Film literacy is a complicated business. On the one hand, it means that there are certain pictures that simply have to be seen, either because of their stylistic importance, their primacy as acknowledged masterpieces or because they are key works in the career of one of the grand masters of the art.
But film literacy involves more than just sitting in darkened theaters, frying your brain with the play of light and shadow. There is a jargon to the art form, which, like any other, helps initiate you into the world of the cinematically literate.Many of these terms are in French, mainly because the most intellectual, and most pretentious, film writing has been pioneered by French film magazines. So, in order to stand on your own in a room full of cineastes (a film devotee), it helps to know the following:
Film noir: Literally, "black film," a term applied to the cynical, hard-boiled detective dramas that came out of the American film industry in the 1940s and '50s. Key works include "The Big Sleep," "Out of the Past" and "Kiss Me, Deadly."
Genre: Literally "kind," "sort," "species." Used in film parlance to identify films of a specific thematic type, e.g., the science-fiction genre. Westerns, motorcycle movies, horror films, etc., are all referred to as genre films.
Montage: In the general sense, the art of editing, the piecing together of small bits of film to make a whole. Specifically, it refers to short, impressionistic montage sequences often used in films to create the idea of time passing, of momentous events occurring, etc. Sergei Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin," with its classic "Odessa Steps" sequence (imitated in Brian de Palma's "The Untouchables"), is considered the montage sequence that defined all other montage sequences. See also the "March of Time" sequence from "Citizen Kane."
Auteur theory: The theory that holds that certain directors are the "authors" of their films, that they bring to each of their works a distinct stylistic and thematic consistency. The auteur theory was first proposed in the late 1950s by either (there is some squabbling over this) Andrew Sarris, film critic of the Village Voice, or the film writers at Cahiers du Cinema, a highly intellectual French film magazine.
Spaghetti western: Used to describe westerns made (mainly) in Spain by (primarily) Italian directors. Although literally hundreds of spaghetti westerns have been made, the only ones that really count aesthetically are those made by the auteur filmmaker Sergio Leone: "A Fistful of Dollars" (which made Clint East-wood a star), "For a Few Dollars More," "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" and "Once Upon a Time in the West."
French "new wave": Exciting, highly stylized films made by young French directors in the late 1950s and 1960s. Greatly influenced by American genre films, especially film noir. Many were made by former Cahiers du Cinema film critics, like Francois Truffaut, who decided to put their film theories into practice. Key names include Jean-Luc Godard ("Breathless"), Truffaut ("Jules and Jim," "The 400 Blows") and Alain Resnais ("Hiroshima, Mon Amour").
Mise en scene: The setting, or surroundings, of an event. Refers generally to how a director stages his scenes in terms of decor, camera movement, and how the actors move and appear within the film frame.
McGuffin: A term coined by Alfred Hitchcock, used to describe a plot device that gets the story moving, but really has very little to do with what the story is all about. For example, the stolen money in "Psycho" gets Janet Leigh to the Bates Motel, but after that, it's all but forgotten.
Aspect ratio: The relative breadth and height of the screen. Generally, this is referred to as a number: 1.33:1 being the standard screen, with wide-screen configurations running from 1.66:1 to 1.85:1.