Today as a part of the TMP Reads book review series, I’m taking a look at a beast of a book that rivals the film-school favorite Film Art in its level of detail and wealth of information: Understanding Movies by Louis Giannetti. Understanding Movies was first published in 1972 by Prentice-Hall.
Though it clocks in at only 486 pages (not including the index), which seems short for a book that contains so much knowledge, Understanding Movies provides a fantastic, comprehensive look at the world of filmmaking, from the many creative processes of production to the theories involved in the analysis of films.
This book contains 11 mid-size chapters broken down by subject: photography, mise-en-scene, movement, editing, sound, player, drama, literature, documentary, avant-garde and theory. These chapters are further broken down into headings that are more specific. In the case of the photography chapter, for example, the headings are “Realism and Expressionism,” “The Shots and Angles,” “Lighting and Color,” “Lenses, Filters, Stocks and Opticals” and “The Cinematographer.”
Even better, there are a plethora of photographic examples included throughout the book. Not a single chapter is void of photographs. They appear on nearly every page. Some of these are stills from films. Others are photographs taken specifically for the purpose of educating the reader, such as three photographs of the same subject taken with different lenses in order to show the differences between the lenses.
Since it contains so much instruction and practical, technical information, this book is best suited for the aspiring filmmaker. The “Theory” chapter is more relevant to me than the others, since I write about movies. However, as an avid viewer of films with no interest in branching into producing them myself, I still found the entire book to be an interesting and worthwhile read. Regardless of whether you make them yourself, it’s never a bad thing to gain some knowledge about how films are made. I am glad to have Understanding Movies as a part of my personal library.
Included as an appendix in the book’s third edition are excerpts of the reading and shooting scripts for North by Northwest, written by Ernest Lehman and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. This is without a doubt one of Hitchcock’s best films, and as a fan of pretty much everyone involved in it, this feature alone would have been worth the book’s purchase price for me. It’s an added bonus to a book I would have enjoyed either way.
If you’re interested in grabbing your own copy of Understanding Movies, copies can be found on eBay and Amazon as well as in some bookstores, though you should be wary of which edition you are purchasing. The book continues to be updated to this day with information about modern films. It was most recently printed in its 13th edition, July of 2013. The third edition paperback edition I own, which is the version reviewed above, was published in 1982 and found at an antique mall.