I get this question now about once a week, usually from younger men. I suspect that they realize their education, in schools or wherever, could’ve and should’ve been better. Thankfully, they realize the Internet allows for a good deal of self-education.
If you are asking this question, I’ll give you three levels — easy, medium, and hard. The more difficult the path, the more rewarding.
What You Must Do No Matter What
Before we get to the levels, here is the pre-requisite, the requisite, and the post-requisite: read, a lot.
Specifically, in the case of film, read film criticism that subtly teaches. Since most of it doesn’t, you will have to develop a filter for helpful and unhelpful criticism.
Any film criticism that makes observations, makes meaning from those observations, and shows you how it is forming judgments by exposing the assumptions those judgments are based on — that is what you want to read.
Anything that is just using adjectives — “this is great!” “this stinks!” — is not worth your time. That kind of criticism is reactionary and solely about the writer’s judgments. These days, anything produced under the umbrella of a giant corporation is suspect, not only because of possible corporate agendas but also because heavy-handed editors alter a lot of text. What you are reading might be a bland stew concoted by several people, not (as you want) one visionary critic.
My mentor was Roger Ebert. I read, before the age of 22, probably 90% of what he ever wrote. Since he taught writing and expression of feelings, he helped me in about a dozen ways, film criticism and recommendations included.
You can tell when somebody is helping you or not, if you begin thinking differently about what you are watching. I suggest you spend time mostly or only on those who are expanding your vision.
The Easy Level
You likely already know this level. Go to Youtube, look up the best movie-analysis channels, and just watch. Something like the defunct “Every Frame a Painting” channel.
The advantage is that you are learning from the medium that you are trying to study. It’s a lot easier, in my view, to understand film if you are watching video. Books and textbooks provide lots of insight, but they don’t show moving pictures and they don’t have sound.
This is “easy,” in part, because it probably will be fun.
The reason this is easy, though, is because most if not all of Youtube is geared towards the average viewer of Youtube. You are not, in your aspirations, likely trying to be an average viewer. So there’s a limit as to what this level can do for you.
I say that from experience. My target Youtube audience is college-age people who don’t know too much and yet are curious. I have about six people in mind, from my life,when I create Youtube videos: a couple of college students I know, a couple of really smart good friends who like movies but know little about them, and then a couple of acquaintances who are happy watching the latest blockbuster.
You are, in your desires, not the target audience for me. And my target audience is the same or even higher than other channels, since if a channel tries to be too detailed, too academic, too upper-crust, it will lose clicks and likes fast.
The same, I think, is true for podcasts. In fact, I think podcasts are the worst way to learn about movies, since they are audio-only. No visuals and no words means we are pretty far from how the medium of film communicates. It’s not wrong or unhelpful to listen to podcasts; it just, in my personal experience, is the least effective at teaching about film.
The Medium Level
Actually, this is easier than you’d think.
Your first assignment is to watch “the greats.” That includes what you might think you do not like: the silents, slow foreign films, Ozu, Citizen Kane.
You will figure out, quickly, that you disagree somewhat or completely with the standard list of greats. That’s fine. You can hate them all, and yet you need to know what people in the past and now think is great. It’s crucial to reading further and deeper into film history and analysis. And it will be crucial later to forming your own lists of “greats,” for which, if you’ve done what I’ve suggested, you will have great and potent reasons for why your list is your list.
It’s also crucial simply to see how films have developed. I don’t enjoy Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night,” yet once seen, you’ll see that movie in a hundred other movies.
Having enough experience watching “the greats” gives you the power to understand better any film history book you might read — as those history books assume some familiarity with hundreds of films and famous movie names — plus to be able to agree and disagree with the critics and Youtube channels mentioned above.
Also, one dirty secret is that most professional film critics haven’t seen many of the greats. They aren’t film historians, usually, and so you will be shooting past them if you aim for this level.
The goal: 70-100 films a year from the greats lists. Use great directors’ lists and the BFI Sight and Sound poll’s list. Also the AFI list for American movies.
Five years of this and you’ll be quite knowledgeable about film, just via experience with it.
Your second and final assignment: get a good film textbook. Shouldn’t cost you more than $20, because you’ll just get an edition earlier than the current one. (E.g., if the 14th edition is the latest, you can get the 12th edition and it’ll work really well.)
I recommend Giannetti’s “Understanding Movies” or Bordwell’s “Film Art.”
Read it all. Then, as you watch those 70-100 movies a year, apply it.
Seriously, one textbook for $20, applied 100 times, cannot be exhausted. A textbook like the ones I mentioned is a reference book, and as you become more knowledgeable about film, you will see new insights in it when you reread any section of it. You can reread it ten times and still get new insights.
A supplement to this is listening to commentaries. It used to be, on DVDs in the early 2000s, that you’d get critics’ commentaries on disc versions of movies. I liked those a lot, yet they have mostly gone away. Criterion discs still have them. Criterion also has those commentaries on its channel, which you can access via a subscription.
The Hard Level
This is the really challenging level only for those who wish to become potent autodidacts. I am now writing to about 1% of you, maybe even just one of you.
Warning: this is not only a tough level to attain, but once you spend enough time here, you will have alienated yourself from a lot of society, at least intellectually. I am not saying you will be better than them; you will just think different.
Unfortunately this level requires years of dedication. Go back to the medium level if you aren’t willing to do this. I wouldn’t blame you if you do.
First, I will give you the reasons for what you need to do. Film is arguably the most complex medium yet invented. It combines all aspects of human experience. Those include the social, biological, economic, political, scientific, spiritual, religious, philosophical, and so on.
In any given film, especially in a really great movie, you will be encountering a wildly unique mix of a dozen aspects of human experience. You have to be well prepared to see the mix, or at least see a few of the aspects. The more you know about each aspect, the more insightful will be your analysis and judgment.
And so, your task is to study many subjects and get a good grounding in each of them.
This level requires, to throw out a round number, about 50 books per subject. 50 books (or the equivalent reading time) in economics, 50 in psychology, 50 in history, and so on.
One subject a year, for ten years, and you will have a decent grounding in every subject. You won’t be an expert in any one of them, yet you will know enough to be dangerous. Also, read widely within each subject. For example, in economics, you should read the Marxists, the Austrian economists, John Maynard Keynes, Joseph Schumpeter, Pareto, etc. These are all different, and you will never know which could be applied to any particular film.
(I do not want to create an ideological critic at this level, looking at the world through, say, only a Marxist perspective.)
And this will give you a unique point-of-view. When you discuss film, or anything else, you won’t sound like anybody else. You will see and hear films from weird angles. Those will produce, we hope, fresh perspectives.
I should add that film came out of the 19th century and becomes wildly popular during the 20th century. It would help your study of subjects to focus more heavily on the last 200 years then.
However, do not dismiss ancient literature (e.g., the Greeks; anything before 1800). It will apply to film as well.
While you are working on this level, you should be watching the great films and reading the good critics.
Is this level worth doing?
It won’t help your pocketbook, not in the near-term. However, it will prepare you for something. What that something is will end up being quite unique.
Also, by achieving this level, you will be able to apply your knowledge to a thousand other areas, not just film.
No matter what level you pick, your enjoyment of film can and should be enhanced. Becoming more knowledgable and wiser should open up films to you, not close them off.
Your ability to appreciate and discriminate will, one hopes, make you a better human being. There’s no guarantees here. It is worth trying.