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July 2009
The History of Italian Cinema  Online
by Gian Piero Brunetta
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Juggling aesthetics, politics and economics in a history of a national cinema is an ambitious project, but Gian Piero Brunetta’s The History of Italian Cinema manages to dissect each of these topics without shortchanging any of them.
Hollywood Bloodshed: Violence in 1980s American Cinema  Online
by James Kendrick
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Much ink has been devoted to the differences between 1970s and 1980s American cinema, most of it (in the form of books like Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) focusing on the shift from socially conscious, morally ambiguous character studies (The Last Detail, Taxi Driver, etc.) to conservative, big-budget blockbusters (the Indiana Jones sequels and the Don Simpson-Jerry Bruckheimer/Joel Silver-produced shoot-’em-ups). James Kendrick’s Hollywood Bloodshed: Violence in 1980s American Cinema zeroes in on this transition as well, but from a more specific (and, in comparison with Biskind’s gossip-driven tome, more sophisticated) perspective. 
How to Read a Film: Movies, Media, and Beyond (Fourth Edition)  Online
by James Monaco
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

James Monaco’s How to Read a Film was first published in 1977 and quickly became a standard textbook in film-studies classes. Going far beyond the analytical premise stated by its deceptively simple title, the book encompassed film history, theory, business and technology to provide a comprehensive introduction to every aspect of cinema art. 

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The History of Italian Cinema
by Gian Piero Brunetta
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Juggling aesthetics, politics and economics in a history of a national cinema is an ambitious project, but Gian Piero Brunetta’s The History of Italian Cinema manages to dissect each of these topics without shortchanging any of them. As its title indicates, Brunetta’s tome covers the key developments and figures in Italian film, from the silent era to the present, but he goes far beyond the usual scope of studies that begin and end with Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti and the other usual subjects.  

An omnivorous cinephile with expertise in all facets of film, Brunetta pays tribute to dozens of key figures in Italian cinema, including cinematographers, composers, screenwriters and moguls. His profiles are contextualized within the history of the Italian film industry and, by extension, Italy’s history as a whole. From the time Mussolini injected cash into the country’s cinema for propagandistic purposes, Italy’s politics and its cinema have been deeply intertwined; Brunetta skillfully explicates the relationship.
     
For a book massive in ambition and dense in content, The History of Italian Cinema is relatively straightforward. It begins, appropriately enough, in the silent era, when Italian epics such as Cabiria and The Last Days of Pompeii established a sweeping, larger-than-life style that influenced American directors like Cecil B. DeMille, as well as led to the ornate historical films of Visconti and Bernardo Bertolucci. The book moves on to the rise of sound cinema and the creation of one of the world’s great movie studios, Cinecittà, delving into genres that include the popular “white telephone” films of the late 1930s and early ’40s and the neorealist classics of the postwar era. Brunetta shows great insight in examining the ways these films both reflected and shaped the values of Italian moviegoers, and he consistently unearths obscure, underrated filmmakers such as Mario Soldati, Luigi Chiarini and Alberto Lattuada without neglecting seminal touchstones such as Open City and Ossessione
      
Subsequent chapters further develop Brunetta’s thesis Italian cinema established cultural models and ideals for Italians while also influencing international audiences’ views of Italy and its people. Once the country’s film industry was reestablished after World War II, hundreds of movies — from art-house landmarks like La Dolce Vita to blood-drenched horror and crime films — cumulatively comprised one of the most diverse national cinemas of the 20th century. The History of Italian Cinema guides the reader through the auteur-driven era of Michelangelo Antonioni and Fellini, the rich genre movies of the 1960s and ’70’s, and the disintegration of much of the Italian film industry in the 1980s. His book concludes with insightful assessments of Italy’s best contemporary directors and some thoughts (many of them quite pessimistic) about the industry’s future.  
    
Brunetta rightly considers one of Italian cinema’s great legacies its bountiful supply of “masters of light,” cinematographers such as Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC, and Carlo di Palma, AIC, whose sensual, dynamic styles influenced filmmakers all over the world.  Thus, throughout the book, the author does a fine job of delineating key photographic trends such as the shift from two-dimensional imagery inspired by medieval painting to the Renaissance-inflected three-dimensional perspective that emerged during the evolution of Italy’s early historical epics. The relationship among cinematography and other visual arts is a recurring motif, and Brunetta is quite thorough in tracing the connections among specific painters and specific films/filmmakers, as well as among more general movements in all the arts. His breadth goes even further, too, as he examines the very complicated relationship between Italian culture and cinema. From the ways in which fascist political leaders appropriated the iconography of movies to sell their agendas, to neorealist filmmakers’ responses to the collapse of that movement, to contemporary filmmakers’ attempts to grapple with the contradictions of a consumerist society, Brunetta addresses the back-and-forth influence between cinema and reality with great insight and complexity.
    
Brunetta is extremely aware of the work done by preceding historians, and he not only builds upon it, but he also comments upon the scholarship of those who came before him.  Throughout the book, digressions support Brunetta’s assertions with explanations of the ways he and other critics came to their conclusions, providing a sort of meta-commentary on the practice of film history itself. Thus, in addition to being a comprehensive study of the Italian film industry and its releases, Brunetta’s book is a history of the critical and scholarly response to that industry. Less academically inclined readers might occasionally find Brunetta’s asides irrelevant or intrusive, but, in general, they illuminate rather than distract from the main subject.

That main subject, Italian film history, is investigated from nearly every possible angle with a sense of detail that is stunning given the book’s relatively concise page count (321, not counting more than 60 of useful indices and notes). Brunetta covers newsreels and documentaries, exploitation and genre films (His sections on Italian police thrillers, Westerns and giallo horror films are particularly valuable.) and established masterpieces from the canon with equal rigor, viewing them as both artistic artifacts and part of a larger cultural dialogue.

No book can be said to tell the whole story of a given country’s film industry, but The History of Italian Cinema is an excellent starting point and an invaluable reference guide.  It belongs alongside Peter Bondanella’s classic 1983 study Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present on every Italian-film lover’s shelf.

Princeton University Press
$35 hardcover       
 
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Hollywood Bloodshed: Violence in 1980s American Cinema
by James Kendrick
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Much ink has been devoted to the differences between 1970s and 1980s American cinema, most of it (in the form of books like Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) focusing on the shift from socially conscious, morally ambiguous character studies (The Last Detail, Taxi Driver, etc.) to conservative, big-budget blockbusters (the Indiana Jones sequels and the Don Simpson-Jerry Bruckheimer/Joel Silver-produced shoot-’em-ups). James Kendrick’s Hollywood Bloodshed: Violence in 1980s American Cinema zeroes in on this transition as well, but from a more specific (and, in comparison with Biskind’s gossip-driven tome, more sophisticated) perspective. He compares and contrasts the presentation of screen violence in the ’80s with that of prior decades and examines what it says about American culture in the age of Ronald Reagan. The result is not only one of the best film books of the year, but also a superb piece of social commentary, a volume that ranks alongside Robin Wood’s Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Movie Wars as an all-time great study of the intersection between movies and the political climate they both reflect and influence.
     
Kendrick begins with a brief history of violence in American movies, with particular focus on the period when the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating system came into being, allowing directors such as Sam Peckinpah and Arthur Penn the freedom to represent violence more graphically than ever before. As the author notes, The Wild Bunch and its progeny — films including Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now — used violence to discomfort and provoke the audience; this was in stark contrast to the violence of the ’80s, a period during which films were just as graphic but in which the violence was drained of its intellectual and emotional power. As the decade began, William Friedkin’s Cruising, Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill and Sam Fuller’s White Dog  — all films ideologically and aesthetically aligned with the 1970s — met with storms of controversy and protest that scared the Hollywood studios away from the kinds of challenging films they had funded only a few years before. Friedkin and Fuller were marginalized by the industry, and although De Palma continued to direct incendiary works like Scarface and Body Double, his greatest commercial success came in 1987 with The Untouchables, a film that erased moral shades of gray in favor of an almost comically extreme universe of good and evil.
    
Kendrick sees Cruising, Dressed to Kill and White Dog as the last gasp of an era and spends the bulk of his book studying the kinds of films that replaced them. He begins with the “pure action” genre as represented by Simpson-Bruckheimer productions, including Beverly Hills Cop and Top Gun. These movies embodied the spirit of Reagan’s “morning in America” in that they celebrated winning and self-confidence at the expense of all other values. The “losers” (Simpson’s word) of earlier genre films like Chinatown were replaced by “winners,” whose moral and physical superiority was never challenged or questioned. These films celebrated Reagan’s popular belief in American supremacy (a philosophy that was either inspiring or psychotically solipsistic, depending on one’s political persuasion) and thus avoided controversy even though, in terms of sheer body count and bloodshed, they were just as violent as anything that had come before. The cultural shift is best understood via Kendrick’s case study of Red Dawn, a World War III fantasy that began as a Lord of the Flies-inspired allegory and was consciously transformed into a conservative, anti-communist, underdog story.
    
The section on Red Dawn exemplifies what makes Hollywood Bloodshed a landmark work: it seamlessly combines meticulous research into production history with cogent aesthetic and social analysis. Throughout the book, Kendrick unearths details about individual films and filmmakers that will be surprising even to the most learned historians, and he consistently offers critical assessments that are original and provocative. He also refuses to settle for oversimplifications, acknowledging the changing presentation of cinematic violence in the 1980s was far more complicated than a simple shift from a radical to a conservative ideology. His refusal is most obvious in his chapter on Vietnam films, which brilliantly contrasts feel-good-event movies like Rambo: First Blood Part II and the Missing in Action series (films in which America was permitted to rewrite history and “win” the Vietnam war) with more troubling pictures such as Platoon and Casualties of War. The book’s passage on Rambo is particularly illuminating, especially when Kendrick compares the sequel with its ideologically opposite predecessor, First Blood — a movie that has a lot more in common with Taxi Driver than it does with its own sequels.
   
Although some of the Vietnam films represent an exception to the overall arc of violence in American movies of the 1980s, for the most part, Kendrick convincingly argues, violence became oddly comforting in a decade in which audiences wanted to sweep the psychic pain of both the past (Watergate, race riots, Vietnam) and the present (Iran-Contra, AIDS, growing economic inequality) under the rug. Hollywood Bloodshed makes the case even graphic slasher flicks like the Friday the 13th series played into this ideological movement, partly through the emergence of fanzines such as Fangoria. By exposing the tricks behind the gore and making celebrities out of special-effects-makeup artists like Tom Savini and Rick Baker, Fangoria, in its own way, made violence safe and palatable — a sharp contrast with the shocking brutality of 1970s assaults on good taste such as Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Kendrick scrutinizes this transition with the same scholarly rigor he applies to war movies and action extravaganzas and wraps his book up by addressing yet another shift, that between the American cinema of the 1980s and the return to a more ideologically complex form of violence represented by Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher and others in the following decade. This brief epilogue makes one hope Kendrick will eventually write a follow-up volume to study the new wave of cinematic violence; for now, however, Hollywood Bloodshed is more than enough.                     

Southern Illinois University Press
$35 paperback
 
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How to Read a Film: Movies, Media, and Beyond (Fourth Edition)
by James Monaco
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

James Monaco’s How to Read a Film was first published in 1977 and quickly became a standard textbook in film-studies classes. Going far beyond the analytical premise stated by its deceptively simple title, the book encompassed film history, theory, business and technology to provide a comprehensive introduction to every aspect of cinema art.  Because changes in digital production, post-production and distribution have altered the landscape of the medium considerably since Monaco’s original volume was released, a fourth edition has arrived to bring his material up to date. The new edition is no mere rehash, however, with just a few added chapters or appendices (the frequent approach when an author “revises” his or her old work). The new version of How to Read a Film is a complete reworking of the book from beginning to end, with expanded content in every section and a complex understanding of all media — not just movies — in the digital age.
     
How to Read a Film is divided into seven independent sections that can be read in any order the reader wishes: the one on film in the context of the other arts is followed by others on technology, film language, history, theory, radio and television and the digital revolution. Each section is a model of concision and depth; Monaco’s body of knowledge is awe-inspiring at times as he talks about economic, technological and theoretical concepts with equal erudition. His section on film history is particularly impressive. Although it would be ridiculous to expect any one book, let alone one chapter, to address all the major developments in world cinema over the past 120 years, Monaco packs more information into under 200 pages than seems humanly possible. 
    
That he does it so entertainingly is the real achievement of How to Read a Film, an academic textbook that is surprisingly fun to read. Monaco’s language only gets difficult when an easier form of expression is not possible (as in the necessarily dense section on semiotics and other schools of film theory); for the most part, the language is accessible and witty, sprinkled with editorial comment both thought provoking and inspiring. Although one will surely not agree with all of Monaco’s critical assessments of individual films, or even his suggestions for how the medium ought to be used, the combination of prescriptive and descriptive analysis in his book will give all filmmakers and students useful jumping-off points for their own work.
    
Monaco is especially good at emphasizing developments and movements he feels have been underestimated in their importance. Moving beyond an auteur-based or even a genre-based approach to a broader perspective on film history, Monaco consistently singles out figures whose influences have been more profound than their celebrity (or lack thereof) would suggest. Cinematography enthusiasts will be pleased, for example, by the author’s valid assertion Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown has had “a more profound effect on the art and technique of film during the last 30 years than any star director.” 

There are occasional minor, and very rare, errors in his 700-plus pages. He credits the Friday the 13th series with spurring on the growth of New Line in the 1980s, for example, even though during that decade all of the franchise’s films were released by Paramount, and he refers to Spike Lee’s fictional Get on the Bus as a documentary.), but the oversights can be counted on one hand and are insignificant in relation to the book’s overall excellence.
    
With the exception of the unavoidably dry chapter on film theory, How to Read a Film reads almost like a good novel. Monaco’s enthusiasm and knowledge are so intense that, in the book’s best passages, he hooks the reader as though his book were a John Grisham or Stephen King page-turner. The last chapter, most of which is entirely new to this edition, is particularly riveting in its description of film’s place in a media-saturated world.

This, in the end, is what makes Monaco’s book so much more than its title promises: he sees film not only as an art form that provides pleasure for its own sake (though he does see it as that, too), but also as a constantly mutating and hugely important part of a larger cultural and technological landscape. Some readers might wonder what a volume on film is doing with such long chapters on radio, the Internet and television, but by the time one finishes How to Read a Film, this question has been more than answered by Monaco’s sophisticated analysis of how all the media are interrelated. He finishes the book with a chronology of film and media and a detailed bibliography of books suggested for further reading; these appendices alone are thorough enough to recommend How to Read a Film, something that could be said about any one of the book’s beautifully written chapters.      

Oxford University Press
$29.95 paperback
 
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