Friday, December 18, 2009

My Review of Villarejo

Of the various mediums and forms of expression in modern and historical society, it seems as though new developments in the area of film studies are becoming more relevant. When looking at the cultural developments associated with film, one must face the fact that the medium itself is quite young, and therefore it is hard to see the sociological impacts compared with much older art forms, among them visual art and music. But we can still see the various effects it has had on society, and Amy Villarejo gives us some insight into that with her short book, “Film Studies: The Basics”.

The first major subject covered by Villarejo is the very basic introductory look into what a true definition of film, and especially “cinema” is. Villarejo defines this as being the entire spectrum of film and how we, as viewers and consumers, engage with it. She also explains in the beginning of the chapter that when studying the medium, one must face the overwhelming view of what film is to most consumers. She states:

“Cinema, however, is just as naturalized as is our economy;
that is, its dominant rules, its habitual narratives, its general
visual styles, its mode of production, its sites of exhibition, its
tie-ins (product placements, ties to other commodities like Burger
King cups or toy dolls), even its running times, tend to be taken as
given, as natural, as unquestioned, and as unchanging.”

This almost cynical view may be a tad displeasing to hear from such a scholar of film, but Villarejo later delves into a reaction to her own statements on what cinema can be. Using examples from 1960s era experimental film making, she does her best job to assure us that the previous mold of what films are has been breaking.

After this introductory look at film, Villarejo goes into a summary of the language of film, something of a fact based look at the actual construction of film and the terms closely associated with the production of the medium. Among them, phrases used in the acts of setting, such as make-up or set direction. Besides that, there is much emphasis on technical aspects, and what literally goes into the making of a shot.

Following that, we get into some of the more culturally relevant material: Villarejo’s view on the history of film. She says that her aim is to study film in a historical sense and also to compare the view that film is seen as being historically representative of the times. That is, that the images that make up film are each important in defining the times in which the film was made, and not necessarily when it was set. While this is culturally relevant, and certainly can be seen as important, there are of course flaws. Villarejo again delves into her cynical side, exploring the views that we have of past societies; she claims that we all see the 1950s as being a time of suburban development, changes in social structure (as with the civil rights movement), and overall well-being in relations between man (which here can be represented by “rousing musicals”.) She goes on to say that these same iconic ideas of the decade could be overshadowed by the demanding labor force in the US, the growing apathy over nature (molten steel and smokestacks), and perhaps the most terrifying use of science in man’s name, the atomic bombs dropped in Japan at the end of World War II. Another important relation of the history of film that Villarejo makes is that film can impact history as much as it can reflect or record it. She uses the example of propaganda – an almost blind form of patriotism and wartime excitement that can inspire unity, as well as some misgivings about other nations and people. A decidedly more surprising approach takes the same principle of a work of film influencing behavior and opinions and applies it to “commercial” film-making. Among the examples used is Quentin Tarantino’s ultra-violent gangster film Reservoir Dogs, which incited a reaction from “concerned parents” and others that sought censorship of “morally harmful” media. Another is the Serbian film Life is a Miracle, which had effects on those devastated by war, bonding those that had gone through tragedy with a sympathetic and beautiful medium.

After this, there is a chapter dealing with the production, distribution and exhibition of film. Again, a more factual look at the making of films. The remaining chapters deal with more historic and opinion based views of film: one dealing with value judgments made on film, and another titled “The Future of Film”, which is exactly what it sounds like. The former makes the point of examining confusion over the lack of continuity when facing the value judgments made on film. An award from a society, a placement on a list, two thumbs? These looks at the quality of a production have no such unity and therefore are inherently confusing to those looking at the reception of such films. The Future of Film section looks more at how culture may continue to influence films and vice versa. Among the different approaches that Villarejo takes, there is the look at gay and lesbian culture (Villarejo herself is a lesbian, and teaches gender studies courses at Cornell), Realism in film, and ideological values. She starts her own interpretation of the Future of Film by connecting the already young film with an even younger set of mediums, the internet and other electronic media. She states that while film can certainly take advantage of this growing media, there is still room for the classic ideas of films.

This book was probably my favorite to read this semester, not because of the specific content per se, as much as the fact that it gave a detailed look at the medium of film-making. I consider myself something of a film buff, and so looking at it from a technical standpoint was somewhat interesting. But to that end, I also saw the book as being a bit dry. Villarejo’s views and opinions on what film has done for society and what it will continue to do for society were so interesting, but it almost became a chore to look into those insights while sifting through the various technical aspects, which while interesting, became dry and lifeless. It’s almost as though at points, Villarejo’s actual viewpoints had taken a back seat to her obligation to explain film technique. And while I do criticize this style, I can see that as being a way of improvement. Film preparation, execution and technique can all have tremendous factors in how a story is told, characters portrayed, etc. But while it seems like Villarejo may’ve touched on these subjects, it left me as a reader confused. Villarejo made many assumptions on the present and future of film based on trends that she and others see as being strung through contemporary film, but didn’t end up explaining what these techniques were and how they were utilized in order to show the story in the correct light. I feel that the book may be a bit improved if Villarejo spent less time on technical aspects of film making, and spent more time focusing on how exactly the techniques and technical aspects of film are utilized in modern film making, and how these shape and effect a film. Furthermore, I would like to see more of an examination of how these effects are viewed by society and how they can not only shape a film, but shape how a film is perceived by modern cultures.

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