How to read a movie
This all began for me in about 1969, when I started teaching a film class in the University of Chicago's Fine Arts program. I knew a Chicago film critic, teacher and booker named John West, who lived in a wondrous apartment filled with film prints, projectors, books, posters and stills. "You know how football coaches use a stop-action 16mm projector to study game films?" he asked me. "You can use that approach to study films. Just pause the film and think about what you see. You ought to try it with your film class."
I did. The results were beyond my imagination. I wasn't the teacher and my students weren't the audience, we were all in this together. The ground rules: Anybody could call out "stop!" and discuss what we were looking at, or whatever had just occurred to them. A couple of years later, when I started doing shot-by-shots at the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the conference founder, Howard Higman, described this process as "democracy in the dark." Later he gave it a name: Cinema Interruptus. Perhaps it sounds grueling, but in fact it can be exciting and almost hypnotic. At Boulder for more than 30 years, I made my way through a film for two hours every afternoon for a week, and the sessions had to be moved to an auditorium to accommodate attendance that approached a thousand.
One thing I quickly discovered was that even much smaller audiences can contain someone who can answer any question. In "
The Third Man
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," if a character spoke German, there would be a German speaker. If a scene required medical knowledge, there would be a doctor. A Japanese film at Boulder turned up Japanese speakers, experts on the society, students of the director. There would be somebody who could tell you what a Ford truck could and couldn't do. Or a rabbi, a physicist, an artist, a musician. When Criterion asked me to record a commentary track on Ozu's "
," I reflected that I didn't know a fraction of what Donald Richie or David Bordwell knew about Ozu (and Richie was already doing the film's silent version). How to talk for two hours about the visuals of a film where every scene is a single static shot? I took the film to Boulder, and together we discovered there was a rich abundance of things to say.