Misrepresent the movies as mere trash at your peril

Hollywood Cinema

January 2, 2004

Hollywood Cinema has many of the virtues of its subject. It is clear, purposeful, often entertaining and strikes a shrewd note of knowingness.

The introduction immediately establishes this tone by observing that Hollywood hardly needs any introduction but that its very familiarity might lead us to underestimate what we already know. Hence, Richard Maltby suggests the need to reintroduce the most pervasive cultural force of the past 100 years and gives us the critical tools to articulate our understanding of what is often considered mere "harmless entertainment" (to quote the title of an earlier book by the same author).

Of course, it could be argued that this is disingenuous; that there is a market for such a book precisely because "film studies", in the roughly three decades of its existence, has widely capitulated to Hollywood, and that this book simply allows students to rationalise the entertainment that they already consume.

But compared with many, more solemn, "introductions" to the already familiar, this second edition of Maltby's book is well aware of such objections. Like the work of Kristin Thompson, David Bordwell and Janet Staiger on the classical Hollywood tradition, it rests on a frank admiration for the commercial aesthetic that has produced one of the world's great cultural institutions - but one that actively promotes transparency. To probe the workings of a classic Hollywood movie is to run a number of gauntlets, such as finding that a carefully crafted illusion falls apart in our hands or, in Pauline Kael's terms, misrepresenting "trash" as art, and so distorting both the special appeal of "great trash" and that of traditional art.

Maltby is determined to understand Hollywood, first on its own terms, then to consider the implications of these terms for our understanding of art, entertainment and the society that has embraced Hollywood values. His primary tools are a well-informed and up-to-date understanding of Hollywood's history and economics, and a flexible neo-formalist analytical technique, both of which are deployed in ways that should not mislead undergraduates and could be read with profit by many others. Even the most familiar chestnuts of film history and analysis are consistently enlivened by fresh empirical material and critical insights extended to less-familiar examples. Indeed, the book's secondary theme emerges as a history of critics' and academics' attempts to engage with Hollywood's notorious hostility to their attentions.

In a reworking of his own classic study of the ambiguities of Casablanca , Maltby shows how this enduring monument to the genius of the studio system may defy imputations of single authorship but offers a fascinating example of a shifting "relationship between the boundaries of the text and the boundaries of interpretation". And his study of changing attitudes towards Howard Hawks traces an elegant history of film studies as a paradigm of modern humanities and their vicissitudes.

Ian Christie is professor of film and media history, Birkbeck College, London.

Hollywood Cinema

Author - Richard Maltby
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 696
Price - £60.00 and £17.99
ISBN - 0 631 21614 6 and 21615 4

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