Category: Book Reviews

Book Review: World Cinema Through Global Genres

GlobalGenres

World Cinema Through Global Genres, William V. Constanzo, John Wiley 2014, £21.99, 432pp ISBN 9781118712924

The US publisher John Wiley now has a major global brand for academic and professional texts after its 2007 merger with Oxford-based Blackwell. This means that there is now UK promotion for a Wiley US textbook like this title. In the standard, squarish large format for textbooks, its 400 plus pages add up to a hefty tome. Inside there is a relatively simple structure. After 40 pages of introductory material on film studies, William Constanzo offers four sections, each focusing on what he terms a ‘Global Genre’.

The four genres are well-chosen and comprise ‘The Warrior Film’, ‘The Wedding Film’, ‘The Horror Film’ and ‘The Road Movie’. Within each section is a general essay on the specific ‘genre cluster’ and a ‘Deep Focus’ on one specific national or regional industry, followed by four shorter ‘Close-ups’ on specific film titles. So, 120 pages are devoted to ‘The Warrior Film’ with a Deep Focus on Chinese Cinemas and Close-ups on The Magnificent Seven, Seven Samurai, Sholay and Enter the Dragon. Across the other three sections students are offered focused studies of Indian, Japanese and Latin American Cinemas.

One of the quandaries for any textbook writer taking on this topic (i.e. a textbook on ‘World Cinema’) is what to include and what to leave out. Unless the book is intended as a kind of gazetteer, it isn’t possible to cover every film industry, or indeed every genre. By selecting ‘Global Genres’, Constanzo implies that he isn’t covering ‘art cinema’ or documentary or political filmmaking etc. But he still has to decide on which film industries. It seems that he has opted for those that American students are most likely to encounter as popular entertainment and perhaps feel closest to – Latin America and East Asia/South Asia.

Having chosen his genres and film industries, how does Constanzo’s approach work out? On the whole pretty well I think. He devotes his space to quite detailed analysis of his chosen films and finds ways to introduce students to unfamiliar cultures. He’s fond of quoting David Bordwell and, like Bordwell (and Thompson) he uses many small screengrabs to illustrate sequences. On the positive side these grabs are presented in their correct aspect ratios – something that makes immediately apparent the difference in presentation between The Magnificent Seven in ‘Scope and Seven Samurai in Academy. Unfortunately, all the grabs are presented as sometimes quite murky greyscale images, losing much of their impact in the process. Significantly too, the single still from Sholay is not in the correct ratio since the only DVD available in 2013 would have been ‘pan and scan’.

William Constanzo has been teaching a long time and he is both widely travelled and a fan of the films he analyses. There are many insights here and students should get a thorough introduction to the genres he tackles. In some ways his discussion of ‘The Wedding Film’ is the most interesting since it isn’t a genre category recognised as such by the studios. He starts from the success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding (US 2002), a small independent film that became a big global success, and notes that similar films have been successful across the globe. This is a category that draws upon different repertoires such as the romantic comedy, the social comedy and the family drama/melodrama and when he lists Monsoon Wedding (India 2001) alongside Four Weddings and a Funeral (UK 1994) and other titles from Iceland, Poland and Taiwan, the possibilities are immediately appealing. However, things get a little trickier when Constanzo chooses three films set in Israeli ‘Occupied Territories’, one directed by the Israeli (but self-proclaimed ‘international’) director Eran Riklis and the other two by Palestinian filmmakers. Again the analysis is thorough and some of the political context is explained – but not enough perhaps to fully understand the meanings in these specific films. There is also the problem that Constanzo doesn’t explore the institutional differences between the films in terms of production – how the diverse film titles that he chooses are likely to be distributed and received by critics and audiences. Again we have to accept that this isn’t the purpose of the book and there isn’t space to explore ‘film as institution’.

The selection of film titles in the book is mostly very good and provides both students and teachers with useful entry points. The quartet of Halloween (US 1978), Suspiria (Italy 1977), The Devil’s Backbone (Mexico-Spain 2001) and Ringu (Japan 1998) in the Horror section has great potential. I’m a little baffled however by the inclusion of both La strada (Italy 1954) and A bout de souffle (France 1960) as ‘road movies’ in the final section. These two European art movies seem out of place. They require more space in order to explain their significance in film history and their relationship to film movements such as Italian neorealism and La nouvelle vague as well as their relationships to genres. They also hint at that academic sense of discussing the canon rather than engaging with the popular genre films that have appealed to broad audiences. What I mean, perhaps, is that they offer examples ‘known’ to US scholars and cinephiles rather than enjoyed by contemporary popular local audiences.

As this is a textbook I should add that each of the four sections includes timelines showing major historical events in the ‘Deep Focus’ region plus selected film releases and an extended list of titles from around the world in the ‘genre’ section. These are useful references as are each chapter’s reading lists and the questions that accompany each case study film analysis. There is also a glossary, a full index and a companion website with a teacher’s manual and other support materials (though you need to register as an ‘instructor’).

I think this could be a useful book for any teacher wanting to introduce students to films beyond Hollywood through a focus on genres. I suspect that in the UK the Wedding and Horror sections might work best. One word of warning. I found the Deep Focus sections to be variable in that the Chinese section is dominated by an analysis of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and the Indian one is flawed because it underestimates the so called ‘regional’ film industries and the recent growth of independent productions. The Japanese one is OK but rather limited, but the Latin American section is more detailed and a good introduction.

[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]

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]

Book Review: Stars in World Cinema

WorldCinemaBook

Stars in World Cinema: Screen Icons and Star Systems Across Cultures, eds Andrea Bandhauer and Michelle Royer, I. B. Tauris 2015, £62 (hardback) 272 pp, ISBN 9781780769776, eISBN: 9781857738356

This new title in the World Cinema series from I. B. Tauris presents a collection of essays offering ideas about theorising film stars and stardom. Such studies have conventionally developed in studies of Hollywood and European cinema but here they are applied in the wider context of ‘World Cinema’. It is unfortunate that the publishers decided to use that term for the series since it perpetuates that Hollywood v. ‘World’ binary, but the editors for this volume emphasise the ‘pluricentric’ nature of the essays (the same idea, I think, as ‘polycentric’ in other similar collections). The editors also use the term ‘transnational’ and refer to the ‘interconnectedness’ and ‘commonality’ of accounts from five continents. As several of the essays point out, even when the stars themselves have crossed borders to appear in Hollywood films, many other star studies start from the preferred Hollywood model rather than recognising how star personae are developed in different cultures.

There are sixteen essays in total, divided into four sections. The first, Film Icons and Star Systems, offers four different case studies of stars and star systems outside Hollywood. The second, Stardom Mobility and the Exotic, focuses on examples of actors who have become ‘transnational’ in appeal, but for whom ‘crossing borders’ makes them ‘exotic’ in the cinema that is not native for them. In most cases this translates to travelling to Hollywood and being treated as exotic, but in the case of Viggo Mortensen it means appearing in Spanish films as ‘Danish-American’ and speaking fluent Argentinian Spanish. Section three is The Politics of Stardom with four studies of stardom in distinctive film cultures/industries where individual artistic expression and control have wider implications. Section four, Stars, Bodies and Performance, studies more or less what the title implies in relation to four further case studies.

This sounds like a carefully considered structure to the collection and it does indeed make sense. However, there are inevitably the pros and cons of a multi-authored text. The main pro is that the study has a genuine ‘local’ perspective and therefore a collective overview that no single author could produce. The main con is that there will be some repetition of basic arguments. But this is probably helpful as it serves to emphasise the ‘interconnectedness’ of these studies. More practically the sheer range of the case studies means that most readers will come across stars they have not encountered before or film cultures they know little about. For me the discussion of two specific female stars of the ‘post-studio Philippine Cinema’ was new territory as were the specific stars of Egyptian and Greek films. In other chapters I could always find something that I recognised. I think that the sixteen essays represent a good selection. They include studies of global figures such as Amitabh Bachchan, Antonio Banderas, Jackie Chan and others still active in contemporary cinema as well as earlier stars such as Romy Schneider, Emmanuelle Riva (in relation to Hiroshima mon amour and the more recent Amour) and Carmen Miranda (on the book cover – see above).

The two editors are Australian academics, as are several of the contributors. Most of the others are based at UK universities. Rachel Dwyer, who writes about Amitabh Bachchan, is perhaps the best-known name but Scottish readers will be pleased to see the founder of the Africa in Motion (AiM) Festival, Lizelle Bisschoff of the School of Culture & Creative Art, Theatre Film and TV Studies, Glasgow University, writing about Nollywood. The real question is who would read/use these accounts outside quite specialised areas of study and how accessible are the individual essays? I’m going to mention just a few essays in detail in the hope that they offer a useful sample.

Hara Setsuko was the great female star of Japanese studio films, best known in the West for her roles in Ozu Yasujiro’s post-war films, including Tokyo Story (1953). Mats Karlsson titles his essay ‘Japan’s Eternal Virgin and Reluctant Star of the Silver Screen’. Hara is a star who became emblematic of Japanese womanhood, representing in the 1930s the young girl/woman who supported the men going to war in the propaganda films of the period but then switching dramatically in the first post-war films to be first the ‘new woman’ of democratic Japan and then switching again to the traditional woman during the 1950s and the return to patriarchy. As Karlsson highlights, the Japanese Studio System operated in a similar way to Hollywood with Hara contracted to Toho for much of her career but able, because of her status, to work with Ozu who was usually working for Shochiku. But Hara can’t be studied just like Hollywood stars because her star image was restricted in ‘secondary circulation’. As an intensely private person she maintained a silence outside the studio walls. Garbo had to retire to become anonymous but Hara could continue to have a strong screen persona and still be a private person. Karlsson’s is a useful essay especially since two contrasting roles for Hara are available for study on UK Region 2 DVDs of Naruse Mikio’s Repast and any one of her six films for Ozu.

One of the most accessible and contemporary studies that students might undertake is of the way in which Chinese film stardom operates in conjunction with Hollywood’s current interest in the extraordinary recent growth of the Chinese box office. ‘Dancing with Hollywood: Redefining Transnational Chinese Stardom’ by Sabrina Qiong Yu approaches such a study fully aware of the difficulties and the problems associated with earlier scholarship. She begins by noting that Hollywood seeks Chinese stars to appear in its blockbusters for purely commercial reasons and not to help diversify the range of representations. This has recently meant that Chinese stars have been seen in insignificant roles and are on screen only fleetingly – resulting in the observation from audiences that they constitute ‘Hollywood soy sauce’ – an attempt to enhance the flavour, but nothing substantial in the dish.

Yu uses Bourdieu’s concept of four forms of capital – economic, social, cultural and symbolic – to analyse how succeeding generations of Chinese stars (and later Korean and Japanese) have worked on Hollywood productions. She concludes that social capital is very difficult to develop for any star based outside the US since it requires the kinds of social networks associated with politics or social activity such as charity work (e.g. for a Clint Eastwood or an Audrey Hepburn). Symbolic capital based on ‘fame and fantasy’ associated with a star image can be converted into economic capital if the star’s presence increases investment in the production, helps to secure distribution etc. Cultural capital can accrue for stars with specific skills such as dancing or combat skills. Otherwise it is economic capital that is most important. Yu demonstrates that while Bruce Lee and to a lesser extent Jackie Chan and Jet Li had the opportunity to develop their status because of martial arts skills, other major Chinese stars such as Chow Yun-fat are better known for straight dramatic performances and their skills are less distinctive in cultural capital terms. Yu notes that the more recently-established stars Chinese stars have smaller roles in bigger Hollywood blockbusters, but that some of these films are being made in two versions so that the Chinese stars have more screen time in the versions for the Chinese market. This is a rich field with scope for ongoing study.

From the third section I would pick Karen O’Brien’s essay about the indigenous Australian star David Gulpilil. Beginning with Walkabout (1971) Gulpilil has received international recognition which has proved important in his activist role in promoting authentic representations of indigenous Australian life through films like Ten Canoes (2016) which stars his son Jamie.

Indigenous Australian cinema is perhaps more accessible (partly because there are several recent examples) than some of the films featured in the fourth section. From this section I would opt for the essay by Michelle Royer which considers the two best-known roles for Emmanuelle Riva in the context of how cinema represents the ageing process. Royer argues that cinema has great potential to be a site for real understanding of what ageing means but that too often older characters are presented only in heavily typed roles. By focusing specifically on Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and Amour (2012) Royer is able to offer a fascinating perspective on how a study of ageing might proceed.

I could certainly use this book and I would imagine that it offers something for everyone. It’s a shame that the current economics of publishing means that this only available in hardback. The book carries an e-ISBN number as well but I can’t find any sign of a digital copy online.

[This review first appeared in Media Education Journal No. 58, Winter 2015/16 and is published here with permission – see http://www.ames.scot/mej.html]

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.