Essays (book reviews)

Screen Media: Analysing Film and Television
by Jane Stadler with Kelly McWilliam
(Allen & Unwin, 2009, 390 pages)


In an Internet group devoted to film and philosophy, a slightly batty discussion raged over the correct term for a certain kind of shot, or moving image photographic technique – although even accurately describing the technique proved a challenge. The type of shot where something – usually a human figure – stays in the same spot in the frame while the landscape or environment around appears to warp around it: is that created by a simultaneous zoom out and track in, or rather a zoom in and track out? By now, we’ve all seen it in a hundred films, from Goodfellas (1990) to Japanese Story  (2003) – but what to call it? Many names were suggested by members of the discussion group, but none were declared a winner.


I knew this would provide a sure-fire test for the book I had on my desk to review: Jane Stadler and Kelly McWilliam’s Screen Media. To my delight, it did not disappoint: there on page 51 – twice on that page actually, since it also gets its own little breakout box – is the definition of a zolly shot (a “combination of zooming and tracking movements in opposite directions”), which we learn is “also known as a ‘vertigo shot’, the ‘big squeeze’ or an ‘American track’”. Examples from Vertigo  (1958) and La Haine (1995) follow.


Screen Media is full of good stuff like this. The book has immensely benefitted from input by practitioners from the fields of cinematography, lighting, sound design and so on. But it is not a how-to book, or one focussed solely on craft functions. Stadler (the principal author) keeps a steady dual focus: on the one hand, screen media (the term covers film, TV and digital formats – anything that moves and combines image and sound, basically) are creative, expressive forms; on the other hand, they are social phenomena, embodying cultural values and ideologies.


Although Stadler has a keen, very contemporary sense of the visceral enjoyment afforded by screen media (as is clear when she savours moments from Tarantino’s Kill Bill  [2003-4], for example), she also admirably holds on to a 1970s-style grasp of reading, analysing and accounting for the worldiness of audiovisual texts, the everyday political issues they reflect and engage (even unwittingly).


This is a wonderfully lucid book, eminently recommendable for (especially) lower levels of undergraduate study (at a pinch, it could also serve secondary educators). It is clear, to the point, with a nice, understated sense of humour (a common touch which is surprisingly hard to pull off well in a textbook), and it never gets bogged down in terminological hair-splitting or lost on detours into abstruse (if seductive) theoretical debates – and this raises it above, for example, US scholar Amy Villarejo’s Film Studies – The Basics published by Routledge.


The challenge with any textbook that entertains an expansive scope of topics is the organisation and placement of its subject areas. Like Villarejo, Screen Media finds it hard, for instance, to accommodate the element of screen acting – which is, at least in narrative films with humans in them, surely a pretty prominent element to consider. It first sneaks in as an under-discussed element of mise en scène – as if an actor were on the same level as a hat stand, just some figure in the frame – and then reappears in the guise that (thanks to Richard Dyer) screen academics feel safest discussing: stars, celebrities and fans (this chapter is by McWilliam).


How many years will it take before a textbook like this devotes an entire chapter to the actual craft and art of acting for the screen? By the same token, the excellent section on soundscapes shows how screen study has at last caught up and is finally feeling comfortable with the long-neglected area of sound in film and television.


Sometimes the book’s combining of topics that at first seem an unlikely match is quite ingenious. So, for example, the chapter “Plotting and Planning” in storytelling dovetails into a discussion of … film reviewing! What’s the connection? Actually, as you take in the smooth flow of Stadler’s prose, it seems perfectly natural: plotting and planning (in scripts) and reviewing (particularly in journalistic contexts) are all forms of parsing, all fixed on boiling down what media theorists of the early ‘80s called the narrative image (or, in lay terms, synopsis) of a complex, audiovisual construction.


There has been quite a lot of action in the film/media textbook scene lately – and much of it has come from Australia. Screen Media makes an interesting triple bill with Karen Pearlman’s Cutting Rhythms (which is more specifically about editing processes, but within a holistic account of creative, aesthetic style), and Bruce Isaacs’ ambitious, manifesto-like Toward a New Film Aesthetic. One uniting factor across all these three books is striking, and deserves some fighting comment: almost without exception, their favoured examples are quite recent, mainstream (or almost so), and very often American. (Indie narrative forms of recent vintage – multi-character plots, what-if puzzles, etc – invariably get lavish attention, while true experimental cinema, and most of the historic art-cinema precursors of current trends, get little or none.)


They are all books with a heavy lean to popular culture. Nothing wrong with that per se, but … None of them really announce this tendency, or argue it out – they tend to take it as given, or natural, that this is how things will run in the world of screen studies today. Or, at least, the kind of screen study that can manage to find itself published as a textbook.


Screen Media provides – a little unwittingly – an engaging guide to trends in contemporary mainstream cinema and TV. Take, for instance, the illuminating discussion of subjective sound. The few lines on Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead  (1999) say it well: the film succeeds in drawing the audience “into the frenzied adrenaline surges of the hero”. In fact – as a once-upon-a-time, brief residency at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School taught me, with a jolt – this kind of subjectivity rules in contemporary production: sound, editing, design, cinematography, editing, everything is geared to our maximum immersion in the eyes, head, chest, heart and guts of the hero or heroine.


This holds true whether the screen inspiration derives from The Silence of the Lambs and Cloverfield, or Amélie  and The Double Life of Veronique. Yet few in the film industry seem to realise that this is, very precisely, a fad, and that in five years time we shall all be chasing and copying some other fashionable technique. Yes, we have all heard those subjective sound-effects before, maybe long ago – in Raging Bull (Scorsese’s the culprit!), or even further back when the traffic went deathly quiet during Marcello’s dream in Fellini’s 8 and a Half (1963) or a hallucinatory whip-sound tormented Nita in Ghatak’s The Cloud-Capped Star  (1960) … But doesn’t anyone recall the starkly objective sound that yesterday and today defines the cinematic universes of Roberto Rossellini, Hou Hsiao-hsien or the Dardenne brothers?


Here’s the problem. Screen Media, like its aforementioned neighbours (all fine, thoughtful, rigorous, provocative works), offers no examples from the canon of historic art cinema – no Bresson, Antonioni or Tarkovsky, and what little does get mentioned tends to be simply assimilated either to realism or anti-realism – and, even more egregiously in my eyes, neglects what these days is being labelled (and ghettoised) as contemporary World Cinema or Film Festival fare: in auteurist shorthand, again, a hundred names like Béla Tarr, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Claire Denis, Tsai Ming-liang


Now, I well know the protest I would at this point hear, not necessarily from the authors of these books (I am not blaming them as individuals), but from cowardly editors and publishers: such films are obscure, little seen, unfamiliar, difficult to access, and hence off the radar of the target readership to which these textbooks are being marketed … Pedagogically, this argument has never made sense: a great film’s relative obscurity is precisely the reason why we should include it in a textbook, not the reason we should bury it still further in market-driven oblivion.


But, anyhow, can this argument hold up anymore, even in a strictly practical or pragmatic sense, in the digital world to which Screen Media invitingly opens the door in its final chapters? I have benefitted from the happy experience that I imagine many screen educators have had in recent years: if you mention to a bright student an obscure film or artist, and if they are motivated to seek this material out for themselves, they can usually download it from somewhere (legally or otherwise), or at least sample it on YouTube, by the following morning – or, a few days later, have it in pristine DVD form via Amazon.


The day that a textbook reflects this kind of across-the-board, world-cinema fluency – of audiovisual texts present and past – will be a happy day indeed. In the meantime, we can more than make do with the splendid Screen Media.


© Adrian Martin July 2009

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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