Book Reviews

The Cool Kids’ Guide to Classic Film

Andy Griffith in A Face in the Crowd (1957). Image: New York Times
Andy Griffith in A Face in the Crowd (1957). Image: New York Times

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It was while we were knee-deep in these outdated files that we unexpectedly found the complete script of Casablanca.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.

Gene Evans in The Steel Helmet (1957). Image: The End of Cinema
Gene Evans in The Steel Helmet (1957). Image: The End of Cinema

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.

Jane Fonda in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? Image: contioutra.com
Jane Fonda in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) Image: contioutra.com

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.

Notes:

  • You can purchase a copy of Lessons in the Dark (Kindle edition) from Amazon HERE.
  • Check out John Greco’s fab blog, Twenty Four Frames, HERE.

The author sent us an advance reading copy to review.

Lessons in the Dark Cover-Copy

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20 thoughts on “The Cool Kids’ Guide to Classic Film

  1. Sounds like a great book, Ruth, and one that I’d find fascinating. Well, I hope so. I bought it and it’s now waiting for me on my iPad. A copy of the script from Casablanca? Really? Now that would be something to read, no matter how many copies removed from the original it was.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yes, the Casablanca script was such an exciting discovery. I didn’t get much work done during the rest of the day, I’m sure.

      I hope you enjoy the book. John Grecco has some really interesting observations, and he’s chosen an eclectic array of films.

      Like

    1. John has assembled a truly interesting collection of films, some of which wouldn’t have occurred to me to connect with issues we face today. (Whoa! Is that an awkward sentence!) He’s given me some films to add to my Must Watch List!

      Like

  2. I was interested in, and glad for the fact that Greco mentions the camera work in SECONDS, which I’ve always thought was unforgettably haunting and unsettling—a film that should be seen more. Another book for my list! Thanks for the recommendation!

    Liked by 1 person

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