Film studies books
Although Theory.org.uk is not a 'film studies' website as such, publishers still send me film studies books. This makes me feel a bit guilty and so I have reviewed some particularly interesting recent ones here.
Tasker, Yvonne, ed (2002), Fifty Contemporary Filmmakers, Routledge, London.
— Yvonne Tasker always does good stuff. This book is an insightful and deeply enjoyable read for students and scholars of film studies, and anybody else that likes to think about the movies. It's obviously a good idea to start with -- 50 shortish essays on interesting modern directors is a very attractive proposition: a great book for dipping into. Of course, the format has limitations -- if you want to cultivate a deep understanding of any particular director, reading a 3000 word discussion in this book can only be a starting point. But it's usually a good starting point.
The selection of 50 directors would inevitably be something that people could quibble over. The book is keen to do some positive discrimination -- if you are female and you have made just one great film (hello, Sally Potter) you are much more likely to get into the 50 than a man in the same position. But that's fine. The book is still full of male directors anyway, reflecting the filmmaking world, and then Tasker has tried to broaden people's horizons a bit with some less well-recognised names -- which is welcome. For some reason I was disappointed to see that nobody was getting their critical teeth into Paul Verhoeven, but then again, looking at the 50, I can't see anyone I'd particularly like to eject in favour of the lovable Dutch maniac. So it must be a good 50.
I'm not going to try to show off by quibbling with any particular critical views given in the 430 pages. I'll just say that when reading about films and film-makers that I have seen and know about, this book seemed well-informed and insightful. Many of the chapters begin with a provocative assertion which they then follow through -- for example, "David Lynch has arguably been the foremost romantic filmmaker to come out of America in the last 30 years" was a good way to start. And who could not smile at the casual recklessness of a chapter which opens by saying, "Few artists have shaped popular culture since the 1970s as much as Steven Spielberg". (Some aren't quite so good: "Francis Ford Coppola is, if anything, a paradox" begins one. Great).
No film studies book would be complete without some random, hilarious bit of pretentiousness. My favourite was when Susan Hayward, clearly miffed that her discussion of Luc Besson had to include the jolly Bruce Willis film The Fifth Element, decided to call it 'Le Cinquième élément' throughout, even though it is an English-language film called The Fifth Element. But there's thankfully little nonsense in this book overall. Even when you don't agree with the arguments (to give one example, I'm not sure that the strong women in James Cameron films are always tough defenders of patriarchy... surely not?), it gives you something to think about.
So, well done everybody. Highly enjoyable and fantastic value for £12.99.
— Film studies is a funny old thing, isn't it? It always suffers from the double problem that there isn't any good reason for separating cinematically-released films from the other kinds of screen arts, and that it is usually centred around daft speculations about what a film-maker might have intended, or other pointless 'interpretations' of films. Watching and thinking about films is an enjoyable and sometimes even transformative activity. But you can't really make an academic discipline out of it, can you? (Yes, I know they do it with literature... That, in my view, suffers similar problems).
Happily, this new book edited by Gledhill and Williams seeks to take that bull by its horns and whack out a film studies relevant to today's media environment. In a neat 'Why theory?' chapter, Gill Branston even ventures as far as declaring a competence with critical theory to be 'the best kind of "life skills" for the twenty-first century'.
Henry Jenkins provides a very good variation on the typical Henry Jenkins article about audience reception. He's still talking about Kirk and Spock kissing (in audience-written fantasies) but also has some nice material about audience remixes of Thelma and Louise (only ten years old) and it's a good chapter. Nothing about fans and the internet though -- surely some mistake? (Thank goodness Web.Studies fills this gap!).
I also enjoyed Noel Carroll's chapter on 'film evaluation' -- deciding whether films are any good or not -- something which academic critics almost always avoid. (There must be so many people who have bought Sight and Sound from a newsagents in order to read whether such-and-such a film is worth going to see, only to end up furious that they are none the wiser by the end of another pretentious S&S review). In a nice protracted example, Carroll imagines that we have gone to the cinema to see Speed, and are discussing it afterwards. "Our exchange of reasons [for liking or disliking the film] gives every appearance of being committed to objectivity. We do not pound the table and shout 'But I like it!' We try to find objective reasons that will convince others that our assessment is correct." (p.267). I enjoyed that table-pounding image, and it's just one example of what a well-written and relevant chapter this is.
Overall this seems to be a valuable collection, making a decisive effort to kick film studies a few rungs up its developmental ladder. The book doesn't spend enough time trying to rethink the field in the internet age, but otherwise should be a valuable book for all film studies people.
— It can't be denied: despite what I said above about film studies, this book is full of interesting stuff. You get 46 bits of important and/or interesting film studies texts, plus introductions by the editors.
As with all readers, you don't necessarily get a good understanding of what each author's main concerns are just by reading one of these fragments. And extracting bits from works can exaggerate the problems which those texts already had -- for example, Christine Geraghty's piece on 'The Woman's Film', reproduced here without any of the more cautious bits which Geraghty may have put in the original, makes 'the woman's film' seem both real and knowable, even though it is counterproductive and rather daft to talk about 'the woman's film' in the first place.
And whilst a number of 'classic' articles from the 1970s must necessarily be included in a book like this, there should have been a greater number of newish pieces to add in more contemporary concerns and to show up changes in the field (if any!?) within the past 30 years. (Don't get me wrong -- it's not all old stuff).
But if you got The Film Studies Reader alongside Reinventing Film Studies then you'd be well set up, and have a great set of things to read.