Lesson 1 Lecture & Discussion
Film as an Art

Art, Film, and Your Relationship to Them

Chapter 1 of How to Read a Film tries to set movies/film/cinema in context.

Before we begin finding this context, it’s important that we talk about the words we’ll be using. We don’t really have a good word to refer to this art/technology/language. "Movies" suggests the entertainment industry. "Cinema" sounds like high art. "Film" is probably the term with the fewest limiting connotations, but of course a lot of "film" is shot on tape or disc, not film. We need a more general word to deal with moving pictures and recorded sounds, whether we see them projected on a big screen, on a TV, or on a computer screen. (We could use MTV―for “Movies/TV”―but that acronym is already trademarked!) So far, we don’t have that one general word (suggestions welcome!), so we’re stuck with the old words. For the purposes of this course, we’ll use the terms movies, film, and cinema interchangeably. Remember, too, that we are almost always including television and video when we use the word "film."

For thousands of years, people have been trying to re-create the real world for "artistic" purposes. You can develop your own philosophy about why we have that innate urge (to make sense of the world around us? to celebrate reality? to control?)―but clearly we do have the instinct to make art.

Of course there is no simple definition of "art," either. People have been arguing about the term at least since the time of Aristotle. Granted, one person’s definition of art might be vastly different from someone else’s. Regardless, it helps to move this conversation forward if we at least try to create some sort of working definition. Here are two dichotomies you might find useful in creating your own personal definition of art:

By the time movies came around a little more than 100 years ago, all the other arts had been rather thoroughly developed and exploited. You could argue that the best paintings, the best novels, the best theatrical stage works―even some of the best music―were done before the first films. Even photography, the first technological art, was more than 50 years old when film was born. Theatre, perhaps the artform closest in nature to film, had been with us for thousands of years. Painting has been around even longer than that, and storytelling is as old as language itself.

Chapter 1 outlines what film has learned from all the other arts that preceded it. It tries to suggest, as well, the spectrum of artistic expression (from practical to pure music) and the idea of abstraction (how far away from reality we want to travel).

Your role in art, as the Observer, is just as important as the roles of the Artist and The Work.

In many ways, the most important idea in this chapter is Diagram C, shown at right.

If you take nothing else from this course, we hope you take this: There is no art without you. You―the Observer―are a full member of the equation, along with the Artist and The Work.

When you think a bit about this artistic triangle you realize that maybe you don’t need the other two angles of the triangle. This is a lesson from Jack Kerouac’s classic beat novel of the 1950s, On the Road. Kerouac talks about “digging”―as in “dig this!” If you are “digging,” you are adept at picturing the real world as art. The better you can do that, the less you need artists. Of course, the more you are exposed to artists and their art, the better you can “dig it.”

The more you realize the power you, as Observer, have in this artistic equation, the better you will be able to both enhance the experience and judge its value. This takes nothing away from the value of the Work or the Artist―indeed, it adds to their power.

For most people, movies (like music, painting, and other arts) are "moving" experiences: they make them laugh, cry, and think. But why? And how? Understanding that you are an equal participant in the process is the first step to learning the language of film.

Film, like all art, at its best is a conversation. Any good filmmaker doesn’t just hope that you participate in the movie experience―they are depending on you to participate. In fact, as you will come to understand in later lessons, great filmmakers send thematic signals and create visual cues that encourage their audiences to truly bring something of their own to the table―personal experiences, understanding, and unique interpretations. This is what helps bring the film-watching experience to a new level, and is what really makes film an art.

This will be evident to you as we watch the films in this course. Nearly all the films on our list, whether or not they were popular when first released, grew more popular as time passed and more people discovered how to appreciate their pleasures. For example, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was successful when it was released in 1968, but as time passed it became a classic as more people became fascinated with its craft and meaning. Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane didn’t do well at all when it was first released in 1941. It took time for audiences to understand just how revolutionary it was. Now it’s widely regarded as the greatest American film of all time. Great films often challenge us; the more we invest in our end of the conversation, the more rewarding the experience will be.

Then, too, the more familiar we become with the art and craft of movies―the more powerful we are as Observers―the better able we are to separate what’s good from what’s not. Perhaps the greatest benefit of this training has to do with the film world outside the theaters. Since 1974, most Americans have received most of their news from television, not print. Film is by far the dominant communications medium of our time. One hundred years ago, to be a well-informed citizen, it was enough to be able to read. Now, we also have to be able to read a film.