Domain of distributors and digits

A History of Narrative Film
July 2, 2004

As David Cook says in his preface, this fourth edition of his invaluable work has been written against the background of two big changes. First, the overwhelming "hegemonic control by American distributors of virtually every film market in the world" and, second, "the fact that the majority of films [now] produced in the US and much of the developed world are pre-visualised, produced and post-produced at least partially in the digital domain".

This has necessitated the addition of substantial sections to delineate the effects of the use of digital techniques in large-scale film-making, as well as at the other extreme, the potential impact of the growth of low-budget digital features, especially in regions where cinema culture must develop an infrastructure to combat the dominance of Hollywood.

Despite his generally reliable perspective, Cook's sound judgement deserts him in describing the past ten years. It is sad that comic-book films such as Titanic and Pearl Harbor get almost as much attention at the end of the book as D. W. Griffith's masterpieces, Intolerance and Birth of a Nation , get at the beginning just because of their extensive use of computer-generated images.

Cook justifies the limits on the scope of the book in "A note on method", where he states that "the history of film as we have experienced it to date is the history of a narrative form", although he admits that there have been growing non-narrative tendencies since the 1950s. It is no coincidence that the Hollywood hegemony he alludes to is used to distribute films that are always plot-driven rather than in more discursive forms that many European and other cinemas favour.

Yet the breadth and depth of the scholarship are remarkable, and the book is a mine of valuable information for student and film lover alike. There are many well-chosen illustrations, including a section that highlights the different processes and the more recent development of digital manipulation.

The book's organisation around eras in each of the centres of world film production makes it a handy reference tool. A student interested in a film or director can easily trace other films or film-makers from that era and that country or movement.

As Cook notes, the digital era has regenerated the preservation and enjoyment of the history of cinema. This book is a wonderful companion to such enjoyment - yet the next edition may be a product of the very techniques it describes. What odds on the fifth edition being in a box the size of a DVD?

Roger Crittenden is director of the full-time programme, National Film and Television School.

A History of Narrative Film

Author - David A. Cook
Publisher - Norton
Pages - 1,120
Price - £30.99
ISBN - 0 393 97868 0

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