York Film Notes

6th October 2000 at 01:00
The Battleship Potemkin. Easy Rider. Some Like it Hot. Pulp Fiction. Fargo. Fear Eats the Soul. La Haine. Blade Runner. 8F (otto e mezzo). Double Indemnity. The Terminator. A bout de souffle. The Third Man. The Full Monty. Dracula. Lawrence of Arabia. Citizen Kane. Stagecoach. Taxi Driver. Casablanca. York Film Notes pound;5.99 each. Pearson Education: 01279 623928.

There is no more obvious sign that a discipline lacks confidence in itself than when it assumes the language of a more established academic field. Hence media studies' borrowing from English literature. Students don't just watch films, but "read film texts". Writers refer to "film syntax" or discuss "the grammar of film".

These and other phrases act as a terminological defence against critics who maintain that watching, say, Singin' in the Rain or Unforgiven offers nothing other than an excuse to consume a product that is to art what popcorn is to food.

With this in mind, one looks to the new and ambitious York Film Notes as a series to help still such scoffing. Advertised as equally suited to A-level students and undergraduates, these 20 monographs survey films as wide apart in time as Battleship Potemkin and The Full Monty and as culturally diverse as Some Like it Hot and A bout de souffle. This is an impressive project, with more titles to come. With any luck, they will be more inspiring than some of the current crop.

All the books follow the same basic format. Four main sections - on narrative and form, style, background, and contexts - cover issues such as authorship, cinematography, narrative theory and ideology. Each book (except, for some reason, The Third Man) concludes with a bibliography, a glossary of terms highlighted in the text, and the credits to the film.

The glossaries pose the first problem. While some are extensive - 62 terms in Stagecoach, for example - others, such as the list of 19 in Dracula, are inexplicably limited. The quality of the definitions is similarly inconsistent. That for "auteur" is typical - a different version for each title. And several books lack any explanation for some terms - among them, "arthouse", "iconographic" and "bardic function" - that will puzzle many less advanced students.

The quality of the writing is also uneven. If some of the books are satisfyingly literate - most notably, Pulp Fiction, Easy Rider and Blade Runner - others, Some Like it Hot in particular, are stiff with cliches:

"The timing was ripe for the two young hotshots to bring in independent production"; "Tony Curtis remains a Hollywood legend". Wore, The Battleship Potemkin almost sinks under the weight of fractured sentences ("Potemkin was part of the Russian fleet, its sailors refused to eat maggoty meat" is one of dozens) and inept constructions: "For the establishments (the Soviet revolution) provided a demon excessively more threatening than would its successors in the post-Second World War divisions" is one to wonder at.

In fact, so poor is some of the writing that you quickly lose faith in the value of the ideas. Furthermore, as with Fear Eats the Soul, even when the writing is sound and the ideas good, the level is occasionally beyond the capabilities of all but the brightest A-level students.

So far, the picture looks too scratched to be useful. Happily, though, the series is lifted by titles that are informative and, for the most part, solidly argued. Even if, like too many others, Double Indemnity too readily presents the award of an Oscar as a token of genuine discernment on the part of the American film industry, it still makes for a stimulating and perceptive commentary. And, given the film's popularity, Fargo is bound to be a favourite. Above all, the text will help students to acknowledge the art that conceals the art behind this and other Coen brothers films.

According to the author of Pulp Fiction, the same quality can be found in what he clearly believes is Quentin Tarantino's masterpiece, a film to be cherished as much for its intellectual as its more obvious commercial qualities. This argument is bound to appeal to the legions of students who revere Tarantino as an outsider whose brutal but inspired vision jolted a complacent Hollywood. Quite apart from its intrinsic merits, it is this near-worship of the director that makes Pulp Fiction a film to be considered at length.

Which is what this well-written commentary does, most impressively when discussing the mechanics of the plot as well as the nature of gender representation.

Just occasionally, though, the author's vision is blurred. When Jules nonchalantly shoots Roger, does the audience - here presented as an undifferentiated collective - simply laugh at the action, as the author proposes? Do Marsellus's speeches to Butch and Zed really have "the powerful warped logic resonant of King Lear"? And why quote only from laudatory reviews of the film when some were anything but?

Still, in the end, this book will inspire the same reactions as the best of the rest - rumination, reflection and debate. Teachers who select the best from this mixed bunch won't be disappointed.

Laurence Alster

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