The Film Experience: An Introduction
Boston: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2004
Reviewed by Trudy Bolter
Wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve is said to be a rather naive and suspenseless proceeding, but let me say straight out that to my mind the book in question here, The Film Experience, is absolutely wonderful, oriented to praxis though rich in openings to theory. The title of a little book by John Berger, Ways of Seeing (Harmondsworth, Penguin,1972), comes to mind, because such is the true subject of The Film Experience: ways of seeing, and obtaining the means to articulate this vision.
The Film Experience is student-centered to a quite remarkable degree, and the teaching theory we can intuit from its example seems to me to be very American, learning geared to doing, starting from lived experience. The book cover shows a screen filled with stars in love, within the context of a cinema, with rows of watchers. Thus the first activity targeted by the book is going to the cinema, and the last one is writing about a movie—familiar experience is translated into dealing effectively, and creatively, with a new situation: the need to produce an essay within the norms of academic research, which have been fully grasped in the course of reading. Absorbing the book from beginning to end is a transformational experience: go into it a fan, and you come out a critic.
One current in contemporary film analysis (vide Rick Altman, among others) expands the notion of a film text so that it actually resembles more closely an event or an experience, interacting with every possible aspect of reception from foreknowledge of codes, or the effect of promotional material, to the political situation, and even the weather in the streets on the day of viewing-the same approach is taken by Timothy Corrigan and Patricia White in their book under review here. Seeing reception on whatever level as a dynamic experience and the film as mutable and plastic, taking shape according to the gaze, implies that, once tested and justified, everything you know and feel could potentially be made relevant: lifting the ceiling on knowledge pushes you forward to endless and multidirectional learning, since nothing is a priori irrelevant. Eschewing an arbitrary “right way,” it shows how to make a wide variety of approaches apply to the task at hand-writing, the crowning event to which everything in the earlier, larger part of the book is directed. Theoreticians of education sometimes distinguish between “information” based and “inquiry” based teaching, head stuffing as opposed to mind shaping. The Film Experience is devoted to the latter practice (but also subtly achieves the former).
The book is divided into several blocks, the first two chapters dealing with the general terms and procedures of film production and analysis. An introduction entitled “Preparing Viewers and Views: Distribution, Promotion and Exhibition” starts out by describing the mental frames established within the spectator/student even before he sees the film, which take part in the film experience. The first chapter discusses the different arts deployed in the team effort which usually produces a film–directing, cinematography, editing, and providing sound, as well as information on producing and distributing. Part II, entitled “Organisation Structures–from stories to genres,” discusses narration, genres and “other cinematic shapes,” i.e., documentaries and experimental films. Part III is historical, but divides up the discipline under two titles, Chapter 9 being called “Conventional Film History: Evolution, Masterpieces and Periodizations” and Chapter 10 “Global and Local: Inclusive Histories of the Movies.” In the latter, we find not only different national film histories, but also histories of marginal or minority film, and finally a section called “Film, History and Cultural Context” in which both Saving Private Ryan and Triumph of the Will are offered as examples for students to contextualize. Part IV, “Reactions- Reading and Writing About Film,” is divided into two sub-sections called “Reading about Film: Critical Methods and Theories,” and “Writing a Film Essay: Observations, Arguments, Research and Analysis.”
Some aspects of this organization are especially empowering for the beginning film scholar. History is regarded as important, but not sacred since “conventional” and “marginal” histories are given equal emphasis if not time. In Part IV, reading and writing are on an equal footing, and as for theory, no specific ideas are held up as doxa, but they all function as food for thought with the implicit emphasis always laid on what the student himself will write, suggesting that his work could become as valuable as the critical precedents. Awakening curiosity and not enforcing submission seems to be the desired objective, with praxis as the ultimate aim. However it should not be thought that The Film Experience is a superficial or simplified “how-to” book—quite the contrary. The amount of information and the array of analytical techniques presented are quite staggering, although this material is all arranged in digestible blocks profusely illustrated with photogrammes.
Each chapter starts with a résumé and a statement of “key objectives”. For the Theory chapter, these are the following:
This chapter explores major methods, concepts, and thinkers in film theory—from the first decades of the medium to the electronic age. It includes introductions to
Quite a lot to deal with in a chapter of roughly fifty pages, but the point is perhaps not to fully inform, but to stimulate further reading. Names of different theories (e.g. Marxism, semiotics, and structuralism) are printed in boldface, and the text is broken up by breathing spaces, including a “cultural spotlight” which focuses on Film Journals. An excellent two page analysis (one of two in the chapter), entitled “Authorship and Genre in Touch of Evil,” shows what can be done with a specific example studied in terms of a given theoretical orientation, and an excellent short bibliography of the major English-language compendia of theory at the end of the chapter allows access to “the next level,” acknowledging that this book is only a starting point. The patchwork or smorgasbord approach could seem to be an attempt to deal with short attention spans affected by mall shopping and overexposure to electronic media. Indeed the book is a fabulous coffee table fixture, and couch potatoes of my acquaintance when at loose ends dip into its manageable portions of strong knowledge, compulsively and with pleasure. But the project has high purpose and intellectual honesty written all over it.
I know that in France there is “a fascination for things difficult,” to quote Yeats’s lovely line, and I share it, most of the time… Thus I wish to emphasize that though The Film Experience functions efficiently as a learning facilitator, its approach and contents are not facile. A good example of the book’s complexity is the chapter on genre, in which the authors face the beginning student with a sophisticated summary:
We will use the figure of generic constellation to suggest how genres are best defined within a multidimensional field that, like the outlines that group different layers of stars in the sky, produces two major subsets for film genres. Hybrid genres are those film genres produced by the interaction of different genres to produce fusions, such as romantic comedies or musical horror films. Subgenres are those genres that define a specific version of the genre by refining with an adjective, such as the spaghetti western or slapstick comedy. A generic constellation thus suggests how genres, as distinctive patterns, can overlap and shift their shape depending on their relation to other genres or as extensions of a primary field .
The style throughout is at once dense and, I think, very clear, and the chapter on theory contains this excellent proposition of a fruitful modus operandi, which may not, however, satisfy the devotees of particular constricting schools of thought:
As we have implied, film theory encompasses many different kinds of writing addressed to different problems and readers. Because cinema is a relatively new phenomenon, it has not attracted the internally consistent body of commentary that we see in art or literary criticism. Therefore, the field of film theory is wide open and attempts to give it continuity can be misleading. Another drawback of an introductory survey like this one is that the reader will not experience theories and theorists in their own words. A paraphrase does not perform the same function as the theoretical work itself, in whose actual language, rhetoric, and context much of the argument resides. Reading this chapter in tandem with the theoretical texts themselves will give a more complete picture of the range and depth of film theory [420-21].
Just to play on words: this “introductory survey” here goes so far as to actually introduce the students to the subject, by putting them together in the same physical, space, like an impresario or a partygiver, seeing itself as a portal rather than a destination.
The pedagogical excellence of The Film Experience is hard to overpraise. The authors both teach in the Philadelphia region (White at Swarthmore, Corrigan at Penn) and in their Introduction express their desire to collaborate again—of course this is to be hoped for. And they deserve to make a lot of money from The Film Experience, an outcome that does not seem impossible: let me make it clear that I mean this as a compliment.
At least for the university teacher in provincial France (myself), as a book experience, this is something exotic—an example of the American academic book as Big Business, replete with what could appear to be gimmicks galore. Not only does the book contain a glossary which reviews the hundreds of significant words printed in bold-face throughout the book, as well as “viewing cues,” which are really attractive little mid-chapter quizzes or lists of essay topics, but there is also available (though not included in the review copy) a “two-color, two-sided laminated card” listing major concepts and film studies terminology which the students can carry into the cinema or the classroom so as to label their thoughts and reactions as they occur. The “viewing cues” are downloadable—yes, downloadable, because this book has a companion website,* on which chapter resumes, glossaries and quizzes reinforce the power of the paper book—The Bedford Saint Martins site also has a useful “research room” where basic academic writing skills are taught. Access to the different features of the site, such as online quiz grading, seems to depend on advising all the members of your class to buy the book (at 65 dollars a pop in the USA) but of course the wily or unmoneyed can get it second hand or even new for half as much. The book is marred by the pages of advertising blurb which appear as soon as you open the cover, touting it as the best—but when compared with some of the older introductory handbooks published in English by Routledge or McGraw Hill, more specifically hooked to History, or introductions to basic-level film analysis, less complete, this does seem to be a plausible assertion, always bearing in mind that this is an entry-level book. As with so many things American, the blatant commercial surface of the object should not blind one to its inherent quality.
The American market for this book must be huge. There are thousands upon thousands of film students in the United States. An interesting article by Elizabeth Van Ness, published in The New York Times on 6 March 2005 (“Is a Cinema Studies Degree the New M.B.A.?”) tells us that 600 institutions of higher education in the United States offer programs on film studies and related subjects, not necessarily reserved for film majors. At UCLA, over 8,000 students take at least one class in the Cinema/Television School, which has opened its courses to the general student body. Graduates apply this knowledge in fields such as law and advertising. In an era when terrorists communicate with the world at large via execution videos, “multimedia literacy” is considered as a key to understanding “power structures and how individuals influence each other” since the mighty generally use images to reinforce the sway they hold over the masses. Thus, the film studies degree is considered by employers as replacing the passe-partout M.B.A, as a qualification for holding responsibility in the modern world.
This point of view is not incompatible with the emphasis on esthetics more frequently encountered in the French university context, as the role of film as the center of modern artistic experience begins to become clear, being approached by ever more learned and adept researchers working in an evolving and increasingly international research and teaching field
I have enjoyed this book and find it admirable, and I advise you to read it. But can teachers in France really put it to full use? My own advanced-level film students in a Film Studies department are not the right audience (although one or two who master English have test-read parts of the book and website and echoed my positive opinion). But introductory film courses within the context of English/American studies departments could easily and advantageously use this book, assuming that some patron of the arts could be found to finance the purchase of sufficient copies. The scope of The Film Experience is much wider than English-language film, but never mind—the overspill (into film without borders) is good for culture générale and indeed for positioning English-language film in the global context which it perhaps dominates but does not monopolize, and from which it has constantly drawn new breath and blood.
*. <http://bcs.bedfordstmartins.com/filmexperience> back