Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Book Review of Film Studies: The Basics by Amy Villarejo (first draft).

As the name suggests, Film Studies: The Basics by Amy Villarejo provides a brief but comprehensive overview of the field of film studies. Throughout much of the book, Villarejo focuses on the technical aspects of film production. She offers an explanation of some of the key terms related to film production and also lays out a brief historical overview so that the reader may understand how the that has developed and evolved over time. In the later sections Villarejo delves into more of the issues that the media of cinema raises and provides some critical contexts through which those issues can be understood.

The main strengths of Villarejo's effort are her brevity and her concise use of language. The book covers a broad range of issues for its length, which can be overwhelming, but all of the information is laid out in a kind of outline in the introductory chapter and the rest of the book stays fairly close to that basic outline. The information in each chapter is presented in a clear and organized way that makes it both interesting and easy to follow. Villarejo does not use overly complex language or terms that presume that the reader has had an extensive amount of experience in the field prior to reading the book. She also explains most of the references to significant films or important individuals in film so that the reader can understand the points that she is trying to make without previously being familiar with the specific references themselves. All of these factors make the book more accessible not only to individuals outside the field of film studies but potentially to individuals outside academia altogether. Anyone with an interest in film could potentially pick up this book and use it to supplement their previous knowledge and experience.

While providing a brief and concise overview of the field of film studies is a strength overall, it also made the book seem as if it may have been lacking in some areas. My own analysis of the concepts and critical contexts that I would have liked to see expounded upon further is unavoidably subjective. The areas of the book that I felt were lacking were of course the ideas and critical approaches that I find the most interesting and useful for my own purposes. The focus on the technical aspects of film and the production side of things seems like a logical and necessary choice for a book like this. These issues are a large part of the field of film studies and since this book is an introduction those parts would be useful for anyone who is interested in the field or could potentially delve further into the process of film production. Unfortunately I am not one of those individuals so I found the parts of the book devoted to the technical and production aspects of film least useful. I am more interested in film as it relates to literature and society and other critical issues that are involved with film studies. While I think that the sections on production, history, and technology were well written and justified I found myself impatient to get to the later sections of the book that were devoted to issues that I found more relevant to my own research interests.

Toward the end of the chapter devoted to production and exhibition and on into the chapter on reception, Villarejo explains some of the critical contexts that can be used to better understand film. In this section of the book, some of the areas that I found the most interesting were when Villarejo began to use Deconstruction to understand and interpret issues regarding film. One instance appears in a discussion of the exhibition of film. Villarejo discusses some of the inherent contradictions of ideology that occur when a television is placed in a public setting (Villarejo 106). She states that while placing a television near the ceiling allows everyone to watch, it also restricts control of what is on to the owners or operators of the establishment. I found this observation fascinating and I would have liked to see the approach used more throughout the book. Villarejo uses it again to some extent in discussing the contradictions that are present within the notion of authorship in cinema but as a whole I would have liked to see how the approach of Deconstruction could be used in other areas of film studies.

Another area that I would have liked to see more in depth elaboration was the discussions of value judgments in film. Villarejo delves into this to some extent in the chapter on the reception of film by providing various lists of several “essential” films and talking about the way that value judgments are made both formally with awards and informally with reviews. It seemed that Villarejo did a good job at explaining the question of why value judgments are made in film in general. Her discussion of the way that official value judgments in film serve to create a cannon and the way that the cannon affects the preservation of film expanded my understanding of the subject to a great degree. I liked the way that she examined the concept through both the lens of profit structures and also the validation of the medium as an art form. This allowed me to see that evaluative criticism in film could be used to achieve very different ends.

I would have liked to see Villarejo elaborate a little bit more on why and how specific value judgments are made in film. She set up the context for understanding evaluative criticism in film in a few different ways but failed to examine the ways in which motivations influence the specific judgments that critics make. I was interested to see, for example, whether critics motivated more by profit chose to elevate different films than those motivated by art. She also mentioned that informal movie review criticism is often driven by real or perceived generic conventions and authorial intent but failed to explain the way that those two concepts work to influence the judgments of the critic. I think it would have been helpful to have a brief overview of some of the generic conventions and an explanation of how there may be different sets of them for different types of movies. I would have liked to see what some of the supposed conventions of various types of movies are and the ways in which the perceived authorial conformity to or reinvention of those conventions tends to have in impact on critical evaluative judgments made by film critics at all levels. It seemed that Villarejo only scratched the surface of some of these issues and by the end of the chapter I was left wanting more. In a way though this could be seen as an advantage rather than a disadvantage because it seems that one of the main purposes for the book is to generate interest and promote further research and education.

The only thing that I felt was largely missing from Villarejo's book that absolutely should have been included was a discussion of film adaptations. The phenomenon of the adaptation of other media into film is one that has recently become very big with more films being produced based on comics, video games, and books but also it seems that it is something that has occurred throughout the history of film. I was surprised and disappointed to see that Villarejo did not provide an overview of the history and process of adaptation as it seems that it is a major part of the field of film studies. I was especially disappointed because my project is focused on the adaptation process and this information probably would have been the most useful to my research. I would have liked to see a discussion of the way that adaptations of particular genres and media have become more popular in film recently and also why some adaptations are more successful than others. This could have been tied into the discussion of generic conventions in film as they relate to evaluative criticism. It also may have been interesting to include a discussion of some arguments against the use of adaptation in film and see how advocates of adaptation have responded to such arguments.

As a whole I feel that Villarejo's book was successful in achieving what it sought to accomplish. Despite some of its shortcomings, the book provided a fairly comprehensive overview of the field and allowed the reader to cultivate interest in various aspects of the field. In an introductory book this brief will always be room to expand on the material that is present and that some issues and concepts should be left out seems inevitable. For the most part I defend the choices that Villarejo made in regards to what material she chose to include and I feel that she presented that material in a way that is interesting and accessible to a fairly wide audience. As a result I would recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in film and would like to expand their knowledge of film and film studies.

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