A few months back, I’d wondered about various Introduction to Film textbooks. Well, I’ve decided to order exam copies of the leading contenders and compare them. What did I learn? There’s real competition in the introductory textbook market now. Several leading contenders all offer distinct advantages and foci. Whether more basic or advanced, geared more toward film appreciation or toward introduction to film scholarship, each adds something new.
The following are some of the major introduction to film analysis texts I have found. I’ll add more textbooks as I get copies. I have not considered other books intended for introductory courses: television or media studies texts, film history surveys, analysis compilations, etc. Similarly, I have not considered here CD-ROMs, websites and supplemental material. I hope to write on these separately. These notes simply reflect my opinion and what I think is useful in the classroom; obviously, people’s experiences aren’t the same on that score. Still, I’ve tried to suggest what each book does best and who the audience might be.
It’s been humbling to read other scholars attempt to express the major concepts of the field in clear, inspiring, yet serious language. It’s hard not to be impressed by the breadth of knowledge and depth of intellectual verve of all of these books.
Film Art: An Introduction, by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson (McGraw-Hill). (Note: comments are based on 7th edition, not the forthcoming 8th.) $66
To my knowledge, this is still among the most widely used introductory textbooks in the field. Two things have kept it that way: 1) sheer path dependence, since this was one of the first to do what it does, and 2) its clear and thorough explanations of formal terminology. It’s the one I’ve always used, but more and more misgivings are having me seriously reconsider. It simply marginalizes too many valid areas of the field and does not match with the introductory course as I teach it.
PROS: Thousands of frame enlargements from an impressive range of films really model an approach to cinema that both appreciates its artistry and looks well beyond just the accepted masterpieces. Discussion of formal terms is thorough. Certain chapters (such as on genre) are strong summations of the scholarship to date, in terms accessible to beginning students.
CONS: Too many of the concepts are idiosyncratically Bordwellian (e.g. categorical and associational form), even silly (“cat acting” was the final straw for me). Major topics in film analysis get overlooked: star image, for instance. The political aporeas are odd: how one doesn’t adequately address the fact that film stereotypes minorities is beyond me. Sample film analyses leave a lot to be desired; it’s as if Bordwell and Thompson’s non-interpretation-based approaches to cinematic study mean that they refuse to model film interpretation.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: The move to mostly color is very nice, but the cheap paperback cover curls the minute you crack open the book. On the plus side, McGraw-Hill is generally very reliable to work with; they sent me desk copies in record time. Comes bundled with student guide and CD-ROM.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: Courses in film appreciation, advanced classes looking for an intro book as reference for terminology.
Understanding Movies, by Louis Giannetti, 10th edition (Prentice Hall) $82.20
This stalwart text, now in its tenth edition, claims on its website to be the best-selling on the market. An all-purpose text, it straddles film appreciation and film theory perhaps more gracefully than some of the other contenders from its generations (the James Monaco How to Read a Film, for instance).
PROS: Perhaps some scholars would find Giannetti's realism-classicism-formalism model too simplistic, but his explanation of the model is very clear, even for an introductory readership, and goes a long way to tying together the book's chapters. Other discussions, such as his overview of theories of realism, are impressive in their clarity. I also like the final chapter, which reads Citizen Kane as a case study for all of the analytical elements discussed in the book. Captions for illustrative films (canonical and contemporary) give students more context for the films.
CONS: The illustrations and captions are ultimately distracting from the text. Instead of frame enlargements illustrating concepts, they tend to be publicity stills taking up most of each page. Captions also too informal, even flip, for my taste: I really don't want a textbook that nonchalantly refers to characters as "crack whores." The chapter organization is also whimsical: there might be reasons to separate out "Movement" or "Drama" as key analytical concepts in textual study, but that's not how I organize my syllabus.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: Layout is rudimentary, where a better organization of information hierarchically (in sidebars, marginalia, etc.) would really help with the text's clarity. Like others in the Pearson publishing group, the book is not cheap.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: I tend to think this would fit film appreciation courses better, though its strengths in talking about narrative might appeal to those working out of a literary studies tradition.
The Film Experience, by Tim Corrigan and Patricia White (Bedford/St. Martin’s) $72
Blurbs normally don’t mean much, but Patrice Petro’s proclamation on the back cover – “I have been waiting for this textbook” – is not overstatement. A lot of more theoretically oriented scholars have been waiting for an alternative to Film Art, one that doesn’t marginalize history and political readings. Corrigan and White’s volume covers much of the same formalist approach, but broadens it to look at theoretical, film-historical and culturalist currents in film scholarship. Anecdotally, I gather this has been adopted as a primary contender for Film Art among those in the field.
PROS: If anything, this volume is even more thorough than Film Art. Much of the field’s terminology is introduced, an impressive range of popular, oppositional, and canonical cinema is considered, and up-to-date discussion of theoretical models is included. Inclusion of smart insights into the racial and sexual politics of movies is a welcome addition. Also, I can appreciate not dumbing down discussion; the book, for instance, includes fairly advanced discussion of point of view with the Editing chapter. In short, the erudition of this book is impressive. Like Film Art, the book uses plenty of frame enlargements, though the (presumably) digital sourcing has both advantages and disadvantages compared to Film Art’s analog reproduction; fewer are in color, incidentally.
CONS: Despite its claims to accessibility, I found the book’s level to be quite advanced for an intro book. Even the chapter titles string together several polysyllabic words. I have enough trouble speaking in clear terms that right now I don’t need a textbook that exacerbates the worst of my pedagogical faults. Also, the material covered is ambitious: instructors should decide whether a textbook that highlights terms like syntagma or antinomy is a good or bad thing for the context. It’s telling that the book has both a brief and an extended table of contents.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: I hate the layout. In fact, I think half of the accessibility issues are layout issues. Too weak a half-tone fill make it hard to distinguish the sidebars from the main text, and I frequently found myself confounded as reader. Also, there is a lot of highlighted vocabulary in the book, but much of it is not included in the glossary, some not even in the index.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: More ambitious introductory courses with well-prepared student body; intro courses that are part of a structured curriculum including a significant film theory or cultural studies orientation; advanced classes looking for an intro book as reference for terminology.
Film: A Critical Introduction, by Maria Pramaggiore and Tom Wallis (Allyn and Bacon). $80
This one isn’t without limitations but felt like a liberation to me. After scrounging up supplementary readings and trying to jerry-rig Film Art into a syllabus it wasn’t designed for, here comes a book whose organization is nearly identical to my syllabus: formal terms, then considerations of genre, ideology, authorship and stars.
PROS: Includes very current scholarship on the topics it covers, excerpting useful and accessible insights from essays and books that might be out of purview for an intro course. Deals with a deeper level of analysis - ideological, post-semiotic, or cultural-studies in orientation - with a minimum of scholarly apparatus. Has the best integration of instruction on how to do textual analysis with instruction on the formal and cinematic terms themselves.
CONS: Chapters are short. Fewer frame enlargements (all digital, I suspect) and more reliance on film stills. Some stills are really poor illustrations - the examples of wipes and dissolves show only the full image before the edit. Not as thorough in its terminological coverage as Film Art or Film Experience. Expensive price tag.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: Solid binding, nice color illustrations. The big drawback is the font and layout, which emphasizes white space and means far less space for content. Price seems steep, too.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: Humanities-oriented film courses seeking to introduce students to basic but substantial film analysis.
Movies and Meaning: An Introduction to Film, by Stephen Prince, 4th edition (Allyn and Bacon) $80
This book offers the fullest integration I’ve seen between knowledge of film production and discussion of film form and aesthetics.
PROS: Example films are well-chosen and are very up-to-date; the contemporary scope engages students with films they may already know . Individual discussions can be quite useful: I particularly like the chapters on sound and on film “realism,” the latter of which is probably the best clarification I’ve seen for an intro readership.
CONS: The focus on Hollywood narrative means that international cinema, even canonical European art films, get the short shrift, as does documentary; avant-garde filmmaking is not discussed at all. Discussion of scholarly approaches, while at times concise introductions, is not incorporated into individual chapters, which instead offer only a functionalist-communicative model and evaluative analysis.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: Color illustration minimal. Standard paperback format. Again, steep price for a slender volume.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: Film appreciation courses; introductory courses geared toward production students.
Looking at Movies: an Introduction to Film, by Richard Barsam. 2nd edition (WW Norton) $50
Of all the books I surveyed, this one had the most accessible presentation of abstract concepts in clear, basic language. After dealing with Bordwell and Thompson’s confusing explanation of form and content in Film Art for so long, I about wept with joy at the clear explanation in Looking at Movies. Similarly, the discussion of realism and anti-realism is a good one.
PROS: Clear, accessible language. Adequate attention to non-mainstream filmmaking, including up-to-date illustrations. Some topics, like acting, get their own chapter with much more adequate coverage than is typical. Decent range of illustrations, usually clear in what they are meant to exemplify. This is the only text to treat mise-en-scene in the manner approaching that of the Cahiers critics, encompassing sets, lighting, movement, framing and composition.
CONS: Though critical approaches and topics like genres, get covered here, the text speeds through them in one sole chapter and not a satisfactory one at that. Choice of films for sample analyses are mostly contemporary and push a bit too hard against the canon. I’m all for expanding what’s taught in these courses, but the history of cinema is too rich for me to be confined to using Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet in this course. More of a problem is the extreme reliance on functionalist analysis and overdone praise. ("most famous freeze frame of all time")
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: Nice, handsome volume with matte cover. The layout is in two columns, which comes across a bit busy for an introductory text. Captions for photos have helpful, explanatory caption. Reasonable price; comes bundled with writing guide and two DVDs.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: This would likely be my choice for a purely film appreciation course.
Film: An Introduction, by William H. Phillips, 3rd edition (Bedford/St. Martin’s) $72
This is a fine enough introductory book, but I couldn’t help but feel it fails by being lesser versions than the others: it’s not as thorough in its formal terminology, nor as complete an introduction to the practice of analysis or scholarship, nor as well-illustrated a volume.
PROS: Paradoxically, the advantage may be that this volume covers the material without overloading the reader. Layout is spacious, material is organized in clearly demarcated and easily digestible sections, and chapters organize ideas in nice, outline fashion, such as in their division of sound into basic elements. Wide range of texts, historic and contemporary, canonical and commonplace.
CONS: Some of the topics seem downright skimpy in the amount of space allowed. Just as the explanation is going, the “Further Reading” section appears.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: Few color reproductions. Otherwise sturdy volume. I like the pulled definitions in the margin.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: An introductory humanities, communication-studies or film appreciation class at a basic level of student preparation.
Anatomy of a Film, by Bernard F. Dick, 5th edition (Bedford/St. Martin’s) $41
This strikes me as geared most to a film appreciation approach, and one of a certain 1960s vintage. It does discuss films beyond the cinephiles canon, however, and includes contemporary examples.
PROS: Fuller discussion of literary qualities of narrative, including theme, subtext and adaptation.
CONS: Material and organization does not correspond to the way many introductory courses organize content and seem bizarre at times: one chapter alone covers basics of form, while another is called “Enhancing the Image: Color, Lighting and Visual Effects.” The avant-garde missing in action.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: No color illustration, and black and white reproductions not of optimal quality.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: Film appreciation and “film as literature” courses with heavy emphasis on auteur and literary
Introduction to Film, by Nick Lacey (Palgrave) $30
I don’t know what it is, but textbooks for the British market seem radically different than ones here. They tend to assume better student preparation yet offer less material. And, too, the concerns reflect the state of cinema studies in Britain – more interest in questions of national cinema, for instance. It’s hard to recommend for an introductory course here, but this at least offers a different approach.
PROS: One of the best primers on film theory I’ve seen in an introductory book: one could imagine students having some idea what Screen theory is after reading this. Maybe.
CONS: Almost no illustrations. Discussion of form compressed to a paltry chapter. Explanations seem rushed. Unsupported superlatives (“Scream: the only true postmodern genre film”) are used too often for my taste.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: Nice cover, compact size, but not much material and almost no illustrations.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: Advanced classes in other disciplines (or containing students from other disciplines) to introduce basic concepts in film studies.
Introduction to Film Studies, by Jill Nelmes, 2nd edition (Routledge) $36
Another British text with the same kind of theoretical and cultural orientation as Lacey's introduction. Like it, national cinema, political criticism, and spectatorship theory get a front row seat they rarely do in American counterparts. But it suffers in comparison to American texts when it comes to formal analysis. Unlike Lacey's book, it feels like a textbook, with some (not a lot) illustrations, graphs, and sidebars.
PROS: Topics capture what film scholarship actually deals with: industry, technology, form, spectatorship, genre, national cinema, etc. One of the few texts I've seen to treat animation with equal weight. Serious consideration of feminism and gay and lesbian cinema.
CONS: Formal analysis will likely seem insufficient to most American pedagogical contexts.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: Sparse on illustrations, which tend to be publicity stills anyhow. Little use of photos to look closely at film's formal construction. Layout, however, is excellent and helpful to the reader. Thick volume, not always cheap. And Routledge does not comp exam copies, which made me rely on an older edition sitting on the library shelf.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: Graduate or advanced classes looking for an introduction or reference to the concepts in film studies, without needing necessarily to do close formal reading.
An Introduction to Film, by Thomas Sobchack and Vivian C. Sobchack, 2nd edition (Harper Collins)
I have no idea how much this books is used, but given the copyright date (1987) and the amount of money the publisher spent printing it (not much), my guess is not a lot. Perhaps it gives slightly too idiosyncratic an introduction to the field. Perhaps other books just crowded it out of the market.
PROS: There is an originality in organization. Some readers might not agree with the distinction between “genre” and “nongenre” narrative, but the latter is an interesting way to introduce the art film and auteurism. Also, it will probably not come as a surprise, given the authors’ scholarship, that there is more focus on perceptual dimensions to motion pictures.
CONS: The production values make this text (see below) really hard to adopt. The division of formal chapters into “film space” and “film time” is a bit too conceptual for my taste. Also, the edition is quite dated; “Usually one cannot see a film again and again and again.”
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: Frankly, the production values are cheap. What illustrations the book includes are in poor black-and-white reproduction. The whole thing looks mimeographed, in fact.
MY VERDICT: Next term I’m leaning toward going with Pramaggiore and Wallis’s Film: A Critical Introduction, which best suits the introductory class as I approach it. I’m also impressed with the Barsam volume and, for more advanced students, the Corrigan/White book. Again, most all of the above are impressive in their own right, and I have found myself learning and reflecting on cinema just by doing this comparison. It's an encouraging sign for the health of the discipline.
9 hours ago