Most helpful critical review
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the weakest kind of film scholarship
on June 28, 2014
The Art of Watching Films, by Dennis Petrie and Joe Boggs, is one of the poorest textbooks I've come across. While the sections dealing solely with the technical aspects of filmmaking are sound (aspect ratios, shot descriptions, etc.), the rest of the book presents its readers with either blatant misinformation or author bias disguised as fact. For an example of the former, Let's take a look at this excerpt from p. 45:
"Flash-forward, a filmed sequence that jumps from the present into the future, has been tried in such films as Easy Rider, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and Love! Valour! Compassion!, and at the end of the HBO series Six Feet Under. It is doubtful whether this device will ever gain widespread acceptance."
This rather bold declaration will surprise anyone who's ever seen Goodfellas, Citizen Kane ("Merry Christmas..."--twenty-year flash-forward--"...and a Happy New Year!"), Breaking Bad, Forrest Gump, American Me, and Backdraft, just to name a few. To say it's "doubtful" that the flash-forward--one of the oldest and most common cinematic storytelling techniques--may not "ever gain widespread acceptance" isn't just incorrect--it's conspicuously, obviously incorrect.
Other mistakes are even more bizarre, suggesting that the authors may not have even seen some of the films they reference. In a section on types of stories, Petrie and Boggs give examples of "The Way Things Never Were And Never Will Be." Here's what they say about fantasy films:
"By using their special brand of artistry, filmmakers can create on the screen an imaginary world that makes us willingly accept incredible settings, characters, and events in such films as Edward Scissorhands, Be Kind Rewind, Ratatouille, and In The Loop."
The inclusion of In The Loop with these others is baffling. For those who aren't familiar with it, In The Loop is a dark comedy about the US and UK collaborating on the invasion of a Middle-East country. It certainly doesn't take place in an "imaginary world," and there are no conspicuous special effects or fantastical scenarios. Quite the contrary--the film's cinéma vérité approach and use of realistic characters and settings are what make it so effective. In other words, it's the polar opposite of something like Edward Scissorhands, which uses heightened characters and exaggerated settings to tell a modern fairy tale. That the authors picked In The Loop instead of a thousand more relevant examples for their fantasy category (the Lord of the Rings series, any of the Harry Potter movies, The Neverending Story, etc., etc.) makes one question their judgment as well as their understanding of film.
If The Art of Watching Films hadn't already lost its credibility with its egregious factual errors, it does so irrevocably when it chooses to venerate certain films while taking jabs at others, all under the pretense of academic instruction. Even casual film students will likely be put-off by the authors' repeated statements of opinion in what's supposed to be an impartial textbook. Take the following passage regarding special effects:
"The potential power of such visuals, however, often temps filmmakers to overuse them, to let them overwhelm the story. The Thing (1982) featured so many transformation sequences that the internal suspense the director was striving for was destroyed, and so much focus was placed on Blade Runner's grimly detailed futurescape that its characters sometimes seem lost in it."
Wow. Was the suspense in John Carpenter's The Thing really "destroyed" by the effects? Did the characters really "seem lost" (whatever that means) in Blade Runner? The authors seem intent to annoy virtually every reader who's seen either of those two films, which are considered among sci-fi aficionados as some of the finest in the genre. In fact, The Thing and Blade Runner specifically are frequently cited as examples, often in the same breath as Alien, of successful integration of special effects with story. Either the authors weren't aware of that fact or they didn't care. They could have made their point about over-indulgent special effects much more successfully with, say, the Transformers movies. But even then, readers of academic texts aren't usually looking for author opinion. A more reputable textbook would have phrased its arguments along the lines of "Many critics felt that..." or "In an interview, the director said that..." Unsupported criticisms are suspect in an allegedly academic work. Unsupported criticisms about some of the most celebrated films in their respective genres make the authors look foolish.
Adding insult to injury, the films lauded by Petrie and Boggs are often disliked and ridiculed by cinephiles. Here's a passage they should have given more consideration to before going to press:
"The exciting action in Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull gives us little time for reflection. We are kept on the edge of our chairs throughout and, by film's end, are totally exhausted by the constant, fast-paced tension."
Again, one can't help but think of at least a dozen better examples they could have used to make their point. Petrie and Boggs may very well have been kept on the "edge of [their] chairs," but fans are in near-unanimous agreement that Crystal Skull is the weakest entry in the Indiana Jones series. It's even the source of the popular meme "nuke the fridge," which Urban Dictionary defines as "a colloquialism used to refer to the moment in a film series that is so incredible that it lessens the excitement of subsequent scenes that rely on more understated action or suspense, and it becomes apparent that a certain installment is not as good as previous installments, due to ridiculous or low quality storylines, events or characters." In a 2011 interview, Spielberg himself (with characteristic good humor), expressed his pride that "nuke the fridge" had replaced "jump the shark" as the phrase used to identify the low watermark of a series. Doesn't that make Petrie and Boggs look just a little naive in their gushing endorsement of Crystal Skull?
I realize you may not have a choice as to whether or not you purchase The Art of Watching Films. It's probably on the syllabus for a film class, and your teacher's requiring you to pick it up. If that's the case, I urge you to take what the book says with about a pound of salt (not to mention everything your teacher says, as I don't think a serious film teacher would ever assign this book).
If you're a teacher yourself, and you're looking for something for your students to read, I'd encourage you to look elsewhere. Not only is this book exorbitantly priced ($123.39 as of this review's posting), but you could easily make your students a course reader from excerpts from much better books--Awake In The Dark by Roger Ebert, Nightmare Movies by Kim Newman, Who The Devil Made It by Peter Bogdanovich, and so on--or just assign those books in their entirety. They're a fraction of the cost of The Art of Watching Films, and they're serious works of film scholarship.