Lights, camera, action - but no illumination of flattering angles

September 18, 2008

A Short History of Film

Authors: Wheeler Winston Dixon and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

Edition: First

Publisher: I.B. Tauris

Pages: 492

Price: £42.00 and £14.99

ISBN 9781845118006 and 8013

Six film stills adorn the cover of Wheeler Winston Dixon and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster's A Short History of Film. Four are from Hollywood movies, one British, and just one - Tom Twyker's German time-frame-juggling thriller Run Lola Run - taken from non-English-language cinema. For a book claiming to be a "history of world cinema", it is hardly a promising omen.

The contents, though slightly less skewed than the cover suggests, confirm the bias: Hollywood gets the lion's share of the attention, with Europe scooping up most of what's left over. Still, it would be unfair to single out Dixon and Foster for this. Almost all single-volume English-language surveys of recent years - such as David Cook's A History of Narrative Film or Robert Sklar's A World History of Film - show much the same imbalance. Only the Oxford History of World Cinema takes a more comprehensive view, but it is over ten years old and costs twice as much as this volume.

Less justifiable is the authors' tendency to think within self-selecting, predefined blocks. Their account of postwar British horror, for example, confines itself to the output of Hammer Studios, missing the three most original entries in the field: The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General and Scream and Scream Again. Pre-1950 animation takes in Disney and Warner Bros, but ignores such pioneering independents as Lotte Reiniger, Oskar Fischinger, Ladislas Starewitch and Len Lye. Charles Laughton is mentioned as an actor, but not as director of Night of the Hunter. From this angle, Mark Cousins' The Story of Film is a quirkier alternative.

Dixon and Foster are also prone to relying on outdated judgments. The whole of pre-Revolutionary Russian cinema is dismissed as "noted for its commercial blandness", suggesting they are unfamiliar with the technical and aesthetic achievements of Yevgeni Bauer.

Still, within its conventional framework, A Short History of Film is attractively priced, lucidly written and covers all the key areas. Illustrations are generous, if hardly as "rare" as they're claimed to be.

Who is it for? Ideal for first-year film studies students.

Presentation: Cleanly laid out and accessible.

Any extras? Useful glossary and bibliography, but a 24-page "timeline" ("1904: the milkshake mixer is invented") is a modish waste of space.

Would you recommend it? Yes - as far as it goes.

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