Textbook Review – “Movies and Meaning”

Here’s one of our rare textbook reviews. This one, however, isn’t about the hard sciences as most are, although it should still appeal to a fair portion of our readership.

General Information

Title: Movies and Meaning

Author: Stephen Prince

Original Publication Date: May 14, 2003

ISBN: 020538112X

Cover Price: None; around $50 US

Buy from: Amazon.com or Amazon.ca

Subject Matter

This is an introduction to film from a technical perspective. It discusses editing, camera work, sound design and so forth in addition to interpreting the content on screen. It also discusses various filmmakers and movements from around the world, and some of the more prominent film theories. Additionally, with Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring on the cover, you know it won’t be overly pompous, ignoring the Hollywood standard (well constructed, if sometimes shallow) type of filmmaking that some of my other texts have practically ignored.

High Point

There are minor redundancies in most of the chapters. Our class isn’t following the textbook in order, so this made later chapters very readable, even when they dealt with material from an earlier chapter we hadn’t covered yet.

Low Point

In order to provide enough details to discuss examples, the author has to give away some major plot points. If you have any desire to see movies like The French Connection (and you should) or The Searchers (which I would only recommend to fans of westerns) you should see them once before reading the text. Be aware that discussions of movies you haven’t seen will be prone to revealing information that you may not want to know.

The Scores

The clarity of the textbook was excellent. The most fundamental ideas are explained at length, with frames from films when appropriate. The explanations of the really important stuff doesn’t depend on having seen any particular film, to make sure you’ll be able to sort them out regardless of your viewing background. Some of the later chapters have more subjective subjects discussing particular filmmakers, and those can become dependent upon seeing a particular film. I give it 5 out of 6.

The structure was very well laid out. Each chapter has clearly stated objectives, a list of major terms, content divided clearly by sections, subsections, and so forth, and a summary at the end with suggestions for further reading. The need to cross-reference was minimized by the redundancy I mentioned above. The sequence of chapters is very logical, moving from the most basic and easily noticed elements of film construction, through the technical aspects, and then out into the economic aspects, followed by the theoretical aspects and the ideas of various filmmakers. I give it 5 out of 6.

The text is loaded with applicable examples. They are very well chosen, too; Prince seems to actively seek out the most popular movies available to demonstrate the techniques in question, which makes it that much more likely that the reader is already familiar with the work being discussed. I give it 6 out of 6.

The exercises category is one which may need modification when we’re dealing with textbooks for non-quantitative subjects. There is no attempt made to ask students to reproduce these tricks on their own, nor are there any specific exercises for students to work on. An insecure reader would have a difficult time discerning how much learning is actually going on while reading the text. I give it 2 out of 6, saved from a 1 only because the text seems aimed at the film viewer rather than the filmmaker, in which case Prince may not expect his readers to be able to reproduce these techniques when they have finished the text.

The completeness was very high. In some cases, particular examples I would have liked to see weren’t there (such as sci-fi, fantasy, and/or film noir in the “genre” discussions, or Kubrick in the “auteur” discussions) but I will have to let that slide, as it is unreasonable to expect a truly exhaustive list of these areas. (The book would be considerably longer than the roughly 400 pages it is now.) I give it 5 out of 6.

The editing was very good through much of the book. One problem I noted was in the “genre” section, in which sci-fi and film noir are both listed as major genres in the introduction, but are replaced by horror in the extended discussions of the major genres. I suspect that this is merely some oversight in the editing process, and that an earlier edition discussed sci-fi and film noir in place of horror. Still, people like the ones who read a site like this one would likely be disappointed to see the promise of a science fiction discussion go unkept. The other moment worthy of note was the use of a figure from 1990 when discussing how the box office dollar gets divided. That division has changed since the introduction of digital sound. Assuming the theater I worked at was typical, the local theaters don’t often get the 20% indicated here, and 10% of that box office dollar is no longer enough to cover operating expenses. I give it 5 out of 6.

Overall, it’s a solid and useful book for introducing oneself to film. The major elements of a film’s construction are clearly laid out in a manner that doesn’t require examples, and then examples are provided anyway to help cement the learning. I’m hoping that I’ll have assimilated enough material from this text to improve the reviews I write of older material (which I won’t be seeing in theaters, and will therefore have a chance to watch more than once before the review.) I give it 5 out of 6.

In total, Movies and Meaning receives 33 out of 42.