Peter GutiérrezA member of the Online Film Critics Society, Peter writes for Twitch, the Financial Times, and Rue Morgue. He is also a contributing editor at Metro magazine, and a columnist on blockbuster movies for Screen Education. Get too-frequent updates about comics, books, movies, and TV via Twitter: @Peter_Gutierrez View all articles by Peter Gutiérrez
If you want to learn about world cinema in quick, vivid fashion, or just brush up on your knowledge of famous directors and their best-known works, look no further.
Priced affordably at U.S. $19.95, this ingeniously handy palm-sized volume doesn’t skimp on content or presentation. Following the success of Abrams’s other “world history” volumes on art and architecture, this is a chronological survey that pretty much runs the gamut—we get Douglas Sirk and Ed Wood, Jr., for example, on the same page. And in case you’re wondering how up-to-date the book is, some sections seem to have been written last week: 2007 releases such as Beowulf, Persepolis, No Country for Old Men, and even Death Proof are included.
With a strategy that’s typical of an encyclopedic work, Film: A World History divides its text between four authors who each specialize in different eras, and they’re aided by additional contributions from Fran Johnson. Yet despite this manuscript-by-committee approach, there is remarkable editorial and tonal consistency across the book. Credit also should be extended to the image research and design teams: try thinking of an iconic image or star, and chances are it’s included here. Moreover, the stunning photos—more than five hundred of them—pull readers in to explore areas of film history that they might otherwise skip.
Within the chronological structure, though, there are thematic groupings, and I think they’re the key to why a history like this is still vital in the age of online filmographies. It’s these overviews, timelines, and the special sections on commercial, aesthetic, and generic trends that make Film: A World History relevant; these are not elements that one finds on IMDB—which, like many cinephiles, I seem to visit every fifteen minutes. And while no doubt you may come across more thorough analyses of classic movies on a film professor’s blog, the level of sophistication given the small slices of text afforded each film is impressive. On Memento: “This thriller is especially effective in its questioning of the filmic truth, asking viewers to see beyond the surface.” Pitched at the thoughtful, educated film fan, not the hardcore cineaste, the book does a smart job of calling out the essential “headlines” about each topic addressed.
All right, now for the limitations.
While the auteur-driven organization (i.e., most spreads focus on directors) is completely logical—I’m not sure how I’d have organized such a vast amount of material any better—it often gives short shrift to other talents. For example, although mentioned in the context of passages about The Day the Earth Stood Still, Psycho, etc., there is no separate spread on a giant such as Bernard Herrmann. In fact, there’s not even an entry in the index for him. Nor are there entries for others whose contributions to Hollywood’s Golden Age are legendary, everyone from Greg Toland and Edith Head to Irving Thalberg and Val Lewton. Yes, I’m sure such folks are in these pages somewhere, but the point is that you don’t really get a greater sense of all the mechanisms and key players in feature film production. Then again, making the book as inclusive as I’m suggesting would balloon the page count tremendously. The bottom line is, as long as you’re aware of the trade-offs involved in all the necessary triage that goes into something like this, you won't be disappointed.
Occasionally the book’s concision could lead to other problems as well.
At other times the lack of balanced coverage can’t be blamed on the dearth of real estate. When presenting a deck quote from North by Northwest in a section opener for “Postwar Cinema of the 1950s,” the attribution given is “Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill…” Apparently providing both the actor’s and character’s name is more important than recognizing the person who actually penned the lines, Ernest Lehman, one of the all-time great screenwriters. And given the emphasis on economy of space, which admittedly is pulled off remarkably well throughout, the occasional redundancy of both text and image is somewhat puzzling. Browsing through the section on “1990-Today,” I found representative stills from In the Mood for Love, Elephant, Amelie, and Boogie Nights, then encountered the exact same images a few pages earlier in the section opener and timeline. Similarly, on page 94 we get this in the first line of intro text to the horror genre: “Filmmakers use terror and suspense to thrill audiences.” Then, when the body text itself starts a thumbnail-width down the page, we read: “Film is an ideal medium for conjuring nightmarish worlds of suspense and terror.“
How is the coverage overall, though? For the most part, excellent. However, when something’s missing it’s not just missing, it’s glaringly absent. I looked up Park Chan-Wook, thinking that Old Boy’s Grand Prize at Cannes might merit a mention. To my astonishment, not only is there nothing on the film or on him, but nothing on any Korean filmmakers as far as I can see—including the Korean New Wave, which I think is generally acknowledged as one of the high points of world cinema of the past couple of decades. Elsewhere Wong Kar-Wai’s work is mentioned as having “revitalized filmmaking worldwide”; nothing to argue with there, but come on, guys… Korea—it’s an entire industry/culture we’re talking about. No slight on John G. Avildsen and the original Rocky, but a spread devoted to him which includes a Karate Kid still that takes up two-thirds of a page? So hey, there was room in here for Korea. And of course, like much of movie culture, there’s an implicit bias that equates the term “film” with narrative and feature-length works, with a few exceptions made for docs and early silents. Which means don’t even try searching for groundbreaking filmmakers such as Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage here.Still, even with such understandable restrictions on the ground it can cover, Film: A World History far exceeds what one could reasonably expect from such a modest package. Take a look at the cover photo below—that’s roughly the trim size of the actual book. Okay, so maybe I’m exaggerating, but not by much. When it comes to reference works on movies, if you want something as wide in scope, intelligent in approach, and engaging in design as Film: A World History, you’d usually have to cart around a coffee table-sized book. All in all, a wonderful achievement that’s sure to please most movie lovers.
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