Film: A Very Short Introduction
by Michael Wood
2012 • 144 pages • Oxford University Press
On Netflix Instant (currently the capricious master of my media intake during my move), there’s a wonderful series about film called, appropriately enough, The Story of Film. It’s a fifteen hour long series covering both the basics and the history of film, based on the eponymous book by Irish film critic Mark Cousins. Cousins also narrates The Story of Film, and it’s an acquired delight—you might be nodding off during the first episode, but by episode five, you feel like you’re snuggling with a very sleepy but very excited cinephile who just has to tell you one more thing about Japanese cinema.
I’ve never finished The Story of Film; that’s was what I was watching when Demora Pasha, my college laptop, was brutally cut down in her prime by a glass of water. (She’s since regenerated into my sister-in-law’s laptop after her miraculous, year-long recovery.) But it was the first thing I watched after my Introduction to Film Studies class that satisfied my completionist desire to start my personal exploration into cinema at the beginning. I didn’t want to start with a book, because I was so used to literary criticism. With literary criticism, you critique a text in the same medium; that’s what I’m used to and that’s what I’ve been trained for. But, as Matt Singer points out at The Dissolve, even with the proliferation of commercially available video editing software programs, film is rarely effectively critiqued in its own medium. Tony Zhou’s brilliant series Every Frame a Painting is the closest thing I’ve seen, but it sadly remains an outlier. While I now have enough of a background that I can read purely prose film criticism without scurrying off for research, the fact remains is that it can be difficult to tell the basic story of film without, well, film.
Luckily, Michael Wood’s contribution to Oxford University Press’s outstanding Very Short Introduction series on film sidesteps this completely by refusing to do more than sketch the basics of film’s history and techniques. What I’ve loved about all the installments in this series that I’ve read is that they manage to introduce you to the subject and set you confidently on your way without requiring further reading, assuming you’ve encountered something before, or talking down to you. The technical power of the camera is covered, for instance, but only to gently introduce the unique grammar of film as a language unto itself. (Wood continues this metaphor with stars and actors being the nouns in that grammar, but whenever he quoted Richard Dyer, I was overcome by my need to read Heavenly Bodies.)
Rather, Wood introduces readers to film as a whole by examining how we relate to cinematic images. The reason Andy Warhol’s Empire, a film consisting of a single, unbroken shot of the Empire State Building, disturbs is because we assume films will focus on the rare extraordinary events that make real life worth it. We trust films because we trust the camera as objective recorder. But all art is inherently subjective. Wood tiptoes around this idea as he proposes examining films with actors at the center, not directors, but I’ll happily promote it because it’s true. (This is why I have little use for criticism that claims to be universal or denies the personal. Reader response theorist for life.) Our relationship with film is, accordingly, quite complicated.
But Wood loses me a bit by not committing wholly to some of his arguments. After the clearest definition and defense of genre I’ve ever seen, Wood posits that “Alert movie-going means distrusting all claims of art and (if absolutely necessary) finding flickers of art in works where no claims are being made” (86). After seeing Wood define genre as spaces where texts necessarily are in conversation with each other no matter the quality, it’s hard to take that “(if absolutely necessary)” in stride. Wood’s certainly a lot better than some, but I suspect the reason that I find myself much more drawn in online criticism and fannish takes on films is because they start with the assumption that all films are worth thinking about deeply. (Now, whether or not every film merits it is a different question, but you ought to be open to it.) Every medium has that troublesome binary of quality, of course, but I learned to dispense with that for literature as a preteen.
But that’s the wonderful thing about embracing a new art form; you get to experience the journey all over again.
I rented this book from the public library.