Book Review: Film: A Very Short Introduction

by David Sterritt
from Film Quarterly Summer 2012, Vol. 65, No. 4

Film: A Very Short Introduction, by Michael Wood review by David Sterritt


A still from John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) opens the book.

An epidemic of excess continues to sweep American culture, manifested by everything from obesity statistics to heavy-handed adjectives—extreme, ultra, extreme ultra—adorning logos and labels. Movies are also in the act, routinely spinning threadbare material (think Bridesmaids) into bloated, overlong surfeits. The wave of too-muchness generates an undertow of not-enoughness that’s just as bad, and today’s film criticism exemplifies both. On the too-much side, websites like Amazon and IMDB pump out user reviews by fans with varying opinions, degrees of knowledge, and ability to spell; on the not-enough side, newspapers with long traditions of solid film criticism either cut down on reviewers or eliminate them altogether.

I have no quarrel with user reviews, which are democratic and catholic in their appeal, and I certainly don’t argue that professional critics are always worth their salaries. But good professionals have at least one merit—a keen awareness of how Hollywood’s marketing machine captures and shapes public taste—that fans and aficionados often lack. And good professionals are the ones most badly battered by the past decade’s journalistic storms. The list of top-flight American critics who have been laid off, bought out, demoted, or fired in recent years is a veritable who’s who of conscientious, knowledgeable writers: Andrew Sarris, J. Hoberman, Dave Kehr, Carrie Rickey, Todd McCarthy, Michael Sragow, and plenty more. Some have found or created new outlets, print or Internet, paid or unpaid. Others have not, and film culture is the loser.

In this inhospitable climate, capable film critics with regular exposure in established venues are all the more valuable. One such is Michael Wood, who has reviewed movies for the London Review of Books since the early 1990s. Wood has now written Film: A Very Short Introduction, a new volume in an Oxford University Press series that is itself a refreshing exception to the culture of too-muchness. True to their moniker, the Very Short Introductions are very short books (not extreme-ultra short, I hasten to add) aimed at literate nonspecialists who seek a concise overview of a more or less unfamiliar field. Initiated in 1995, the series now comprises succinct intros to everything from Kierkegaard and Herodotus to schizophrenia and particle physics, complete with Germaine Greer on Shakespeare and Terry Eagleton on the meaning of life. Previous cinema entries include Patricia Aufderheide on documentary and Kathryn Kalinak on film music. Wood’s volume is the three-hundredth VSI to appear.

Writing a very short book in the age of too-muchness can be taken as either a pleasurable challenge or an aggravating chore. (I’m finishing a VSI on the Beat Generation writers, and for me it’s somewhere in the middle.) Surely it’s harder to squeeze the disciplines of philosophy or history or mathematics into 25,000 words than to do the same for cinema, which has a relatively brief history. As its title indicates, however, Film deals not with the discipline of film studies (film history, theory, philosophy) but with film itself, which Wood characterizes in two ways: it is “an institution: an enterprise and a cultural ritual all rolled … into one,” and it’s also “footage, a set of images of movement of any kind, actual or imaginary, short or long, produced by anyone or any film technology whatsoever” (6). Wood is chiefly interested in the former conception, but he’s keenly aware of how many things a set of images can be nowadays, from narrative features and documentaries to film-related art installations, surveillance images, music videos, TV shows, home movies, shots made and disseminated by smartphone … the list goes on.

Wood’s book has three chapters. The first, “Motion Pictures,” sketches out some of cinema’s great conundrums and debates, paying particular attention to the question of how much “reality” resides in the photographic “reality effect,” and wittily citing Chico Marx’s immortal question in Leo McCarey’s 1933 Duck Soup—“Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”—as a great moment in film theory (4). He then zips through selected high points in film’s development from mechanical novelty to mass medium, showing how its classical structures, styles, and genres evolved, yet also showing how free-thinking mavericks (Luis Buñuel, Chris Marker) have interrogated and discombobulated the obligatory idioms of their day. Introducing the notion of “real magicalism,” Wood contends that movies generally fall into three camps—those that play things straight (this is real), those that get up to mischief (fooled you), and those that do both, as when the famous Lumière brothers film shows a wall tumbling down and then miraculously rising from the rubble. Some movies dwell at the farthest ends of the reality–trickery axis, but most partake of both tendencies, asking us at one moment to believe that what we see is real, at another moment to appreciate what clever illusions they create. From this perspective, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) and James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) are not distant relations but brothers under the skin, sharing the same general terrain around the middle of the spectrum.

The second chapter, “Trusting the Image,” takes on acting, national film styles, experimental cinema, and auteurism, among other things. The passages on performance speak articulately about stars who become legends, actors who become stars, actors who remain just actors, and (at the end of the chapter) figures like Mickey Mouse, Jessica Rabbit, and Motoko Kusanagi (in Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 fantasy Ghost in the Shell) who aren’t played by actors at all. Brief discussions of Italian neorealism and the French New Wave are followed by an analysis of Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953) and Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958), arguing that while Mizoguchi is often called a very Japanese director and Kurosawa is often called a not-so-Japanese director, both are in fact Japanese directors, and despite the countless differences between Mizoguchi’s delicate film and Kurosawa’s rambunctious one, each uses a sixteenth-century story to comment (indirectly) on World War II and (directly) on how a time of war invariably becomes “a condition in which deluded men seek profit” (51). This is top-flight comparative criticism.

The pages on avant-garde cinema open with the commonplace that all film was experimental in the medium’s early days, and Wood spends too much of his limited word supply on a breathless description of René Clair’s great Dadaist short Entr’acte (1924). Yet the rest of this section has the book’s sharpest writing on non-narrative film, and it’s heartening that Wood devotes significant space not only to Dziga Vertov’s canonical Man With a Movie Camera (1929) but also to such rarified works as Stan Brakhage’s enchanting The Wonder Ring (1955), Richard Serra’s minimalist Hand Catching Lead (1968), and Marcel Broodthaers’s quasicomic Rain: Project for a Text (1969). These clear-eyed paragraphs make me forgive Wood for discussing the director’s cut of Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner as if there were a director’s cut when there are actually two of them, the 1992 version that Wood saw and the 2007 version that Scott calls the “final cut,” at least for now. This is one of the rare slips in a book that is almost always accurate as well as acute.

The third chapter, “The Color of Money,” gets down to business, starting with the fact that the first American nickelodeon opened its doors in Pittsburgh in 1905 and two years later there were four thousand such venues across the land. Wood then turns to changes in moviegoing habits across the decades, the rise and fall of picture palaces, the tension between novelty and repetition in genre films, the myriad manifestations of the musical, and the reflection that gangster films constitute “the most American of genres . . . because no other culture thrives so much the romance of capital, the declension that turns money into power and power into freedom” (103). I don’t remotely share Wood’s affection for Quentin Tarantino’s stupid Inglourious Basterds (2009), and I don’t particularly care whether the images of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) seen on YouTube via iPhone have “better definition than any version [one] can see through a television screen or on a full-size computer” (110–11). Still and all, Wood’s enthusiasm for innovative kinds of cinephilia is highly gratifying.

The most stimulating pages in Film are oriented to cinema’s unlimited future as well as its storied past, and Wood’s attitude is refreshingly free of quibbles about the relative merits of old and new media. Early on he quotes Roland Barthes’s observation that a photograph “always carries its referent with itself” (9), and much later he puts this into paradoxical play with Thomas Elsaesser’s remark that the history of film is a history of new technologies that have steadily increased the distance between images and their material referents. Elsaesser is correct, Wood avers, yet as that distance gets wider and wider, more and more images of more and more things—from Shrek to the Titanic, from the planet in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) to the digitized landscapes in movies you didn’t know were digitized—look realer and realer all the time. We have verily reached a point “where nothing can look authentic on a screen without vast amounts of artifice” (112) shoring up the sleights of hand we’ve learned to accept as authenticity. This isn’t exactly news, but Wood makes a graceful case for the ability of 0s and 1s to capture as much “truth” and purvey as much “falsehood” as chemical-coated celluloid ever does.

So omnipresent are those 0s and 1s in today’s screen-saturated world that Film isn’t the ideal title for Wood’s book. Today more than ever, the range of “film” phenomena is so wide that I prefer the umbrella term “cinema,” which emphasizes the element of movement over the material on which images are (sometimes) recorded and preserved. I’m even more hesitant about “footage,” another term that Wood favors; it connotes chemical-coated celluloid so strongly as to seem almost quaint. Wood quotes filmmaker-theorist Hollis Frampton’s remark that films “are made out of footage, not out of the world at large” (6), but Frampton is speaking figuratively as well as literally, underscoring the pliancy and malleability that allow moving images to evolve as artworks, much as William Carlos Williams called a poem a “machine made out of words,” drawing a similar line between creative assemblages and the workaday real. This said, Wood has many productive ideas about film’s shifting relationships with neighboring and overlapping media, and this is an area he should continue to explore.

Curiously for a film critic, Wood has little to say about film criticism. He often writes about writers in the LRB, and I wish he had devoted more of Film to the likes of James Agee or Pauline Kael or Roger Ebert or the swelling army of Internet reviewers or the rapidly changing face of the profession. His own regular column in a widely respected publication may suggest that there’s no real crisis in film criticism; but the LRB is high-end British journalism, and essays on contemporary culture are integral to its mission. What’s left of American movie criticism mostly appears in dailies and weeklies that have no mission at all beyond surviving. One reason why I’m not alarmed by current upheavals in the trade is the possibility that the next configuration of the media ecology will find arts criticism less shackled to general-interest venues that have always cared more about being “timely” and “reader friendly” than about opening minds, challenging received ideas, or granting the possibility that we might understand Avatar better if we dig into Nanook of the North as well. Film is a very smart introduction to cinema, to Wood’s way of thinking about it, and to the rewards of looking at moving-image media with the suppleness, intelligence, and creativity that characterize his book.

9780192803535       You can read a sample from this book here

1 Comment

  1. Noel King says

    See extract from an interview I did with Michael Wood at his then-house in Princeton in 2000.


    NK: Lawrence Alloway figures in your America in the Movies book and a bit earlier you mentioned Robert Warshow. Are there any specific critical writings on film that you like?

    MW: Well I’ve always loved Pauline Kael. First, I always liked her writing, the quality of her writing. It’s got tremendous bounce and energy and shows her passion for the movies as an art and a business. She loves the movies. I thought she was usually wrong about films she liked, usually pretty disastrously, and pretty right about films she disliked. I would always, when living in New York, go to a movie and then religiously read her column but always with a slight apprehension that I would have liked something she was going to trash.

    I like Stanley Cavell a lot too. I say something about him in the second edition of America in the Movies — rather grudgingly, and rather too late. But I’ve always liked his work.

    NK: America in the Movies came out a few years after Cavell published The World Viewed.

    MW: Yes, I read The World Viewed back in 1971 and I thought it was completely cockeyed, wrong about virtually everything. But it’s also a book you can’t forget and you have to keep thinking about. After that, I did write a long review about Pursuits of Happiness and about a philosophy book of his, The Claims of Reason. The review was quite harsh but also appreciative. I think he’s one of the most interesting writers around, both about philosophy and about film. He’s an endlessly fertile, thoughtful and interesting person. I like his idea of a triangle linking film, philosophy and a certain kind of American studies, a certain rethinking or reclaiming of American philosophy. Cavell’s new book, the book about melodrama, is an attempt at an inversion of the book about comedy. But you can’t invert that idea. It’s such a terrific idea, the notion that in order to be married you have to be remarried, the idea that the only marriage that works is the one that’s done twice. It’s a terrific idea, and it worked beautifully for the films. That is how Adam’s Rib works, it’s how The Philadelphia Story, The Awful Truth and The Lady Eve work. It’s a genuine genre, it’s a genuine insight into something that the movies can do.

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