New Hollywood Cinema: An Introduction

Geoff King,
New Hollywood Cinema: An Introduction.
London: I.B. Tauris, 2009 (first published 2002)
ISBN 1 86064 749 9
UK£18.99 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by I.B. Tauris)

All the action here is after the colon. The label “An Introduction” should alert you to the ambitions and purpose of this book. Do not look here for new primary research or strongly held positions addressing gaps in our knowledge. Rather, this is clearly meant as a textbook for an undergraduate class on contemporary Hollywood. It reads as though Geoff King, who lectures at Brunel University in London, realised there was no single text for his Intro to Contemporary Hollywood class and cannily set out to conjure such a thing into existence. The success of this book, reprinted after its initial publication in 2002, might be taken as an indicator of the growth of undergraduate media education in the United Kingdom.

King’s task is to organise existing research in a cogent fashion and bring together some of the most important questions which a class of this nature would address. There are chapters on: the newness of New Hollywood, authorship, genre, stars, narrative versus spectacle, and the importance of ancillary video markets. A couple of weeks on each one and you’ve nailed your semester with a pretty good course.

Conceptually, King divides his analysis of Hollywood into three areas: stylistic, industrial and social. Within each chapter/topic, he insists that we need to grasp the interconnections between these three levels of determination, an aim which he achieves quite effectively at times. So for example, the stylistic strategies employed by late 1960s counterculture films don’t simply reflect social change, they need to be read through an industrial framework as “part of a deliberate audience targeting strategy.” (p. 30)

As an author, King is nothing if not cautious and measured in his response to contentious questions. No strong ideological positions are staked out in relation to such questions. Instead, both sides of each argument are given an airing, with the tacit understanding that one of the aims of tertiary education is providing students with a space to reach their own conclusions. (You can almost see the final assignment in the course: “The New Hollywood is very new, or, there is nothing very new about New Hollywood. Discuss.”) His caution is also evident in the way that the writing repeatedly lapses into the passive voice to assure us that any strong assertions stem from elsewhere.

The lesson here is that causation is rarely straightforward and historical narratives must be open to multiple levels of determination. However, for the non-student reader, this even-handed approach gets a little frustrating. After giving us a précis of Robert Ray’s argument on the influence of the French nouvelle vague on Hollywood, let us see what conclusions King draws:

What should we make of all this? Are these just superficial borrowings, the trappings of what might be considered hip and trendy at the time, to please the filmmakers themselves and the relatively small number of viewers likely to pick up the references? Or is something more serious at stake? Something of each perhaps. (p. 38)

Perhaps. So perhaps not? This type of conclusion is in line with the way that we have tended to conduct our disagreements in cinema studies. While rival explanatory claims might exist, we are generally polite people who tiptoe back to our own paradigm and rarely argue directly with each other. There is space enough for us to combine a range of ideas which are “productive” in addressing current concerns, while ignoring fundamental disagreements between them.

The strongest question to be dealt with is whether the New Hollywood is new, that is, whether it is a post-modern, post-classical phenomenon that marks a distinctive break with the textual forms and industrial practices of the studio period, or whether it might be more fruitfully seen as a continuation of those formations. I suspect that King is closer to the latter proposition than the former, though he doesn’t come straight out and say it. Instead, he soberly allows that: “any proclamation of the arrival of post-classical style [is] subject to question.” (p. 5)

Just as courses on “contemporary theory” are likely to still include material that many of us read first while we were wearing flairs and listening to Abba in an un-ironic fashion, the New Hollywood is rapidly receding into the historical distance. Does it date from the 1950s when the effects of suburbanisation and Consent Decrees make themselves felt on the studios? Is it late 1960s when Hollywood gets Biskind-ised? Is it the mid-1970s when it gets Spielberg-ed? King characteristically – and usefully – answers yes to all of the above and provides discussion pro and con for the claims of distinctiveness and aesthetic value that have circulated around these industrial formations and the films most closely associated with them.

If there are problems defining the start of the period, there are inevitable problems with where the book leaves off. It certainly isn’t King’s fault that New Hollywood keeps on renewing itself on a continuous basis. While the book was initially published in 2002, it contains no bibliographic references beyond 2000 (with the sole exception of King’s own 2002 Film Comedy). Bordwell and Thompson have shown us that this textbook caper is a difficult one to stay on top of. You constantly need to go back to the well and re-fill the bucket.

I suspect that anyone who is thinking of adopting the book as a text for a Contemporary Hollywood class will want to see it updated to address the events and the films of the past decade. In 2000 Seagram’s is still the dominant owner of Universal (p. 67) and the communications industry is an economic powerhouse without equal (p. 70); we are told that “the benefits to Time-Warner from its merger with AOL are not hard to imagine” (p. 77), and “Dreamworks still has a viable future” (p. 104), signs of “women-friendly” blockbusters are only dimly glimpsed on the horizon (p. 139) and dvd is still on the ascendant. In 2000, who wouldn’t have made these assumptions?

As a general introduction, there is a lot to admire in this book. It eschews the easy use of large-scale theory in favour of a more considered appreciation of the complex sets of determinations and methodologies that need to be included in the study of Hollywood. While it doesn’t break a lot of fresh ground, King’s book will find a place in most university libraries and an awful lot of students will find it useful. King wants to teach young people using clear language. Thankfully, he inhabits a world where densely opaque academic language is no longer taken as a sign of the intelligence of the writer. His book is a sign of life for film studies, a sign that we still out there in the academic market place teaching stuff that might connect with students while readily addressing a cinema that still has the power to command their attention, their love, and their hate.

Mike Walsh,
Flinders University, Australia.

Created on: Monday, 23 August 2010

About the Author

Mike Walsh

About the Author

Mike Walsh

Mike Walsh is Senior Lecturer in Screen and Media at Flinders University. He holds a PhD from the Communication Arts Department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a contributing editor to national arts magazine RealTime and Metro.View all posts by Mike Walsh →