Review: ‘Short Cuts: Introduction to Film Studies’

While the idea behind the "Short Cuts" series is sound, this introduction to film studies never seems to know what it wants to be, and what kind of introduction it wants to deliver. Lacking a strong focus and a strong editorial hand, and many times weighed down by dense writing, the series vacillates on a book-by-book basis from great primers to pedantic essays.

While the idea behind the “Short Cuts” series is sound, this introduction to film studies never seems to know what it wants to be, and what kind of introduction it wants to deliver. The series of short books (each not much more than 100 pages long) delves into various aspects of film, from genre to interpretation. Lacking a strong focus and a strong editorial hand, and many times weighed down by dense writing, the series vacillates on a book-by-book basis from great primers to pedantic essays. Sadly, “Short Cuts” takes the long way around, missing the point as often as it hits.

For the six volumes of the 14 reviewed here, the two major problems are focus and consistency. The first question for an introductory series would seem to be, “Who would benefit from reading this series?” But “Short Cuts” lacks any sort of editorial mission statement. The series’ target appears to be the undergraduate film student or a reader with some film knowledge; several of the books refer to films only by title, the critiques losing impact on readers who are not well-versed in that genre. The series also seems to be missing a sense of identity. Does it exist to deconstruct the history of a genre via a particular sociopolitical perspective, as Paul Wells does with horror in the first volume? Or to explain the history of Hollywood’s filmmaking apparatus, as Paul McDonald does with the Hollywood star system in the second volume? Maybe it should delve onto film interpretation, as Deborah Thomas does in volume five?

Any of these would be worthy goals, but to move from one to the other without an overriding sense of purpose leaves the reader with a depth of knowledge in select areas, but no connective tissue to integrate these areas into a greater map of film.

This lack of focus is amplified by the lack of consistency within the series from London’s Wallflower Press, distributed by Columbia U. Press. A different author (or authorial team) wrote each book, and skillful editing should have insured that each segment of the series had its own integrity (covering its specified topics) while maintaining the series’ shared bloodline of style and focus.

Most volumes in this series instill in the reader the smothering despair of a mildly interesting lecture by Ben Stein that better belongs in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

The three best volumes, “Science Fiction Cinema,” “Early Soviet Cinema” and “Disaster Movies” share exactly what this series desperately needs: knowledgeable authors who write with a clarity of style and thought. David Gillespie should earn a special commendation for expertly weaving together history, filmmaking and politics into a very readable volume on what could be a stultifying subject: the leading filmmakers of the “golden age” of Soviet filmmaking (roughly 1917 to 1928).

Devoting a chapter to each of the five directors — Lev Kuleshov, Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Dziga Vertov, Alexander Dovzhenko — Gillespie dissects how these men attempted to navigate the political minefields of the new communist state while contributing to what Lenin called “the most important of all the arts.”

Similarly, Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska’s “Science Fiction Cinema” and Stephen Keane’s “Disaster Movies” attack their subjects with gusto and sometimes a wry sense of humor. King and Krzywinska’s review of sci-fi movies focuses on topics rather than chronology, thereby overcoming one of the problems that dulls Paul Wells’ “The Horror Genre” and Paul McDonald’s “Star System.” King and Krzywinska keep information flowing using intelligent discourse, witty asides, and plot and character explanations that help dust off the memory coils whenever “Demon Seed” is mentioned.

Keane’s volume cleanly supplies the definition, history and breakdown of the various types of disaster movies before moving on to how the genre came into its own in the seventies with “Airport” and “The Poseidon Adventure.” Keane maps out the films’ post-disco evolution into the “Die Hard” action-disaster film subgenre, culminating in the retro-historical epic “Titanic.”

In a class by itself is Deborah Thomas’ “Reading Hollywood,” which considers the use of four types of “space” (the geographic, the dramaturgical, the cinematic, and the relationship between the audience and the spaces within the film) as a prism through which to interpret a film’s intended and unintended relationships. This topic is not suited for an “introductory” level, and Thomas’ dry style doesn’t help, but thankfully she uses a number of examples to clarify her theories. Fortitude, as much as interest, is necessary to complete this journey, but readers who complete the mind-numbing trek will gain an interesting perspective.

The rest of the volumes are each a mixed bag. As the kick-off to the series, Paul Wells’ “The Horror Genre” sets a tone that could easily dissuade less hardy readers from finding the delights of Gillespie, King, Krzywinska and Keane. Wells appears to be quite knowledgeable about the films he discusses; he’s just not skilled enough at presenting his information on an introductory level. The volume’s tactic of dissecting horror through a Marxist/gender perspective is a difficult proposition to endure, even for those who know their horror films, and is made into more of an endurance test by Wells’ professorial style.

Paul McDonald’s “Star System” spares most (but not all) of the Marxist analysis in this dryly-narrated story of the birth and evolution of the Hollywood star system. McDonald hits all the usual bases, although he strangely skips over the mid-sixties to early eighties. Anyone with a need to know and a pot of Starbucks will find something worthwhile in this volume, but that energy might be better spent reading one of the recent biographies covering that period, where Hollywood’s history is interspersed with the juicy anecdotes that McDonald leaves out.

The idea for a series of primers on various elements of film and filmmaking is a smart one, and with the right writing and focus could foster crossover success. Sadly, this series is too uneven to recommend as a whole, and readers are advised to investigate each book on its own (de)merits.

Short Cuts: Introduction to Film Studies

Wallflower Press; $16.95 per volume


Volume 1: The Horror Genre: From Beelzebub to Blair Witch, by Paul Wells (130 pages) Volume 2: The Star System: Hollywood's Production of Popular Identities, by Paul McDonald (134 pages) Volume 3: Science Fiction Cinema: From Outerspace to Cyberspace, by Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska (128 pages) Volume 4: Early Soviet Cinema: Innovation, Ideology and Propaganda, by David Gillespie (111 pages) Volume 5: Reading Hollywood: Spaces and Meanings in American Film, by Deborah Thomas (128 pages) Volume 6: Disaster Movies: The Cinema of Catastrophe, by Stephen Keane (133 pages)
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