31 December 2009

Introduction to Film Textbooks

I previously wrote (and wrote and wrote...) about what I was thinking when designing an intro to film class that I'll be teaching next term, and particularly when choosing the fourteen films to show during the 150-minute screening time outside of class.  That post wasn't complete, though, because an important other factor in the shape of the course is the textbook.

When I got the assignment to teach intro to film, I'd never looked at a film textbook.  I'd be tempted to say, "When I was in school, we didn't need none of them overpriced, overstuffed, overacademic behemoths!"  And though it is true that the profileration of such textbooks is a relatively recent event, a handful of them are over thirty years old.  I just tended to get teachers who didn't want us to read much in film classes.

I'm a fan of reading, though.  And I'm especially a fan of reading in an intro class, where a textbook gives interested students more information than they'll get from the inevitably incomplete survey an intro class provides.  With a good textbook, or even a mediocre textbook, a student who becomes particularly curious about a topic will have a tool that shows the way toward deeper exploration.

I began by borrowing books from colleagues, then contacting publisher's representatives to see what they could send me.  I soon had over a dozen books to choose from.

After skimming the books in my pile, I was able to eliminate half of them as in one way or another obviously inappropriate.  For instance, I loved Routledge's Introduction to Film Studies, and particularly appreciated that it was thirty dollars less expensive than most of the other textbooks.  But that book's idea of introduction and mine are very different -- for students in their first or second year of college, it would be dauntingly complex, its vocabulary and concepts challenging even for intrepid students.  As a textbook for graduate students or for undergraduates in a serious and comprehensive Film Studies program, it would be an excellent resource.

Once I had skimmed and whittled, I encountered this post by Chris Cagle about film textbooks and found it helpful and reassuring.  Most of the books Cagle writes about have been updated or are out of print, but the post confirmed a number of ideas that had been floating around in my mind.  With one exception (and that likely because of a difference in editions), the descriptions of the books seem accurate and fair to me.

It only took me a few days to get down to three finalists: Bordwell & Thompson's Film Art, Barsam & Monahan's Looking at Movies, and Corrigan & White's The Film Experience.

Each is a wonderful textbook and would serve the class well.  Looking at Movies is the most straightforward and clearly written of the three, absolutely perfect for a basic intro class.  It also has the only useful accompanying DVD that I've seen with a textbook.  Film Art is a pure joy to read and look at; it has, hands down, the best use of images from films in any textbook I looked at.  Appropriately, given its title, it feels like an art book.  David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson are among the best writers in the English language on film -- this is a book I sat with and read as much for pleasure as for work.  The Film Experience is the book I thought must have improved between the first edition, which Chris Cagle wrote about, and the second, which I have.  The layout and design is not bad at all, with full color throughout, though the book doesn't even come close to Film Art in its use of the imagery -- too many of the stills seem to be in the book to provide a break from the text rather than to illustrate a concept, whereas Film Art brilliantly demonstrates how to make stills an essential part of the book's argument and information.  Cagle also notes that The Film Experience is advanced and likely difficult, but I didn't find this to be particularly true for the second edition, though certain advanced terms are included (syntagma is still there, as it should be!).

The first book I eliminated was Looking at Movies, though I wished there were some way I could have the students have access to the DVD, since a number of film ideas are explained far more efficiently and clearly via a DVD than a book.  Alas, it seems the only way to assign the DVD is to assign the book, and in the end Looking at Movies was just too simple and too formalist in its approach for my needs.

 Film Art is also mostly formalist, but it's also by Bordwell & Thompson, and if you're going to get formalist, you might as well get Bordwell & Thompson.  As they said of James Bond, nobody does it better.  I'm not sure why textbook writers and publishers even try to compete.  Film Art is the most frequently adopted film textbook, and so publishers and writers feel compelled to try to nip at its market, but though a genius might be able to improve on Bordwell & Thompson, most textbook writers are not geniuses.  The key to competing with Bordwell & Thompson is to offer a textbook for the teachers who want something other than what Film Art, for all its wonders, offers.

The only book I've found that does that is The Film Experience.  Its chapters on the formal elements of film are adequate, though the materials trying to convince you to adopt the book say it has "the best coverage of film's formal elements," which is a lie.  Film Art has the best coverage of film's formal elements, and White and Corrigan recognize the need for a book that has a perfectly good but not "the best" section on film form and style while also offering something else.  The example films in The Film Experience are broader and more diverse than the examples in Film Art, there's coverage of theoretical and political approaches to analyzing film, and throughout the book there's an emphasis on the social construction of our responses to and expectations of the movies we see.

The Film Experience arrived after all of the other textbooks, and before I saw it, I was certain I would use Film Art and that it was pointless to look at any other textbook.  I had never read a textbook of any sort with the pleasure I had read Film Art.  It's that good.

But when I started trying to fit the lists I had made of films I wanted to screen to the content of Film Art, I saw there was a bit of a problem.  I would need to supplement the book with something to cover the territory Film Art ignored or skimmed over.  I had planned a whole unit on how engaged filmmakers have used the medium to explore ideas of representation (thus, Do the Right Thing, The Living End, and  Orlando, plus the various clips I planned for the six classes in that unit).  Film Art would not help me much during that unit (though it has a great 4-page analysis of Do the Right Thing).

When The Film Experience arrived, I paged through it and, without looking at the captions, recognized still after still after still.  One film after another on my lists was included.  There was a chapter on global and local cinemas, with two paragraphs on Ousmene Sembene (one of those paragraphs devoted to Black Girl), which may not seem like a lot, given Sembene's importance, but is astounding for an intro textbook.  In a section on "The Lost and Found of American Film History", significant discussion is given to the pioneering women of early cinema and the awful facts of Hollywood sexism -- a subsection titled "Women Who Made the Movies" begins, "The movie industry remains male dominated, with women directing only 7 percent of the 250 top-grossing films in the United States, according to a 2006 study."  It goes on to discuss women in independent film (still not even remotely equal) and the overlooked, significant contributions of women to the history of the medium.  It does the same with African-American film and with gay and lesbian film, and it discusses in a pretty accessible way the power of ideology to shape expectations and actions.  These sections aren't tokenist, either -- the text of the entire book supports them, making these sections feel like elaborations on ideas that have been prepared earlier.

I hated to let Film Art go, but it was obvious once I saw The Film Experience that this would be the textbook for my class.  I wish I could assign them both, because they make fine companions, but I try not to go beyond a retail price of $100 for all of the books I assign to a course.  (This has gotten harder to do over the last decade, so I sometimes have to raise the limit to $125, but never beyond that.)

Just before book orders were due at the bookstore, I decided to add one more text.  I'd been toying with the idea of adding Amy Villarejo's Film Studies: The Basics, at least as a recommended text, because it's a good one-stop reference guide and priced like a trade book, not a textbook.  It didn't offer sufficiently different content from The Film Experience, though, to justify the order.

What I did decide to add, though, was The Village Voice Film Guide, which is a great collection of short reviews of many wonderful movies, including some we'll be watching in class.  One of the virtues of the book is that it often gives multiple reviews of films, so, for example, there's the original Andrew Sarris review of Psycho along with a later review from a re-release.  These reviews can sometimes be entirely at odds with each other, and that serves my purposes well.  The Voice has employed a good range of reviewers, so the book shows a variety of writing styles, from the informal to the almost-academic.  It's important for the students to have good examples of a range of short writings on film, because most of the writing they will be doing will be short responses.  Ultimately, the book will, I hope, help guide students toward films we don't watch in class and further stoke their curiosity about all that remains to be seen.

In addition to the textbooks, I'll constantly be pointing them toward various film blogs and websites, because today much of the conversation about cinema has moved to the web.  Indeed, I can slightly alleviate my sadness at having to let Film Art go by sending students to David Bordwell's website, one of the best film sites out there.

Update 1 (2011) here.

Update 2 (2013) here