Category: Book Reviews

Book Review: Delivering Dreams: A Century of British Film Distribution

DeliveringDreams

Delivering Dreams: A Century of British Film Distribution, Geoffrey Macnab, I.B. Tauris 2015, £16.99, 272pp, ISBN 9781784534899

Distribution is the sector of the film industry that remains mysterious to many film and media students – and many teachers. There are very few books or other resources that properly explain and analyse the film distribution business. Geoffrey Macnab is a highly respected film journalist and critic. He isn’t a film scholar as such but he has written very useful industry studies such as J. Arthur Rank and the British Film Industry (Routledge 1993) as well as works on directors and individual films. He’s well placed to write about distribution and this paperback is certainly a valuable resource that every film/media library or staffroom bookshelf should acquire. It’s not without weaknesses, however. Some derive from the book’s publishing context and some from the difficulties inherent in a pioneering project.

The book has been published partly to celebrate the 100th anniversary of what was first known as the Kinematograph Renters’ Society Ltd. and which now calls itself the Film Distributors’ Association (FDA) – the trade association for the film distribution sector in the UK. The book opens with a preface by David Puttnam, the current president of the FDA and closes with a postscript by Mark Batey, the FDA Chief Executive. In between Macnab offers eleven chapters covering the main issues in UK film distribution during the century of KRS/FDA operation from 1915-2015.

Each chapter is given an important film title as its heading. Chapter 1 is Chaplin’s The Tramp (1915) and Chapter 11 is The King’s Speech (2010). Most readers will probably make a good guess at which films appear as the titles of other chapters – although you do have to understand the nature of the British rather than US business. Apart from Chapter 7 covering the 1970s and titled Star Wars (1977), each other chapter carries the title of a successful British film – and Star Wars was indeed made at Elstree and represents one of the ‘Hollywood UK’ titles that have done so much to characterise UK production and exhibition ever since.

Each chapter is not solely focused on a single film, but it is significant that, as a good journalist, Macnab knows how to structure a story to bring out the highlights of the history of UK distribution in an entertaining read. Important issues such as the changing policies of the British Board of Film Censors (which since 1985 has changed ‘Censors’ to ‘Classification’) crop up alongside other institutional changes (e.g. the coming of sound and the competition from television in the early 1950s). Macnab also introduces us to accounts of working in the distribution business from the 1930s through to setting up the new distribution company Optimum Releasing in 1999.

Many of these accounts are fascinating and invaluable for any kind of ‘institutional’ study of British film. They also remind us that, ultimately, distribution is all about making sure the film print gets to the cinema in time for the screening.

The endnotes reveal how much time Macnab must have spent poring over Kine Weekly and the Kinematograph Yearbook in the BFI Library to find material for the earlier chapters. He must have been able to go back to his own research for earlier publications and he has clearly got very useful contacts for his current film journalism practice. On that note, the book feels very up-to-date in its concerns. However, things are moving very quickly in film distribution and during 2016 Macnab himself has already been writing in Screendaily about the end of the VPF (Virtual Print Fee) – the mechanism which saw distributors helping to fund the digitisation of UK cinemas – and what might come next as the unwieldy business model of exclusive ‘windows’ for product on different platforms gradually disintegrates.

Because the book is for the general reader who may be a film fan or the industry professional with an interest in the history of their own business, Macnab sensibly keeps the narrative flowing rather than taking a more distanced position and trying to analyse how distribution functions as a business model in the context of the international film market. The book also lacks coverage of aspects of the distribution business like Sales Agents, Film Festivals and Film Markets – and indeed distribution practices in other territories. In terms of what it does do though, it’s generally very good – though some of the historical accounts are ‘broad brush’ and lack insights from more detailed research.

Delivering Dreams carries a ‘Select Bibliography’ of books on British Cinema and the British Film Industry and endnotes/references for each chapter. The contents page lists an index but, because I was sent a proof copy to review, the index was not yet completed. Teachers definitely need an index for this book, so check it out before you buy.

[This review first appeared in Media Education Journal No. 59, Summer 2016 and is published here with permission – see http://www.ames.scot/mej.html]

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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!).

Studying Tsotsi

Studying Tsotsi, Judith Gunn, Auteur Publishing 2010, 120pp, ISBN: 978-1-906733-08-7

Tsotsi (South Africa/UK 2010) is one of the most popular films discussed on this website and it is widely studied in a UK context. Not surprisingly then, we were very interested in what this latest study guide from Auteur had to offer.

These study guides have now switched to a ‘pocket size’ – (162 x 117 mm), so in 120 pages there are perhaps 28,000 words in which to explore the film. I think that this is similar to the York Film Notes which tried a similar trick at the start of the decade.

The author’s blurb tells us that Judith Gunn is Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Cirencester College and that she has worked in BBC radio as researcher, writer, producer and broadcaster. In Chapter 5 on Audience and Institution, Gunn reveals that she was a child in Africa and remembers going to the cinema in Tanzania to see a Hollywood/British film. She draws on both this experience and her BBC work in interesting ways and she refers to a number of interesting and useful books and articles that I will certainly investigate. For someone looking for material to help contextualise a reading of Tsotsi in relation to a set of media studies course objectives, there is certainly food for thought here. However, I’m less convinced that the guide will be helpful for film studies students and there are some real problems with the overall approach.

I couldn’t find anywhere in the book a statement about who the expected readership might be or what level of academic course is being addressed. Tsotsi is mentioned directly on the syllabus of the WJEC GCSE (i.e 14-17 year-olds in the main) in Film Studies, but this is a new course with relatively small (but growing) numbers of students. I would expect Auteur to be targeting the far larger group of A Level teachers and students on both media and film studies courses. The problem is that without a clear focus Gunn struggles to find a consistent level in terms of pitching to readers both theoretical ideas and cultural references. There is a range of theoretical references which on the one hand are inappropriate for GCSE students and on the other are sometimes presented in a potentially patronising way for A Level students – and sometimes the attempt to introduce ideas quickly makes them confusing. Getting the pitch right is very difficult and I suspect that here it is the guide’s structure that is problematic.

There are six chapters in all – History and Context, Narrative, The Image of Tsotsi, Representation: Stereotypes, Audiences and Institutions and finally ‘Themes’. The problematic chapters are those offering textual analysis and discussion of the film in the context of South African Cinema more generally. An early indication that things are not quite right is the assumption that this is a ‘Hollywood film’ in some way. There is some useful discussion in the guide of possible Hollywood elements in the film and Gavin Hood did indeed train in the US and has gone on to make Hollywood films, but Tsotsi is a UK/South Africa co-production which Miramax picked up after production. The prime mover behind the production was UK producer Peter Fudakowski.

More confusing still is the discussion of the ‘look’ of the film. I couldn’t find anything to warn readers that the UK DVD from Momentum actually uses the wrong aspect ratio, presenting the film in 16:9 or 1:1.78 instead of the ‘Scope ratio 1:2.35 used for the cinema version. All those students in the UK have probably studied the film unable to see the careful compositions. (As far as I can see the Miramax Region 1 disc has the correct ratio). Judith Gunn’s overall strategy involves comparing the shooting and editing style for Tsotsi with television soap opera and also with a series like The Wire, which seems odd to me. This just one example of an approach which might work for media studies but which more or less ignores the specific formal questions of film studies. Gavin Hood and his cinematographer Lance Gewer made some quite careful decisions about the look of the film – none of which are directly related to television aesthetics. The best resource on this is an article in American Cinematographer which is still online and well worth reading. As Gewer states:

“Gavin’s intention was to make an intensely emotional and engaging psychological thriller set in a world of contrasts — love and hate, wealth and poverty, revenge and forgiveness, anger and compassion — and widescreen was the only way we could visually tell that story. We needed to get a sense of the characters in the space and the broadness of that space; it’s a world vulnerable people inhabit.”

Here is why, ideally, students need to see the CinemaScope print. The rest of the article explains very well why decisions were made. Unfortunately, I think some of Judith Gunn’s commentary on this area is not particularly helpful. I’m also puzzled why, after referencing authoritative sources on South African Cinema in terms of 1930s-60s films she then decides to discuss more recent South African films only in terms of the Hollywood and UK productions based there, rather than investigate some of the more recent independents. It isn’t easy to access these films, I know, but students should be aware of the structure of South African Cinema – which is still largely segregated in terms of catering for largely white middle-class audiences in multiplexes and for much poorer Black audiences in what I assume are less salubrious halls in the townships (assuming that they still exist and haven’t closed with the spread of DVDs). Tsotsi is unique in coming out of a sector of the South African industry still mainly white but at least with a grasp of working-class South African culture.

In short, this guide will give media students access to some useful material, but film students will need to supplement it with some of the books mentioned in its Bibliography.

itpworld’s blog entry on Tsotsi is here.

. . . and another entry on itpworld including a report on a new venture in South Africa, ‘Sollywood’

There is also an article on the recent Durban International Film Festival by Maggie Miranda in the latest Media Magazine in which she discusses new South African films.

World Cinema Directory: Japan

The World Cinema Directory is an ambitious project set up by the UK publishing house, Intellect. It aims to publish print volumes on every national/regional film industry/culture over a period of 3 years. The innovative idea is that each volume will first appear as a FREE download for a limited period, after which the print version will be published and an online pdf will be purchasable by libraries. But more than that, each volume will actually be written by volunteer contributors. There will be an online database of entries that will eventually become a volume. The aim is not to replicate IMDB etc. but to target the academic market with contributors expected to conform to certain academic protocols. Intellect hope that this will be a contribution to increasing diversity in scholarly work. I guess you need to read all the blurb to make sense of this.

I downloaded the first free Directory on Japanese Cinema and then promptly forgot about it because I was busy. I’ve just noticed that it is free no more, although I think a version on Scribd is still available. The print version can be purchased via Intellect. I thought I would now review the Japanese Directory but also urge you to download Volume 2 on American Independent Cinema (see the link at the head of this post).

The Japanese Directory is 301 pages of material with an epic scope – sweeping across Japanese film history. It’s a massively ambitious undertaking and it looks very good in design terms. The structure offers essays on aspects of Japanese Cinema – specific directors, genres, time periods etc. followed by brief entries on selected films – synopsis, credits and critique over one or two pages in total. The contributors are a mix of younger film scholars and researchers and film journalists. The best-known name is probably Mark Schilling, who writes for The Japan Times and Variety, but all the others appear well-qualified to write about film. There is a contributor list and a detailed bibliography plus a list of useful weblinks and a quiz. Overall, this is clearly going to be useful, especially for students and film fans approaching Japanese Cinema for the first time. The breadth of material is a real attraction.

But is this the right format – how does the balance between breadth and depth work out? What can you reasonably say in 400 words on a film like Tokyo Drifter (1966)? If you’ve just watched the film and want a quick view from somebody else and you found the 400 words here, you’d probably be very pleased. But if you’d bought the guide, you might feel that the analysis was restricted. Similarly, the essay on Yakuza films which precedes the analysis of Tokyo Drifter is around two and a half pages – perhaps 1500 words.

My other main concern is about the quality of the writing and editing. Before starting this post, I read several articles and reviews in Intellect’s various film journals, most of which have at least one freely downloadable issue on offer. I came across a review of the Japanese/Korean entry in the Wallflower Press series of ‘24 Frames‘ – I reviewed the Middle Eastern and East European volumes some time ago (the books offer substantial essays on 24 significant films). The review was by the distinguished Japanese Cinema scholar David Desser and he savaged the book for its sloppy proofing and terrible indexing, especially in accuracy over names, film titles etc. So, I approached the Japanese Directory with trepidation. How accurate would it be? My knowledge of Japanese Cinema is not vast, but I know small segments reasonably well and I concentrated on those.

On the whole, the Directory looks pretty reliable, but I did find errors, mainly in the editing. Just to pick out one, in the critique of Ozu’s Banshun (Late Spring) a well-known scene is described as taking place at a kabuki performance. Even the dialogue tells us that this was a noh play. OK, we’ve all made mistakes, but Desser has a point when he says that these kinds of books have to get the facts right. If there is a mistake in an entry on a film you know, it makes you wonder how accurate are the descriptions of the films that you don’t know. But I repeat that on the whole the Directory does seem reliable. A more serious charge is the lack of depth.

Nothing is left out in terms of the types of films covered: dramas (old and new), New Wave and alternatives, anime and horror, monsters and yakuzas, blockbusters and chanbara (swordfight – samurai films) ‘pink films’ and auteur films are all present. There will be quibbles over the sections some films appear in (Desser will be outraged again that Realm of the Senses is described as a pink film) but at a basic level, anyone who comes to the Directory expecting to learn about Japanese Cinema will at least start with a clear sense of the terrain.

This is the first Directory in the series and in some ways, it is like the first episode of a new TV series – there is a lot of ‘backstory’ and introducing of characters to get through. Presumably, future updates of this volume will be able to spend more time going into some of the issues that run across Japanese film industry and culture and less on making sure that readers know about key directors. The inevitable imbalances will then be ironed out. So, for instance, this volume touches on nearly every Kurosawa Akira film, but only one from Naruse Mikio and Masumura Yasuzo and two from Ichikawa Kon. The issues that need more coverage are the Japanese film industry (just the one here on the 1960s Art and Theatre Guild) and a much greater concentration on social and cultural context – either by increasing the number of essays or allowing writers more space on individual films.

My conclusion is that if you want a clear, basic understanding of the breadth of Japanese Cinema, this Directory will be useful, especially if you are prepared to search for film titles on DVD and import some (US-based authors clearly have access to films not easily available in the UK). If your interest is specific and related to a handful of genres or auteurs, you may well be disappointed because although your hopes will be raised by sight of the entries, you might not learn as much as you would like. Will the Directory be helpful and motivating for students? Again, yes, I think so, initially, but they’ll then need to get stuck into the bibliography and weblinks.

A Work of Love?!

pinkfilm_Book Review by Leung Wing-Fai

Jasper Sharp (2008) Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, Surrey: Fab Press
ISBN 978-1-903254 54 7 Paperback 416 pp

 

Even before opening the package that was Jasper Sharp’s Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, the weight makes the reader think that it is a more serious book than the tagline ‘Steamy, Subversive, Exotic & Bizarre!’ suggests. Despite Sharp’s admission that it is impossible to access many of the historical titles, the book seems as complete and encyclopaedic as it could be and I doubt that there is another bilingual list of Japanese sex films and relevant references quite like the appendices (that occupy over 60 pages). All of this, the writer tells us, is to explain what Japanese pink cinema ‘is’. The simple definition of pink cinema is softcore sex films, though pinku eiga is much more as Sharp’s passion will certainly convince and repay readers who persevere till the end.

In a strange kind of way, I find the non-pink bits more interesting as Sharp successfully narrates the social and cultural contexts for the development of Japanese soft porn. He also situates the pink industry alongside the mainstream and never loses sight of the parallel but intertwining larger film world in Japan and abroad. Indeed, many mainstream Japanese directors had cut their teeth or worked extensively in the pinku eiga industry: Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure, 1997, Pulse, 2001) Hideo Nakata (Ringu, 1998) and Yoishi Sai (All Under the Moon, 1993). Indeed, the 2009 Oscar for Best Foreign Film went to The Departures directed by Yojiro Takita who made the Molester Train series (1982-1984) among other pink titles. I am nevertheless not convinced of the writer’s inclusion of Nagisa Oshima whose main contribution to the debate is his controversial In the Realm of the Senses, 1976 (based on a ‘true crime’ story that had also sprung several pink films including Noboru Tanaka’s more conventional A Woman Called Abe Sada 1975). The inclusion of Oshima leads to another age-old debate of the art/sex film divide as many films of the early Japanese New Wave of the 1960s challenge sexual taboos given the more open social and moral attitudes of the time. I think this fluidity between experimental, New Wave, avant-garde, independent and sex films in Japan is certainly worth a critical evaluation. The cross-over of these strands in the industry is also something quite culturally unique that Behind the Pink Curtain serves to highlight.

A discussion of censorship has to be part of the history of sex film though Sharp never commits to some of the cultural issues that this raises. Sharp also comments on the wider feminist debates around pornography but remains neutral. Undeniably, pink movies are full of contradictions: the obsessive and repetitive depictions of rapes and tortures (the author describes these in length in chapter 12) are clearly part of the male fantasy element of soft porn. Equally there is no shortage of female audiences for such scenes. The author begins to acknowledge this unlikely section of consumers of porn towards the end of the book. I often find strong feminist messages in Japanese sexploitation films of the 1960s and 1970s (think Sex and Fury and Female Convict Scorpion series). Given most directors and writers of these films are male (a few female filmmakers do exist, as the author points out), the parallel feminist and sexist elements in many of these Japanese productions should enrich the existing debates about pornography.

Sharp’s admiration for key cult figures such as Koji Wakamatsu (who crossed the divides of avant-garde, pink and politics) and Masao Adachi (porn director turned Red Army revolutionary who spent 26 years in Palestine) is evident, devoting a chapter to each. On the other hand, I think Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno is worthy of a more detailed treatment than the slightly slim chapters 9 and 10. Roman Porno was launched by the flagging studio in 1971 and eventually generated 850 titles in 17 years. Other studios also jumped on the band wagon and produced a number of titles that might be grouped under the genre. The brand was loosely based on the French concept of roman pornographique or erotic fiction in the tradition of Marquis de Sade, The Story of O etc. The productions were more widely distributed, arty and influential than the old fashioned pink, almost edging soft porn towards respectability.

The later chapters see the author contemplate the decline of the whole softcore sex film market that was partly the result of competition from AV/Adult Video in the 1990s, younger generation of yet more experimental sex film directors (most notably Hisayasu Sato, The Bedroom 1992), gay porn, and the unlikely international film festival hit The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai (Mitsuru Meike 2004).

Such a comprehensive history also inevitably leaves the reader feeling unfulfilled (sic.) as few films are available in the west or in Japan for that matter. The writer encourages us to think of the meanings of these films that majority of critics and scholars tend to dismiss but there are only so many pages of description of film ‘narratives’ one can read without losing the point altogether. After all, do we really need to know the finer plot of Apartment Wife Bondage and Sex Documents: Serial Rapists?

The comprehensive Behind the Pink Curtain demonstrates that the book is clearly a work of love for Jasper Sharp. Whether ‘the complete history’ of Japanese sex cinema or any other cinemas can ever be written and contained in one single volume is a moot point. Such a painstaking exercise is a timely reminder of the complexity of exploring the history of film production, mainstream or otherwise, past and present, in any given country. For that, we should salute this brave attempt.

Leung Wing-Fai is the co-editor with Leon Hunt of  East Asian Cinemas: Exploring Transnational Connections on Film