Here's what the critics are saying about the How to Read a Film: Multimedia Edition DVD-ROM. Go here to buy it!

Shlomo Peretz, Microtype
Mary Cummings, Southampton Press
Roger Moore, Orlando Sentinel
R. Pitman, Video Librarian

How to Read a Film: Multimedia Edition
winner of the 2001 DVD Association DVD Excellence Award.

"The best visually rich, interactive and stimulating eBook available. Highly recommended!"

- Shlomo Perets, MicroType

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The Southampton Press
May 31, 2001

Digital publishing takes books way beyond print

James Monaco doesn't look like someone who has spent a good part of his life way out there on the edge. To be absolutely truthful, he looks a little bit like Mr. Milque Toast, though less fastidious, more rumpled. He is slight, polite, pleasant in an unprepossessing way.

So it comes as something of a surprise to learn that Mr. Monaco has spent the last decade or so pushing at the parameters of publishing. Passionately and persistently he has been waging war against the electronically-challenged keepers of the keys to the publishing kingdom, persuading them to open the gates to the amazing potential of electronic publishing in the new century.

A recognized expert on electronic publishing, film and the media industry, Mr. Monaco is president of UNET (an online service, the publishing arm of which is Harbor Electronic Publishing). He founded Baseline, which provides advanced information services for the entertainment industry worldwide, and is the author/editor of numerous books. He has credentials a mile long, but when he was ready with an e-book for the new millennium, the response was less than enthusiastic.

"It's a long, shaggy-dog story," says Mr. Monaco of the painfully slow process that began in 1991 when Bill Becker, a longtime Southamptonite, suggested a multimedia version of Mr. Monaco's popular book, How To Read a Film. In fact, the final chapter of the story came only in 2000. That's when the multimedia edition of the updated book finally appeared in the form of a DVD-ROM, along with the revised third edition of the traditional-format book, which sold well when Oxford University Press first brought it out in 1977 and has had steadily increasing sales ever since.

Mr. Monaco, who may have lost patience at times during the long struggle, apparently never lost his sense of humor. It pervades "The Story of this Disc," a 12-page chronological account of his campaign to make the multimedia disc version of the book a reality, even as revolutionary technological advances were obliging him to make annual revisions of the material for both the disc and the book. Every year, when the trailing arbutus bloomed in April, he was reminded, he writes, that another 12 months had passed with neither disc nor book to show for it, and that it was time to update his material yet again. In 1991, at the start of his story, his twin sons were in junior high school; 2000, the year when the revised book and the disc finally became available to the public, was the year the twins were awarded their college degrees.

In Sag Harbor, where he and his wife Susan spend time when not in Manhattan, Mr. Monaco offered a condensed account of the gestation story, along with a demonstration of the disc on a recent May afternoon. It was necessarily a brief session—time only to touch on the highlights of the disc, which would take days, if not weeks, to cover completely. Four complete books about film are on the disc, along with 135 film clips (more than four hours) and more than a thousand illustrations.

Viewers can take virtual tours of Red Square in Russia and Paramount Square in Hollywood, among other venues. There is a full film chronology, author's notes for just about any of the seemingly limitless topics a film buff might wish to explore while surfing a virtual ocean of images, essays and interviews relating to the esthetics, techniques, philosophy and theory of film.

And if that sounds a bit ponderous, the real point, judging from Mr. Monaco's merry peregrinations among his disc's destinations, is to have fun. Selecting "all images" from one of the menus, and commanding a "random" sequence at one-second intervals, Mr. Monaco started the demo by subjecting himself to a dizzying quiz. As images lifted from movies of all eras flashed on the screen, he came up with titles, cast members, and other details during the ultra-brief window of opportunity before the image disappeared, and was replaced by another. Four or five images into the game Mr. Monaco cried "uncle."

"At one second, I just can't keep it up," he said ruefully, though it's doubtful anyone else could do better.

After that, Mr. Monaco selected movie scenes shot in bathtubs or showers to demonstrate the richness of the references—the way an image can lead to textual elucidation, an author's aside. The shower scene from Psycho, for example, provides a path toward an editing lesson, delivered verbally, demonstrated visually, explained and illustrated.

"You don't see anybody get stabbed," said Mr. Monaco, "it's all in the editing."

One feature that Mr. Monaco believes will captivate wannable filmmakers is the interactive lab that puts them in the director's chair.

"We shot a three-minute movie to illustrate this," said Mr. Monaco. "We give you all the pieces so you can make your own movie."

The hope, he said, "is that people will play with these bits of a movie we gave them, make their own movies and send them to us on the website."

So what was the problem? Why did such a seductive idea, hatched way back in 1991, take so long to get legs?

First of all, there was resistance from Oxford University Press, his publisher for the book, to whom he first presented the idea for the multimedia version.

The idea was rejected, though the rejection took "many months." The editor in charge was "stuck in the nineteenth century," according to Mr. Monaco, who implied in his written account that she and her colleagues suffered from a certain paralyzing gentility, combined perhaps with a deep fear of crossing the electronic frontier into the unknown.

While Oxford was proceeding tortoise-like with the print book, Mr. Monaco was taking other routes with the multimedia disc version, initially with Voyager, a company specializing in multimedia projects.

"We tried to do it on a CD-ROM," said Mr. Monaco, the "we" being Voyager and his own Harbor Electronic Publishing.

"Eventually that didn't work," he added. Producers came and went at Voyager, just as editors came and went at Oxford University Press. Worst of all on the disc front, what had been the last word in technology when the idea was new was fast becoming outdated as delay followed delay. In 1997, with DVD-ROM poised to render CD-ROM obsolete—or so everyone thought—the decision was made, this time by Mr. Monaco himself, to endure yet another delay.

"We've been snookered by the technology," he wrote in his journal-style narration. "For the first few years of this project the technology wasn't up to the vision we had. Now it's taking a quantum jump to a new level and I'm concerned that a CD-ROM we release will quickly look like yesterday's product. We'll have to wait."

"It's seven times bigger," said Mr. Monaco, comparing the new technology to the old. "Basically that's the difference." As soon as it became available, it was clear that, with its increased speed and capacity, it would make all the difference on a project with such intensive movie applications.

Mr. Monaco doesn't regret his decision to go with DVD-ROM but nor did the new technology exactly deliver what it seemed to promise.

"When we made the decision in 1998 to wait for DVD, everybody said that by 1999 no computer manufacturer would be shipping computers without DVD," recalled Mr. Monaco. But that turned out not to be true. "You can still buy a computer without DVD," he noted. "It's still cutting edge."

So Mr. Monaco is still out there ahead, waiting for the Great American Public to catch up with him. But the trailing arbutus bloomed last month and instead of gearing up for another revision of his languishing manuscript, he had copies of How To Read a Film (Oxford University Press, $40) to take to the annual Book Fair at the Benson in May. He also had copies of the groundbreaking multimedia edition of the book. Not to mention the fact that he now has two sons with college degrees.

Mary Cummings

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Orlando Sentinel
May 13, 2001

Movies 101: A Lesson Teaching Aid Shows How It's Done

Thinking about going to film school? Got a kid who is leaning that way in his/her choice of colleges? Ready to commit yourself or your child to a lifetime of meetings, "notes," frustrated ambition, ego-crushing rejections and ponytails? Stop weeping and read on.

There's a new DVD-ROM that's the closest thing to a film school in a box that you're likely to find for $39.97. How To Read a Film is now on disc. For more than 20 years, James Monaco's book How To Read a Film has been a part of many a college course on the medium. Go into any film school dean's office and there it sits on the shelf, right next to such tomes as Film Art, Film Language, Theory of Film and other works by such academic mainstays as David Bordwell, Gerald Mast and Siegfried Krakauer. It's not that Monaco is the only critic who matters, or that he's not a guy with blind spots when discussing the various past and present schools of criticism (Marxist, feminist, auteurist, semiotics and others). But How To Read a Film still offers the best overview of what people are doing in film and media and what other people are saying about it. Now it and three other books (Dictionary of New Media, Reading about Film, Reading about New Media) along with essays by other critics and scholars, are on this single multimedia DVD-ROM. There's a library of reference texts on the disc, along with 130 film clips that demonstrate the points in the various books (by matthew at tforge). Famous essays on film history are here. You can see the shower scene from Psycho and have its editing explained (montage) and gaze on Kubrick's elegant "virtual prison" scene at the end of 2001 where the other major component of film content, mise-en-scene, is at the fore. Discover what the French had in mind when they coined these two complementary views of what is more important to a filmmaker. Learn what the still-relevant auteur theory is all about. There's a full film script ("Hubba Hubba" by David Newman and Robert Benton), animations of how film technology works and 360-degree views of the entrances of movie studios — kind of dumb, but fun. Also dumb, Monaco's self-indulgent audio "notes" on the project. That memory space would have been better used on other interviews, sound bites and the like. Get it. Go through it. Understand it. And until you do, kid, don't whine to me about wanting to go to film school.

Roger Moore

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Video Librarian
Vol. 16 No. 1
January/February 2001

Once you get past the usual Soup Nazi directives involved in installing just about any CD-ROM or DVD-ROM to your computer's hard drive (in my case, I was ordered to uninstall my Adobe Acrobat 3.0 and replace it with Adobe Acrobat 4.05; overwrite my Apple Quicktime media player with version 4.1, and provide a notarized letter stating that I'd changed my middle name to Edgar—OK, I'm kidding on the last one), then James Monaco's How to Read a Film Multimedia Edition DVD-ROM (Harbor Electronic Publishing, $39.97) offers an amazing smorgasbord of words, pictures, and film clips about the history, business, science, and art of making motion pictures. In fact, all that's really missing here are the Good 'n Plentys and the popcorn. Check this out, cinema gluttons: the disc contains four complete books—How To Read A Film, The Dictionary of New Media, Reading About Film and Reading About New Media (with audio notes by the author!)—as well as over 140 film clips (including, among numerous other gems, the complete opening tracking shot from Robert Altman's The Player), audio interviews, virtual reality tours of Hollywood studios, film labs (where viewers can essentially create their own film from footage shot exclusively for the DVD-ROM), a complete unproduced screenplay, several indexes, and much, much more. While I had a few minor problems (a couple of dialogue files in the sound lab wouldn't load) and noted minor inconsistencies (the opening shot of The Player is listed at 8 minutes in one place, 9 min. and 10 sec. in another), I would be an utter fibmeister if I didn't admit that I rolled around in this disc like a happy pig in mud for hours on end and am looking forward to more. Highly recommended. (Available from most distributors.)

- R. Pitman

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