Keys and Canons

When we first put together the idea for writing this book we were confronted with the tricky 'canon' question. Were we in fact - in a rather unfashionable non-postmodern way - trying to produce a canon?

'The canon' was a term originally used to describe a list of books accepted by the Catholic Church. Later, it came to mean a list of recognised, genuine works by a particular author. More recently, it has become a vaguely defined but frequently cited list of works that 'everyone' agrees that everyone else should know - e.g. the literary canon.

How does a canon of films emerge?

Functionally, it is often really useful to have an agreed group of films that everyone else will 'take as read', a common reference point. If you are discussing popular music, it is reasonable to assume that everyone has heard - or ought to have heard - of the Beatles. You cannot start from scratch every time.

But, the canon is self-perpetuating. Good films get left out and bad films are kept in. We study a film because it is a film we study (and because it influenced other films we study).

Pragmatically, we need to impose order on a disparate field of study. You cannot study every film. You can sort them into sets, even 'Milestones and Monuments' (as Ernst Gombrich put it when discussing the visual arts).

The big questions remain. Who decides what goes into the canon? How does a text become canonical? What else can we do? If the idea of the canon is flawed, do we give up and stop studying cinema? If we cannot make perfect choices, do we make none at all?

Between 1915 and 1960 in excess of 20 000 feature films were produced in the USA alone. Some of these films are frequently chosen for discussion and analysis; most others are ignored. Some films are frequently cited as examples. Some films are held to be influential, historical or even just spectacularly typical - whilst most are forgotten. It is not just academics and critics: film-makers themselves help form the canon by remaking 'classic' films, by alluding to them, even parodying them. You cannot parody a film that the audience has never heard of. By parodying it you in fact reinforce a film's importance.

The final reason for canonical activity is evaluative (and therefore selective). Someone decides which is best. What are the criteria? What values do we use to decide? Who gets to make the decisions? The reader is entitled to ask how we chose the films for this book.

We have chosen films that everyone who claims to know anything about the history and the theory of cinema will be expected to know (by other people who do know something about the history and theory of cinema). It is not a perfect selection, but we all have to start somewhere. Even people who oppose the canon will still expect you to have the basic film knowledge that includes these films. It is a grounding, a common pool of references in which we can base our investigations into cinema. Secondly, it is important to know the films that have been influential - films that have clearly influenced the films that contemporary film-makers are making today.

We have tried to keep this volume focused on its introductory remit and make it reasonably representative - for example, only one or two films per director, apart from Hitchcock, and at least the beginnings of an attempt at a geographical spread.

On a practical level, we have tried to discuss only films that are readily available on video /DVD. Thus there are only a couple of women directors represented but plenty of stars. There are few non-Western films, although we have tried to illustrate the influence of international cinema even on the Hollywood hegemony.

For justifiable yet deeply regretted omissions we send our heartfelt apologies to: the Lumiere Brothers and George Melies along with many other notable omissions including Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Abel Gance, King Vidor, William Hartna and Joseph Barbera.

The films discussed in this volume are also very good films. They were made to be enjoyed (not always as pure entertainment but certainly to engage the viewer). We who 'study' film sometimes forget to enjoy. Don't let that happen to you!

The study of film is democratic and organic - it (like cinema itself) is pointless without an active audience. Come and join the project at

Reading Film Texts: The Key Concepts

This book is designed as a companion volume to Introducing Film (Roberts and Wallis, 2001), which introduces the different concepts and theoretical approaches to the study of film. We strongly recommend that the student who is new to film start with a comprehensive introduction to the methods of reading a film than can be provided there.

At a very basic level, the study of film can be boiled down to four areas of focus:

• the text (the content and meaning of the film itself);

• the makers (discussions of the craft and motivations of the people who combined to produce the text as well as how the audience 'makes meaning' of the text);

• the institutions (the organisations that 'produce, distribute and exhibit' the text);

• the social, political and historical context of 'the text'.

The reader will discover (a) that we try to focus on areas of analysis that correspond to these basic areas and (b) that these areas inevitably overlap and influence each other.

Many readers may find the following list useful, as it briefly defines some of the key terms that you need to be familiar with when using Key Film Texts.

Auteur is the French term for author. The auteur is (usually) a director whose work is characterised by distinctive thematic concerns and a visual style that occurs across a body of films. Auteur criticism looks at films as the personal creative expression of the director, which is controversial given that film is a collaborative art form. François Truffaut and his fellow critics writing for the French film journal Cahiers du cinéma developed 'auteur theory' in the 1950s. Truffaut's politiques des auteurs called for a shift in creative responsibility from screenwriters to directors. In spite of the obvious flaws in the theory, auteurism has remained popular (except with screenwriters - witness the threatened strike of 2001). It is popular with theorists because it raises the status of film from popular culture to art form, and popular with industry executives as a means of selling films. Purists may argue that auteur theory is nonsense, but audiences will still go to see 'a Martin Scorsese picture'.

Genre simply means type, and films have been produced, written, directed and marketed according to generic conventions from the very early days of cinema. Genre, like auteur, is a successful means of selling films to the public by giving them something recognisable: thus genre works on audience expectations. Genre provides both film-makers and audiences alike with a kind of shorthand (iconography). We recognise the characteristics of a particular genre - i.e. settings, costumes, locations, stars, music and narrative patterns - and therefore themes, characters and plot lines do not have to be explained in laborious detail. Genre study looks at variations and developments within particular genres over time. Of particular interest to the contemporary viewer is the postmodern tendency to blend characteristics from different genres.

Stardom is numinous, glamorous, intangible, yet keenly felt. It seems to be a natural, even primordial, force in film. NEVER FORGET - an enormous amount of effort goes into creating this force. The functional definition of a 'star' is clearly put by John Ellis in C. Gledhill (ed.), Star Signs (1992): 'a performer in a particular medium whose figure enters into subsidiary forms of circulation and then feeds back into future performances.'

Mise en scène is a theatrical term (from the French 'to put in place') that means placed on the stage. It was popularised in film studies by the French critics of the Cahiers du cinéma in the 1950s and has come to mean everything that is placed before the camera. Thus mise en scène includes setting, costume and make-up, lighting and position and movement within the frame.

Cinematography can be defined as everything to do with the camera. Thus discussions of cinematography include the choice of lens and film stock as well as the position of the camera in relation to the action (type of shot), camera height and angle and camera movement. Cinematography is a primary tool with which the film-maker can guide the way in which the viewer responds to the mise en scène.

Editing is the term used to describe the joining of shots (usually) to create a coherent narrative. Editing enables the film-maker to move between different periods of time and place as well as to construct scenes from a number of different camera positions. Mainstream cinema from the days of classic Hollywood and beyond has sought to make the editing process as invisible as possible so as to enable viewers to forget about the film process and lose themselves in the story. The techniques developed to achieve this became known as the continuity editing system whereby a number of rules are followed in order to orientate the viewer into the scene and make the transfer from one shot to the next apparently seamless.

Montage is a form of editing developed by the directors of Soviet cinema in the 1920s. Unlike continuity editing, montage is not concerned with making the editing process invisible but rather sees editing as the primary tool with which the film-maker can construct meaning. Montage usually involves rapid cutting between shots. Meaning is created through the juxtaposition of the images.

Sound in film can be broken down into two categories - that belonging to the world of the film, which is known as diegetic sound and includes things like dialogue and sound effects (e.g. footsteps), and non-diegetic sound, which is sound laid over the top, such as a voice-over or musical score.

Narrative consists of both the story and also the methods by which the story is told: by what means (mise en scène, cinematography, editing, sound) and in what order (structure). 'Classic narrative cinema/classic Hollywood narrative' refers to the narrative tradition that dominated Hollywood from the 1930s to the 1960s but that also pervaded Western cinema. Most contemporary mainstream cinema will share many elements of the classic Hollywood narrative, which is constructed around the following principles:

• Cinematic style focuses on creating verisimilitude.

• Events follow the basic structure of order/disorder/order restored.

• The narrative is linear.

• Events are linked by cause and effect.

• The plot is character led and thus the narrative is psychologically (and individually) motivated - usually towards the attainment of some goal or desire.

• The narrative has closure.

Episodic narrative is an alternative to the classic Hollywood narrative with its focus on character-led story. The episodic narrative has its roots in the B-movie serials of the 1930s. Since the arrival of Star Wars (Lucas, USA, 1977), the episodic narrative tradition has made something of a comeback, as its structure (a series of loosely linked episodes) allows for frequent scenes of action/spectacle with the consequent excitement of cliffhangers.

Realism is a philosophical approach that claims that film's special strength is its relationship with the real world. Film, therefore, should prioritise content and subject matter over form. André Bazin - the founding father of the French New Wave - claimed that 'Film was reality's footprint' (see, for example, Italian neo-realism, chapter 13). On a more 'realistic' level, we should note that the key to the commercial success of cinema is its ability not only to create fantasy but to make it appear real (the essence of verisimilitude - the 'appearance of reality').

Expressionism, as an antonym to realism, stresses the psychological and personal level of moving pictures. As such it is linked to expressionist movements in all of the arts - for example, German Expressionism (see chapters 2 and 5).

Formalism is an approach to film-making and film viewing that stresses the structure and construction of the artistic product.

Institutions and institutional constraints. Film-making costs a vast amount of money. Even a so-called low-budget movie will cost more than most people could borrow from a bank. Added to the sheer cost of production are the costs of distribution and marketing (the latter is often way in excess of the production budget). Thus the film requires backing from institutions - be they governments, studios or multinational corporations - and these institutions have certain ideas (either as policy or as ingrained methods of working) about what constitutes successful film-making. Note that we should not see institutional constraints as necessarily the forces of evil - particularly if they act as a constraint on pretentious or preposterous product that wastes everybody's time and money. Certain 'institutional' situations have been so powerful as to produce their own form of cinema (for better or worse). Three examples will help to explain this institutional phenomenon.

• Classic Hollywood refers to films made in Hollywood's studio era - that is, from 1930 until the Paramount Decision in 1948, which made it illegal for the studios to own all three areas of the film industry (i.e. production, distribution, exhibition), thus closing down the studio system as it had been known. Classic Hollywood style, which is centred around the classic narrative (see above), continued into the 1960s and is still present in its influence on mainstream cinema today.

• The French New Wave was an influential movement in French film-making from approximately 1959 until 1964. The French New Wave brought the work of two key directors onto the international cinema stage: Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut (see chapters 20 and 21). French New Wave cinema is characterised by cinematic innovation (that is, breaking the rules of classic Hollywood and the Tradition of Quality in French cinema of the 1950s) and its love/hate relationship with American genre films. It has remained important because of its influence on contemporary 'Hollywood' directors such as Quentin Tarantino (see chapter 37).

• 'The New Hollywood' is a term used rather loosely to describe Hollywood after the studio system. Although this would officially date new Hollywood as starting after the Paramount Decision in 1948, working practices and product continued in classic Hollywood style well into the 1960s. It seems reasonable, therefore, to date new Hollywood from the point where these things significantly changed - that is, the advent of blockbusters, saturation release (and other marketing ploys) ushering in the first films to take over $100 million at the box office - for example, Jaws (Spielberg, 1975) and Star Wars (Lucas, 1977) (see chapter 28), which in terms of style, structure and distribution strategy seem to have initiated a new era in Hollywood that is significantly different from the classic.

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