Category: Book Reviews

24 Frames: The Cinema of Scandinavia (2005)

Could this be the first book I’ve bought that I can’t review? Perhaps you, the reader, should decide. We’ve reviewed two other entries from this Wallflower series, but this collection of essays on Scandinavian films presents me with an unusual problem – I haven’t seen any of the 24 films selected as case studies. Now I admit that my specific interest in ‘Nordic Cinema’ is fairly recent but my experience of Swedish and Danish Cinema over the years is not too bad. I don’t think that it is just me – the brave editor of this collection has decided to go for a much wider perspective on regional cinema than I have seen elsewhere in the series.

The selection of 24 titles spans 1905 to 2004 and begins with ‘actualité‘  footage of the arrival of the King of Norway at Christiania (Oslo) in 1905 at the moment of Norwegian independence and the founding of the nation state. Elsewhere in the selection we find three advertising films, two of them by leading filmmakers from Sweden, Ingmar Bergman and Roy Andersson, and two of the sex films made in the 1960s, one from Sweden and one from Denmark (intriguingly categorised as a ‘happy porn’ film). There are two documentaries (one of which is the extremely successful 2001 film about a Norwegian choir, known internationally as Cool and Crazy) and a children’s film Elvis, Elvis (Sweden 1977). And would you expect The Wake (Denmark 2000) to be 462 minutes of art installation work? The selections do span 100 years but it’s noticeable that seven of the films date from the period 1945-55, more than any other ten-year period – and there are some periods that are not represented at all (e.g. 1956-68). As for the five Nordic countries, Denmark, Finland and Norway are represented roughly equally but Sweden has nearly twice as many entries. There is no selection representing Iceland. And just in case you were wondering, besides Bergman and Andersson there are films from other internationally-known auteurs such as Carl Dreyer, Aki Kaurismaki and Lars Von Trier.

The reason I bought the book was because I needed a general introduction to Nordic Cinema and there is only this or the Routledge National Cinema series entry available at the moment. When I first realised that I hadn’t seen any of the films, my first reaction was very negative, but now that I think about it, there is still plenty to learn from the guide. All the authors except one are based at universities in Sweden, Finland, Norway or Denmark and this may partly explain the selections since presumably they have better access to the older films than most audiences outside the region. I’m not sure what to make of the exclusion of Iceland. In her introduction Tytti Soila explains that Iceland produced very few films before the late 1970s and that Icelandic film culture has had a tendency to look more towards Anglo-Saxon culture. It still seems a shame though that there isn’t one entry. (The introduction also points out that as well as the similarities which help the Nordic identity to be meaningful, there are also significant differences between each of the five countries.)

Soila’s introduction sets out the reasons for the approach to selection and the conscious attempt to avoid the “list of canonised feature films that the cultural industries, as well as literature abroad, usually present as ‘interesting’ or ‘culturally valuable’ or , even worse, ‘typical for Scandinavia’”. Thus the attempt to have a serious look at the porn films which helped several smaller companies stay in business at a time of crisis, at the folksy comedies and at the children’s films, advertising films and documentaries. The introduction is extremely useful and I hope that I can learn from the approach adopted in the chapters, even though I haven’t seen the film being discussed. It some cases I have seen other films by the same director or similar films by other directors. I should add that many of Roy Andersson’s other TV commercials are available on YouTube and very funny they are. I don’t think I can hold the editor of this collection responsible for the fact that most of these films are not available in the UK so having waited several months for Amazon to find me a copy I’m just going to read it and get the most from it that I can.

Westerns: A Routledge Film Guidebook

Westerns, A Routledge Film Guide Book by John White (2010), £16.99, 208pp ISBN 9780415558136

The Routledge Film Guidebooks are slim A5-sized books. The list so far includes director studies (James Cameron and Jane Campion) as well as genre guides such as Horror and Romantic Comedy. With the imminent UK release of True Grit by the Coen Bros., the appearance of John White’s guide is timely.

The first task for the reviewer in this instance is to consider exactly what can be fitted into a relatively small guidebook when dealing with a genre as extensive as the Western. Inevitably, what to leave out and what to make a focus becomes a major issue. The decision will also determine the address of the book to a particular audience. Unfortunately John White doesn’t give any direct indication of who he thinks his readers might be. Since he teaches undergraduates at Anglia Ruskin University but also writes textbooks for A Level film students in the 16-19 sector, his target presumably spans this range. The book’s blurb and the short explanation of the film guidebook project inside suggests that this will be an ‘introductory book’ and indeed all the guidebooks seem to have a similar structure: the evolution of the genre/movement/directorial career, discussion of a variety of critical approaches that could be applied to the films and then a more detailed discussion of key films.

Herein lies a problem. White argues in his opening that many books on the Western spend too much time re-telling the stories of a wide range of films. His focus instead will be on the exploration of different critical approaches, so he tells us that his outlines will be kept to the minimum and he will assume that “readers are already familiar with the basic plot”. Well, he may well be right since the repertoire of elements of the Western has permeated not just American but global culture over a long period. On the other hand it seems to me that younger audiences viewing one of the relatively rare Westerns in contemporary cinema (such as Brokeback Mountain or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, two of his key films) are coming to the Western in quite different ways than similar-aged audiences in the 1950-70s. Apart from any other contextual/conjunctural factors, audiences now are not being exposed to Westerns as ‘genre texts’, available everywhere in a more or less constant stream (during the 1950s literally dozens of different Western TV series played on American television every week). Instead, a Western is now a ‘one-off’ (unlike horror films which do still appear in a constant stream, even if some of them are marketed heavily as single titles).

But perhaps I am being unreasonable? John White lays out his aim and pursues it. The chapter on ‘the evolution of the Western’ manages to cram a great deal into under 30 pages and I found the material on ‘silent Westerns’ in particular informative and helpful. For students without detailed knowledge of the genre, this short section will provide a useful primer. White references key films and important scholarly work – and at the end of the book he provides a timeline of important historical events that inform the narratives of many Westerns set in the nineteenth century. He then continues the timeline to include the release dates of key films and the events in later American history that help to contextualise production and reception of the films. The guide overall is well served by its bibliographies, index and endnotes.

The second part of the book offers 5-6 pages on each of a range of critical approaches: genre, semiotic analysis, representation, ideology, discourse analysis, narrative structure, realism, auteur theory, star theory, psychoanalytical theory, postmodernism and audience response. In each case, two or three films are used as case studies. The film choices seem to me to be pretty sound, but the brevity of each analysis means that students will probably need supplementary material to get the most from them.

The third section then applies combinations of the critical approaches from section two to eight key films: Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), Shane (1953), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971), Unforgiven (1992), Brokeback Mountain (2005) and The Assassination of Jesse James (2007). Again, this seems a good selection and offers a film from virtually each decade from the 1930s onwards. All the films are easily available and many of them are accompanied by extensive online critical commentaries. I do wonder if some films/directors could have overlapped a little more – enabling more depth at the expense of more examples. For instance, the critical approaches section references another two John Ford films, plus John Wayne and Clint Eastwood as actors and directors. But suggesting other ways of organising the material is not particularly helpful – we will all have our own preferences.

This little book does what it sets out to do. It’s well-referenced and will provide a good introduction. You can’t ask for too much more.

Reel Power: Hollywood Cinema and American Supremacy

Reel Power: Hollywood Cinema and American Supremacy, Matthew Alford (2010), London: Pluto Press, £13.00, 232pp, ISBN 9780745329826

I was attracted to this book because I thought it might be useful in my study of global film. I started reading the preface and thought “this doesn’t feel like an academic film studies book”. There was nothing to tell me about Michael Parenti, the writer of the preface, so I looked him up. I now know that he is a highly-respected writer on American politics. So perhaps this is a politics book? When I look at the back cover I find an endorsement from Ken Loach urging me to read the book before seeing another Hollywood blockbuster. The other endorsements seem to be from political journalists, but Pluto’s cataloguing information suggests that this book should be filed under ‘Film/Media Studies’. The author Matthew Alford is described as a journalist and a broadcaster who has taught in the university sector. But it doesn’t tell us what he has taught. I Googled him and found out more, but let me just outline the book first.

Reel Power comprises three parts with a total of nine chapters. Part 1 offers a brief analysis of the structure of Hollywood as an industrial institution, including the role of product placement and how it has been acquiescent towards the US military, security agencies etc. There are discussions about the power of individual producers, directors and stars within the system and how the potential leftist tendencies of some individuals are squashed, marginalised, recuperated etc. Part 2 discusses major Hollywood films since 1990 classified according to genre and budget. The main focus is on films with production budgets over  $30 million that deal with American foreign policy and overseas adventures. The genres considered are War, Comedy (i.e. military/political comedy), Action Adventure, Science Fiction and Political Drama plus a catch-all ‘low budget’ chapter. Part 3 comprises the conclusion.

I’d argue that the analysis here is primarily journalistic in terms of plot descriptions and attempts to relate these to US government and military policies. There is no discernible exploration of theoretical ideas that would be recognised by a scholar from film, media or cultural studies. The discussion is referenced in detail via endnotes for each chapter. However, these references are usually to online and print journals, mostly of a general rather than academic nature. There is no Bibliography – only a Filmography. Look in the index and there are no theorists mentioned – not even Noam Chomsky who is clearly an important figure in the development of Alford’s approach (see below).  This isn’t really a book for academic film studies, so what is its purpose?

When I looked up Matthew Alford I discovered that he has a doctorate in ‘US Cinema and Politics’ and has been writing on this subject for several years in the New Statesman and various websites as well as presenting papers on ‘Hollywood and the Propaganda Model’. Many of these are online and I think it’s worth looking at a couple of these first if you want to decide whether Alford’s ideas are of interest. For instance, in this interview on the ‘New Left Project’ website, Alford offers a more succinct and effective explanation of his ideas than I think he does in the book. Also interesting is this recent conference on Post 9/11 Representations of Terrorism – where Alford’s paper sits alongside others with a more recognisable position. But to get to the academic basis of Alford’s work, you need read to his paper published by the University of Westminster in 2009 and available as a pdf for download. Here Alford explains his position as applying the Propaganda Model formulated by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky to Hollywood – something Chomsky felt was difficult as he “didn’t know enough about movies” and possibly because movies aren’t susceptible to an approach which requires “easily verifiable, quantifiable empirical evidence”. Alford has less qualms and argues that the model can be used. The results confirm what most of us believe about Hollywood as generally supportive of American capitalism and American foreign policy. The political value of the argument is two-fold. First it should be a warning that what is already visible in news media via Fox News may become more evident in relation to studio feature film output. Second, it acts as a counterweight to the claims that recent Hollywood has shown a tendency towards ‘liberal attitudes’. The arguments are supported by academic references and Alford positions himself as part of the ‘Political Economy’ wing of media studies. Reel Power thus becomes Alford’s means of popularising his argument – and he has supported the book’s publication with an energetic promotional campaign that is most impressive.

I confess that I haven’t seen most of the films Alford discusses (I already know that most of them I’ll hate them for their politics and others for tedious action sequences). Of the ones that I do know, he seems to make cogent comments about them in terms of how they might be read in what used to be called a ‘vulgar Marxist’ way – simply reading off meanings from the plot, irrespective of how the narrative is presented. For instance, he recognises that Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers is actually a satire of fascism and that some of the knee-jerk American press reactions to the film were way off-beam. But he also links the film to Total Recall as another Verhoeven film – without mentioning either the writer of the original story, Phil K. Dick or the star, Arnold Schwarzenegger. These two creative voices are surely as important to (different) audiences as Verhoeven in this case? Dick became almost deranged because of his paranoid fear of surveillance by the American state and Arnie was at best a hugely ironic piece of casting for a Dickian leading man. It would be quite interesting to explore how Hollywood has trounced Dick’s anarchic populism in some terrible movies (Next?, Paycheck?), only to be trumped by smaller independents like A Scanner Darkly or Screamers.

In a way, this book is deeply dispiriting, if only because it renders much that film studies has tried to do over the last fifty years in exploring concepts of representation, genre and narrative, audience behaviour etc. as effectively wasted effort. On the other hand, as a piece of journalism about Hollywood, the institution, and American politics (which by extension involves us all) it offers a solid introduction. It might be helpful for students and teachers if they would like detailed knowledge of how celebrities have or have not protested about going to war in Iraq or of individual case studies of films that were not greenlit or which were censored. On the other hand, there is no consideration of audience readings of the films, no discussion of ideology, questions of identity etc. Bizarrely, there is no real discussion of Hollywood’s overseas markets which now provide more than 50% of the revenue for the studios. Alford does mention China at one point, but he doesn’t discuss the studios’ attempts to work with Chinese partners or the Chinese government’s policies for controlling the import of Hollywood product. Even more germane might be analysis of Indian investment in Hollywood. Indian producers are caught between the nationalism seemingly demanded by audiences at home and the embrace of American values by Indians in North America and the new middle-class at home. Once famously ‘non-aligned’, India is in danger of being seen as ‘pro-American’. How Hollywood responds to that issue promises to be interesting (imagine a Hollywood-backed film, made in India about the brief war with China in 1962 – but then we’ve already had Kundun (US 1997) and no, it isn’t mentioned in the book).

Directory of World Cinema: Australia and New Zealand

A few weeks ago I posted on the new series of World Cinema Directories from Intellect. The latest one to be free online before the print edition is published is Australia and New Zealand, edited by Ben Goldsmith and Geoff Lealand. This directory follows the same outline structure as the Japanese Directory. The main difference for me as a reviewer is that I have taught aspects of Japanese Cinema, but I’ve not tackled either Australian or New Zealand Cinema – only a handful of selected films for specific purposes. I hope this means I can be more objective about the usefulness of the whole project to students and cinephiles generally.

There is one other obvious difference comparing this publication with the Japanese Directory – two separate industries and two editors. In practice, the major part of the guide is devoted to Australian Cinema and New Zealand gets only around 66 specific pages out of 340 overall. As far as contributors are concerned, it is significant that nearly all are academics (i.e. no film journalists). Both countries have developed academic film studies in parallel with the UK and North America so that all the contributors are based in one or the other of the two countries. Compared to the Japanese Directory, I recognised many more names, including some from the ‘Senses of Cinema’ website based in Australia.

The Australian section picks out four directors and a number of genres for essays with accompanying short entries on individual films. The four directors are Peter Weir and Baz Luhrmann and two more surprising choices – Cecil Holmes, a director working in the 1950s-70s that I was unaware of, and Michael Powell, who made two features in Australia after his forced exile from British Cinema. The genres selected are: ‘Bushranger’, War Cinema, Crime, Prison, ‘Period’, Comedy, Coming of Age, Horror, Road Movies, Science Fiction and Fantasy, ‘Ozploitation’ and Short Films. The essays begin with ‘Disability in the Australian Cinema’.

The New Zealand section features three directors – Shirley Horrocks, Shuichi Kothari and Vincent Ward. There is a general section on ‘Genre and Themes’ with various short essays, an Introduction addressing ‘New Zealand Film in 2009′ and a separate short section on Experimental Film. Overall the number of short film reviews is much less than in the Australian section.

There is also a comprehensive Bibliography and a listing of useful websites.

From my perspective of comparative ignorance, two points about the contents of the Australian section stood out for me immediately as I skimmed through the Directory. First was the wealth of material about Australian Cinema before the 1970s – about which I knew very little. Compared to this was the relatively less substantial coverage of the ‘New Australian Cinema’ of the 1970s – the period when Australian films seemed to appear quite suddenly in the global marketplace (or was it just the UK?). The introduction to the guide is very good in explaining why debates about Australian Cinema developed in the way that they did (with a concentration on how national identity was represented and a disavowal of genre) and overall I found this to be a coherent presentation of Australian Cinema with interesting debates about industry and culture. Nevertheless, the Directory is still to some extent constrained by its structure. Australian Cinema is slightly confusing for the newcomer. Some of the debates are familiar for scholars of British Cinema – a history of popular audiences preferring Hollywood to local production for instance. Yet there is also a history of public funding and a variety of local production that compares very well with countries of a similar size and wealth. This means that the Directory can’t offer a full account of Australian Cinema past and present. Editorial decisions about what to include and why become very important.

For example the 1946 film The Overlanders acts as a useful study text (easily available on DVD) in relation to several debates. Made by the distinguished British documentarist Harry Watt for Ealing it represents inward investment from the UK (as distinct from the Hollywood funding of Baz Luhrmann’s Australia which borrowed some of its ideas) and raises questions about how British creatives constructed representations of Australian national identity. The film originated as part of an Anglo-Australian propaganda exercise with a ‘typical Australian’ refusing to kill cattle in Northern Australia as part of a scorched earth policy developed because of fear of a Japanese invasion. Instead the cattle are driven for hundreds of miles to Queensland. In the Directory, the film is discussed in the ‘Road Movie’ section, but it could have appeared in the War Film section or the ‘Period’ section. Alternatively, Watts’ work in Australia could have been considered alongside Michael Powell or the other Ealing Films made in Australia during the 1940s and 1950s. My point here is not that I disagree with where the film appears – simply that in a Directory in which readers might select to read one section rather than another, making the links is not so straightforward (though it could be in a fully ‘online project).

I find it difficult to comment on the New Zealand section having seen so few of the films. Some of the debates are similar, but overall the relatively limited resources/local box office potential of New Zealand compared to Australia does create extra problems (not least the enormous disparity between Peter Jackson-produced international blockbusters and all other local production). I’m not sure whether New Zealand film academics/fans will be happy that the Directory gives them exposure or that they will resent being a kind of appendage to a primarily Australian Directory. I’m sure that someone could let me know!

My other main question is simply to query how many of the films discussed in the Directory are accessible from outside the two countries? It would be helpful if all the directories in this series included some information about how to acquire DVDs (Region 4 DVDs for Australia/New Zealand). Once again, YouTube rides to the rescue with some clips from films unavailable in the UK. Here’s a clip from one of my favourites from the 1970s (what I’ve now learned is the period of the ‘AFC film’, produced with public funding). This is Newsfront, directed by Philip Noyce in 1978 and exploring the world of the local Australian newsreel industry in the 1950s:

Although there is no entry on Newsfront as such in the Directory, there is an interesting essay by Bonnie Elliott which analyses the context of its production (in the ‘Period Film’ section).

Overall, I found this a very interesting collection and I’m pleased to have been introduced to a range of films with which I’m unfamiliar as well as more familiar titles that I can now see in a new light. If you want a free copy download it now from Intellect Books (free offer ends soon!).