Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 5, February 2003

 

 

Mike Chopra-Gant

 

Hollywood Spaces

Deborah Thomas's _Reading Hollywood_

 

 

Deborah Thomas

_Reading Hollywood: Spaces and Meanings in American Film_

London: Wallflower Press, 2001

ISBN 1-903364-01-9

144 pp.

 

The problem which Deborah Thomas sets herself in this volume concerns the use of space in film and, in particular, how uses of particular spaces interact with narrative and generic aspects of films to contribute to their meaning. This represents, then, an attempt to expand the consideration of the processes of meaning making in films beyond the predominantly narrative concerns which have tended to dominate textual analysis, and to restore a sense of film as a visual medium.

 

The project of deploying space as an analytical tool involves consideration of a number of different aspects of space, and Thomas divides these between four substantive chapters. The first of these considers issues around the settings used in films and the contribution of mise-en-scene to viewers' understandings of films. The second considers conceptual divisions between public and private spaces. The third chapter focuses on elements within films which are addressed specifically to the audience and are inaccessible to characters within the diegesis. Finally, chapter four looks at the space inhabited by the spectator in the act of viewing a film, and so concerns film social aspects of the act of film watching. As the scope of the concerns addressed in these chapters indicates, Thomas's project is an ambitious one and although the length of this volume proves to be a limiting factor, causing Thomas to foreshorten her arguments to some degree, this book nevertheless provides some stimulating and suggestive insights into issues concerning space in films.

 

Thomas refrains from any long exposition of theoretical and methodological frameworks for conceptualizing space in film and instead proceeds to illustrate her consideration of film's spatial dimension through a number of virtuoso textual analyses. My own feeling about this approach is that, given the undergraduate student readership the book seems to be primarily aimed at, this balance could usefully have been shifted towards a more explicit exposition of the analytical tools employed in the analyses, since, in my experience, undergraduates often become nervous in the face of textbooks which do not provide them with a clear conceptual framework in which to contextualize applications of theory. This is not really a criticism of Thomas but rather a reflection of the limitations inherent in the attempt to address such broad subject matter in so short a book.

 

There are points in the book, however, where I would take issue more strongly with Thomas's approach. One notable instance occurs early on, where Thomas sets the stage for the readings of films to follow. The point of contention is Thomas's suggestion that:

 

'Not all films are up to close scrutiny, of course, with some much more bountiful in the opportunities for thought which they offer than others. While some may be thin and merely formulaic, others appear almost inexhaustible as objects of reflection and discovery, sustaining readings and re-readings from many perspectives and along many lines.' (2)

 

While this view undoubtedly reflects what has been for a considerable time a common practice within film studies, it necessarily involves a selective process of canonization of certain films which excludes others from consideration. Since the basis, set out quite explicitly in the above quote, for selecting certain films and excluding others is the interest the films hold for the academic film critic, this canonization is founded on the subjective tastes of an elite and highly atypical group of movie viewers. This favours certain kinds of films over others, and the emphasis this produces on quality, self-consciously artful films, and a select group of auteur directors is reflected in the films which Thomas analyses in this book: John Ford's _My Darling Clementine_; Nicholas Ray's _Party Girl_; Frank Capra's _It's a Wonderful Life_; Otto Preminger's _Advise and Consent_; Alfred Hitchcock's _Vertigo_ and _Marnie_; Fritz Lang's _Cloak and Dagger_, among others. While this list represents a body of films which few would deny offer enticing opportunities for textual analysis, it is a corpus compiled with little regard to the popularity of the films with audiences around the time of their release. Taking the two 1946 productions from this corpus, _It's a Wonderful Life_ and _Cloak and Dagger_, neither film was among the highest grossing films of that year and the importance attached to these films in film studies is more an effect of the kind of process of canonization implied by Thomas's approach than a reflection of their importance within the culture at the time of their release. There is, of course, nothing intrinsically wrong with an intellectual deciding to focus on particular films because they interest them, but it does deprive their analysis of an important historical and sociological dimension and it does, in my view, become problematic when such decisions are presented as being premised on the value of certain films and inconsequence of others.

 

The problems of using a concept like space to explore the meaning of films are clearest in Thomas's consideration of mise-en-scene and the opposition between public and private spaces in the first two chapters of the book. Here reflections which begin with consideration of the use of particular settings -- Monument Valley in westerns, the city in gangster movies -- soon become inextricably intertwined with discussion of narrative concerns and oppositional structure. The difficulty which Thomas apparently finds in retaining a focus on spatial aspects, and the ease with which her arguments shift towards these other aspects of film, demonstrate the artificiality of an approach to film which brackets off one area of the meaning making processes at work in films from the totality of these processes. This in no way detracts from the validity of focusing on one aspect of this process -- after all, academic critics have been concentrating on narrative elements at the expense of more purely visual aspects of film for years -- but it does illustrate some of the difficulties inherent in dealing with such a complicated area of representational practice in such a short volume.

 

Thomas's discussion of spatial aspects of film watching is more convincing and is the most productive area of her work, bringing to the fore an important and previously neglected aspect of the social experience of film and suggesting numerous avenues for further work. On the whole, Thomas's book serves as a useful introduction to an aspect of film studies which has received inadequate attention in the past. If the book is occasionally frustrating, this is because the limitations of its length preclude the development of suggestive areas of work to fruition. Undoubtedly there is scope for Thomas to approach this subject matter in greater depth in another volume.

 

London, England

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003

 

Mike Chopra-Gant, 'Hollywood Spaces: Deborah Thomas's _Reading Hollywood_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 5, February 2003 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol7-2003/n5chopra-gant>.

 

Read a response to this text:

Deborah Thomas, 'A Reply to Mogg and Chopra-Gant', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 6, February 2003 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol7-2003/n6thomas>.

 

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