Exploring the Film (Story 1)

 Posted: 7 Feb 2022
 Staff: Al Sjoerdsma (E-Mail)

Background

In the Bullpen Bulletins published in Amazing Spider-Man #72, May 1969, Stan wrote, “The prestigious publishing house of Geo. A. Pflaum has recently produced a fascinating new book, entitled Exploring the Film by William Kuhns and Robert Stanley. What has that to do with Marvel, you ask? Well, there’s an entire chapter devoted to pictorial angles – and it features twenty full pages of Spider-Man battling the Rhino as an illustrative example! Incidentally, author Bob Stanley visited with Smiley a few days ago and revealed himself to be another merry Marvel madman – as well as one of the best-informed and truly with-it academicians we’ve met since Honest Irv!”

Stan’s reference to Bob Stanley being a “with-it academician” is nearly all I can find on him or his co-author. He is mentioned in an “Oakton Authors” section for Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Illinois, citing “Exploring the Film” along with some journal articles but I don’t know if that necessarily means he taught there. William Kuhns is credited on thriftbooks.com and other places as the author of a few other books including “The Moving Picture Book” and “Exploring Television” but I can’t tell you any more than that.

A review of the book by Albert A. Anderson in Art Education says that “Exploring the Film is designed to be used by high school students in conjunction with a six-weeks film unit in English, humanities and visual arts courses.” It is in this spirit, perhaps, that the Spider-Man story is included.

In an Authors’ Note to the book, Kuhns and Stanley say “the emphasis in this book has been upon duplicating – as far as possible in a book – the experience of seeing and knowing good films…To this purpose, the book has a design which we hope you will find lively, and gives more emphasis to understanding the experience of a film than to the specific techniques that went into the making of the film. There are no questions at the end of chapters; there isn’t even an index…It’s a book to look at; and there’s a great Spiderman [sic[ comic if, in spite of all our efforts, things get a bit tedious.”

So, now we know the authors’ aim. Let’s see how they did.

Story 'Rhino on the Rampage'

  Exploring the Film (Story 1)
Summary: William Kuhns & Robert Stanley's study of film. It includes a reprint of ASM #43.

Let’s begin by quoting Albert Anderson’s review again: “There are fifteen chapters in the text, including sections on such topics as the content of film, how films are made, film history, film language, film criticism, and making a film. A chapter is also devoted to television. The design of the book is visually attractive and it is amply illustrated with stills from classic and contemporary motion pictures.”

In Chapter 1, Why Study Movies? the authors use the film Nobody Waved Goodbye to illustrate that “many viewers are not sensitive to the real language of film and miss much of what the movie is attempting to communicate.” (I have never heard of this film but a look at its Wikipedia entry reveals that its main characters are teenagers, which may be why the authors have chosen it.) In other words, “you must look at movies and television shows and try to see what’s there.” If you still don’t get it, there’s a full page of two eyes looking out from behind large psychedelic script that says “SEE” and, on the opposing page, a stacked tower, like a Jenga game, that says, “Look See Look See Look See Look See.”

In Chapter 2,What’s in a Movie?, we learn several (possibly obvious) things.

  1. “A film lives or dies by its use of motion.”
  2. “Seeing a movie in a theater means experiencing the film as an environment – a totally surrounding experience.”
  3. Film has a marvelous capacity for arousing the sympathy of the audience.” And techniques such as subjective cameras “can be highly effective in building up sympathy.”

Chapter 3 is The Shaping Forces of Film Language and examines “camera, film, projector” and the history behind them. “Technically then, the entire production and viewing of a movie rests on two basic principles: that a camera can catch successive, tiny fragments of motion; and that the human eye will see these fragments as a continuous moving picture.”

Chapter 4, How a Film is Made shows that the process for a big-budget film begins with the producer and his money. “With, finally, a producer, a director and an associate producer, the basic plans for the making of a film can be outlined.” From there, it moves to writers, an assistant director, casting, set design, cameramen, sound engineers, lighting design. Actors come in, a shooting script and schedule are designed. “In the making of a carefully handled film, if one day yields three minutes of a final film, it can be considered a successful day.” On then, to dailies, to a rough cut, to editing and so on. But, the authors assure us, “there are no rigid rules on the process of making a film” and “Some very good, even some great, movies have been made on shoestring budgets. And millions and millions have been poured into supercolossal flops. The important thing about making a film is the desire to communicate effectively in visual language.”

Chapter 5, then, covers Visual Language and deals with five numbered big-font requirements so that “each shot should bring out the inner qualities of the subject matter.”

  1. Framing
  2. Placement
  3. Arrangement
  4. Lighting
  5. Color

It’s in #2 that we find our reason for writing this review. As Kuhns and Stanley say, “One of the best sources of dynamic pictorial angles is the comics. The artists designing comics have often sought the best position from which to state the action in a panel. Consequently, the angles they use are often highly original and highly expressive. In the Spiderman [sic] comic included here, what are some angles that strike you as being especially strong and expressive, and why? Would these be possible in a film?

The Spidey comic reprinted is Rhino on the Rampage! from ASM #43, December 1966. It is reprinted in black and white with no cover and it has been reduced from the original 7 x 10-inch size to 4 ¾ x 7 inches which would allow two pages to fit on each 10 ½ x 8-inch page of the book but, instead, only one page of the comic is reproduced on each page, creating a half-page of white on each page. I didn’t do a precise comparison of the two but it seems to be an exact reprint. It even has the indicia and the “Watch Marvel Super-Heroes on TV!” blurbs on the bottoms of the pages. As for those “angles that strike you as being especially strong and expressive,” I’m going to go with page 7 panel 6 with Spidey swinging down at the Rhino and page 12 panel 2 with the policeman moving in to rescue Spidey. In the first, we get a low-angle shot with the focus on the Rhino who is in the foreground. Spidey is swooping down from his perch on a wall. On page 7 panel 1, the shot is from above Spidey looking down on the Rhino, putting Spidey in the dominant position but in this panel, the Rhino exhibits strength and confidence with Spidey putting himself on the same level as the Rhino by swinging down. The position of the “camera” changes our opinion. Spidey looked to be in charge 5 panels ago. Now it doesn’t seem so sure.

Page 12 panel 2 is a “drone” shot above and behind the policeman. Everyone looks small here but the Rhino is charging at a staggered Spidey and the cop and he looks particularly fast. Does the policeman have time to get to Spidey and pull him out of the way of the Rhino’s charge? From this angle, we see the distance but it doesn’t look like much. The angle emphasizes the speed, the shortness of time, and the danger.

Would these be possible in a film? Absolutely! Although maybe less so back in 1969.

In the Arrangement section, Kuhns and Stanley mention Spidey again, saying, “The arrangement of people and objects on the screen is important for directing our attention, and for suggesting the meaning of what is happening on the screen. Here again, comic books can be illuminating. In the Spiderman [sic] comic, you can tell about the action (and even the situation) simply from the arrangement of characters and objects.” But, for me, it’s too late. Now that we’ve gotten past the comic, my attention is drifting. So, let’s get through the rest of it quickly before I lose focus altogether.

Chapter 6 is The Language of Motion. “Movement…is the essence of a motion picture” and “A film can move in four different ways.”

  1. Subject, generally the actors.
  2. Background.
  3. Camera movement.
  4. Done through editing.

Clear? On to…

Chapter 7, A Language of Sound. “Sound must always be part of the total film language – never a language attempting to carry the load by itself.”

Chapter 8 is Non-People Characters and People Characters in which the authors demonstrate how places and things can be characters, using shots of the house in The Haunting, the bi-plane in North by Northwest and the balloons in The Red Balloon as examples. As for the “people characters,” “the crucial difference between screen acting and stage” is that “in front of a stage, we are kept conscious that this play is being acted out…But a film moves so quickly and seems so real that we ordinarily do forget acting is involved.” The conclusion for both people and non-people characters is, “If they’re not fascinating to watch, they’re probably not worth watching.”

Chapter 9, Filmic Drama begins with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, saying, “it is a strange, haunting film, and probably one of Hitchcock’s finest,” which was not the general consensus back in 1969. The point here is that “Vertigo is an excellent example of filmic drama – drama in which not only characters are involved, but also all the controlling forces in a movie: music, camera, lighting, editing, setting.”

Chapter 10, The Fiction Film tells us “that the fiction film, by its very existence, makes a statement about life” and that “the fiction film more than any other kind of film, must achieve an organic unity…Here the entire film is prepared in advance: the film makers can control cameras, settings, story, actors, action, sound – everything. And the final effect should be an organic unity – a unity much more complex and involved than that of other kinds of film.” The chapter finishes with a section of “film and novel” discussing why some adaptations work and some don’t and finishing with, “John Ford made one of the greatest films ever drawn from a novel, The Grapes of Wrath…Ford was asked how he did it. ‘I never read the book,’ he said.”

Chapter 11 is The Film as Fact: The Documentary where “the very making of a documentary film involves the insertion of someone’s opinions, feelings, attitudes. The documentary is partly fact; it is also partly interpretation.”

Chapter 12, Say it with Film: “Movies speak. And it is important to know not only the language in which they can speak best but also what they are saying. The full experience of a movie demands the attempt to understand, to question the meaning the film maker had in mind. For the film, finally, is not about camera angles or editing; it is about man and who man is.”

Chapter 13, Film Criticism: “Film criticism doesn’t mean that someone gripes about everything he didn’t like in a film. Many of the things people don’t like in films…actually help the films, make then better movies…Criticism is the ability to judge with intelligence, feeling, and above all with accuracy the quality of a film. The focus in criticism is the film. The man who says, ‘I didn’t like that movie’ and goes on to list the reasons why he didn’t like it may be on the road to being a film critic – but he isn’t one yet. On the other hand, the man who says, ‘It was a strong movie with good photography, but it had a weak plot,’ comes much closer. He is concerned primarily with the movie, not with the way he felt about it…These three guidelines…can direct some kind of critical reaction to films: What was the film maker’s purpose? Did he use filmic language creatively? And where he used filmic language, was it expressive?” Finally, “Rules for film criticism are on the following two pages…” both of which are blank.

Chapter 14: Television: “In a theater, there is nothing we see but the picture; everything else is dark; the picture is our environment. But a television show is almost never the whole environment. The screen is only part of a bigger environment – and usually an environment in which distractions are frequent. These distractions, like commercials, keep television watching from becoming the involving experience that film watching in a theater can be. Or put it this way: the kind of involvement is different.”

Chapter 15, To Make a Film is our last. “Three important rules to keep in mind in preparing and shooting your film: clarity, comprehension, continuity” but, finally, “These remarks are a very rapid view of the work involved in making a movie. For a really well-made movie there is much, much more to be learned: but making a movie is the best way to learn. The important thing is that you make a movie: get a camera, film, and shoot. Everything after that is yours. Who knows? It can be… [in a two page spread of a huge font with fireworks going off within the letters]…GREAT!”

General Comments

Granted, the Spidey reprint has shrunk and become black-and-white but it’s all there and what a pleasant surprise it would be to find it in your textbook when you’re taking a class on film. That’s the thing to remember here; that this book is a textbook and it does a nice job of spicing things up and keeping things visual, as befits a book about film. As such, it is filled with photos from films (all in black-and-white, like the Spidey reprint), that tower over the text. The text itself often becomes part of the visual vibe when it becomes large and squiggly or psychedelic. What the book imparts may sometimes seem obvious or simplistic but it is written, after all, for beginning film students or for high school students who don’t yet know that they’re film students and it’s presented in a lively way that entertains and holds your attention.

In other words, as to the authors’ aims, I think they did what they set out to do.

Overall Rating

I gave the original ASM #43 three and a half webs. I’ll have to drop it a half-web or so here because it’s smaller and black-and-white but it fits in so nicely with this fun and innovative-for-the-time textbook that I’m giving the whole thing four webs.

Footnote

Next: Back to the flagship at last as we meet some new bad guys and the secret of the Petrified Tablet draws near. ASM #73!

 Posted: 7 Feb 2022
 Staff: Al Sjoerdsma (E-Mail)