Carry on doing the same old thing

Cinemas of the World
March 19, 2004

From the moment one reads its title, James Chapman's Cinemas of the World seems to promise to do something new with the historiography of international cinema. This volume, Chapman intimates, will rethink film production in an age of globalisation as a multiplicity of national and post-national initiatives discussed in all their diversity.

In the first few pages, Chapman continues to adumbrate innovative ways of revising commonplace international film history.

Laudably, he declares his intention to write a history that treats mainstream American cinema as only one option in a wide field and that refuses to make other cinemas mere dependencies of Hollywood. Laudably, too, he asserts that when we study the range of national cinemas, we need to do so outside the traditional fascination with canonical works, classic auteurs and acclaimed schools or movements that may have attracted critics' attention but have not necessarily reached the masses. Chapman claims that it is the popular everyday cinemas that need scholarly attention (I agree), and that he will attend to these.

However, his promises are broken. The reader is 200 pages into this 425-page volume before any cinemas other than American are granted extensive attention. Likewise, despite his call to study more than the legitimated high-art side of national film production, Chapman offers little more than film histories have always provided. In fact, he is quite explicit in the middle of the book that, ultimately, he will follow traditional lines and give us summaries of the same old auteurs and critically sanctioned national movements. As he puts it: "My own account, like so many others, is inevitably biased in favour of those national cinemas where the films are known outside their own borders and where other scholars have already undertaken substantive research into the nature of cinema as a social institution and a cultural practice."

By following the "already known" and the "already studied" as the inevitable course of action, Chapman appears to be showing common sense, but it may also be that to think of film history this way is to engage in self-fulfilling prophecy. Sticking to what others have written about does not challenge received notions of film history. It may seem generous of Chapman to refer to other scholars - and there is a great deal of borrowing from secondary works by some major names in film history - but this means that his history replays commonplace tropes and does not venture in new directions, including the ones he so confidently announces at the outset.

Perhaps Chapman felt boldly innovative in including an entire half-paragraph on the Carry On films. Later sections of the book contain furtive discussion of popular genres such as kung fu or spaghetti westerns (although these tend to be treated in canonical fashion through established stars and directors). But for the most part, Chapman calls for the study of popular cinema and then shies away from his own invocation.

The most glaring instance comes at the end of a discussion of the French poetic-realist films of the 1930s. After some four pages on key actors of the movement such as Jean Gabin and key directors such as Marcel Carne and Jean Renoir, Chapman concedes: "The cinema of Poetic Realism was just one strand of a national cinema that also included a large proportion of now-forgotten popular genre films (colonial adventures, comedies and thrillers) and star vehicles. It did not in itself represent French national cinema in its totality any more than the Nouvelle Vague would do a quarter of a century later." And then he simply drops further discussion of 1930s French film - popular or otherwise - and passes to something else.

Cinemas of the World appears in large part to have been designed as an introductory textbook. (Chapman refers to it as a "commission".) It is perhaps relevant that the author teaches at the Open University. He has written an accessible book that sums up existing bodies of knowledge and offers an adequate replay of standard history. But why not challenge students to venture into new areas rather than repeat arguments one could find in many other books? It would be nice to have an introduction to film history containing something new - even, as promised by Chapman, a study of popular cinemas that would look at a range of say Bollywood musicals, set out their stylistic or thematic regularities and relate them to the internationally known cinemas.

Not only has the writing of film history not advanced that much since the work of its earliest writers but those authors seem increasingly to be taken as exemplars whose basic assumptions - about cinema as created by great auteurs, about American preeminence, about hierarchy and so on - are ceaselessly rehashed. The potential of film history goes unrealised in favour of endless reruns of the same old story.

Dana Polan is professor of critical studies, School of Cinema-TV, University of Southern California, US.

Cinemas of the World: Film and Society from 1895 to the Present

Author - James Chapman
Publisher - Reaktion
Pages - 480
Price - £19.95
ISBN - 1 86189 162 8

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