Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 6 No. 22, August 2002



Monika Mehta

Reflections on Film Studies




_Reinventing Film Studies_

Edited by Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams

London: Arnold Publishers, 2000

ISBN 0-340-67723-6

464 pp.


_Reinventing Film Studies_ engages with questions that are central to film studies, containing a diverse collection of essays which range from Noel Carroll's cognitivist approach to film evaluation to Linda Williams's Foucauldian analysis of _Psycho_'s reception. This anthology does not seek to provide a survey of the field. Rather, it strives to rethink the field in light of recent technological, cultural, and social developments. Many of the essays re-examine the analytical frameworks which dominated film studies in the seventies, such as semiotics, psychoanalysis, and Marxism, seeking to cull knowledge which would be 'really useful' for the present and the future (1). The editors identify 'five key issues' which are crucial for contemporary film studies:


'the interdisciplinary location of film studies as a means of engaging with the 'massness' of cinema; film understood as a sensory as well as meaning producing medium; the conception of cinema as constituting an 'alternative public'; history and the postmodern; and, finally, the impending dissolution of cinema within globalised multimedia and of Western film studies in their transnational theorisation' (1).


It is through an engagement with these issues that the anthology seeks to reinvent film studies.


In the Introduction the editors carefully unpack these issues, pointing to the ways in which the essays deal with them. As media converge it is possible to view a film on multiple screens such as theatre, television, and computer. Given these conditions, we can no longer simply analyze film with reference to cinema as an institution. Film studies needs to turn to other disciplines such as media studies, cultural studies, and visual culture in order to offer more nuanced analyses. For the editors such analyses address questions related to film production and film reception, issues which were neglected by earlier film theorists. According to the editors, it is by grappling with the 'masses' and with the 'massness of modernity' that new readings can emerge, ones in which the analyst is 'situated within, rather than, outside, the mass' (1-2). Furthermore, by attending to the 'sensory experience of the cinematic mass medium' (2), scholars of film studies can understand the ways in which cinema both produced and structured audiences' pleasures.


Whereas seventies' film theory tended to classify the text as either progressive or reactionary, the essays in this collection seek to locate film in a wider social field. In doing so, they enable more complex readings. Some of the essays interrogate a linear model of the history of film, presenting a more fluid conception of film history. As new technologies compel film scholars to rethink the notion of the cinema in the present, film historians revisit the beginnings of cinema, offering new ways of writing and understanding the history of cinema. In rethinking the history of cinema, some of the essays attend to way in which cinema developed in China, India, Mexico, and Brazil. They address the ways in which Hollywood, the West, and the indigenous cultural as well as political circumstances informed the production of cinemas in these different national contexts. The Introduction offers a lucid account of these *reinventions*. It is followed by five sections; a thoughtful introduction by the editors accompanies each section. The editors not only summarize the pieces in each section, but place them in productive dialogue with one another. On the whole, I found the articles to be informative and theoretically sophisticated. I will describe and discuss some of them in this review.


The articles in the first section, 'Really Useful Theory', deal with film studies' relationship to theory. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith's piece, 'How Films Mean, or, From Aesthetics to Semiotics and Half-Way Back Again', carefully traces how the study of meaning became central to film analysis. He suggests that through the study of film meaning theorists sought to make visible the politics of representation. He provocatively argues that this political project has become redundant, and that film studies cannot simply focus on the question of meaning. Instead, film studies needs to expand its horizons by attending to questions of aesthetics.


Steve Cohan's case study on _Singin' in the Rain_ also focuses on film meaning. Cohan's insightful analysis demonstrates how this canonical film generates different meanings depending upon the theoretical apparatus that one brings to bear upon it. This piece draws our attention to how a particular theoretical framework may highlight certain aspects of a film and leave others less illuminated. I think this piece would be extremely useful for teaching students about the process and limits of interpretation.


The second section of the anthology contains a diverse and engaging set of articles which address issues pertaining to cinema's status as a mass medium. Jane Gaines, in the opening essay, challenges the notion that Hollywood products are simply reactionary. Instead, she invites us to consider the ways in which the narratives of Hollywood offer hope to audiences. She suggests that by putting ''hope' back into the model of analysis, back into critical theory' (112), we can create theories *for* audiences and, perhaps, imagine a different future. Like Gaines, Ravi Vasudevan also culls hopeful possibilities from the narratives of popular cinema. Through close readings of Bombay films from the 1940s and 1950s, Vasudevan demonstrates that 'the pre-modern or the traditional' is not a regressive category, but one which can be 'a source of creativity, where traditions are reinvented in accord with the dynamics of social and political formation' (152-153). Vasudevan's and Gaines's articles demonstrate the importance of a critical and serious engagement with popular cinema. It is such engagement that creates possibilities for a progressive politics.


The third section of the anthology focuses on questions of aesthetics. Christine Gledhill seeks to reconceptualize genre. Through her analysis of melodrama, she shows that genres are neither ahistorical nor fixed. Rather, they are often fluid, often leaking into one another. Therefore, in conducting film analysis, scholars need to employ a more flexible notion of genre. Gledhill's article compels us to think about the ways in which genres are produced, how boundaries between genres are drawn, and what the stakes are in maintaining such boundaries. Focusing on a particular genre, namely the trial movie, Carol J. Clover demonstrates how, through cinematography, such films establish an equivalence between the film audience and the jury. Moreover, Clover points out that in popular culture the jury remains 'serenely untouchable' (257). For Clover, this ostensible lack of challenge and opposition to the jury suggests that in the American (imagi)nation, the citizen can and does secure justice. Clover's analysis is useful for understanding how Hollywood assists in generating and maintaining the democratic ideals of the US.


The articles in the fourth section of the anthology address issues related to the writing of film history. Miriam Hansen's piece undertakes a critical examination of 'classical Hollywood cinema'. She suggests that the term 'classical' is problematic because it 'implies the transcendence of mere historicity, as a hegemonic form that claims transcultural appeal and universality' (338). Hansen attempts to restore historical specificity to 'classical Hollywood cinema' by tracing how Hollywood became the first global vernacular. Like Hansen, Linda Williams also invites us to think critically about the writing of film history. Through an innovative reading of _Psycho_ as a postmodern text, Williams interrogates the ways in which film scholars have traditionally understood this text. Her analysis shows how the film's exhibitions generated both *fun* and *discipline*. She demonstrates how the pleasure of watching _Psycho_ for first-time audiences was linked to new exhibition policies instituted at the behest of Hitchcock. These new polices demanded that viewers arrive at the cinema on time and watch the film from beginning to end. According to Williams, 'the fun of the film was dependent upon the ability of these [disciplined and docile bodies] to wait patiently in line' (364) in order to enjoy the rollercoaster ride served up by Hitchcock.


The last section of the anthology deals with questions regarding cinema's role in the age of global multimedia. Rey Chow shows us that Chinese cinema cannot simply be read in opposition to Hollywood. Rather, one needs to pay attention to how this cinema represents and contains differences brought about by the waning hold of communist rhetoric. While Chow's article underscores the importance of situating 'Third World Cinema' in a wider social and political field, Anne Friedberg urges us to reassess the status of film as a medium in light of new and rising technologies. She provides a useful historical account of cinema's relationship to new technologies. She argues that these technologies have not only altered our visual field, but also the disciplinary terrain of film studies. Friedberg's analysis compels us to consider television, videocassettes, DVDs, and computer screens in our analyses of films.


I would highly recommend this anthology to both students and scholars interested in exploring theoretical frameworks which are 'really useful' in analyzing film today.


Ithaca, New York, USA



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2002


Monika Mehta, 'Reflections on Film Studies', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 22, August 2002 <>.



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