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March 2001, Week 2


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Daniel I Humphrey <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Sun, 11 Mar 2001 17:58:43 -0500
TEXT/PLAIN (84 lines)
I can certainly relate to Professor Monti's chagrin over her student's
e-mail about teen comedies.  I've had similar experiences.  Once a student
complained to the head of my department (he was angry over getting a C+ on
a profoundly mediocre paper) that my class was "too hard."  "When I take a
film class it's so that I can relax and take a break from my more
difficult subjects," he wrote, "not to have to do so much reading and
write so many papers."  (Needless to say, I suffered no penalty due to
this complaint.)  I also had a student tell me off once for showing three
subtitled films in a row in a film history class.  "This is supposed to be
a film class, not a reading class" he announced after a screening of
"Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors."

But I think this anti-intellectual attitude is not the result pandering
textbooks.  After all, students usually have this perspective on the first
day of their first film class.  These kinds of complaints seem to me to be
the result of a long and deeply held notion that films are mere
entertainment and therefore classes about film should be diversionary
too.  For me the best approach to combat this has been to *ease* students
into a greater understanding of film (again, at least in the into
class).  This often does mean using a textbook with recognizable examples
and showing clips (if not whole movies) of more recent Hollywood films
when appropriate.  (The students obviously perk up more in class when I
use this approach, and the concepts are more likely to sink in for them.)

On the other hand, one might think that our discussion of textbook
adoption in "intro to film" classes takes for granted that Bordwell and
Thompson's approach is more challenging to students than Giannetti's.  I
would again respectfully disagree, although I suppose it depends on one's
definition of the word challenging.  Giannetti's book includes examples
from "Titanic" *and* "October", "The Lion King" *and* "Citizen Kane."  In
fact it offers a wide range of examples from every era in film history.
Using popular examples doesn't mean Giannetti is pandering to his readers,
simply that his book tries to meet young students halfway in a discussion
of mise-en-scene, editing, sound, etc.  (By the way, I've never met Dr.

Finally I would argue that the Giannetti book is in some ways *more*
comprehensive than Bordwell and Thompson's in that, unlike "Film
Art," "Understanding Movies" addresses non-European world cinema quite a
bit more often.  And Giannetti's book offers sections on the important
subjects of acting, ideology, and theory, sections conspicuously lacking
in "Film Art."

Ideology and theory are, as we all know, dirty words to David Bordwell and
his allies.  Bill Nichols put the critique of Bordwell's position
quite well--in an article in "The South Atlantic Quarterly" (82:2)--when
he wrote:  "An aura of quaintness presides over Bordwell's project.  His
references are almost entirely to a cinema that has never seen or heard of
television, to a sample of texts that takes into account nothing of Latin
American, Asian, African, Australian, or Canadian production, to a
perspective in which the last twenty years or so of production are of only
passing importance, and to a vision of history so severely restricted to
the cinema that the massive, formal similarities and social parallels
between film and other arts go almost entirely unnoticed... [Bordwell's
work] excludes more cinema and modes of visual representation than it
includes... [It] treats narrative as data or information for genderless,
classless, stateless 'processors'...  For gendered, historically situated
subjects whose very being is at stake within the arena of history,
Bordwell's poetics must seem a terribly diminishing thing."  (501, 513)

Students may not have these thoughts in mind when they've told me that
they find "Film Art" "boring," but it is safe to say that--in addition to
the "Titanic" references--they seem to prefer an intro book that
approaches issues of race, class, gender and "current events," over one
that does not.  Admittedly, the article by Professor Nichols that I quote
from above is twelve years old, and Nichols was commenting more directly
on Bordwell's "Narration in the Fiction Film" than "Film Art."  And, to be
fair, Bordwell seems to have made moves to redress these concerns over the
last few years in the newer editions of "Film Art."  Still, these few
steps are not enough to make "Film Art" my first choice when selecting a
book for an intro to film class.

Best to all,

Dan Humphrey

P.S.  I'm glad to hear "How To Read a Film" is available in a more recent
edition.  Somehow I didn't know that.  I'll have to check it out and
consider using it.  dh

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