The National Cinema Problem

Recently a colleague asked me for some recommendations for readings on national cinema. He regularly teaches a course on international cinema and felt that a couple of well targeted essays could frame the discussion of national specificity of meaning amid what could otherwise be a kaleidoscopic tour. Immediately came to mind several pieces of scholarship that outline and interrogate that concept of national cinema: Andrew Higson's "Concept of National Cinema," Stephen Crofts, "Reconceptualizing National Cinema/s," and as a good case study, Elsaesser's New German Cinema. These, in fact, I assign in my graduate course, for its week on national cinema. To these I might also add Alan Williams' introduction to Film and Nationalism.

But in discussing these, my colleague and I noticed a problem with these, from a pedagogical perspective at least. These essays did a good job in challenging textual models of national cinema historiography, in suggesting the utility of industrial and reception approaches to national cinema, and in drawing on and complicating the notion of cultural imperialism. What they did not do was really grapple with textual approaches to national cinema itself. Certain scholars have used specific national-cinema case studies to illuminate these issues (New German Cinema, say, or Pierre Sorlin's overlooked Film and History), and other scholars (Elsaesser, or Phil Rosen) have presented valuable theoretical discussions out of range for most introductory undergraduate education. But the only scholarship devoted to explaining what national cinema is, absent a narrow particular case study, seems to be committed to deconstructing the notion of national cinema.

Higson does outline a textual model of national cinema:
[T]here is the possibility of a text-based approach to national cinema. Here the key questions become: What are these films about? Do they share a common style or world view? What sort of projections of the national character do they ofer? To what extent are they engaged in 'exploring, questioning and constructing a notion of nation hood in the films themselves and in the consciousness of the viewer' [quote: Susan Barrowclough]"
Nonetheless, Higson's polemic is against text-based understanding of national cinema. Meanwhile, area studies still continue and still find value in reading nation-specific cultural content and context in films. Others look to the way films construct a public, national culture. Yet, as I mentioned in my intro-textbook review, the concept of national cinema gets little, if any, consideration in American textbooks.

Am I overlooking something here? Suggestions for articles or books are welcome: I am not an a specialist in national cinema or even an area-study cinema. At stake are a couple of issues. The first, as I suggest, is pedagogical: what excites us as scholars may leave the dots unconnected in a classroom. Sometimes the simplified version is worth teaching (and learning) before complications are brought - indeed so the complications and newer intellectual models make sense. The second, however, is scholarly: as valuable as they, I cannot help but feel the national cinema-skeptics are overstating the case. If certain types of generalization about national ideology and aesthetics are problematic, it is still worth reflecting on which approaches and generalizations produce a better understanding of text-context relations - just sidestepping by saying that context is the only thing that matters will not answer the question.

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