Film Textbooks, Take 2

On the last day of 2009, I wrote a post about choosing a textbook for the Introduction to Film class that I was then designing. I'll be teaching that course again next term, along with another film class: Outlaws, Delinquents, and "Deviants" in Film and Society. Book orders were due at the beginning of this week, so I've been looking through film textbooks a lot over the last couple of months, and especially the last two weeks.

For the intro class, I decided to stick with The Film Experience by Timothy Corrigan & Patricia White, a book that fits my own approach and perspective very well. It's coming out in a third edition in December, and though I haven't seen that edition yet, I decided to go with it nonetheless. I like this textbook because the level of writing is such that the book doesn't feel patronizing and it provides just enough challenge that students really have to stretch their minds. While some of the simpler books available are certainly less demanding on students' reading skills, I don't think it's our job in college to be less demanding on students' reading skills. Most undergrads come to us, at least at the school I teach at, unprepared for the textual demands of college, but they won't get any better if we give them dumbed-down books, and there are a lot of dumbed-down film textbooks out there. I'm still an English teacher at heart; I like working through hard texts with students. Occasionally, I have students who like it, too. (Which is not to say that The Film Experience is particularly daunting. It's no more difficult than the dominant text in the field, Bordwell & Thompson's Film Art, and it's certainly less difficult than a book like Introduction to Film Studies edited by Jill Nelmes.) 

I'm looking forward to the new edition of Corrigan & White very much, because the changes outlined by the publisher for the new edition are ones that address some of my biggest concerns with the book. In some ways, too, the changes show the dominance of the Bordwell/Thompson approach -- every film textbook now has to repeatedly emphasize how much it covers "formal elements", and the design of different books through new editions often closely follows innovations made in Film Art. I'm all for the design changes, because Film Art is one of the most beautiful textbooks I've ever seen, but Bordwell & Thompson do formalism better than anybody, so the key to making another textbook viable is not to ape their approach, but to offer a different one. (I had a competing publisher's rep once argue that the problem with Film Art is that its vocabulary is too idiosyncratic. I don't think so. The popularity of the book and of Bordwell & Thompson's blog means their terminology is used by a lot of people, even when those people disagree with it. Terms like network narratives and intensified continuity are now part of the lingua franca of film and media studies. I'm not a Bordwell/Thompsonian [Bordsonian?], but I've learned a lot from their work, even as I take seriously the criticisms of their approach by such folks as Andrew Britton and Robert B. Ray.)

Last time, I supplemented The Film Experience with The Village Voice Film Guide, an inexpensive book that would provide good examples of short reviews for the students to use as models for their own writing. This idea ended up being less important to the course than I thought it would be, and the worst parts of the class, from my perspective at least, were the ones where I tried to get the students to express their own personal taste in movies. That approach would work well for a second class, but not for a first, because the students simply didn't know enough about the history and range of cinema to be able to offer even the most basic explanations of their taste. Appropriately for an intro class, their taste was shallow and uninformed. Any film older than them was an alien artifact and highly suspect, any movie that deviated from the most mainstream film grammar was incomprehensible, and any film not in American English was likely a terrorist object.

So I'm not using the Voice guide as a supplement this time, and I'm ditching all the writing assignments designed to help them explore their personal aesthetic. We'll keep evaluation at a distance and instead look at various types of films, histories, and ways of viewing.

This time, then, I'm supplementing The Film Experience with The Oxford History of World Cinema, an extraordinary book that I didn't even consider last time around because I saw its copyright of 1998 and assumed it was too old to be useful. Silly me! Editor Geoffrey Nowell-Smith got a bunch of prominent film scholars (including A.L. Rees, Thomas Elsaesser, Martin Marks, Thomas Schatz, Edward Buscombe, Vivian Sobchack, Linda Williams, Kim Newman, and Anton Kaes) to write succinct articles about their areas of specialty, and the range is exceptional.

I'm waiting to receive the new edition of The Film Experience before I begin to lay out exactly what we'll do in the class each day and exactly which films we'll watch, but these two books together cover all the basics and then some, so I'm excited to see what can be done with them.

One of the things I like about the Oxford History is that it is an anthology, and that means no one writer's weaknesses mar the entire book. Conversely, of course, it means no one writer's strengths propel the entire book, either, but that's where the editor's selection of contributors is so important, and Nowell-Smith did an excellent job of finding people who know their fields well. There are errors and mistakes, of course, but what 800-page book by more than a dozen writers doesn't have errors and mistakes?

For the Deviance class, I also decided to use an anthology rather than a book by one or two writers. This time, it's The Cinema Book edited by Pam Cook. I did not know about the existence of this text until I read about David Foster Wallace's copy of it. Though I respond to a lot of Wallace's writing in a similar way to Geoff Dyer (my favorite Wallace book is one he edited, Best American Essays 2007), I find Wallace fascinating as a person and thinker, so when I read about his copy of this film text I'd never encountered before, I dug up a $1 copy online and ordered it. After reading through it, I thought, "Boy, I wish I had a class I could use this book in!"

I considered The Cinema Book (or the Cook Book, as I occasionally think of it, har har har) for the intro to film class. It would work well there, but I decided against it because it seems to me to work better as a source book than an intro book. For the Deviance class I needed more of a source book than an intro book, because for that class film itself, in all its manifestations, is not our primary subject. Rather, we're looking at particular types of films and how they represent society. That's a more narrow charge than an intro class has, even though the Deviance class is also a 2000-level (sophomore) general education course.

Like the Oxford History of World Cinema, The Cinema Book is very well edited. It includes among its contributors Annette Kuhn, Thomas Schatz, Yvonne Tasker, Bill Nichols, James Naremore, Richard Dyer, Barry Keith Grant, Christine Gledhill, and Edward Buscombe. Important writers, all. Its range of topics is as diverse as The Film Experience, and it has material to help contextualize all of the films I'm planning to use in the class (about which more later).

I'll supplement The Cinema Book with A Short Guide to Writing About Film by Timothy Corrigan. This is a good, basic book, though I had only ever looked at a fairly early edition of it, and never considered it as a required text, because recent editions are ridiculously expensive for what the book is -- $45 for a book that would sell for no more than $15 were it a trade book and not a textbook is, I think, obnoxious. The Cinema Book is 600 big, color-illustrated pages for the same retail price as this book of 188 small, black-and-white pages (including index). That's a rip-off, but Pearson (the publisher) gets away with it because as far as I can tell it's the only book of it's kind on the market. And, of course, given my love of The Film Experience, I'm a fan of Timothy Corrigan as a textbook writer. I'm justifying my collusion in Pearson's rip-off by the fact that the two books together retail for about $90, and with each class I try not to exceed $100 in books without a very good reason. So it's still $10 below my rule of thumb for a maximum, and it's a well-written and efficient book. But it's still a rip-off.

Since 2009, I've seen a few other textbooks I hadn't known about before. The eighth edition of The Art of Watching Films by Dennis Petrie and Joseph Boggs arrived in my mailbox recently, but one glance at it showed me it wasn't appropriate for any of my classes, as its approach to cinema seems to me rather dull. It covers all the basics, but the writers are primarily interested in "film as narrative art", and so the book contains such doubtful assertions as "The ultimate goal of any actor should be to make us believe completely in the reality of the character." Such statements are banal and wrong, and this book is full of them. A film textbook should expand students' conceptions, not constrict them.

Better are two books I seriously considered as supplements for both my courses: How to Read a Film by James Monaco (4th edition) and Engaging Cinema by Bill Nichols. Both are comprehensive, relatively inexpensive texts that would be useful for anybody, whether a student or not, who wanted to understand a bit more about how films are perceived by scholars. I didn't end up adopting either because The Film Experience and The Cinema Book cover more of what I need and these two books don't fill in the remaining gaps as fully as The Oxford History of World Cinema and the Corrigan Short Guide. But they're darn good books, and both are ones I keep on the short shelf of texts that are just waiting for the right course.

Also on that shelf is Critical Visions in Film Theory edited by Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White, and Meta Mezaj, a book that really provides a good alternative to its major competitor, Film Theory and Criticism by Braudy & Cohen. Unsurprisingly, given my reverence for The Film Experience, I find Corrigan, White, and Mezaj's selections include more of my own touchstones than Braudy & Cohen's, and their focus is not as limited to writings specifically from the world of film studies. I thought about using the book for the course I'm currently teaching, Media as Popular Culture, but its cost would have meant I couldn't use many other books, so I went with the ones I did, though if I teach the class again, I might reconsider replacing Gender, Race, and Class in Media with it. It's the sort of book I yearn to build a class around.

UPDATE (Dec. 2013): A few more recent thoughts on film textbooks can be found here.

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