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William H. Phillips, Film: An Introduction (Boston & New York: Bedford / St Martin's, 2005, third edition, £23.99, 669 pages, ISBN 0-312-41267-3)—Caroline Marie, Paris IV - Sorbonne


William H. Phillips's Film: An Introduction (third edition) is a textbook: readers are referred to a web site providing students with supplementary documents and instructors with a manual including "a new section on viewing, listening, reading, and writing exercises" [vii] as well as a sample syllabus and quizzes. It is divided into four parts (ten chapters) devoted to the expressiveness of film technique, the fictional film, the variety of films and understanding films.

The page layout serves the pedagogical purpose of the book : the margins contain sidebars with additional information and definitions of technical terms; at the end of each chapter, the main points of the chapter are summed up, Close-Up sections apply concepts from that chapter to films in particular, questions are suggested that may guide the reader's analysis of any film he may wish to study, and a bibliography of works cited and suggestions for further reading help the reader investigate a particular theme. Numerous black and white or colour pictures illustrate cinematographic themes, devices and techniques (for instance, the evolution of sound effects, from the Allefex sound effects machine to the Foley artist). Given the didactic bias of the book, however, it sounds offhand not to name the directors of the films under discussion either in the body of the text or in the index.

Phillips's introductory description of what he sets out to do in his book is mouth-watering: "In addition to introducing students to the technical, aesthetic, theoretical, historical, and cultural aspects of film, every chapter offers an incomparably broad discussion of film, from the silent classics of D. W. Griffith and Serguei Eisenstein to the Hong Kong cinema of John Woo, the documentaries of Errol Morris, and classic and contemporary experimental films." [v] Such variety is commendable but the reader soon gets a feeling of arbitrariness: why is Shall We Dance?, a 1996 Japanese film, mentioned to illustrate in what way "mise-en-scène convey[s] much of a story" [12]? Four frame enlargements illustrate the way "[t]he settings, subjects, and compositions of carefully selected images reveal much of the story" [12], but the reader is left wondering in what way this film is particularly apt to illustrate cinematographic story-telling and whether any randomly associated pictures would not tell a story anyway. The book lacks such theoretical discussions. A frame from Ugetsu (1953) shows how "[e]mpty space conveys a sense of loss" [39], but Phillips's conclusion proves somehow unconvincing: "Because of its composition and context in the film, the image here is poignant. A different camera angle or camera distance, a different framing, and the shot would not have been as effective." [39]

William H. Phillips's conception of film techniques tends to be functionalist. For instance, the split-screen effect used by Abel Gance in Napoléon (1927) is said to allow viewers to "absorb more information than is typical in a movie shown on a single screen" [43] as "multiple images allow the simultaneous viewing of events that are presumably happening at the same time" [42]. The metonymical and metaphorical dimensions of the split-screen effect are overlooked. So is the meta-aesthetic analysis which the use of windows, lenses, and reflections in films calls for. Phillips merely asserts that in Chinatown (1974) the frame in which a detective takes a photograph of a man and a young woman who are reflected in the lens of his camera "conveys much information quickly and economically and without editing: a shot of the detective then a shot of the man and young woman, or vice versa." [45] Similarly, although a frame enlargement of "the John Travolta character" in Blow Up (1981) "with a microphone recording sounds of the night for storage on magnetic tape" [172] is shown, no insight into the possible, desirable even, reflexive reading of the picture is given. Phillips's pragmatic approach to cinema comes to the fore when he writes that "[s]ometimes filmmakers use settings, subjects, and composition to comment on the world outside the frame—for example, to express a political view-point or promote a product" [51], or that "[i]n some movies, the music may be emphasized so that another division of the corporate conglomerate that made the film can sell tapes and CDs based on it." [178] Given the pedagogical bias of the book, reminding the readers that cinema is an industry and that films ought to be studied in their production context is salutary, but it only draws the reader's attention to the paucity of the critical approach.

The scarce genuinely critical remarks often verge on the conversational, with such vague statements as: "[a]s with any other technique, silence can be used in countless ways in countless contexts" [179] which is followed by no typology (the least the readers might expect), or "[i]n ways difficult to put into words, the music seems appropriate for a character like Harry" [186]. Such commonplace, overly general remarks might mislead the readers into believing that psychological identification is always the main purpose of films:

All fictional films share a number of characteristics. For instance, regardless of its length, a fictional narrative nearly always includes at least one character that wants something but has problems trying to obtain it. People are fascinated with characters that have trouble reaching their goals, in part because in such circumstances viewers learn about human nature or think they learn about how they might handle a similar situation. Perhaps viewers sometimes enjoy seeing others struggling with problems. [252]

As a result, the tone of the book is normative: "The beginning of a fictional film tends to involve viewers and to establish where and when the story starts. Many fictional films start with one or more shots of the setting before introducing the subjects." [258] This sounds very much like some 'how to' book: but in what way does this typical film plotline differ from other plotlines in other (popular) artistic media?

Phillips discusses "intertextuality" but his approach lacks depth. When analysing dialogue in Betrayal (1983), he asserts that "[t]his passage reveals writer Harold Pinter's skill in creating characters that say one thing when they feel and think something else." [p.167] But whether dialogue in Pinter's screen adaptation differs from dialogue in his plays—and if so, in what way—is an issue that is never addressed. The problem may be rooted in his somewhat lax use of critical vocabulary; defining "intertextuality" as "the relation of one text (such as a film) to another text or texts (such as a journalistic article, a play or another film)" [177] and "text" as "[s]omething that people produce or modify to communicate meaning. Examples are films, photographs, paintings, newspaper articles, operas, and T-shirts with a message" [195] is tantamount to denying the differences between those different artistic media. Although he underlines the affinities between cinema and literature through laudatory remarks such as: "[s]torytellers have used flashbacks at least since the time of Homer and his Odyssey, which begins in the middle, flashes back to the beginning, and then returns to where the first section left off and concludes the story" [272], he never thoroughly discusses the modes of transfer of literary notions to films, which would have clarified and legitimised his approach.

The allusions to the influence of context on films are the most rewarding features of the book:

The changing role of women in 1940s American society influenced film noir. During World War II, women were urged to take over factory jobs traditionally held by men, and millions did. After the war, the men returned and displaced the women workers, often unceremoniously. The self-sufficiency many women showed during the war doubtless threatened many men, perhaps including those involved in making films noirs. [304-305]

Although the point Phillips makes that it was necessary for "those involved in making films noirs" to feel personally threatened in order to be able to capture the fear caused by the newly-gained self-sufficiency of women is hardly convincing, his articulation of the aesthetics of the film noir with its political and cultural context—namely that "[b]ecause these films were made when the American production code was strongly enforced, characters who commit crimes are eventually punished" [304] and that "[f]ilms noirs can be understood as in part a reaction against the brightly lit studio entertainment of the 1930s" [305]—is enlightening. A whole chapter focuses on "understanding films through contexts" (Chapter 9), broaching "society and politics," "censorship," "artistic conventions," "financial constraints" as well as "technological developments" in a thought-provoking way. The "Chronology: Film in Context (1895-2003)" [559-612] which places films in the context of "world events", "arts", "mass media" and other "films and videos" also proves a very useful work tool for researchers, students and cinephiles.

Film is a comprehensive and accessible introduction to film techniques, such as lighting, editing, and sound, which are discussed at length, rather than an introduction to film aesthetic theory, although it suggests that a film ought to be read as a multi-layered text, as illustrated by the "sample film analysis" of The Player to be found in the appendices–the only satisfactory example of such critical analysis in the book. It is well-researched, and interesting anecdotes reward the conscientious reader who will discover that "Top Gun (1986) includes many sounds of jet-airplanes, but the recording of their sounds could not capture the excitement of the original noise, so animal sounds and human screams were blended in" [172], or that "[i]n a few frames near the conclusion of Psycho (1960), viewers may notice that three images are superimposed briefly: Norman from the shoulders up, a skull, and Marion's car being pulled from the swamp by a chain" even though "Viewers are unlikely to notice them on a videotape version" [132].

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