True Story: One of our very first jobs was at a local television station, and part of our executive duties (ha ha) was to purge files in a forgotten cabinet. This task had obviously been put off for years; the cabinet was so full of paper it nearly exploded when you opened the drawers.
It was while we were knee-deep in these outdated files that we unexpectedly found the complete script of Casablanca.
Now, this script looked like it had been photocopied a zillion times. But to us, it was like finding a Fabergé egg at a rummage sale.
We were reminded of this when we read Lessons in the Dark by classic movie blogger (and author) John Greco.
Lessons is a guide to some of the notable classic Hollywood films – notable because they are as relevant to our society today as they were when first released. Remarkably, a few of these films have become even more timely over the years.
“Life and art repeat themselves,” says Greco in the introduction. “Classic films help us remember the past, both the good and the bad. Sometimes they even predict the future as it did in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957) and Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976)…”
By compiling the films he’s chosen in this format, Greco shows us that watching classic film isn’t an archaeological exercise. Some of these films tell us more about ourselves today than we may at first realize.
In Lessons, films are divided into categories that reflect many of issues we grapple with today, including social injustice, the effects of war and the influence of the media.
Greco analyzes these films and comes to some surprising conclusions, such as his examination of the 1952 western, High Noon. The movie, says Greco, appeals to people on opposite ends of the political landscape. “High Noon does not fit snugly into any one philosophy,” he writes (p. 72).
Because Greco is also a photographer, he provides interesting observations about cinematography. For example, he talks about director William Wyler’s style in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). “Wyler’s use of the camera has always been subtle,” he says. “His point of view is always focused on the story. The audience [is] connected by what is unfolding on the screen” (p. 27).
He also analyzes James Wong Howe’s style in Seconds (1966). “[Howe’s] cinematography is remarkable,” he writes, “his use of wide angle lens, fish eye lens and hand held camera shots were innovative, disturbing and today still way ahead of much of what we see on screen” (p. 80).
See? It’s things like this that make a person feel like a real Smarty Pants when reading Lessons.
Of course, any collection of film writing is subjective, a reflection of the author’s opinions. There is no such thing as The Definitive Guide. But Greco’s is worth reading because he’s showing us the relevancy of film as art, which makes it utterly cool.
We wish, in a way, we had found this guide many years ago when we were still novices in exploring classic film. It would have shown us how to think more critically about film, and how to look at scene composition. We feel we would have been much further ahead with this guide.
In fact, if we had found a copy of Lessons in the Dark in that over-stuffed filing cabinet years ago, we would have been just as thrilled as finding the script of Casablanca.
The author sent us an advance reading copy to review.