OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

The First Take

Professor Jon Lewis’ film classes at OSU have run the gamut, from film history classes to special topics such as Disney, film noir, or American Westerns. Recently, his research has focused on the business side of making movies, and film censorship, including his 2000 book, “Hollywood v. Hard Core: How the Struggle over Censorship Saved the Modern Film Industry,” which was picked by the New York Times as a New and Noteworthy book.

So when Lewis was asked by publisher Cengage to write an exhaustive Intro to Film Studies textbook that would be used by film students internationally, he hesitated.

“I only agreed to do this project if we could take a radically different approach and make it different from anything else on the market,” Lewis said.

And he did. His new book, “Essential Cinema: An Introduction to Film Analysis,” is also available as an e-reader, on which students can watch interviews Lewis conducted with film practitioners around the world, as well as clips from the films they’re studying.

In the following Q&A, Lewis discusses his approach to his new book, and his new appreciation for Hollywood filmmakers.

Jon Lewis bookWhat made the process of writing this book challenging compared to your previous books?

The focus is not on a body of research and the goal is not to present an argument about an historical period or cinematic style or type of film. Instead, the goal is to introduce film students to the basics of film analysis. The challenge is to focus on smaller issues: the shot, the cut, film sound – and show what might compose each of these aspects of film form, and then to combine them to create a better understanding and appreciation of the medium.

Was there something you learned from the film practitioner interviews that surprised you? Any fun facts or tidbits you picked up?

We see so many bad movies I think we assume that the folks making movies in Hollywood are kind of dumb or inept. I was impressed by how articulate and how deeply these A-list practitioners considered what they do in the filmmaking process. Movies work or they don’t for a variety of reasons, not the least of which regard the financial goals of the corporate heads of the studios. The expertise, and the thoughtfulness and professionalism, of American film workers should not be underestimated. Talent isn’t the problem. Money is.

What are the two most important lessons you would hope a student would gain from this textbook?

First, that the films they watch are the product of a complex collaborative system. And second, that film form and style are the product of a multitude of intersecting decisions regarding everything from the design and construction of sets, costuming and make-up to digital effects and complex sound mixing. All these “moving parts” have to fit and work together.

The fact that the book is an e-reader and has so many extra components, such as your commentary on certain movie clips, seems different and interesting. Do you think that e-readers will become the rule rather than the exception for academic presses? How did you like doing the commentary tracks?

I really enjoyed producing voice-overs for the 100 or so clips in the e-reader. In a book, even in a book as well-illustrated as this one is, we have to settle for still images frozen out of a moving image medium. With the e-book, students can click on the image and see the entire sequence, and I can comment on things like camera movement and editing, which are evident only on a moving image clip.

Why did you decide to take on a project like this that took so much time, especially considering you don’t teach an Intro to Film Studies Class?

I teach introductory film history classes because I am by training and as a researcher, a film historian. So, while I don’t teach an intro to film analysis class, I do teach introductory classes that are meant to give students some basic knowledge and a set of skills to pursue film studies more seriously and complexly.  Of course, I often include form and style discussion in my historical surveys.

Why is it important for students to understand the mechanics and language of movie-making?

I think students instinctively know how to read movies, far better than they know how to read books. So the goal is to give them an insight into this appreciation and understanding, and to give them a critical language to discuss the medium in a more sophisticated and considered fashion.

OSU’s new School of Writing, Literature, and Film is now broadening the film program, beginning with the recent hire of Jinying Li. After more than 25 years of being the “film guy” at OSU, how do you feel about this new direction? What are your hopes for the program going forward?

I’m thrilled. We’re working on a new film minor and I anticipate a great deal of interest from students here at OSU. There is no shortage of interest in film studies at OSU – and no shortage of student talent either.

—Q&A by Angela Yeager