Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 28, 2017

Film, A Very Short Introduction, by Michael Wood

I have never really taken much interest in going to the cinema.  I tend to go along when friends invite me, and I quite enjoy it, and I buy the occasional DVD that’s been recommended to me, but films have never had an impact on me in the way that books do.  But from time to time cinematic style impinges on the books I read, so occasionally I have felt the need to find out more about this art form.   I have a copy of The A List: The National Society of Film Critics’ 100 Essential Films  and 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die  both of which are dispiritingly full of films that I do not want to watch.  I have a subscription to Quikflix, and I get foreign films from them once or twice a month but I often forget to watch them until Quikflix nags me about them.  Perhaps Film, a Very Short Introduction might persuade me that I should invest more time in watching film?

The Contents consists of:

  • Before the titles – a brief introduction
  • Moving Pictures
  • Trusting the Image
  • The Colour of Money
  • References and Further reading
  • Around the world in 80 films (I’ve seen four of them: La Dolce Vita from Italy, Wild Strawberries from Sweden, and Brief Encounter and The Third Man from the UK.

It took a while for Wood to get to what I wanted: some explanation of why film matters, what’s good about it, and why I should watch it.  In ‘Moving Pictures’ there’s stuff about the invention of film, and yes, I did hunt out some of them on You Tube: Lumière’s La Sortie de l’usine Lumiere à Lyon (Leaving the Factory), and L’arroseur arose (The Waterer Watered) and then there’s stuff about film techniques and editing so I watched the *yawn* six-and-a-half minute introduction to Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil.  I came across some new vocabulary: ‘montage’, ‘shot transition’, ‘shot-countershot’,  and its opposite – ‘parallel editing’ a.k.a. ‘cross-cutting’.  And there was this:

The moviegoer works less hard than the reader of books, in one sense, since so much is shown to her, pictured as complete.  But she also works harder in another sense, since she has a whole surrounding world to create, and all the syntax is in her head rather than on the screen. (p.22)

(But none of this answered my question: is what the moviegoer gets out of it as worthwhile as what the reader gets?  Does the viewer of The Grapes of Wrath become as sensitised to the issues raised by John Steinbeck’s book?  And just exactly how does watching Terminator II (which I haven’t seen) or 42nd Street (which I have) count as anything other than ephemeral entertainment?)

Having discussed the devices available to the film-maker Wood then raises an interesting issue:

I mention them for the record and also more tendentiously to suggest that once these elements are available to a director, and easily readable to an audience, film has reached its maturity as a medium and an art-form.  There are no more changes to come.

No?  What about sound and colour?  Computer-generated imagery? The whole digital revolution?  We’ll come to the revolution later in this book, but I’m suggesting that sound and colour have not altered the basic idioms of film in any serious way, however much they have altered its reach and looks and increased its affective power. (p.23)

And then, just to confuse me, he goes on to say:

There is one exception to this chain of completion. Well, there are many more than one, but let’s stay with the single case for the sake of argument. (p.24)

His exception is the music, which does produce new forms of film language but how does it advance his argument to say that there’s that one exception, and then contradict himself by saying there are many??

I got nowhere with this first chapter. Chapter 2 made more sense to me.  It’s called ‘Trusting the Image’ and it begins by pointing out that there are heaps of people like me who pay no attention whatsoever to the directors of films.  But he goes on to talk about the centrality of actors who often are the ones whose celebrity attracts cinemagoers and hence the financing of the film.   He talks about how stars are not only myths and not only fabrications and he quotes Richard Dyer as saying that Stars matter […] because they act out aspects of life that matter to us; and performers get to be stars when what they act out matters to most people.’  But he also says that in the early era of the cinema Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich were not of the everyday world: they were remote and aloof, and they didn’t tell our stories, even when we are at our most ambitious or fanciful. 

(It does seem to me that there is an element of dreaming involved in the classic Hollywood era: dreaming of romance or of being more powerful.  Those Hollywood musicals were all fairy tales IMO, and the actors in them were inseparable from the gossip about them).

Talking of Hollywood… did you know that

In 1914, 90% of the films distributed internationally in the world were French; by 1928, 85% were American? (p.48)

You will no doubt already know that American films make up a huge chunk of the world market. But UNESCO reported 2006 that there are interesting exceptions, cases where the local product has the edge: India and France.

And India is where most [feature-length] films […] are made: 1091 in 2006. Nigeria came second with 872 films; the US third with 485.  In comparison, 203 films were made in France that year, 104 in the UK.  (p.48)

I wonder how many we made here in Australia?  And I also wonder what that might actually mean?  Is a film ‘made in Australia’ if it’s done with Hollywood actors and directors and special effects and whatnot?

Wood’s overview of foreign film in this chapter isn’t extensive, but it’s interesting, especially about Italian neo-realism and truth-telling films that I’ve seen, such as Rosselini’s Rome Open City (1945) and Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) which he says offered a correction to a thoroughly distorted world. He writes more about Japanese film but fails to persuade me to seek it out.  (Which I could easily do through Quickflix).  I can’t muster interest in what he describes at some length as experimental film or animé so I’m obviously too hard to please.

There is quite a long section about the differences between directors and what the French call auteurs, complicated by the fact that if it’s claimed that certain directors have an identifiable style, what then for directors who take pride (as some authors do) in eclecticism, and not having a recognisable style at all?

For these men, a certain idea of honour lies in being able to turn one’s hand to such different things – and precisely not sign them, as if to refuse the thought that everything had to belong to someone, that it was not enough to do the job well. (p.70)

One thing I learned, is the significance of the director’s cut.  In France apparently, the director always get the final cut, that is, he decides what version of the film we will see.  But in Hollywood,  someone elsethe studio, the producer, the money men – makes the ultimate call on which version of a film to print and distribute. So if we can get hold of a director’s cut, we get to see it as was originally intended.

Chapter 3 gets to the nub of it.  In 1930, a French novelist called Georges Duhamel went in to bat against film in his book Scènes de la vie future when he said that

… film ‘requires no kind of effort’ and ‘presupposes no capacity for consecutive thought’. (p.83)

For the opposing team, Walter Benjamin

… agrees that film audiences are distracted but claims that there are forms of distraction that may function as localised, medium-specific attention. ‘Even the distracted person’, he says, thinking of the moviegoer, ‘can form habits’.  ‘The audience,’ he adds, ‘is an examiner, but a distracted one.’

Duhamel, Benjamin implies, dislikes the cinema because he dislikes the masses.  We don’t have to like what the masses like – unless, of course, ‘we’ are the masses.  Even Benjamin is prepared to speak of the ‘disreputable form’ of some popular entertainment.  But we do have to see that the world changes, and that quantity doesn’t necessarily ruin quality. (p.83)

Is not being very interested in cinema as bad as disliking it for the implied reason that it’s mass entertainment?  The same argument gets tossed around in the world of books, where people like me who are not very interested in popular fiction are accused of being book snobs.  Speaking for myself, I don’t care to be pigeonholed like that, because (though I admit to being peeved about a folksinger winning the Nobel Prize for literature) I don’t actually have an opinion about cinema or popular fiction because I don’t engage with it much.  I’m not of the opinion that it’s essential to have an opinion about everything, nor is it essential to spend time sampling things that are not of great interest just because they’re popular.  Live and let live is what I say.  You can like Bryce Courtenay and Maeve Binchy if I can like Patrick White and George Eliot.

You can prefer cinema if I can prefer reading, and of course you are welcome to like both!

Author: Michael Wood
Title: Film, a Very Short Introduction
Publisher: Oxford University Press, Very Short Introductions Series, 2012
ISBN: 9780192803535
Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press.

Available from Fishpond: Film: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

 


Responses

  1. Well, there are good and great films, just as there are good and great books and Australia has produced some world-class cinema. David stratton’s recent Stories of Australian Cinema is worth viewing though it is is not a book…

    • Hello Judith, what would you recommend as essential viewing?

  2. Is this the same Michael Woods who did some great doco’s on Alexander the Great & other historical eras 10-15 yrs ago?

    • I don’t know. He’s an academic at Princeton.

  3. Let me start by putting my hand up – I’m a book snob! Most books are rubbish and so are most films. I would love to be more literate in art house cinema but I don’t have the time. When I can I follow certain directors, de Heer for instance in Australia or Bunuel, Wertmuller, Mallick overseas (I’m hopelessly out of date). My favourite Oz movies are Bad Boy Bubby, Picnic at Hanging Rock and Luhrman’s Romeo+Juliet. My favourite movie of all time is Badlands.

    • Wood talks a bit about art house cinema, but – well, let’s just say he doesn’t write with great clarity. He talks about moviegoers, the people who used to go to the pictures every week, regardless of what was on, and the impact of TV on that, and he discusses the musicals that came out of that and the Hollywood dramas. (I have actually seen a fair few of those, from when Bill Collins was on TV but they are all just a blur in my mind.)
      I’ll add your favourites to my Q at Quikflix, thanks:)

  4. I hope you’ll forgive me Lisa but I find it quite amusing seeing you struggling to get to grips with a medium that you have no natural affinity with; not from schadenfreude but because I recognise a similar reaction in myself when I try to get to grips with things I don’t like/understand such as opera, classical music and Shakespeare.

    Film is generally less intellectual than literature but it can excite and provoke…..or just tell a great story. Off the top of my head here are a few of my favourite films you may like to try: Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen), The Straight Story (David Lynch), Jean de Florette & Manon des Sources, Secrets and Lies (Mike Leigh), Downfall…etc….etc….

    • Easily forgiven, because you recognise that it’s a struggle. This is not the first time I have tried to grasp a theory of film that works for me.
      I’ve seen Downfall, and yes, that was a very good film indeed. (I’ve seen a few good parodies of it too, when Hitler’s rages are overdubbed with some politician raving about something instead of presenting the bland faces we usually see),
      I don’t know the others, though I’ve seen something by Woody Allen, and I will add them to my Q at Quikflix.

  5. I don’t think it’s either-or. Having worked with film pretty well all my career I know highly intellectual people for whom film is the thing, and who read too – just like for me, really, literature is the thing but I love movies. Part of it might be what we grew up with but I think there is also something about the way we learn. Some people are learn more by hearing, some by reading, some remember images, some remember words. Re Bill’s comment, in every art form – in every thing we do, in fact – there are great examples, and poor ones, there are innovative ones, and those that follow the current trend, ones done with skill and ones not. Etc. That to me is a no-brainer.

    Re “made in Australia”, I won’t really answer that, but the official rule about whether a film is Australian or anything else, tends to do with the money. It’s a French-English production for example, if the money came from those two countries, regardless of where the film is set. So, The sundowners, with Robert Mitchum, was filmed in Australia but is an English-American-Australian film. The director wasn’t Australian.

  6. BTW I would answer that film matters because the best examples, just like the best novels, poems, art etc, ask the important questions, make you think beyond yourself, make you visit other worlds. Also, film has a “language” that is worth understanding if you want to get the most out of it.

  7. Oh, and I apologise if I’ve come out too strongly. I don’t mean to sound argumentative. In the end literature is my love, but I think, as you imply at the end of your post, that we do need to give each art form (not every exponent of it) its due and I wanted to explain a little more why I see that!!

  8. Hi Sue, thanks:) Responding to your middle comment first, it’s that ‘language’ that I have been trying to grasp, and I don’t think this author has explained it to me even though I now have some technical vocab that I didn’t have before. For example, he is very enthusiastic about that long opening scene in Touch of Evil. We see someone put a bomb in a car at a border crossing and then a couple walking around, and this goes on for six minutes while the audience waits for the bomb to go off. Which it does. And for most of the six minutes, for me, I was bored because I knew what would happen if not why. Everyone else in the audience knows it too. What I don’t understand is, why is an that example great? Wood says it is, he’s an expert, but it baffles me!
    I think you’re right about formative experiences. I didn’t see a film until I was about fifteen, when one of my mother’s friends (who thought I was a deprived child) took me to see Lawrence of Arabia. I saw Gone with the Wind that year too, but even then I was uneasy about how this great American classic treats the African American characters. And then I went to work in the State Film Centre and was exposed to Foreign Film (through the Film Festival which was screened there in those days). And that was it – I absorbed a standard of film-making without really understanding it, and for a very long time without a means of being able to access/afford it once I stopped working at the SFC.
    I don’t think film has to be intellectual: My Fair Lady is a silly film but the costumes and songs are gorgeous, and I’d put Camelot and Oliver in the same category. You can enjoy them like you enjoy a sunny day, or ice-cream. But for me they are ephemeral, because I don’t retain any idea from them, and I don’t have anything new to think about when it’s over. Taking Jonathan’s point above about opera: the first time I saw Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, I was overwhelmed by the agony of the choices people had to make when loyalty meant not only loyalty to the individual but also to the state in the person of the king. It’s the music that shows us the agony and the struggle.
    IMO you see the same thing in that film Downfall, where Hitler’s henchmen struggle with the idea of disloyalty to the man and to the state that he embodied and which they serve. But I don’t have the film language to explain how that was achieved, and I suspect that the idea of it, for me, actually comes from Tristan and Isolde.

    • Oh no, I don’t think film has to be intellectual either, any more than novels or tv or any other art forms do. Some are, some aren’t.

      But now, THE TOUCH OF EVIL. What can I say? Of course we know that the car is going to blow-up BUT when and where? And who might also be blown-up with it. So, while that long take is running and the car is driving – disappearing from view occasionally – we are wondering. Because the car disappears from view, we are wondering about point of view. Who/what are we really watching? Who is the film really about? The people in the car? Probably not we think, though we could wonder whether they will get out in time? The couple walking who appear in much of the take? Also, there’s the lighting, with the shadows, which give the film a dark tone (as you’d expect in noir) and provide mystery. And the camera angles. Sometimes you are high and looking down and sometimes you are at street level? What does this mean? Finally, it’s virtuosic because such a long take is hard to set up and get right. It’s expensive to do. (But as with any showing-off in art – like a soprano hitting and holding a high note for a long time perhaps? – it’s best if it’s got some point BUT sometimes it’s just beautiful for its own sake, for the wow-factor, but you have to know it’s wow, don’t you?) Does that make sense?

      So, I would say that you look for similar things in film and in a book but the “language” is different – point of view, tone, pace and rhythm, iconography/symbolism, and so on. The language includes camera angle, shot distance, take length, editing, scene composition, narrative arc (linear, or something else), sound effects (or no sound), music (does it reflect the mood or counterpoint it, is it there at all, are there lyrics and are they commenting on the scene), etc etc. I’m not an expert though, and I tend to watch film more simplistically most of the time, but these are the things I look for if I’m being keen

      A more recent film that has a wonderful opening sequence (hmm, again involving a bomb, is THE HURT LOCKER. Here’s a wonderful analysis – better than I could ever do of the language: http://www.cinemablography.org/opening-scene.html )

      • I’m starting to see what you mean… I’m glad I reviewed this book because I’m getting the answers I want from the comments!
        You know, what I’d really like is a good review blog, devoted to film, and not limiting itself either to arthouse or Holly/Bollywood. Vishy the Knight does reviews sometimes, and so does Janine at The Resident Judge and they are both excellent. I need something to learn from but I’ve never found the reviews in the papers any good for that.

        • The Daily Review is free and while I only read it for Helen Razer it does excellent film reviews – Luke Buckminster I think

          • How did I not know about the Daily Review? I’ve signed up, and will make a donation if it turns out to be good value.

        • Yes, I agree. I did follow a film blog once but it seems to have slipped off the radar.

          • *chuckle* Not all blogs have our longevity! Ten years for me in July next year!!

            • Yes, I knew you’d started in 2008. It will be 9 for me in May. Amazing, eh.


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