Light on film, heavy on theory

An Introduction to Film Studies. Second Edition - The Oxford Guide to Film Studies. First Edition
May 28, 1999

One of the first things that strikes you about The Oxford Guide to Film Studies is the number of contributors, nearly 70 in all representing a fair cross-section of leading scholarship mainly (though not exclusively) from the United Kingdom and the United States. This is a great strength; the aim seems to be inclusivity, particularly with regard to theoretical perspectives, and the standard of individual chapters is consistently very high.

As John Hill says in his "General introduction", " The Guide does not adopt one 'line' or advocate one critical approach above others (even though individual authors may often argue for particular theoretical frameworks or critical preferences), but seeks instead to suggest the issues that have been a feature of film study and what is at stake in relation to them."

For many readers it will be Part One that is both the most daunting and most useful. Here the fundamental critical apparatus that the subject has developed is explored in a rigorous series of essays followed by a much larger number concerned with how film studies has made its own responses to wider cultural and ideological forces. Particular prominence is given to the politics of gender and sexuality, an accurate reflection of the balance of debates within the discipline over the past two decades at least.

When the guide comes to particular kinds of film texts it again attempts a kind of inclusivity, but is honest enough to have one section on "America" (no nod to anything outside the US) and another on "World cinema" (everywhere else). The book's position is clearly not uncritical of Hollywood's dominance of international cinema this century, but it is clear that it sees other cinemas as defining themselves largely in relation to that of the US (often through opposition). The section on world cinema is very impressive, with inclusivity its principal feature. Inevitably, perhaps, the closer one is to an area the less adequate the book appears, and in a publication originating in the UK nine pages on British cinema seems a bit slight. On the other hand, Chinese, Hong Kong and Taiwanese cinema, for example, receive useful introductions. There is also a sense of postwar European cinema being discreetly privileged over what the book refers to as "Anglophone national cinemas". The latter are dealt with simply by nation while continental Europe has sections not only on "movements" (French nouvelle vague , "new" German cinema etc) but also "directors and stars" (Renoir, Bardot etc). Such an approach makes it impossible to please everyone: even in such a wide-ranging volume it jars a little to see separate sections devoted to, say, Chantal Akerman and Luc Besson (although the sections are interesting and well written).

Ultimately, the Guide 's strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. Its name is slightly misleading in that it implies a book that is more readily accessible. Instead we have an altogether more substantial book that, particularly in its coverage of major theoretical issues, provides a sound introduction for undergraduate film-studies students and, perhaps even more usefully, for students on courses of which film is only a part.

I was certainly one of those who warmly welcomed the publication of the first edition of An Introduction to Film Studies and the relatively rapid production of a second edition is clear testimony to the book's success. If the defining characteristic of The Oxford Guide is inclusivity, then that of Jill Nelmes's collection is accessibility without losing sight of film studies as a discipline firmly grounded in critical theory. This puts the second book much more clearly in that difficult area that overlaps A-level and undergraduate teaching.

It is perhaps not particularly fashionable to refer to the "attractiveness" of a text intended primarily for academic study. Nevertheless, it is a notable feature of An Introduction to Film Studies . The sheer number of stills is notable, as is their variety, and there has been a real effort in the second edition to balance wide-ranging reference to the canon with case studies that include The Full Monty and Pulp Fiction .

As well as new case studies in every section there is also a new chapter, "The film spectator". This is a valuable addition, because although the area is dealt with in a number of places throughout the book, it is something that often presents students with particular challenges. Here it is approached sensibly and as accessibly as possible (partly via the Tarantino case study).

The book's bibliography and index were already excellent and comprehensive. Here they are enhanced further by the addition of websites, an area in need of strong guidance, as anyone who has read a student essay drawn carelessly from sources around the web will testify.

With only minor reservations, these are two texts that can be used with complete confidence by students and course planners. Although there is apparent overlap I am inclined to see one leading on to the other rather than to regard them as competitors. There are areas that An Introduction to Film Studies is able to explore at much greater length (British cinema is the most obvious). For many students, the two will complement each other well and provide not only a rigorous, but also an entertaining and innovative guide to their study of film.

Steve Blandford is principal lecturer in theatre and media drama, University of Glamorgan.

An Introduction to Film Studies. Second Edition

Editor - Jill Nelmes
ISBN - 0 415 17309 4 and 17310 8
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £50.00 and £16.99
Pages - 544

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