Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Film History Textbook

[See 2014 Update]

As a companion to my review-overview of introductory textbooks, I wanted to take a look at the major textbooks for the film history survey course. Again, I have my own opinions about these, but I also want to lay out the pros and cons for each.

The intro course has a structuring choice between the film-appreciation approach and the intro-to-the-discipline approach. The film history course faces a number of choices, too: coverage versus depth, restriction to narrative versus inclusion of experimental or documentary, or internationalization versus canonical national cinemas. But the main dividing line between the introducing film history as an academic field and surveying great masterworks. These are not entirely mutually exclusive: academic film history has a canon, and the masterworks approach relies on historical scholarship. Nonetheless, differences between the books emerge along these lines.

These are listed in rough order of popularity in the field. I will add to this post as I read and discover other books.

A History of Narrative Film, by David Cook. 4th edition. Norton. $86.

This book for years was standard and even today is possibly the most commonly used textbook for the history survey. From my understanding, previous editions slanted more to the masterwork approach – this fourth edition has a better balance between masterwork and industrial/contextual historiography. Still, its main difference from the Thompson/Bordwell history is an emphasis on movements and key makers. Citizen Kane gets its own chapter. There are also pleasant surprises – a discussion of women German directors, an overview of Italian exploitation film, or a real engagement with commercial cinema.

PROS: This book may well be the best balance between coverage, disciplinary knowledge, and readability – it does a good job at maintaining a clear narrative for readers amid the detail. Analysis of individual films integrated into the whole; seamless introduction of formal terminology within its historical narrative, at least for readers/classes starting from the beginning of the book. Brief but useful introductions of historical and political context into discussion of the films.
CONS: Long filmographies are included in the body of the text and bog down the reading – they would be better pulled for a list at the chapters' end. Restricted to narrative film - the book acknowledges this, but still its justification that there are other histories devoted to documentary or experimental does not help the instructor wanting to integrate either into a history survey. The organization of non-US cinemas according to national cinema seems to make sense at first blush but in fact highly disrupts chronology and basically begs for ghettoization and exclusion of international cinemas from a survey course.
WHAT THIS BOOK HAS THAT OTHERS LACK: this book has by far the best discussion of digital aesthetics (the discussion of three “Pearl Harbor” films is terrific)
WHO SHOULD USE IT: The lower or mid-level film history survey class; general reader looking for a film history introduction; area studies instructors looking for a textbook chapter on a national cinema to excerpt as background for their courses.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: Not the most visually stunning book layout. Flimsy paper and cover, but this seems to be the trade off for a voluminous textbook.

Film History: An Introduction, Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell. 3rd edition. McGraw-Hill. $86.

I wrote a review of the 2nd edition before, and do not have too much to add. In short: this book is very thorough and wide-ranging. Of the available textbooks, it best embodies how film historians see the history of cinema: take for instance their discussion of Griffith, which sees him as only one part of the American transitional cinema. Refreshing. It may be just me, but where other textbooks seem to see film's past as pat, this one makes me excited about works, makers and national cinemas, some of which I was unaware of.

PROS: The scope is impressive. The book stretches beyond the canon and challenges and inspires the reader to curiosity about the entire history of the medium. Terrific and unmatched balance between aesthetic, industrial, and technological understanding of cinema. Non-trivial inclusion of experimental and documentary.
CONS: A dense read, both in terms of the writing style and layout; students (and teachers!) might find detail and coverage excessive – there is the danger of losing a clear picture of film history when inundated. Some instructors may want an approach that highlights canonical works more. Very few survey textbooks deal extensively with ideology and historical context, but the purview here is fairly contained to the medium of film and the film industry, except when ithe topics, like state-run industry or countercinema, gesture explicitly outward.
WHAT THIS BOOK HAS THAT OTHERS LACK: Coverage of national cinemas beyond the films commonly known in the field. The discussion of 30s Soviet or 50s French or 70s Third World cinemas is really rich.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: Those teaching a comprehensive, two-or-more-term survey course. Those teaching an advanced film history course. Those looking for a good historical background to a national cinema or period.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: As with the authors' intro textbook, the frame enlargements are plenty and well-chosen. I cannot tell much substantial improvement between 2nd and 3rd edition, at least to justify a new printing (and planned obsolesence), and I miss the opening chapter on film history as a practice.

A History of Film, by Virginia Wright Wexman. 7th edition (6th edition reviewed here). Pearson. $98.60

This used to be authored by Jack Ellis, and Ellis's original structure still has its fingerprints on the table of contents (i.e. heavy emphasis on periodization/ national cinema combinations). This book markets itself as a concise yet comprehensive history, suitable for the one-semester survey, and indeed it seems to find a sweet spot between coverage and concision.

PROS: Clear writing style. While restricted to a film canon, the selections are fairly wide ranging for such a short history and at the very least correspond to the film-scholarship canon. The fuller discussion of individual films gives some texture to the overall narrative.
CONS: Compact size means that coverage and depth get lost. The coverage of Hollywood ends up being surprisingly synoptic. A heavy emphasis on aesthetic history, conceived strictly in terms of film movements, key genres, and national cinemas; industrial history is presented mostly as background, and social history is pretty much lacking.
WHAT THIS BOOK HAS THAT OTHERS LACK: A smooth introduction of basic film-form vocabulary in the opening chapters.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: Those teaching an abbreviated, one-term survey course. Those wanting a concise history as background for another film course.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: Thankfully photographic stills from earlier editions have been replaced with screen captures. The price tag seems exorbitant for a book this slim.

Flashback: a Brief Film History, by Louis Giannetti and Scott Eyman. Pearson. 10th edition (9th edition reviewed here). $87.33

This is the most film appreciation-oriented of the history textbooks. It seeks to examine cinema's past in order to evaluate it as a model for film style and practice for future periods. It has an "AFI" kind of feel, and instructors may judge what their own feelings about that are: mine clearly are not positive.

PROS: Very readable style. Chronological contents may aid in syllabus design that looks at international developments concurrently. I have the same problems with the illustrations (film stills, not frame captures) that I did with Gianetti's intro textbook, but they do have the benefit of adding a layer to the historical narrative and piquing the reader's curiosity about individual films.
CONS: The preface promises a "brief" and "bare-bones" film history, and unfortunately coverage does seem sacrificed here. Documentary and experimental lacking. Canonical scope with pat historical narratives. Aesthetic dismissal closes down curiosity about film's past. Language can be too breezy: I try to teach my students not to use colloquial (and empty) phrases like "musical magic" so I don't want a textbook that does. Does not take into account academic scholarship - for example their discussion of sound and Warner Brothers partakes of the mythologies historians have debunked.
WHAT THIS BOOK HAS THAT OTHERS LACK: A perspective of how film history aids contemporary film critics. Useful timelines at the start of each chapter (I even wish these had more).
WHO SHOULD USE IT: A history course, say in a production program, with a strong film-appreciation bent.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: Decent quality cover and paper, but dated layout. Simply way too expensive for the quality. Why pay 84 dollars for a "bare bones" history when you can get a thorough history for the same price?

Oxford History of World Cinema, ed. by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. Oxford University Press. $35.

"The definitive history of cinema worldwide"? No, but it is pretty good. This is a cross between textbook and coffee-table book. It is not a single-author text but an encyclopedia-style collection of entries on periods and national cinemas, written by key scholars in each area.

PROS: Better coverage of international and European cinemas without unduly short-changing Hollywood; individual entries go a little more further in exploring ideas; nice balance between general-interest readability and scholarly rigor.
CONS: Heavy emphasis on the aesthetic over other historical aspects. Anthology form and contents organization makes it difficult to adapt to a survey syllabus. Book published in 1998, not updated.
WHAT THIS BOOK HAS THAT OTHERS LACK: Pulled one-page biographies of key cinematic figures – not only directors but stars, crew, producers, etc.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: General reader looking for a film history introduction or reference.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: Even though it is not an overly illustrated book, the layout is well-designed for readability. Thick, glossy paper. The book is expensive, however, for a non-textbook work.

Specialized textbooks:

American Film: a History, by Jon Lewis. W. W. Norton. $67.50.

This volume is dedicated to American cinema alone, and Hollywood (or major feature-film alternatives) at that. It is as long as some international surveys, meaning it has the space to go into depth discussing individual films and directors.

PROS: Balance between aesthetic, industrial and ideological history of Hollywood. Highly engaging writing style – I cannot imagine any other book doing as good a job to sell early and silent cinema to students leery of older films. Not surprisingly, given Lewis's scholarship, the book is a little stronger on post-1960 Hollywood, a period often given short shrift in the survey textbook.
CONS: Complete absence of documentary and experimental film, begging the question of whether “American film” means simply Hollywood. Highly canonical narrative, with few surprises. I am also not sure of the tendency to discuss classical makers like Busby Berkeley or Max Ophuls as important because contemporary directors were influenced by them.
WHAT THIS BOOK HAS THAT OTHERS LACK: An integrated discussion of politics and ideology of American film. Full consideration of censorship, exploitation movies, and screen sexuality.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: Those teaching an American film history class.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: Well indexed. Good glossary. Nice cover and layout helps for readability. Unfortunately, promotional stills are not supplemented by frame captures, with the result the illustrations slant to star promotion and iconic moments in films rather than a closer look at style or narrative.

Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies, by Robert Sklar. Revised Edition, 1994. Vintage Books. $22.

This is not a textbook proper, but its historical scope and its accessible writing style leads many courses to adopt it as either a primary or supplemental coursebook.

PROS: A wider look at the role of film in American life, not just a masterworks survey or industrial history (though the book touches on both).
CONS: It lacks the synthesis of a body of scholarship that textbooks do. Material is selected to make the author's arguments rather than as coverage. Readerly approach does not model for students how they can enter the discipline. Only intermittent consideration of film's aesthetic dimension.
WHAT THIS BOOK HAS THAT OTHERS LACK: An extended consideration of film's social history.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: Those teaching an American film history class. Those wishing to supplement other books with material on the role of film in American culture.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: Not a textbook, it lacks the more visual presentation useful for classroom use.

Film History: Theory and Practice, by Robert C. Allen and Douglas Gomery. McGraw-Hill, 1985. $89/71.

This is not a survey, but a textbook in how to do film history. In that it stands alone in the field, though since it is now long out of print, I imagine the demand for this kind of book ended up being not very high. It is a shame that there has not been an updated edition for the book though to take into account changes and new perspectives in the field. (Thompson and Bordwell's history-of-style approach, for instance, could help this book from treating aesthetic history as a bĂȘte noir.)

PROS: Accessible but not dumbed down. Ends each chapter with substantial and useful case studies. Fills niche not met by any other textbook.
CONS: Lacks any survey coverage and downplays the aesthetic. Narrowly American in focus, Case studies could use updating with more contemporary examples. Methodological focus (starting off in Ch. 1 with a philosophy-of-science debate, for instance) may be advanced for some students.
WHAT THIS BOOK HAS THAT OTHERS LACK: A sustained discussion of the methodology of film history.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: Those teaching advanced film history courses or ones requiring empirical research. Beyond its role in classes, Film History: Theory and Practice is useful for readers beginning to advanced, and scholars might want to visit or revisit the book to approach their intellectual craft anew.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: Lack of updated edition. Expensive. Layout is print-heavy and uninspired visually.

The book I have used in my survey is the Thompson and Bordwell. David Cook's would come a close second. I intend to use the Allen and Gomery in an advanced history class next semester.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Film Frame Illustrations

Readers will note that I use frame captures to illustrate this blog. And, like many, I use them in teaching, especially in lecture classes for which visual examples go a long way to aid explanation.

US copyright rulings have cleared the way for academic fair use in such frame illustrations, yet DVD software remains encrypted to prevent such captures. So I get a lot of questions about the process. What is the easiest to get good illustrations?

I have only done these with a Mac. PC users can contact me or share their experiences in the comments. There are some programs designed for the process. DVD Capture (freeware: download) I have used before, but it also runs into hardware problems on some Mac, so can be problematic.

The easiest route is to download VLC player (freeware: download), a buggy but good all-purpose media player application. To make the capture, put in your DVD. Very likely, Mac's built-in DVD Player will start running. Quit out of it and open VLC player. From the menu, or with Control-D, open the DVD; this will bring up the menu. Play as normal, then pause where you want the capture. Next, open the Grab utility (in the Utilities folder under Applications): you can grab by window or selection. (Note: via the comments, I find out you can use the Tools> Snapshot feature directly in VLC. This will save a .png file to your desktop.) Either way, you will need to save the image with your chosen filename/location, then open it with an image viewing program (such as Preview). In Preview, you can crop the image; just drop and drag over the image to select, then Tools>Crop (or Control-K) to crop it. The image will be in a .tiff file format, which may be fine for some uses, but .tiffs do not work well across platforms (i.e going online or to a PC), so you should probably Save As and choose a .jpg format. It doesn't hurt to add the .jpg extension at the end of the file name, either.

There are limits to the image resolution using this method, but it produces fairly sharp images for most everyday uses.

Anyone have another method for producing captures?

UPDATE: Jason Mittell points me to Jeremy Butler's excellent tutorials on grabbing frames (for PCs and Macs), making clips (for Macs), and capturing video.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

CFP: Velvet Light Trap on Seeing Race

FP Velvet Light Trap #67 - Seeing Race: Our Enduring Dilemma

"You lie!" Rep. Joe Wilson shouted during President Barack Obama's speech on health care reform in the halls of Congress. Media pundits were quick to point out that the 19th century was the last occasion of such an egregious breach of protocol took place in Congress. Members of both Houses urged the Republican congressman from South Carolina to apologize for his misconduct--and he did. Soon after, though, the discourse shifted to the reasons for Wilson's outburst. The factor of race became one major point in attributing blame, but that fire was never allowed to flame because of the overwhelmingly hegemonic ideology of colorblindness that currently saturates our culture. This same story could be told in relation to the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the pop culture firestorm that singed Isaiah Washington and the cast of Grey's Anatomy, or the discourses surrounding First Lady Michelle Obama's hair.

The notion that we cannot talk about race unless it is specifically and clearly identified as such in media and culture-at-large is as implicitly understood as is the notion of "one nation under God"--and it is just as powerful. And yet, although we claim to be blind to the markers of external and cultural difference, we always "see" race.

Issue #67 of The Velvet Light Trap will explore all the varied ways that we "see" race in television, film and new media. While the editors maintain a broad definition of "seeing race," special consideration will be given toward articles that interrogate the nexus of racial visibility as a sociocultural fact and/or color blindness as an ideological practice. Whether papers approach seeing race as a discursive category, a commercial commodity, and/or an object of consumption, the editors anticipate submissions that connect these strategies to the historical, industrial, political, and cultural factors that underpin a society's values.

Possible Topics include, but are not limited to:

* Seeing Race in War
* Spectacle
* Production Cultures
* Race and Genre
* Race in Political Media
* Race and Gender Intersectionality in Media

Papers should be between 6,000 and 7,500 words (approximately 20-25 pages double-spaced), in MLA style with a cover page including the writer's name and contact information.

Please send one copy of the paper (including a one-page abstract with each copy) and one electronic copy saved as a Word .doc file in a format suitable to be sent to a reader anonymously. The journal's Editorial Advisory Board will referee all submissions.

For more information or questions, contact Andrew Scahill at adscahill - at - Hard copy submissions are due January 30, 2010, and should be sent to:

The Velvet Light Trap, c/o The Department of Radio-Television-Film,
University of Texas at Austin, CMA 6.118, Mail Code A0800, Austin, TX, 78712

The electronic copy submission is also due on January 30, 2010 and should be sent to Andrew Scahill at adscahill - at -

World Picture 2009

I'm currently heading back from this year's World Picture conference, in Oklahoma State. I may write up a little more substantively on the talks I heard, but for now I'll note the conference has been a reminder of the pleasures of small conferences - the sociality, the extended dialogue across panels, the shifting sense of purpose that develops over two days. Moreover, World Picture is a remarkably hospitable example of the small conference.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Disciplinary Imperialism

It has been a goal of mine lately to read more outside of my field. Not that I have remotely caught up with everything I should be reading/should have read in film and media studies. But it's useful to get beyond the disciplinary blinders and to get out of one's comfort zone a little.

My current reading is Kieran Healy's sociological study of blood and organ donation, Last Best Gifts: Altruism and the Market for Human Blood and Organs. The book is remarkable in a number of ways - for instance, if you want a pithy 1-paragraph explanation of commodity fetishism, I don't think you'll get one clearer than the one on page 4. But the book also strikes me particularly useful as an ideal in how to assert the primacy of one's disciplinary knowledge. For Healy takes a subject that one might on one hand seem the realm of the philosophy of ethics (since it involves individuals' moral decisions) or else of economics (since there is a clear problem of supply, demand, and incentive) and argue that the social helps us understand the phenomenon in ways that mark philosophy or economics inadequate. Moreover, he demonstrates, ethics and homo economicus are culturally contingent modes of knowlegde in this arena.

I bring this up to contrast with the way I normally see my own discipline deal with other disciplines, which is simply to deny their validity. Too often, we assert or imply that historians are naive, that economists are ideologically duped into being minions of Capital, and that sociology and political polling were strange constructs of mid-century America, when academics didn't realize that you can't study societies empirically. I exaggerate but not much.

There is a value to humility. (Healy takes neoliberal economics seriously at the same time he challenges it.) But equally disciplinary primacy has to be demonstrated, not merely stated as an in-group mantra.

Now, the Healy approach is not exactly open to us. Film studies may not be a true discipline and in any case is bounded by its object of study - we cannot readily do a film or media studies reading of news and the business cycle, say. Or if we do we would have a very different kind of film/media studies. Very often we are dependent on prior disciplinary approaches (history, philosophy, art history, literary interpretation) that we then apply to our object of study in a distinctive manner. Nonetheless, I would love to see a lot more of its spirit in our work.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Cinema Journal and American English

A trivial thing to be concerned with I know, but I'm rereading Daniel Martin's essay on Ringu from the Spring 09 Cinema Journal and am struck by the British usage and spelling. Does the journal not enforce a style guideline? Or is does it explicitly allow for both American and British English? I don't believe I've seen another major journal so flexible.

1919 Film conference at Yale

Those in the Northeast Corridor might want to attend the upcoming conference at Yale on After the Great War: European Film in 1919 (.pdf flier). Running December 3-5, it is organized around 8 panels, each devoted to a European national cinema and featuring screenings of archival or restored 35mm prints - these are followed by panels by film scholars, historians, and other experts. It's a fantastic lineup of films and and a great organizing rubric.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Star Systems

Leaving aside the formal delineation of a classical or a postclassical style, I'm wondering if one quantitative index of the postclassical film industry is the likelihood that secondary actors appear in major roles in later films. It does not seem to happen all that much in 40s cinema, that I can tell. Character actors have a distinct role and secondary actors remain pretty much anonymous to us looking back historically. The credits of a Hollywood film post-1960, on the other hand, contains several names of future stars down the cast list, to the point where the fun of watching these films is seeing the star as non-star.


I believe this is the first time we see the title sequence over a static photograph (instead of book or drawing or live action shot).

Fiesta (Richard Thorpe, MGM) is a film that makes me want to visit those major genre studies of the musical (many of which I've regrettable still not read) to see how they discuss the mainstay classical Hollywood musicals that fall outside the canon. MGM in particular made a number of films that featured musical performance prominently and are now marketed in DVD box sets. Yet many of these fail to match the ideal types we have of either backstage or integrated musical.

The Esther Williams films are interesting on this count. Here, she makes one obligatory diving appearance. And, as in her other films, she is surrounded by characters with musical or dance inclination, in this case her twin brother Mario (Ricardo Montalban) and his love interest Conchita (Cyd Charisse). The new twist here, is a gender-bending narrative, with Maria (Williams) cross-dressing and subbing in as a torredor.

There's the camp quality of Williams and Mary Astor's complete lack of any attempt at a Mexican accent. After seeing and researching the production files of Unfinished Dance, too, I wonder if there's a concerted effort on MGM's part to skirt with sexual abberation in their scripts, here the unhealthy attachment between twins Williams and Montalban.

Three directors of photography – Sidney Wagner, Charles Rosher, and Wilfred Cline – served on the film, in addition to Natalie Kalmus as Technicolor color director. The film is in fact an interesting match (or tug of war depending on the perspective) between MGM house style and individual style. Much of the opening and closing sequences, for instance, are in a high key approach to color that is distinctively MGM's:

Other scenes, especially interior nighttime scenes, take on both a heavy use of shadow and multi-sourced lighting that seems to indicate Charles Rosher's hand.

These scenes are still high key - not even really medium key - but they reduce the flooding of light that we associate with the upbeat musical style. Instead, they take on a certain jewel-like quality, aided by the muted-pastel art direction.

In the comments a few posts back, Scott Higgins suggested that Rosher's work merited more than being lumped in with a generic MGM style. He's right of course, and Fiesta suggests the value of looking closely at precisely the kind of film that today would be dismissed as tossaway Hollywood. Incidentally, the film is a great illustration of the twin approaches of restrained Technicolor and an expanded palette: the art direction and costuming is noticeably unsaturated, with a heavy emphasis on browns, yellows, and pale oranges, except for the recurring bright, saturated red highlights. The Montalban-Cherisse "La Bamba" dance illustrated above is a good example of this strategy.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Fall Cleaning

I'm in the process of updating my RSS feeds for daily and more occasional blog reading. Any suggestions? (Film, media, or other otherwise in subject matter.) Hopefully, too, I will get around to updating the blog roll in the process.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Documentary Reenactment

I have heard the critique of Bill Nichols' work that he is excessively invested in taxonomy. (See Stella Bruzzi's book on New Documentary, for instance). And it's true that his latest article on documentary reenactment (Critical Inquiry Autumn 2008) is yet another taxonomy. But it's worth reading, I think, precisely because it articulates the differences that often get elided in claims that pseudodocumentary reenactment does X or Y. There is a real inductive, descriptive spirit in Nichols work that I think is worth emulating.