Movies and Film

When Is a Movie a Film?

These are impossible questions to answer with any degree of certainty, of course. On the one hand, if you look at the sum total of American films made in any given decade, whether the 1920s or the 1990s, you'll find a much greater percentage of bad, banal, uninteresting, and poorly directed movies than you will of good, skillful, well-written, satisfying ones. The same holds true of foreign versus American films: For all its aesthetic leadership in the medium, Paris has produced just as many awful flicks as Hollywood.

The problem is that good, well-received, or money-making movies from America's past are much more likely to have survived the savages of history to end up on the shelves at your local video store. And only those European films that certain distribution executives feel can "make it" in the America market will go through the expensive process of subtitling, international licensing, and export across the Atlantic.

Filmophile's Lexicon

Throughout this we'll be throwing dozens of important movie terms at you from our "Filmophile's Lexicon." These first four, though, shouldn't be taken as hard-and-fast definitions: They're entirely subjective we use them interchangeably at times, and you'd do best to think of them as flexible, malleable, and always up for grabs.

Movie: The general, nonjudgmental term for any run-of-the-mill motion picture.

Flick: A movie with no artistic aspirations whatsoever that's made purely for entertainment's sake.

Film: A motion picture whose age, artistry, budget, or nationally distinguishes it as a culturally significant work (thus the most subjective term of all!).

Cinema: The motion picture industry at large; movies, flicks, and film in general.

Nevertheless, one of the purposes of this will be to help you develop a sense of distinction: a sensitivity to the differences between standard-fare movies and aesthetically challenging films. So pay attention as we take you through three cinematic subcategories that subsequent sections of this will examine in more detail.

Director's Cut

Today's great directors know how to learn from the past, and so should you. Over the main door of our university's library is an inscription that reads, "He who knows only his own generation remains always a child." Pretty harsh, but it's true in a fundamental way: Without learning from history you'll never achieve a sufficient understanding of the present in which you and everyone you know live.

Old Movies

As you'll see throughout "French Film History," we're very keen to hook you on silent-era cinema, whether American, European, or Asian. "Why bother?" you might be asking. "Why should I spend so much time learning about ancient movie history when I could be casting my net more widely in the present? And given how much contemporary stuff is out there that I'll never have time to see anyway, what's the point of delving so deeply into film history?"

To be frank with you, that's a little like asking why you should bother taking in the Louvre while on a visit to Paris when where are so many great nightclubs to visit!

In this we've stressed films that were made sometimes as much as 60, 70, or even 80 years ago, from D. W. Griffith's epochal The Birth of a Nation (1915) to the benshi-narrated films of pre-World War II Japan to the postwar New Wave of 1950s France. Today's great directors stand at the end of a rich and enduring tradition of worldwide filmmaking that they have inherited as an integral part of the medium they've mastered. It's up to you to learn how to watch their films through the historical lens this will teach you how to develop.

Foreign Films

Second Take

This is not asking you to go out and become an expert on Eastern European Cold War dramas or to master the cinematic art of post-Maoist China. While we have our own preferences, the whole point of this is to serve as a selective guide to finding the kinds of movies that you like, and to encourage you to expand your horizon beyond the usual Blockbuster new releases fare.

"It's a foreign film." This simple sentence is enough to send chills of anticipated boredom and entrapment down the spines of many American moviegoers. At the end of a hectic work week, you want a fast-paced thriller with a clearly unfolding plot, or a chick flick that you don't have to work very hard to understand. The last thing you want is a 1950s Romanian art film with white subtitles that hardly stand out against the too-bright background anyway.

Fair enough. But you wouldn't have picked up with this in the first place if you weren't at least willing to give foreign film an honest try, right?

But don't take our word for it. To whet your appetite for foreign films, the next time you're in the video store (this evening after dinner, say), pick up a 1959 picture by French director Jean-Luc Godard called Breathless (the French title À Bout de Souffle). We'll have more to say about this movie in "French Film History," but for now keep in mind that it's one of the hallmark works of an aesthetic movement in post-World War II French film called the New Wave. Sounds pretty dull, huh?

Second Take

When you go out to rent Breathless, be sure to request the 1959 Godard version. There's a 1983 Jim McBride remake starring Richard Gere that you'll definitely want to avoid (and besides, it doesn't count as a foreign film!

Don't bet on it. Breathless is actually a complex, absolutely gripping and very fast-paced story of cops and robber, car theft, love, and betrayal. We guarantee you'll be left "breathless" by this classic French movie and salivating for more.

Foreign films such as Breathless and the dozens of others discussed in the following sections are wonderful as movies in their own right. Just as importantly, though, they open windows onto other culture in ways that no other medium can. They have served as some of the most important means of cultural exchange during the last century, providing a form of ambassadorship between the nations of the world in which you now have the opportunity to participate yourself. Don't chicken out!

Avant-Garde Cinema

Speaking of chickening out, you'll also read quite a bit in this about some of the various avant-garde film movements that have characterized the last century in world cinema. As you'll soon learn, though, many films that were loosely considered "avant-garde" in their own day—D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, to use the most notable example—became quite run-of-the-mill once their techniques were absorbed into mainstream cinema.

Filmophile's Lexicon

An avant-garde is a group of artists or intellectuals that develops innovative, experimental, or radical concepts and aesthetic changes in an art form.

Whatever the case, it's crucial to cultivate an appreciation of the avant-garde as part of the learning experience you get out of this. The avant-garde film is inextricably rooted to the intellectual history of its movement, you can learn quite a bit about the history of ideas in general if you push yourself to pay attention to the artistic, aesthetic, and political statements being made in any film you watch, whether avant-garde or not.

This can be very difficult to do, of course. In an age when many of our politicians speak knowingly and contemptuously of a "cultural elite" in Washington and Hollywood, it's easy to fall prey to this kind of widespread anti-intellectualism. Don't let yourself! Insist on your right to interpret any movie you watch in as rigorous and intelligent a way you can. After all, the filmmakers were thinking hard about how to put the picture together, and it's the best compliment you can pay an avant-garde director to allow his or her film to challenge your mind!

Director's Cut

Stan Brakhage (1933-2003) was an American experimental filmmaker. Though he had a loyal following and was generally regarded as a great film artist, his pictures (like those of many avant-garde filmmakers) employed styles and techniques that will probably prevent his oeuvre from ever being assimilated into commercial movie-making.

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order the e-book book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website. You can also purchase this book at