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Film Studies - Film Theory - Film and Theory - Narrative in Fition and Film - Film
May 26, 2000

The first thing to say about Film Studies: Critical Approaches is that it is not new material. Oxford University Press has simply taken sections of its extremely good Oxford Guide to Film Studies and reissued them as smaller publications each with a more narrowly focused aim. Although it is quickly apparent that this is the case to anyone familiar with the earlier publication, I was surprised to find no mention of this on the cover or in the editors' introduction.

This first section, "Critical approaches", is in some ways the most inclusive and secure, not suffering as much from the inclusion/exclusion dilemma as the sections on "American cinema" and "World cinema". It is also the most daunting for the uninitiated student of film and most of the essays recognise this, adopting an appropriate tone and providing clear signposts to further reading. Above all there is very little sense of privileging particular critical approaches over others, though there is a strong sense of the general evolution away from total theory to a more pluralist position across the whole field.

There are problems in dividing the original Guide into smaller sections. For example, discussions of "Modernism and the avant-gardes " and "Realism, modernism and post-colonial theory" are not in the section "Critical approaches" but appear in "World cinema", making the "Critical approaches" section look a little divorced from film contexts at face value (though the actual essays are well illustrated). On the whole, the scope of the original complete Guide looks a more attractive prospect for the student than the divided version of which Film Studies: Critical Approaches is a part.

Film: An Introduction is at a wholly different end of the spectrum of the array of books that claim to be suitable for the undergraduate student of film. It is concerned far more with equipping students to perform basic detailed analysis on actual film texts, and theorised critical approaches are relegated almost to an afterthought. "Marxist film criticism" and "Feminist film criticism" are each given two pages while the building blocks of film language, mise-en-scène , cinematography, editing and sound, are all given lengthy, well-illustrated sections with a number of sub-divisions.

One of the genuinely curious things about Film: An Introduction is the enormous lengths to which its author, William H. Phillips, goes in his preface to stake the book's claim to be a legitimate and authoritative guide for students of film. There are more than three pages of lists of people who have been consulted either as "reviewers" of a manuscript that has developed, we are told, over "many years", or as "questionnaire respondents". This has the effect of making one just a little uneasy about a book that has to protest its worth so strongly.

The term textbook is entirely apt in this case. The book is designed to be fairly prescriptive and clearly regards itself as a "complete" course with further reading as supplementary. There are many examples of students' work produced, we are told, using prototypes of the various chapters, suggestions for further exercises and a whole section dedicated to reading and writing strategies. Much of this is genuinely useful, particularly for those lacking confidence in essay-writing techniques.

Illustration is one of the book's major strengths: it includes a vast quantity of black-and-white frame enlargements from films, plus some production stills as well as a smaller number of commissioned photographs to illustrate areas such as lighting. This is an attractive and often useful feature that is reflected in the price.

There is little doubt that this book can be of use to students, particularly those with little experience of handling visual images, and the author bends over backwards to make it practical and user friendly. It could, however, be seen as rather too pedestrian and underambitious for some undergraduates, particularly in its approach to critical theory, which it seems to treat with the utmost caution, even when suggesting further reading.

No such lack of ambition could be levelled at Film and Theory: An Anthology , the introduction to which describes it as offering "a kind of cubist collage of theoretical grids".

There is certainly no danger of talking down to the average undergraduate student of film, who would certainly be stretched by many of the essays included in this text. That said, the book is far from impenetrable and the two authors provide excellent introductions to each of the 13 sections. These introductions not only give valuable overviews of each theoretical area, but also provide a full context for the essays that follow.

The sections themselves accurately reflect a narrative of film studies itself, from perspectives confined within the field to the more recent tendency to embrace many of the social-science disciplines. Furthermore, Robert Stam argues that film theory is also an "exporter" of ideas, and the anthology aims to reflect a dialogue between film and other disciplines that is mutually beneficial.

The choice of essays is refreshing. There are pieces with enormous influence (Laura Mulvey, Christian Metz) but also others that seek to take an overview of the range of current debates or that represent a contemporary direction. It is equally refreshing to read that the "theories do not supersede one another in a linear progression". Implicitly, students are encouraged to return to ideas that may subsequently have been challenged, but not rendered obsolete.

This is a stimulating collection of often difficult original essays that is excellently signposted by the editors. It could certainly remain useful to students throughout an undergraduate course and well beyond.

Film Theory: An Introduction could well act as a useful companion volume to the anthology. This time it is Stam's own overview of the "film theory during 'the century of cinema'", as he puts it. Again there is reference to cubism as a metaphor for the writer's attitude to the various theoretical perspectives, implying a desire to see them as interlocking and overlapping rather than as competing. There is also a much stronger sense of chronology as the book moves from "The antecedents of film theory" to "The pluralisation of film theory", though again there seems to be an admirable lack of implication that any position is superseded or rendered redundant by new developments. This is by no means an easy book, but it is as straightforward in both content and organisation as any guide to such a difficult field can be. For the very many students (and teachers) who are daunted and alienated by film theory this should become a standard guide.

Narrative in Fiction and Film is very much the odd one out of the books reviewed here in that it focuses on a single area of relevance to film studies: narrative theory or "narratology".

As the title implies, it does not confine itself to film but seeks to make comparisons between narratives in different media, particularly prose and the feature film. In fact, as the author states, "the basis for this book is literary studies" and as a result the kind of film that most interests the author is the literary adaptation.

The book is divided into two: the first half gives an overview of the central concerns of narrative theory, the second offers detailed analyses of texts alongside discussion of their filmed versions (in one case the term must be used advisedly as Apocalypse Now is only loosely an adaptation of Heart of Darkness ).

This is a valuable book, not least because of its inter-disciplinary nature; but it will be considered somewhat specialist by most students of film. Its focus on narrative and what this can mean in the broadest sense make it possible to see it as a useful tool within the expanding area of creative writing as an undergraduate discipline, particularly when students are asked to theorise their own narrative strategies or to experiment with different forms of narrative.

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

Film Studies: Critical Approaches. First Edition

Editor - John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson
ISBN - 0 19 874280 0
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £11.99
Pages - 229

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