The Film Cultures Reader

Activating the Reader
Graeme Turner (ed),
The Film Cultures Reader.
London & New York: Routledge, 2002.
ISBN 0 415 25281 4
Au$50.00 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Routledge)

In the Jonathan Franzen novel, The Corrections (2001), Chip, a former academic and struggling scriptwriter, faced with the question of how to pay the rent as well as keeping up appearances, gradually ‘”deaccessions” his library, that testament to his intellectual growth in the Western academy over the previous generation. His “deaccessioning” is systematic and he works through each section of it, bundling the books into plastic bags and taking them to The Strand, the famous New York second-hand bookstore. He starts by “purging his Marxists”, raising $65 for books which had originally cost him $3900 – including the U.K. edition of Habermas’s Reason and the Rationalisation of Society, which had cost him £95. He then sells “his feminists, his formalists, his structuralists, his poststructuralists, his Freudians and his queers” blowing the proceeds ($115) on an expensive haircut.

This hyperdeflation in the value of academic books on the second-hand market – though (one hopes), somewhat overstated in this case – underlines a new problem of reading today, which has relatively little to do with the kinds of “problems of reading” most humanities academics cut their teeth on twenty years ago. Who has time to read books? Certainly not academics, weighed down by the new labour of accountability, the writing of research applications and constant restructure; certainly not the students, who all have two or three jobs. The skills of close reading and careful attention to the text, acquired in the training of humanities academics until now can no longer be used, except to read the latest restructure proposal or policy document – which probably explains the success of certain trends in the humanities in recent times (and, if nothing else, is at least testimony to the value of close-reading).

It is not surprising, then, that “the reader”, these days, is more likely to be a book than a person – and one thing many academics find themselves doing at the beginning of every semester is producing “the reader”, an onerous task involving rapid (rather than close) reading of books and articles appropriate to a given course, picking the ones which more or less fit, furiously photocopying them and trying to make the on-campus printing deadlines so that they are available for the first, or maybe the second, week of classes. This madness might be avoided by a well-produced reader from a commercial publisher, thus saving academics from having to be their own publishers, producing as many as four or five books a year but gaining no institutional brownie points for their efforts.

Graeme Turner is one of those admirable entrepreneurial academics with the capacity to spot a market niche and provide the product to fill it. The Film Cultures Reader is part of a recent trend towards “visual cultures”, in the development of cultural studies, extending earlier work in the social history of art, drawing upon reception studies, in more recent work and on philosophy and psychology to account for the experience of a work, displacing the emphasis on formal aspects. The Film Cultures Reader owes much more to the tradition of media studies than to the fields I’ve mentioned, but it can be understood within this trend because it explicitly attempts to revise film studies beyond formal concerns, shifting the object of analysis beyond “the text” (as we used to say).

Turner sets out his intent in the preface and introduction to the volume, a collection of “influential” articles on the study of film and popular culture, dealing with contemporary commercial cinema. The volume is a companion to his earlier edited work, Film as Social Practice (1999) and is located more in the fields of media studies, communication studies and cultural studies, rather than in the field of film studies. Concerned with the study of feature film audiences and industries, it focuses upon cultural and social practices, rather than on aesthetic objects and is interested in the cultural function of commercial film, more than any other function it might perform.

It therefore takes an explicit distance from the traditions of formal analysis of film – classic Hollywood, versus avant-garde or European art cinema. So you won’t find any Eisenstein, Bazin or Metz here. Instead, we are given a quick summary of “pre-1990s film studies” (the realists versus the formalists – or Eisenstein versus Bazin; the “culture and civilisation tradition” (the Frankfurt School’s dismissal of the “culture industries”); auteur theory and its recovery of some aspects of commercial cinema; the proliferation of film studies out of literary studies; 1970s “screen theory” and the privileging of the elite critic in the critique of ideology; the return to the audience (“the experience of ordinary people”); the inadequacies of cognitivism; the limitations of “difference” theories in their emphasis on sexual difference to the detriment of other categories of social difference (such as class and race). And so on. Turner acknowledges that his account which rockets through this history eliminates details and nuances, but I think there is also value in his capacity to present a narrative with the speed of a music video, given the needs of students today.

In the selection of his chosen essays and in their arrangement, Turner proposes an approach to film studies which displaces earlier models and it is this approach which provides the basis for considering current developments in the field and of assessing the value of the collection. He suggests five new directions in which film studies have developed in recent years.

Firstly, he points to the influence of new technologies on our understanding of film; secondly the history and political economy of national and international film industries; thirdly the meanings and pleasures generated in popular film texts and genres; fourthly, the construction of film audiences and social identities and finally the influence of cultural studies and cultural history on the methodologies used to study film and popular culture.

The sections of the volume are then organised more or less according to these themes. The five sections (Understanding Film, Technologies, Industries, Meanings and Pleasures, Identities, Audiences and Consumption) consist of five or six excerpts from previously published books, assembled with no clear narrative progression between the pieces (montage rather than mise-en-scène, we might say).

Some sections are stronger than others. The first section immediately alerts us to a general weakness in the editing of the book – a problem which arises in the decontextualisation of each of the pieces. There are many examples throughout the book – such as references to previous chapters of the original sources rather than to earlier chapters of the book in hand which should have been edited out. It seems ironic that in the abandonment of the privileged position of the text, which this book proposes, there is still a view that an individual text should still be untouched in the editing process for an academic reader, when no such deference is shown in the editing for newspapers and mass media, where we could argue there is more respect for the reader’s need of explanation. No academic producing a reader at the beginning of the semester ever has the time to bother about this of course. It is hoped that elisions can be explained in class – or that they will be revealed in a closer reading of the text (in a context in which students no longer have the time for such reading). But I think a reader that has gone through an editing process with a major academic publisher should pay more attention to such irritating details. If a book is credited with having an editor, it should at least be edited.

If Turner’s “editing” leaves something to be desired, his own contextualisation of the material is very good. His general introduction and section introductions are excellent, providing very useful summaries and a survey of the field, which are as good as the material he has selected. Generally, the selection of material is well considered – though it would be easy to construct another volume of important and obvious works not included.

The essays in the first section belong to a moment of contestation within film studies, during which a reorientation towards more recent (rather than classical) cinema and television studies was occurring. So the essays by Tony Bennett & Janet Wollacott, Annette Kuhn, Judith Mayne and Janet Staiger, frequently refer to other debates at the time rather than to film as such. Although the essays are comprehensive in their characterisations of the debates, they are likely to give to the new student – for whom I assume the book is intended – a sense of having walked into the cinema half-way through the movie. For this reason, I was inclined to think that more basic essays by Vachel Lindsay, Bela Balazs, Jean Epstein or Jean Mitry might have worked better here. Even though this tradition has been frequently dismissed in recent theoretical approaches, its pre-Deleuzian quality now makes it more useful for students approaching film studies via new media, for example.

The challenge for the section entitled “Technologies” is to keep up with the rate of technological change. When it comes to this theme, students are likely to be ahead of their teachers in the game, used to downloading movies and music from the internet, and to watching them via much more sophisticated home entertainment systems than university film courses are able to provide (certainly in Australia at least) and well-informed about the ways in which special effects are achieved etc.. The essays by Ed Buscombe and Steve Neale on colour in this section belong to a much earlier moment in the technological development of cinema. Gianluca Sergi’s essay registers a shift towards the greater theoretical attention now paid to the aural as well as the visual dimension of cinema and the essays by Stephen Prince and Barbara Creed work well because they are more recent.

The section entitled “Industries” has two essays on Hollywood (by Thomas Schatz and Tina Balio) and three on “minor film industries” – Australia, (Tom O’Regan), Hong Kong pre-1997 (Stephen Teo) and Britain (John Hill), presenting a rather “British Commonwealth” alternative (though notably not including Bollywood). As a result, Hollywood becomes a kind of devouring monster, and it is no longer a question of film cultures (plural) but simply of film industry (singular) as if all resistance is futile and we might as well surrender completely to the dominance of global media business. Ironically, the essays which are more concerned with textual readings are finally more interesting, for this reader at least.

Although the general framework which Turner sets up is a sound one, the chosen material lets him down somewhat – because over ninety per cent of the material was originally published more than a decade ago (and, as it turns out, forty per cent of the material has previously been published in books from Routledge). Every article, in order to be properly understood, presupposes another whole set of readings, a kind of infinite regress in which we can never know anything, really. How to take our students to a point where they feel they have learned something? If, in teaching it is increasingly necessary to reduce down – shorter readings for students, smaller sections of chapters for close reading (the world of the close-up rather than the wide shot) – how would I use a book like this to best effect? Then I had a radical thought. What I would do, would be to photocopy the general introduction and the section introductions and I would make this into a small reader and distribute this to the students. I would then send the keenest of them off to remainder bins and second-hand bookstores, where they could buy whole books from which the original chapters were derived for fifty cents or a dollar and they might once again be culturally activated as readers.

Helen Grace
University of Technology, Sydney, Australia.

Created on: Sunday, 2 May 2004 | Last Updated: 2-May-04

About the Author

Helen Grace

About the Author

Helen Grace

Helen Grace is Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Technology, Sydney. She has edited Aesthesia & the Economy of the Senses (UWS,Nepean, 1996), and is co-author of Home/world: Space, Community & Marginality in Sydney's West (Pluto Press, 1997) and co-editor of Planet Diana: Cultural Studies & Global Mourning (Research Centre in Intercommunal Studies, UWS, Nepean 1997).View all posts by Helen Grace →