Book Review: World Cinema Through Global Genres

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World Cinema Through Global Genres, William V. Constanzo, John Wiley 2014, £21.99, 432pp ISBN 9781118712924

The US publisher John Wiley now has a major global brand for academic and professional texts after its 2007 merger with Oxford-based Blackwell. This means that there is now UK promotion for a Wiley US textbook like this title. In the standard, squarish large format for textbooks, its 400 plus pages add up to a hefty tome. Inside there is a relatively simple structure. After 40 pages of introductory material on film studies, William Constanzo offers four sections, each focusing on what he terms a ‘Global Genre’.

The four genres are well-chosen and comprise ‘The Warrior Film’, ‘The Wedding Film’, ‘The Horror Film’ and ‘The Road Movie’. Within each section is a general essay on the specific ‘genre cluster’ and a ‘Deep Focus’ on one specific national or regional industry, followed by four shorter ‘Close-ups’ on specific film titles. So, 120 pages are devoted to ‘The Warrior Film’ with a Deep Focus on Chinese Cinemas and Close-ups on The Magnificent Seven, Seven Samurai, Sholay and Enter the Dragon. Across the other three sections students are offered focused studies of Indian, Japanese and Latin American Cinemas.

One of the quandaries for any textbook writer taking on this topic (i.e. a textbook on ‘World Cinema’) is what to include and what to leave out. Unless the book is intended as a kind of gazetteer, it isn’t possible to cover every film industry, or indeed every genre. By selecting ‘Global Genres’, Constanzo implies that he isn’t covering ‘art cinema’ or documentary or political filmmaking etc. But he still has to decide on which film industries. It seems that he has opted for those that American students are most likely to encounter as popular entertainment and perhaps feel closest to – Latin America and East Asia/South Asia.

Having chosen his genres and film industries, how does Constanzo’s approach work out? On the whole pretty well I think. He devotes his space to quite detailed analysis of his chosen films and finds ways to introduce students to unfamiliar cultures. He’s fond of quoting David Bordwell and, like Bordwell (and Thompson) he uses many small screengrabs to illustrate sequences. On the positive side these grabs are presented in their correct aspect ratios – something that makes immediately apparent the difference in presentation between The Magnificent Seven in ‘Scope and Seven Samurai in Academy. Unfortunately, all the grabs are presented as sometimes quite murky greyscale images, losing much of their impact in the process. Significantly too, the single still from Sholay is not in the correct ratio since the only DVD available in 2013 would have been ‘pan and scan’.

William Constanzo has been teaching a long time and he is both widely travelled and a fan of the films he analyses. There are many insights here and students should get a thorough introduction to the genres he tackles. In some ways his discussion of ‘The Wedding Film’ is the most interesting since it isn’t a genre category recognised as such by the studios. He starts from the success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding (US 2002), a small independent film that became a big global success, and notes that similar films have been successful across the globe. This is a category that draws upon different repertoires such as the romantic comedy, the social comedy and the family drama/melodrama and when he lists Monsoon Wedding (India 2001) alongside Four Weddings and a Funeral (UK 1994) and other titles from Iceland, Poland and Taiwan, the possibilities are immediately appealing. However, things get a little trickier when Constanzo chooses three films set in Israeli ‘Occupied Territories’, one directed by the Israeli (but self-proclaimed ‘international’) director Eran Riklis and the other two by Palestinian filmmakers. Again the analysis is thorough and some of the political context is explained – but not enough perhaps to fully understand the meanings in these specific films. There is also the problem that Constanzo doesn’t explore the institutional differences between the films in terms of production – how the diverse film titles that he chooses are likely to be distributed and received by critics and audiences. Again we have to accept that this isn’t the purpose of the book and there isn’t space to explore ‘film as institution’.

The selection of film titles in the book is mostly very good and provides both students and teachers with useful entry points. The quartet of Halloween (US 1978), Suspiria (Italy 1977), The Devil’s Backbone (Mexico-Spain 2001) and Ringu (Japan 1998) in the Horror section has great potential. I’m a little baffled however by the inclusion of both La strada (Italy 1954) and A bout de souffle (France 1960) as ‘road movies’ in the final section. These two European art movies seem out of place. They require more space in order to explain their significance in film history and their relationship to film movements such as Italian neorealism and La nouvelle vague as well as their relationships to genres. They also hint at that academic sense of discussing the canon rather than engaging with the popular genre films that have appealed to broad audiences. What I mean, perhaps, is that they offer examples ‘known’ to US scholars and cinephiles rather than enjoyed by contemporary popular local audiences.

As this is a textbook I should add that each of the four sections includes timelines showing major historical events in the ‘Deep Focus’ region plus selected film releases and an extended list of titles from around the world in the ‘genre’ section. These are useful references as are each chapter’s reading lists and the questions that accompany each case study film analysis. There is also a glossary, a full index and a companion website with a teacher’s manual and other support materials (though you need to register as an ‘instructor’).

I think this could be a useful book for any teacher wanting to introduce students to films beyond Hollywood through a focus on genres. I suspect that in the UK the Wedding and Horror sections might work best. One word of warning. I found the Deep Focus sections to be variable in that the Chinese section is dominated by an analysis of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and the Indian one is flawed because it underestimates the so called ‘regional’ film industries and the recent growth of independent productions. The Japanese one is OK but rather limited, but the Latin American section is more detailed and a good introduction.

[This review first appeared in Media Education Journal No. 59, Summer 2016 and is published here with permission – see http://www.ames.scot/mej.html]

Book Review: Stars in World Cinema

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Stars in World Cinema: Screen Icons and Star Systems Across Cultures, eds Andrea Bandhauer and Michelle Royer, I. B. Tauris 2015, £62 (hardback) 272 pp, ISBN 9781780769776, eISBN: 9781857738356

This new title in the World Cinema series from I. B. Tauris presents a collection of essays offering ideas about theorising film stars and stardom. Such studies have conventionally developed in studies of Hollywood and European cinema but here they are applied in the wider context of ‘World Cinema’. It is unfortunate that the publishers decided to use that term for the series since it perpetuates that Hollywood v. ‘World’ binary, but the editors for this volume emphasise the ‘pluricentric’ nature of the essays (the same idea, I think, as ‘polycentric’ in other similar collections). The editors also use the term ‘transnational’ and refer to the ‘interconnectedness’ and ‘commonality’ of accounts from five continents. As several of the essays point out, even when the stars themselves have crossed borders to appear in Hollywood films, many other star studies start from the preferred Hollywood model rather than recognising how star personae are developed in different cultures.

There are sixteen essays in total, divided into four sections. The first, Film Icons and Star Systems, offers four different case studies of stars and star systems outside Hollywood. The second, Stardom Mobility and the Exotic, focuses on examples of actors who have become ‘transnational’ in appeal, but for whom ‘crossing borders’ makes them ‘exotic’ in the cinema that is not native for them. In most cases this translates to travelling to Hollywood and being treated as exotic, but in the case of Viggo Mortensen it means appearing in Spanish films as ‘Danish-American’ and speaking fluent Argentinian Spanish. Section three is The Politics of Stardom with four studies of stardom in distinctive film cultures/industries where individual artistic expression and control have wider implications. Section four, Stars, Bodies and Performance, studies more or less what the title implies in relation to four further case studies.

This sounds like a carefully considered structure to the collection and it does indeed make sense. However, there are inevitably the pros and cons of a multi-authored text. The main pro is that the study has a genuine ‘local’ perspective and therefore a collective overview that no single author could produce. The main con is that there will be some repetition of basic arguments. But this is probably helpful as it serves to emphasise the ‘interconnectedness’ of these studies. More practically the sheer range of the case studies means that most readers will come across stars they have not encountered before or film cultures they know little about. For me the discussion of two specific female stars of the ‘post-studio Philippine Cinema’ was new territory as were the specific stars of Egyptian and Greek films. In other chapters I could always find something that I recognised. I think that the sixteen essays represent a good selection. They include studies of global figures such as Amitabh Bachchan, Antonio Banderas, Jackie Chan and others still active in contemporary cinema as well as earlier stars such as Romy Schneider, Emmanuelle Riva (in relation to Hiroshima mon amour and the more recent Amour) and Carmen Miranda (on the book cover – see above).

The two editors are Australian academics, as are several of the contributors. Most of the others are based at UK universities. Rachel Dwyer, who writes about Amitabh Bachchan, is perhaps the best-known name but Scottish readers will be pleased to see the founder of the Africa in Motion (AiM) Festival, Lizelle Bisschoff of the School of Culture & Creative Art, Theatre Film and TV Studies, Glasgow University, writing about Nollywood. The real question is who would read/use these accounts outside quite specialised areas of study and how accessible are the individual essays? I’m going to mention just a few essays in detail in the hope that they offer a useful sample.

Hara Setsuko was the great female star of Japanese studio films, best known in the West for her roles in Ozu Yasujiro’s post-war films, including Tokyo Story (1953). Mats Karlsson titles his essay ‘Japan’s Eternal Virgin and Reluctant Star of the Silver Screen’. Hara is a star who became emblematic of Japanese womanhood, representing in the 1930s the young girl/woman who supported the men going to war in the propaganda films of the period but then switching dramatically in the first post-war films to be first the ‘new woman’ of democratic Japan and then switching again to the traditional woman during the 1950s and the return to patriarchy. As Karlsson highlights, the Japanese Studio System operated in a similar way to Hollywood with Hara contracted to Toho for much of her career but able, because of her status, to work with Ozu who was usually working for Shochiku. But Hara can’t be studied just like Hollywood stars because her star image was restricted in ‘secondary circulation’. As an intensely private person she maintained a silence outside the studio walls. Garbo had to retire to become anonymous but Hara could continue to have a strong screen persona and still be a private person. Karlsson’s is a useful essay especially since two contrasting roles for Hara are available for study on UK Region 2 DVDs of Naruse Mikio’s Repast and any one of her six films for Ozu.

One of the most accessible and contemporary studies that students might undertake is of the way in which Chinese film stardom operates in conjunction with Hollywood’s current interest in the extraordinary recent growth of the Chinese box office. ‘Dancing with Hollywood: Redefining Transnational Chinese Stardom’ by Sabrina Qiong Yu approaches such a study fully aware of the difficulties and the problems associated with earlier scholarship. She begins by noting that Hollywood seeks Chinese stars to appear in its blockbusters for purely commercial reasons and not to help diversify the range of representations. This has recently meant that Chinese stars have been seen in insignificant roles and are on screen only fleetingly – resulting in the observation from audiences that they constitute ‘Hollywood soy sauce’ – an attempt to enhance the flavour, but nothing substantial in the dish.

Yu uses Bourdieu’s concept of four forms of capital – economic, social, cultural and symbolic – to analyse how succeeding generations of Chinese stars (and later Korean and Japanese) have worked on Hollywood productions. She concludes that social capital is very difficult to develop for any star based outside the US since it requires the kinds of social networks associated with politics or social activity such as charity work (e.g. for a Clint Eastwood or an Audrey Hepburn). Symbolic capital based on ‘fame and fantasy’ associated with a star image can be converted into economic capital if the star’s presence increases investment in the production, helps to secure distribution etc. Cultural capital can accrue for stars with specific skills such as dancing or combat skills. Otherwise it is economic capital that is most important. Yu demonstrates that while Bruce Lee and to a lesser extent Jackie Chan and Jet Li had the opportunity to develop their status because of martial arts skills, other major Chinese stars such as Chow Yun-fat are better known for straight dramatic performances and their skills are less distinctive in cultural capital terms. Yu notes that the more recently-established stars Chinese stars have smaller roles in bigger Hollywood blockbusters, but that some of these films are being made in two versions so that the Chinese stars have more screen time in the versions for the Chinese market. This is a rich field with scope for ongoing study.

From the third section I would pick Karen O’Brien’s essay about the indigenous Australian star David Gulpilil. Beginning with Walkabout (1971) Gulpilil has received international recognition which has proved important in his activist role in promoting authentic representations of indigenous Australian life through films like Ten Canoes (2016) which stars his son Jamie.

Indigenous Australian cinema is perhaps more accessible (partly because there are several recent examples) than some of the films featured in the fourth section. From this section I would opt for the essay by Michelle Royer which considers the two best-known roles for Emmanuelle Riva in the context of how cinema represents the ageing process. Royer argues that cinema has great potential to be a site for real understanding of what ageing means but that too often older characters are presented only in heavily typed roles. By focusing specifically on Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and Amour (2012) Royer is able to offer a fascinating perspective on how a study of ageing might proceed.

I could certainly use this book and I would imagine that it offers something for everyone. It’s a shame that the current economics of publishing means that this only available in hardback. The book carries an e-ISBN number as well but I can’t find any sign of a digital copy online.

[This review first appeared in Media Education Journal No. 58, Winter 2015/16 and is published here with permission – see http://www.ames.scot/mej.html]

24 Frames: The Cinema of Scandinavia (2005)

Could this be the first book I’ve bought that I can’t review? Perhaps you, the reader, should decide. We’ve reviewed two other entries from this Wallflower series, but this collection of essays on Scandinavian films presents me with an unusual problem – I haven’t seen any of the 24 films selected as case studies. Now I admit that my specific interest in ‘Nordic Cinema’ is fairly recent but my experience of Swedish and Danish Cinema over the years is not too bad. I don’t think that it is just me – the brave editor of this collection has decided to go for a much wider perspective on regional cinema than I have seen elsewhere in the series.

The selection of 24 titles spans 1905 to 2004 and begins with ‘actualité‘  footage of the arrival of the King of Norway at Christiania (Oslo) in 1905 at the moment of Norwegian independence and the founding of the nation state. Elsewhere in the selection we find three advertising films, two of them by leading filmmakers from Sweden, Ingmar Bergman and Roy Andersson, and two of the sex films made in the 1960s, one from Sweden and one from Denmark (intriguingly categorised as a ‘happy porn’ film). There are two documentaries (one of which is the extremely successful 2001 film about a Norwegian choir, known internationally as Cool and Crazy) and a children’s film Elvis, Elvis (Sweden 1977). And would you expect The Wake (Denmark 2000) to be 462 minutes of art installation work? The selections do span 100 years but it’s noticeable that seven of the films date from the period 1945-55, more than any other ten-year period – and there are some periods that are not represented at all (e.g. 1956-68). As for the five Nordic countries, Denmark, Finland and Norway are represented roughly equally but Sweden has nearly twice as many entries. There is no selection representing Iceland. And just in case you were wondering, besides Bergman and Andersson there are films from other internationally-known auteurs such as Carl Dreyer, Aki Kaurismaki and Lars Von Trier.

The reason I bought the book was because I needed a general introduction to Nordic Cinema and there is only this or the Routledge National Cinema series entry available at the moment. When I first realised that I hadn’t seen any of the films, my first reaction was very negative, but now that I think about it, there is still plenty to learn from the guide. All the authors except one are based at universities in Sweden, Finland, Norway or Denmark and this may partly explain the selections since presumably they have better access to the older films than most audiences outside the region. I’m not sure what to make of the exclusion of Iceland. In her introduction Tytti Soila explains that Iceland produced very few films before the late 1970s and that Icelandic film culture has had a tendency to look more towards Anglo-Saxon culture. It still seems a shame though that there isn’t one entry. (The introduction also points out that as well as the similarities which help the Nordic identity to be meaningful, there are also significant differences between each of the five countries.)

Soila’s introduction sets out the reasons for the approach to selection and the conscious attempt to avoid the “list of canonised feature films that the cultural industries, as well as literature abroad, usually present as ‘interesting’ or ‘culturally valuable’ or , even worse, ‘typical for Scandinavia'”. Thus the attempt to have a serious look at the porn films which helped several smaller companies stay in business at a time of crisis, at the folksy comedies and at the children’s films, advertising films and documentaries. The introduction is extremely useful and I hope that I can learn from the approach adopted in the chapters, even though I haven’t seen the film being discussed. It some cases I have seen other films by the same director or similar films by other directors. I should add that many of Roy Andersson’s other TV commercials are available on YouTube and very funny they are. I don’t think I can hold the editor of this collection responsible for the fact that most of these films are not available in the UK so having waited several months for Amazon to find me a copy I’m just going to read it and get the most from it that I can.

Westerns: A Routledge Film Guidebook

Westerns, A Routledge Film Guide Book by John White (2010), £16.99, 208pp ISBN 9780415558136

The Routledge Film Guidebooks are slim A5-sized books. The list so far includes director studies (James Cameron and Jane Campion) as well as genre guides such as Horror and Romantic Comedy. With the imminent UK release of True Grit by the Coen Bros., the appearance of John White’s guide is timely.

The first task for the reviewer in this instance is to consider exactly what can be fitted into a relatively small guidebook when dealing with a genre as extensive as the Western. Inevitably, what to leave out and what to make a focus becomes a major issue. The decision will also determine the address of the book to a particular audience. Unfortunately John White doesn’t give any direct indication of who he thinks his readers might be. Since he teaches undergraduates at Anglia Ruskin University but also writes textbooks for A Level film students in the 16-19 sector, his target presumably spans this range. The book’s blurb and the short explanation of the film guidebook project inside suggests that this will be an ‘introductory book’ and indeed all the guidebooks seem to have a similar structure: the evolution of the genre/movement/directorial career, discussion of a variety of critical approaches that could be applied to the films and then a more detailed discussion of key films.

Herein lies a problem. White argues in his opening that many books on the Western spend too much time re-telling the stories of a wide range of films. His focus instead will be on the exploration of different critical approaches, so he tells us that his outlines will be kept to the minimum and he will assume that “readers are already familiar with the basic plot”. Well, he may well be right since the repertoire of elements of the Western has permeated not just American but global culture over a long period. On the other hand it seems to me that younger audiences viewing one of the relatively rare Westerns in contemporary cinema (such as Brokeback Mountain or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, two of his key films) are coming to the Western in quite different ways than similar-aged audiences in the 1950-70s. Apart from any other contextual/conjunctural factors, audiences now are not being exposed to Westerns as ‘genre texts’, available everywhere in a more or less constant stream (during the 1950s literally dozens of different Western TV series played on American television every week). Instead, a Western is now a ‘one-off’ (unlike horror films which do still appear in a constant stream, even if some of them are marketed heavily as single titles).

But perhaps I am being unreasonable? John White lays out his aim and pursues it. The chapter on ‘the evolution of the Western’ manages to cram a great deal into under 30 pages and I found the material on ‘silent Westerns’ in particular informative and helpful. For students without detailed knowledge of the genre, this short section will provide a useful primer. White references key films and important scholarly work – and at the end of the book he provides a timeline of important historical events that inform the narratives of many Westerns set in the nineteenth century. He then continues the timeline to include the release dates of key films and the events in later American history that help to contextualise production and reception of the films. The guide overall is well served by its bibliographies, index and endnotes.

The second part of the book offers 5-6 pages on each of a range of critical approaches: genre, semiotic analysis, representation, ideology, discourse analysis, narrative structure, realism, auteur theory, star theory, psychoanalytical theory, postmodernism and audience response. In each case, two or three films are used as case studies. The film choices seem to me to be pretty sound, but the brevity of each analysis means that students will probably need supplementary material to get the most from them.

The third section then applies combinations of the critical approaches from section two to eight key films: Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), Shane (1953), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971), Unforgiven (1992), Brokeback Mountain (2005) and The Assassination of Jesse James (2007). Again, this seems a good selection and offers a film from virtually each decade from the 1930s onwards. All the films are easily available and many of them are accompanied by extensive online critical commentaries. I do wonder if some films/directors could have overlapped a little more – enabling more depth at the expense of more examples. For instance, the critical approaches section references another two John Ford films, plus John Wayne and Clint Eastwood as actors and directors. But suggesting other ways of organising the material is not particularly helpful – we will all have our own preferences.

This little book does what it sets out to do. It’s well-referenced and will provide a good introduction. You can’t ask for too much more.

Reel Power: Hollywood Cinema and American Supremacy

Reel Power: Hollywood Cinema and American Supremacy, Matthew Alford (2010), London: Pluto Press, £13.00, 232pp, ISBN 9780745329826

I was attracted to this book because I thought it might be useful in my study of global film. I started reading the preface and thought “this doesn’t feel like an academic film studies book”. There was nothing to tell me about Michael Parenti, the writer of the preface, so I looked him up. I now know that he is a highly-respected writer on American politics. So perhaps this is a politics book? When I look at the back cover I find an endorsement from Ken Loach urging me to read the book before seeing another Hollywood blockbuster. The other endorsements seem to be from political journalists, but Pluto’s cataloguing information suggests that this book should be filed under ‘Film/Media Studies’. The author Matthew Alford is described as a journalist and a broadcaster who has taught in the university sector. But it doesn’t tell us what he has taught. I Googled him and found out more, but let me just outline the book first.

Reel Power comprises three parts with a total of nine chapters. Part 1 offers a brief analysis of the structure of Hollywood as an industrial institution, including the role of product placement and how it has been acquiescent towards the US military, security agencies etc. There are discussions about the power of individual producers, directors and stars within the system and how the potential leftist tendencies of some individuals are squashed, marginalised, recuperated etc. Part 2 discusses major Hollywood films since 1990 classified according to genre and budget. The main focus is on films with production budgets over  $30 million that deal with American foreign policy and overseas adventures. The genres considered are War, Comedy (i.e. military/political comedy), Action Adventure, Science Fiction and Political Drama plus a catch-all ‘low budget’ chapter. Part 3 comprises the conclusion.

I’d argue that the analysis here is primarily journalistic in terms of plot descriptions and attempts to relate these to US government and military policies. There is no discernible exploration of theoretical ideas that would be recognised by a scholar from film, media or cultural studies. The discussion is referenced in detail via endnotes for each chapter. However, these references are usually to online and print journals, mostly of a general rather than academic nature. There is no Bibliography – only a Filmography. Look in the index and there are no theorists mentioned – not even Noam Chomsky who is clearly an important figure in the development of Alford’s approach (see below).  This isn’t really a book for academic film studies, so what is its purpose?

When I looked up Matthew Alford I discovered that he has a doctorate in ‘US Cinema and Politics’ and has been writing on this subject for several years in the New Statesman and various websites as well as presenting papers on ‘Hollywood and the Propaganda Model’. Many of these are online and I think it’s worth looking at a couple of these first if you want to decide whether Alford’s ideas are of interest. For instance, in this interview on the ‘New Left Project’ website, Alford offers a more succinct and effective explanation of his ideas than I think he does in the book. Also interesting is this recent conference on Post 9/11 Representations of Terrorism – where Alford’s paper sits alongside others with a more recognisable position. But to get to the academic basis of Alford’s work, you need read to his paper published by the University of Westminster in 2009 and available as a pdf for download. Here Alford explains his position as applying the Propaganda Model formulated by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky to Hollywood – something Chomsky felt was difficult as he “didn’t know enough about movies” and possibly because movies aren’t susceptible to an approach which requires “easily verifiable, quantifiable empirical evidence”. Alford has less qualms and argues that the model can be used. The results confirm what most of us believe about Hollywood as generally supportive of American capitalism and American foreign policy. The political value of the argument is two-fold. First it should be a warning that what is already visible in news media via Fox News may become more evident in relation to studio feature film output. Second, it acts as a counterweight to the claims that recent Hollywood has shown a tendency towards ‘liberal attitudes’. The arguments are supported by academic references and Alford positions himself as part of the ‘Political Economy’ wing of media studies. Reel Power thus becomes Alford’s means of popularising his argument – and he has supported the book’s publication with an energetic promotional campaign that is most impressive.

I confess that I haven’t seen most of the films Alford discusses (I already know that most of them I’ll hate them for their politics and others for tedious action sequences). Of the ones that I do know, he seems to make cogent comments about them in terms of how they might be read in what used to be called a ‘vulgar Marxist’ way – simply reading off meanings from the plot, irrespective of how the narrative is presented. For instance, he recognises that Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers is actually a satire of fascism and that some of the knee-jerk American press reactions to the film were way off-beam. But he also links the film to Total Recall as another Verhoeven film – without mentioning either the writer of the original story, Phil K. Dick or the star, Arnold Schwarzenegger. These two creative voices are surely as important to (different) audiences as Verhoeven in this case? Dick became almost deranged because of his paranoid fear of surveillance by the American state and Arnie was at best a hugely ironic piece of casting for a Dickian leading man. It would be quite interesting to explore how Hollywood has trounced Dick’s anarchic populism in some terrible movies (Next?, Paycheck?), only to be trumped by smaller independents like A Scanner Darkly or Screamers.

In a way, this book is deeply dispiriting, if only because it renders much that film studies has tried to do over the last fifty years in exploring concepts of representation, genre and narrative, audience behaviour etc. as effectively wasted effort. On the other hand, as a piece of journalism about Hollywood, the institution, and American politics (which by extension involves us all) it offers a solid introduction. It might be helpful for students and teachers if they would like detailed knowledge of how celebrities have or have not protested about going to war in Iraq or of individual case studies of films that were not greenlit or which were censored. On the other hand, there is no consideration of audience readings of the films, no discussion of ideology, questions of identity etc. Bizarrely, there is no real discussion of Hollywood’s overseas markets which now provide more than 50% of the revenue for the studios. Alford does mention China at one point, but he doesn’t discuss the studios’ attempts to work with Chinese partners or the Chinese government’s policies for controlling the import of Hollywood product. Even more germane might be analysis of Indian investment in Hollywood. Indian producers are caught between the nationalism seemingly demanded by audiences at home and the embrace of American values by Indians in North America and the new middle-class at home. Once famously ‘non-aligned’, India is in danger of being seen as ‘pro-American’. How Hollywood responds to that issue promises to be interesting (imagine a Hollywood-backed film, made in India about the brief war with China in 1962 – but then we’ve already had Kundun (US 1997) and no, it isn’t mentioned in the book).

Directory of World Cinema: Australia and New Zealand

A few weeks ago I posted on the new series of World Cinema Directories from Intellect. The latest one to be free online before the print edition is published is Australia and New Zealand, edited by Ben Goldsmith and Geoff Lealand. This directory follows the same outline structure as the Japanese Directory. The main difference for me as a reviewer is that I have taught aspects of Japanese Cinema, but I’ve not tackled either Australian or New Zealand Cinema – only a handful of selected films for specific purposes. I hope this means I can be more objective about the usefulness of the whole project to students and cinephiles generally.

There is one other obvious difference comparing this publication with the Japanese Directory – two separate industries and two editors. In practice, the major part of the guide is devoted to Australian Cinema and New Zealand gets only around 66 specific pages out of 340 overall. As far as contributors are concerned, it is significant that nearly all are academics (i.e. no film journalists). Both countries have developed academic film studies in parallel with the UK and North America so that all the contributors are based in one or the other of the two countries. Compared to the Japanese Directory, I recognised many more names, including some from the ‘Senses of Cinema’ website based in Australia.

The Australian section picks out four directors and a number of genres for essays with accompanying short entries on individual films. The four directors are Peter Weir and Baz Luhrmann and two more surprising choices – Cecil Holmes, a director working in the 1950s-70s that I was unaware of, and Michael Powell, who made two features in Australia after his forced exile from British Cinema. The genres selected are: ‘Bushranger’, War Cinema, Crime, Prison, ‘Period’, Comedy, Coming of Age, Horror, Road Movies, Science Fiction and Fantasy, ‘Ozploitation’ and Short Films. The essays begin with ‘Disability in the Australian Cinema’.

The New Zealand section features three directors – Shirley Horrocks, Shuichi Kothari and Vincent Ward. There is a general section on ‘Genre and Themes’ with various short essays, an Introduction addressing ‘New Zealand Film in 2009’ and a separate short section on Experimental Film. Overall the number of short film reviews is much less than in the Australian section.

There is also a comprehensive Bibliography and a listing of useful websites.

From my perspective of comparative ignorance, two points about the contents of the Australian section stood out for me immediately as I skimmed through the Directory. First was the wealth of material about Australian Cinema before the 1970s – about which I knew very little. Compared to this was the relatively less substantial coverage of the ‘New Australian Cinema’ of the 1970s – the period when Australian films seemed to appear quite suddenly in the global marketplace (or was it just the UK?). The introduction to the guide is very good in explaining why debates about Australian Cinema developed in the way that they did (with a concentration on how national identity was represented and a disavowal of genre) and overall I found this to be a coherent presentation of Australian Cinema with interesting debates about industry and culture. Nevertheless, the Directory is still to some extent constrained by its structure. Australian Cinema is slightly confusing for the newcomer. Some of the debates are familiar for scholars of British Cinema – a history of popular audiences preferring Hollywood to local production for instance. Yet there is also a history of public funding and a variety of local production that compares very well with countries of a similar size and wealth. This means that the Directory can’t offer a full account of Australian Cinema past and present. Editorial decisions about what to include and why become very important.

For example the 1946 film The Overlanders acts as a useful study text (easily available on DVD) in relation to several debates. Made by the distinguished British documentarist Harry Watt for Ealing it represents inward investment from the UK (as distinct from the Hollywood funding of Baz Luhrmann’s Australia which borrowed some of its ideas) and raises questions about how British creatives constructed representations of Australian national identity. The film originated as part of an Anglo-Australian propaganda exercise with a ‘typical Australian’ refusing to kill cattle in Northern Australia as part of a scorched earth policy developed because of fear of a Japanese invasion. Instead the cattle are driven for hundreds of miles to Queensland. In the Directory, the film is discussed in the ‘Road Movie’ section, but it could have appeared in the War Film section or the ‘Period’ section. Alternatively, Watts’ work in Australia could have been considered alongside Michael Powell or the other Ealing Films made in Australia during the 1940s and 1950s. My point here is not that I disagree with where the film appears – simply that in a Directory in which readers might select to read one section rather than another, making the links is not so straightforward (though it could be in a fully ‘online project).

I find it difficult to comment on the New Zealand section having seen so few of the films. Some of the debates are similar, but overall the relatively limited resources/local box office potential of New Zealand compared to Australia does create extra problems (not least the enormous disparity between Peter Jackson-produced international blockbusters and all other local production). I’m not sure whether New Zealand film academics/fans will be happy that the Directory gives them exposure or that they will resent being a kind of appendage to a primarily Australian Directory. I’m sure that someone could let me know!

My other main question is simply to query how many of the films discussed in the Directory are accessible from outside the two countries? It would be helpful if all the directories in this series included some information about how to acquire DVDs (Region 4 DVDs for Australia/New Zealand). Once again, YouTube rides to the rescue with some clips from films unavailable in the UK. Here’s a clip from one of my favourites from the 1970s (what I’ve now learned is the period of the ‘AFC film’, produced with public funding). This is Newsfront, directed by Philip Noyce in 1978 and exploring the world of the local Australian newsreel industry in the 1950s:

Although there is no entry on Newsfront as such in the Directory, there is an interesting essay by Bonnie Elliott which analyses the context of its production (in the ‘Period Film’ section).

Overall, I found this a very interesting collection and I’m pleased to have been introduced to a range of films with which I’m unfamiliar as well as more familiar titles that I can now see in a new light. If you want a free copy download it now from Intellect Books (free offer ends soon!).

Studying Tsotsi

Studying Tsotsi, Judith Gunn, Auteur Publishing 2010, 120pp, ISBN: 978-1-906733-08-7

Tsotsi (South Africa/UK 2010) is one of the most popular films discussed on this website and it is widely studied in a UK context. Not surprisingly then, we were very interested in what this latest study guide from Auteur had to offer.

These study guides have now switched to a ‘pocket size’ – (162 x 117 mm), so in 120 pages there are perhaps 28,000 words in which to explore the film. I think that this is similar to the York Film Notes which tried a similar trick at the start of the decade.

The author’s blurb tells us that Judith Gunn is Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Cirencester College and that she has worked in BBC radio as researcher, writer, producer and broadcaster. In Chapter 5 on Audience and Institution, Gunn reveals that she was a child in Africa and remembers going to the cinema in Tanzania to see a Hollywood/British film. She draws on both this experience and her BBC work in interesting ways and she refers to a number of interesting and useful books and articles that I will certainly investigate. For someone looking for material to help contextualise a reading of Tsotsi in relation to a set of media studies course objectives, there is certainly food for thought here. However, I’m less convinced that the guide will be helpful for film studies students and there are some real problems with the overall approach.

I couldn’t find anywhere in the book a statement about who the expected readership might be or what level of academic course is being addressed. Tsotsi is mentioned directly on the syllabus of the WJEC GCSE (i.e 14-17 year-olds in the main) in Film Studies, but this is a new course with relatively small (but growing) numbers of students. I would expect Auteur to be targeting the far larger group of A Level teachers and students on both media and film studies courses. The problem is that without a clear focus Gunn struggles to find a consistent level in terms of pitching to readers both theoretical ideas and cultural references. There is a range of theoretical references which on the one hand are inappropriate for GCSE students and on the other are sometimes presented in a potentially patronising way for A Level students – and sometimes the attempt to introduce ideas quickly makes them confusing. Getting the pitch right is very difficult and I suspect that here it is the guide’s structure that is problematic.

There are six chapters in all – History and Context, Narrative, The Image of Tsotsi, Representation: Stereotypes, Audiences and Institutions and finally ‘Themes’. The problematic chapters are those offering textual analysis and discussion of the film in the context of South African Cinema more generally. An early indication that things are not quite right is the assumption that this is a ‘Hollywood film’ in some way. There is some useful discussion in the guide of possible Hollywood elements in the film and Gavin Hood did indeed train in the US and has gone on to make Hollywood films, but Tsotsi is a UK/South Africa co-production which Miramax picked up after production. The prime mover behind the production was UK producer Peter Fudakowski.

More confusing still is the discussion of the ‘look’ of the film. I couldn’t find anything to warn readers that the UK DVD from Momentum actually uses the wrong aspect ratio, presenting the film in 16:9 or 1:1.78 instead of the ‘Scope ratio 1:2.35 used for the cinema version. All those students in the UK have probably studied the film unable to see the careful compositions. (As far as I can see the Miramax Region 1 disc has the correct ratio). Judith Gunn’s overall strategy involves comparing the shooting and editing style for Tsotsi with television soap opera and also with a series like The Wire, which seems odd to me. This just one example of an approach which might work for media studies but which more or less ignores the specific formal questions of film studies. Gavin Hood and his cinematographer Lance Gewer made some quite careful decisions about the look of the film – none of which are directly related to television aesthetics. The best resource on this is an article in American Cinematographer which is still online and well worth reading. As Gewer states:

“Gavin’s intention was to make an intensely emotional and engaging psychological thriller set in a world of contrasts — love and hate, wealth and poverty, revenge and forgiveness, anger and compassion — and widescreen was the only way we could visually tell that story. We needed to get a sense of the characters in the space and the broadness of that space; it’s a world vulnerable people inhabit.”

Here is why, ideally, students need to see the CinemaScope print. The rest of the article explains very well why decisions were made. Unfortunately, I think some of Judith Gunn’s commentary on this area is not particularly helpful. I’m also puzzled why, after referencing authoritative sources on South African Cinema in terms of 1930s-60s films she then decides to discuss more recent South African films only in terms of the Hollywood and UK productions based there, rather than investigate some of the more recent independents. It isn’t easy to access these films, I know, but students should be aware of the structure of South African Cinema – which is still largely segregated in terms of catering for largely white middle-class audiences in multiplexes and for much poorer Black audiences in what I assume are less salubrious halls in the townships (assuming that they still exist and haven’t closed with the spread of DVDs). Tsotsi is unique in coming out of a sector of the South African industry still mainly white but at least with a grasp of working-class South African culture.

In short, this guide will give media students access to some useful material, but film students will need to supplement it with some of the books mentioned in its Bibliography.

itpworld’s blog entry on Tsotsi is here.

. . . and another entry on itpworld including a report on a new venture in South Africa, ‘Sollywood’

There is also an article on the recent Durban International Film Festival by Maggie Miranda in the latest Media Magazine in which she discusses new South African films.