- The Power of Film
First, full disclosure: Almost thirty years ago, while I was a doctoral student at UCLA Film School, I studied with Howard Suber and was his teaching associate. I considered him to be a mentor and friend, although I have not had much contact with him since 1981. That said, if The Power of Film were not up to his high professional standards, my own professional standards would compel me to say so—or not to write a review of his recent book. Fortunately, this excellent volume contains all the wit and wisdom I have always associated with Dr. Suber, and I can recommend it without reservation.
The Power of Film is a guidebook, a textbook, an encyclopedia, and a source of information about dozens of the most important aspects of motion picture storytelling: script, characters, directors, editing, sound, music, and everything else that goes into the making of the great classic films. Arranged alphabetically, the entries encapsulate each topic with rare brevity. As such, the volume is also a reference book structured from A to Z. All entries are defined and categorized. Many subjects take up only a page or so, with a few running to three to four pages. In all, more than 250 topics are covered.
Suber's vocabulary is erudite without being pedantic. His range of cinematic, literary, philosophical, scientific, political, religious, mythological, and etymological references is encyclopedic, but there is none of the academic jargon that too often passes for sound scholarship. Instead, the book presents the carefully considered, well-written, and often witty ruminations of a man who has studied the dramatic (and comedic) structure of cinema for decades. Most important, it explains how we are affected by what we see (and hear) on the screen.
Suber covers a broad canon of major movies—sixty-eight in all—to illustrate, exemplify, and substantiate his views on how a motion picture is constructed, and he comments on many others en passim. The introduction establishes the criteria for selection. Suber analyzes not just the films he likes or thinks should be important but "American films of the sound era," specifically "memorable popular films" (xxiv–xv).
Suber writes for a wide audience: filmmakers, screenwriters, scholars, and ordinary film lovers. The alphabetical structure may put some readers off; however, the volume works through a process of accretion. If you read from start to finish (and it is hard to put down), points get reinforced, light bulbs go off, and understanding ensues. After that first reading, the volume is available as an accessible and ready reference. If you want to remember what Suber says about tragedy, backstories, destiny, musicals, subplots, or documentaries, you can just look up that topic alphabetically. In addition, [End Page 65] like Charles Foster Kane's financial holdings, each entry is "extensively cross-indexed," so that under "Coming of Age Films" you'll be referred to related sections on "Individuation," "Transformation," and "Genres."
Taken together, the result is a build of knowledge about the hows and whys of cinematic storytelling and filmmaking that is hard to beat. One Internet reviewer argued that Suber does not cover every possible topic related to film structure. However, Suber's goal was not to write a comprehensive how-to book for screen-writers (that ground has been well plowed by others) but to lay out the principles of storytelling in the cinema.
To give you an idea of what Suber has included, here are samples from a dozen entries, in alphabetical order:
ACTS: "There are those who claim that a film must have a three-act structure, and . . . that Aristotle gave this 'rule' to us. In fact there were no acts . . . in Greek drama, and Aristotle did not talk about acts at all" (10). Shakespeare used a five-act structure on occasion, and many contemporary plays have only two acts. Thus, Suber raises the question of whether a classic dramatic structure is necessary in writing films.
ACTS, FIRST: "In a great many films, most of the characterization occurs in the first act, the second act is...