Books / Features

Gift Guide 2021: Mysteries of Cinema – Movies and Imagination by Peter Conrad [Review]

It’s that time of year again! If you’re seeking fresh ideas or hoping for inspiration – or even tantalising recommendations then… welcome! Scroll down to dive into this review, and if you want further gift ideas, just click here for the full range from my Critical Popcorn Christmas Gift Guide 2021!

If you’re looking for a book that offers either yourself, or someone you know, a comprehensive insight of the history of cinema – and how the people who first saw it were captivated by the magic and everything that followed, this is what you need. Those first movies transcended the imagination, breaking down the barriers of what was possible and what wasn’t, however you wanted to create that.

Peter Conrad’s The Mysteries of Cinema: Movies and Imagination completely captivated me. He explores not just film history but does it with such knowledge, depth and research that I actually felt equally overwhelmed and eager to learn more, watch more and expand my cinematic knowledge. Which is something, I feel, we can all always continue to improve. The overall subject he focuses on, and backs up across the book, is that the movie camera gives us new eyes on the world and continually changes our perspective of reality. The fact this is still true today, from the moment it first came into life, shows us what an extraordinary art form it truly is.

Conrad’s book takes us through 15 chapters, from the early days of the Cinema Age where Science first began to really challenge religion, with its stories through light beyond the ‘now’, it was an absolute revelation that even George Bernard Shaw realised the potential of and, in truth, predicted the changes that would eventually come: via silent movies right through to using the cinema screen as an educational tool and even, in many ways, a new god to worship and adore.

It gives us an interesting reminder of the anti-cinema brigade as well because like anything new, young or unknown, not everyone trusted or respected it no matter how much it could do. While the camera wanted to share life, some Victorians were weary because it wasn’t how things were done in the past, and filmmaking was an art that took in different angles, editing techniques and styles – it was all extremely fast and uncontrollable. And not everyone appreciated that freedom.

The Mysteries of Cinema: Movies and Imagination also takes us through filmmaking changing from black and white to colour, from silent to sound and all the while delves through so many films that you’ll need a pen and paper to write them down. I’ve bookmarked endless pages with a folded corner, and bright post-It notes, so I can come back repeatedly to try to find or watch something I haven’t heard about before and, trust me, there are almost endless ideas and suggestions.

What’s also smart about Conrad’s book is how the chapters are broken down into themes. And within these themes is a wealth of information of how specific films, or even history, connected to the time and era with the outcome. There’s Fantastic Voyages, Wheels and Wings, Cinegenesis, The Physics of Film, Meta Movies, The Second Era of the Image and so much more. These insights take the reader deep inside the decades and even a brief flick through the Index just shows you how much knowledge is here to explore and indulge in.

This is a remarkable collection, it’s not just a momentary guide to films and their history, it’s genuinely one of the most detailed books on film I’ve ever read. Extensive, insightful, educational and one that’ll last you through film for years.

The Mysteries of Cinema: Movies and Imagination is out now:

Find out even more ideas in our Gift Guide here!


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