Lights, camera, satisfaction

Looking at Movies
July 6, 2007

The title's "looking" is from the outset aligned with "actively considering the relation of (movies') form and content". (Thus, the cover image of Audrey Tautou's fascinated attention to the screen in Amélie seems odd.)

This second edition, with its continued emphasis on narrative/fiction films, claims to make sample analyses more concise and focused as well as to add new pedagogical elements, partly in response to colleague and student reactions to the first edition.

Particularly significant is the inclusion of two DVDS, one of which offers 20 tutorials relating to the book's key concepts, and of a book by the author and Karen Gocsik with advice on writing for film students. Further, the publisher offers a website that gives access to 25 sample essays and quizzes on chapters.

The intended readers are students, but aiming so clearly at US students may be unwise. Many potential readers will not feel that John Ford deals with "our nation's early history" or, in the accompanying booklet, that Independence Day addresses "our feelings of American superiority". In these days of greater nationalism, Scottish students may be particularly unimpressed with the virtual interchangeability of "British" and "English".

Throughout, the book demonstrates awareness of the importance of visuals, on the printed page with its wealth of illustrations (more than 600) and in the DVDs, and of its implications for the form of student assignments. Its examples are manifold, showing no particular partisanship for period - the 1895 The Execution of Mary Stuart is cited under "special effects" - and even with its clear, defensible bias in favour of Anglophone fictions, referencing a wide variety of "foreign" films. It returns inevitably to certain sources: The Shining, Days of Heaven and, of course, Citizen Kane figure prominently, while The Night of the Hunter is crucial to one DVD.

Richard Barsam is admirably undogmatic. He sees film language as a matter of conventions, not rules. Thus, high-angle shots need not always connote the subject's inferiority; realism and anti-realism are "tendencies along a continuum".

Again, he expresses doubts about the "truth" of non-fiction film, speculates interestingly about breaches of the 180-degree system (helpfully illustrated by a Vertigo sequence on the DVD) and identifies the so-called auteur theory as an attitude. While these statements are not always new, they are important in an introductory work.

A principal and difficult threshold for the novice film student is near abandonment of arguments resting on relatively unexamined value judgments. Barsam is aware of this but he does not address it four-square. Worse, he sometimes offers his own unargued values, while chapter five positively invites performances to be evaluated by students.

Other criticisms are relatively minor. Why is melodrama defined in a manner contrary to the industry's use and true only to one area of film studies? Queer theory might question whether Brokeback Mountain' s Heath Ledger plays "a gay cowboy". An editor/proofreader, despite highly commendable editorial work generally, might have asked why James Stewart becomes Jimmy thrice or picked up the misspelling of Robert Wiene's surname and Scarlett Johansson's forename.

The Renaissance manufactured the three unities for Aristotle; the Poetics teaches only unity of action. The pronunciation of the French pioneers' surnames sounds wrong on the DVD. Time was when Anita Loos's heroine's "A girl like ..." was funny; "like you and ..." is not intended to be.

Despite such infelicities, this is the best and fullest introduction to film study I have ever encountered. It ought to be of major help to students and, thanks to its sections on learning objectives and its final sections per chapter, film studies staff.

Kenneth MacKinnon is emeritus professor, London Metropolitan University.

Looking at Movies: An Introduction to Film

Author - Richard Barsam
Publisher - Norton
Pages - 447
Price - £26.99
ISBN - 9780393171303

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