value of the book lies in its entertaining, yet serious approach. The more you read, the more you want to watch, and sometimes re-watch, the films it refers to. After completing the book, your perception of the movie differs, and so does your appreciation of all the efforts put in its making.

The 3rd edition of “Understanding Movies” is available at the Film Library.
About the author: Louis Giannetti is a Professor Emeritus of English and Film at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He has taught courses in film, literature, writing, drama and humanities. In addition to being a professional film critic, he has published many articles, both popular and scholarly, on political subjects, literature and drama.

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