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American Hollywood


Edited by Lincoln Geraghty


Directory of World Cinema Series, vol. 5

Bristol: Intellect, 2011

Paperback. 302 p. ISBN 9781841504155. £16.00


Reviewed by Nolwenn Mingant

Université Sorbonne nouvelle-Paris III


American Hollywood is part of the Directory of World Cinema series whose aim is to publish about twenty volumes, each dedicated to a specific country or geographical area. Japan, Iran or Eastern Europe are among the volumes already published. Although the title of this volume can be intriguing (is there a non-American Hollywood?), it has to be understood as part of a diptych with the volume entitled American Independent and published in 2010.

The book is organized in three parts. First, introductory essays quickly present the main characteristics of Hollywood: its establishment as a ‘popular form of entertainment’ [10] in the first half of the 20th century (‘Hollywood: A History?’), the current challenges of runaway productions and the digital revolution (‘The Hollywood Film Industry’), and the central role of actors (‘Stardom’). Then follows a part entitled ‘Directors.’ Four essays dedicated to Clint Eastwood, John Ford, D.W. Griffith and Steven Spielberg give both short biographies, with the titles of their main films, as well as a critiques of their work. The essay on Clint Eastwood, for example, discusses the authorial independence of the artist, the main themes of his work (gender and family) as well as the controversy over the representation of race in his films. The essay on D.W. Griffith discusses his originality in terms of narration.

The rest of the volume is organized by genre (1) (Westerns, Crime Film, Science Fiction, Horror, Comedy, Historical Films, Musicals, War Films, Drama, Romance), to which are added two final categories (Animation, Blockbusters) which ‘are related more to form and the changing tastes of the movie-going audience and thus contain reviews of films that cross over a multitude of different genres and cinematic movements’ [7]. Each chapter opens with an introductory essay and is followed by reviews of a dozen films deemed representative of the genre. This choice of organization immediately raises issues about the difficult definition of genres: is ‘Romance’ a genre in itself? Should ‘rom-com’ be part of the Romance rather than the Comedy section? Should not ‘War Films’ be part of ‘Historical Films’? Why are genres presented in this order, which seems neither chronological—that would be difficult—nor alphabetical? The same uneasiness persists when one looks at the choice of films considered as representative. The ‘Western’ section opens on a large picture from Brokeback Mountain, a film which could be defined as much as a melodrama as a Western. In the same way, can Forrest Gump be truly categorized as a ‘Historical Film’, along Gladiator or Schindler’s List?

Interestingly, most of the essays introducing each section actually interrogate the very notion of genre. David Sterritt explains how Science-Fiction is ‘a remarkably diverse film genre, comprising an array of subgenres’ and intersecting ‘with other genres’, which makes it ‘a difficult genre to define’ [89]. Emma Dyson underlines that ‘the very notion of a definable generic category for American studio horror film is tricky’ [109].  Cristelle Maury insists that romance ‘has always been popular in Hollywood, not only as a genre but also as a key ingredient of most productions’ [225]. Beyond raising this difficulty, most of the essays try to suggest a definition or alternative terms, such as Lesley Harbridge who, after regretting that Comedy is not ‘as easily definable as, say, the Western’, suggests to distinguish this genre ‘as much by its affect (ideally, raucous laughter), as by its component parts (physical comedy, witty banter, the happy ending, and so on),’ [127] or Vincent M. Gaine who offers to replace the term ‘War Film’ by ‘combat film’—although combat ‘can occur in other genres’ [189], or ‘soldier film’ [190]. Clare Jenkins actually dedicates the whole introduction to the ‘Drama Section’ to a discussion on genre. Provocatively starting her essay with the idea that drama ‘functions more as a labeling term or those films leftover from the more easily-distinguishable genres such as action, crime, the Western or romance/the romantic comedy’, she concludes by offering a general definition : ‘Hollywood dramas, then provide strong narratives, engaging characters and represent the world in a realistic, considered way’ [210]. The introductory essays are thus torn between the academic necessity to interrogate the notion of genre and the desire to push films into specific and clear categories: genres but also subgenres, such as ‘slashers’ and ‘Torture porn’ for the Horror category or rom-com and gross-out for comedies.

Written by more than forty contributors from a dozen countries, American Hollywood offers a variety of theoretical approaches. For clarity’s sake, the introductory essays privilege a historical and cultural approach. Most of them present the evolution of the genre chronologically through its main films. The essay on Western, for examples, takes the readers from the first films in the 1910s, to the ‘epic Westerns’ [45] of the 1920s, the great Westerns of the 1950s, the more problematic tone of the late 1950s and 1960s, the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1970s, to the rare presence of the genre today, either as vanity projects (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) or as television series (Deadwood).  Secondly, many essays emphasize the link between film and American culture. Crime Films are thus presented as echoing ‘the cultural, political and psychological anxieties of American society’, notably the ‘deep-rooted unease for fundamental concerns about capitalist democracy’ [65]. Comedies are considered as ‘a true social, cultural and political barometer’ [127], notably comedies of the 1960s and their ‘distinctly socio-political commentary’ [128], such as Dr. Strangelove. The Historical Films chapter leads to a discussion on representation and accuracy, and on the link between historical narration and fiction. For Jonathan Stubbs, the issue is not only how these films reflect American attitudes, but also how debates around them ‘illustrate the significance of the film to the public understanding of history’ [148]. The section on ‘War Film’ raises similar questions. Noting that there are more films on World War II than on any other conflicts (the Civil War, the Vietnam War or the Gulf War], Vincent M. Gaine underlines how ‘this pattern indicates the significance different wars hold in American popular consciousness, at least as far as this consciousness is perceived by Hollywood’ [189]. Interestingly, Van Norris also underlines the ideological subtext of animation, insisting notably on its ‘innate conservatism’ and on the fact that ‘despite the window dressing of opulence, race and gender twists, form remains a primary concern and American animation still, ultimately, tells predominantly white (male) stories’ [244].

Collected from diverse authors, the reviews offer a large variety of points of view. Some of them are more personal in tone, others more theoretical. They provide backstage history about the birth of the films and underline the significance of each work, whether culturally (Little Big Man) or technologically (The Terminator). They also allude to important quotes and cross-references. Different types of analysis and theoretical approaches are called on depending on the authors, such as gender studies, aesthetic analyses, performance analysis, technical history.

Finally, although the economic approach is alluded to in one of the introductory essays (‘The Hollywood Film Industry’), it is not very present in the rest of the book. Among the general information given on each film (director, producer, etc.), it could have been interesting the mention the budget of each film and an idea of its box-office results. Only the introduction to the ‘Blockbuster’ section—and in a lesser measure the introduction to the ‘Animation’ section—tackle economic issues. Indeed, as this last section was actually not conceived in terms of genre but in terms of industrial organization of Hollywood, the section naturally focuses on the issue of financing the huge budgets necessary for this type of films. Important contemporary notions appear here such as the concepts of ‘tentpole,’ ‘event film’ or ‘franchise,’ which complement other approaches in the book.

The academic might well be inconvenienced by limits that are linked to the very nature of the project. First, one might remark on the arbitrariness in the choice of directors and films selected. Although the reviews try to span the whole history of Hollywood, the choice is rather skewed towards recent productions. That some directors are over-represented, notably Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg, can also be noticed—although one can argue that they have had a deep impact in Hollywood in the past four decades. Secondly, one might regret the fact that, in each section, films are presented in alphabetical order and not in chronological order, thus losing an opportunity to put forward the historical evolution of genres. As the same has been observed for the order of the sections, the volume leaves an impression of disjointedness. However, both limits were probably inevitable as a directory can only present a selection of films. Choices had to be made, which can always be discussed. One can note that the presence of introductory chapters does a lot to try and smooth the impression of disjointedness.

In the end, the American Hollywood volume is to be recommended for teachers of film courses, as it can be put to good use as a general reference book for students. The texts—the essays as well as the reviews—are short and written in very accessible language, notably for non-English native speakers. Students can be attracted by the presence of good-quality photograms—always welcome in a book on cinema, but also by the fact that many of the films reviewed are quite recent. The mix of academic essays and more personal reviews shows students the different ways one can approach films. Another positive aspect is the ease in navigating within the book. One can choose to read only the introductory essays for each genre to get a general idea; or one can choose to read the reviews of specific films. From the introduction to each section, the students can also compile short filmographies of essential titles for each genre. It thus gives them basic references and landmarks. For the students particularly interested in certain themes, the references included at the end of each essay are also very useful. This orientation towards students and the general public is particularly visible at the end, with a final ‘Test Your Knowledge’ section, a play quiz of 50 questions, and the list of useful online resources, notably the website of Directory of World Cinema which presents a pre-print database and the possibility to post comments on film reviews.


(1) This is a prerequisite of the Directory of World Cinema series.





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