In 1936, art historian Erwin Panofsky had an insight

To Students
In 1936, art historian Erwin Panofsky had an insight
into the movies as a form of popular art—an observation that is more true today than it was when he
wrote it:
If all the serious lyrical poets, composers, painters,
and sculptors were forced by law to stop their activities, a rather small fraction of the general public
would become aware of the fact and a still smaller
fraction would seriously regret it. If the same thing
were to happen with the movies, the social consequences would be catastrophic.1
Decades later, we would hardly know what to do
without movies. They are a major presence in our
lives and, like personal computers, perhaps one of
the most influential products of our technological
age. In fact, some commentators feel that movies
are too popular, too influential, too much a part of
our lives. Since their invention a little more than a
hundred years ago, movies have become one of the
world’s largest industries and the most powerful
art form of our time.
A source of entertainment that makes us see
beyond the borders of our previous experience,
movies have always possessed powers to amaze,
frighten, and enlighten us. They challenge our
senses, emotions, and intellect, pushing us to say,
often passionately, that we love (or hate) them.
Because they arouse our most public and private
feelings—and can overwhelm us with their sights
and sounds—it’s easy to be excited by movies. The
challenge is to join that enthusiasm with understanding, to say why we feel so strongly about particular movies. That’s one reason why this book
encourages you to go beyond movies’ stories, to
understand how those stories are told. Movies are
not reality, after all—only illusions of reality—and
(as with most works of art) their form and content
work as an interrelated system, one that asks us to
accept it as a given rather than as the product of a
process. But as you read this book devoted to looking at movies—that is, not just passively watching
them, but actively considering the relation of their
form and their content—remember that there is no
one way to look at any film, no one critical perspective that is inherently better than another, no one
meaning that you can insist on after a single
screening. Indeed, movies are so diverse in their
nature that no single approach could ever do them
This is not a book on film history, but it includes
relevant historical information and covers a broad
range of movies; not a book on theory, but it introduces some of the most essential approaches to
interpreting movies; not a book about filmmaking,
but one that explains production processes, equipment, and techniques; not a book of criticism, but
one that shows you how to think and write about
the films you study in your classes.
Everything we see on the movie screen—
everything that engages our senses, emotions, and
minds—results from hundreds of decisions affecting the interrelation of formal cinematic elements:
narrative, composition, design, cinematography,
acting, editing, and sound. Organized around chapters devoted to those formal elements, this book
encourages you to look at movies with an understanding and appreciation of how filmmakers make
the decisions that help them tell a story and create
1 Erwin Panofsky, “Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures,”
in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, ed. Leo
Braudy and Marshall Cohen, 5th ed. (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1999), p. 280.
the foundation for its meaning. After all, in the real
life of the movies, on the screen, it is not historians,
theorists, or critics—important and valuable as
their work is—but filmmakers who continually
shape and revise our understanding and appreciation of film art.
The second century of movie history is well
under way. The entire process of making, exhibiting, and archiving movies is fast becoming a digital
enterprise, especially outside of the mainstream
industry. As the technology for making movies continues to evolve, however, the principles of film art
covered in this book remain essentially the same.
The things you learn about these principles and the
analytic skills you hone as you read this book will
help you look at motion pictures intelligently and
perceptively throughout your life, no matter which
medium delivers those pictures to you.

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