Most authors would be satisfied with a book that sells over 1 million copies, but not Thomas C. Foster of East Lansing. “How to Read Literature Like a Professor,” Foster’s breezy guide to literary criticism, recently broke the million-seller mark. The book is used in thousands of high school and college English courses around the world. With his most recent book, “Reading the Silver Screen,” Foster is hoping to expand into film classes.
The book, which Foster describes as “film criticism for the rest of us,” was written with high school classrooms in mind. It covers more than 100 films, ranging from the classic detective noir “The Maltese Falcon” to Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”
“My first impulse was to use only classic movies,” Foster said. “But I realized if I wanted to sell to high school students, I would have to have more current movies. I had to watch a lot of films to bring myself up to date.”
The book has its roots in Foster’s friendship with local scriptwriter Jim Cash, who died in 2000. Cash, with fellow Michigan State University graduate Jack Epps Jr., penned several hit films, including the 1986 blockbuster “Top Gun.”
“I never see a movie without thinking about him,” Foster writes in the book.
Foster, who taught at both MSU and the University of Michigan-Flint until his retirement in 2014, also gives credit to fellow author and UM-Flint Professor Frederic Svoboda. The two shared the 45-minute commute to Flint for several years, and their conversations often turned to movies.
Movies and literature have their own distinct languages and sets of rules, Foster said. He spends the first several chapters discussing film concepts like shot selection, scenes, sequences and even lighting. These somewhat technical chapters prepare the reader for Foster’s analysis of specific movies and genres.
Foster does an exquisite job of detailing and comparing how different directors use light and space to set the tone for a movie. He goes through a long description on how the use of limited light defines “The Maltese Falcon” and how open and closed spaces can set the tone for a movie.
The book also features an extensive discussion on dialogue — or lack of it — in movie making. He goes all the way back to silent films, which he describes as the “pure language of movies.”
“You are not distracted by dialogue, and you build from the beauty of looking,” he said.
He also cites a famous Alfred Hitchcock rule: “If it’s a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a clear idea of what was going on.”
The book also allows readers to draw comparisons between some of the great movie directors. Foster discusses the signature styles of Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers. He also covers directors like John Ford, whose movies “have no tricks but use strong narrative.”
“Great directors have strong signatures,” Foster said.
As he was writing the book, Foster was struck how movies feed off each other.
“’Mad Max: Fury Road,’ shot in 2015, is basically John Ford’s classic 1939 Western ‘Stagecoach,’” he said. “And you can’t have a car chase without the inevitable comparisons to ‘Bullitt’ and ‘The French Connection.’”
Foster also carves out some space in his book for a personal favorite.
“The movie that just completely mesmerized me is ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’” he said.
While he hopes serious film buffs will appreciate the book, one of his primary goals was accessibility.
“I wanted to write it for high school students and not have it be one of those high-powered film theory books,” he said.