Linda Ruth Williams and Michael Hammond, eds., Contemporary American Cinema. Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2006.
ISBN 0335 21832 (hardback); 0335 21831 8 (paperback).
Reviewed by Nathan Abrams, University of Wales, Bangor
Contemporary American Cinema bears the imprimatur of The Open University – a sign of good quality teaching and learning materials that are also student-centred; and, indeed, the back and inside front covers are replete with praiseworthy quotes.
‘Contemporary’ here is taken to mean American cinema from 1960 until 2004. The book contains twenty-two chapters, written by a number of different authors, and ranges over topics such as the decline of the studio system, underground cinema of the ‘60s, blaxploitation, documentary, independents, Disney, Vietnam, women, black and gay cinema, and so on. Each section contains a set of fairly standard further references and case studies, lists of box office figures and academy award winners and questions for discussion. The budget has even been stretched to include some colour stills. The book is rounded off with a glossary, bibliography, filmography and a mammoth index (almost a requisite for navigating a book of this size).
The intention of the editors was to ‘present a cutting-edge overview of ways of looking at American cinema since the 1960s’ by presenting ‘fresh thinking and provocative ways’, and which ‘combine established models with new ways of thinking through histories and debates’. If so, then with regards to the case studies, this was an opportunity missed. The contributors to this volume opted for the tried and tested such as Psycho and Easy Rider (why reinvent the wheel?) instead of going for choices which are often overlooked such as Planet of the Apes, a film very rich in its representation of not just race, gender and issues of nuclear weaponry, but also of McCarthyism, science, technology, counterculture and intergenerational conflict, backed up by excellent make-up, set design and use of music and sound.
Furthermore, a justification was needed for including lists of Oscar winners. The editors and some of the contributors take it as self-evident that such a list is useful and tells us something about American cinema but they don’t explicitly say what. I suggest that it clearly needs to be laid out that Oscars are no guide to ‘good’ films (if a good film wins an Oscar then it is more of a coincidence than anything else) but rather a means of studying and understanding the internal politics and dynamics of the US film industry, as well as marketing and publicity. Michele Aaron makes the telling point, for example, that a multi-talented actress like Barbra Streisand never won an Oscar for Yentl, despite being the first woman to direct, produce, co-write and star in a Hollywood film.
At over five hundred pages this book aims to be fairly comprehensive. Inevitably, however, with a book this size there are going to be omissions and someone somewhere is going to be miffed that such and such was not included. While it’s an understandable shame that some sections weren’t developed, I couldn’t fault (other than the brevity of the glossary) its coverage and this text will certainly serve as a useful all-in-one undergraduate primer on contemporary American cinema. It is certainly more accessible than some equivalent books on the subject.
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