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Book Reviews
The End of Cinema as we Know it: American Film in the Nineties by Jon Lewis. Pluto Press, 2002. 

ISBN hardback 0745318800, paperback 0745318797. pp 424. List price: Hardback: £50, paperback £16.99.

Reviewed by Yannis Tzioumakis, Lecturer in Screen Studies, Liverpool John Moores University

 

The end of cinema as we know it - book cover

Posted 21 October 2003

In the last 10 years Jon Lewis’s name has become synonymous with critical explorations of what film historians have called “The New Hollywood”. From his (1995) book-length study of Coppola’s “Zoetrope years” and his position within contemporary Hollywood to his influential collection of essays on The New American Cinema (1998) and his monograph Hollywood vs Hardcore: How the Struggle Over Censorship Saved the Modern Film Industry (2000) Lewis has generously contributed to a heated debate and has significantly enhanced our understanding of, among others things, the problems involved in any attempt towards a periodisation of American Cinema. In this respect, a brand new edited volume consisting of thirty four (mostly original) essays and focusing on American cinema in the 1990s is unquestionably a welcomed addition, especially since a host of key names in the field (including Thomas Elsaesser, Justin Wyatt, Robert Sklar, Dana Polan, Thomas Doherty, Hilary Radner, James Schamus and Murray Smith) feature among the contributors and, more interestingly, because the collection’s title seems to forcefully imply new changes in the massive institution we call American Cinema. 

In a rather unusual manner, the structure of The End of Cinema As We Know It has been organised according to the interests of its contributors, who, upon Lewis’s invitation, took “one quick shot at the decade past”(p 4). Thus, unlike the majority of edited collections, which are products of conferences on specific topics or structured along strict thematic sections and concerns, The End of Cinema As We Know It begs to differ, particularly since some of the essays included, bridge the academic discourse with more popular (and therefore more accessible) film criticism. This explains the reasons behind the inclusion of such a large number of essays and the fact that they are rather loosely grouped under nine different sections (Movies Money and History; Things American (Sort Of); Four Key Films; Pictures and Politics; The End of Masculinity As We Know It; Bodies At Rest and In Motion; Independents; Not Films Exactly and Endgames). Such structure and format allow for potential explorations of themes and topics that would otherwise rarely feature within mainstream academic film criticism but, significantly, also imply a lack of a central thesis or an overarching argument that is normally expected from an academic anthology of such proportions, even when its rationale does not involve a presentation of “a comprehensive tour through the decade” (p 4). Still though, the recurring thread of ‘change’ is forcefully conveyed and the overall merits of the collection far outweigh its relative structural weakness. 

Apart from the “usual suspects” one would expect rounded up for such a collection (Elsaesser on the blockbuster, Lewis on censorship, Wyatt on marketing, Schamus on independent cinema and Sharrett on narrative), this anthology offers a large number of short essays on topics that have either been under-researched or consistently ignored by academic criticism. Essays such as ‘The Hollywood History Business’ (pp 33-42) and ‘The Man Who Wanted to Go Back’ (pp 43-49) afford the reader a rare opportunity to look into the business of preserving film history on both a corporate and personal level by exploring the drive behind the preservation practices on those two different levels of engagement with Hollywood history. Keil’s ‘American Cinema in the 1990s and Beyond: Whose Country’s Filmmaking Is It Anyway?’ (pp 53-60) advances a very persuasive argument about the problems of speaking of American Cinema when so many film (and television) productions take place in Canada, when IMAX and Cineplex ODEON are Canada-based companies and when, one could add, the “domestic” box-office gross presented weekly by trade publications such as Variety and Hollywood Reporter includes takings of films from the Canadian screens.

The section on Pictures and Politics (pp 139-181) (which follows on from the rather arbitrary Four Key Films: The Matrix, Fight Club, The Blair Witch Project and Saving Private Ryan - all chosen films were released in the last two years of the 1990s and therefore do not convincingly stand for the whole decade) is particularly interesting in terms of the diversity of political issues that are explored. Dana Polan’s piece in particular, entitled ‘The Confusions of Warren Beatty’ (pp 141-149), throws the critical spotlight to the work of one of the most significant figures in The New Hollywood, a filmmaker and star who has nevertheless been consistently ignored by academic criticism. Polan’s discussion of Bulworth (1999), one of the most progressive political films of the last decade, revises a long standing argument that sees auteurism as incompatible with a political approach to film, and counter-argues that “individual creativity can [indeed] be put forward as a political act” (p 142), at least in the case of certain directors. On the other hand, Chon A. Noriega’s essay on John Sayles’ Men With Guns (pp 168-174) convincingly downplays the film’s political rigour by addressing the problem in the filmmaker’s decision to deny the film’s narrative a concrete historical context (and to opt, instead, for a fabular framework) despite Sayles’ unquestionable level of political commitment in his body of work. Like Polan, Noriega places particular emphasis on narrative concerns and the implications of the film’s authorial signature, though the latter critic moves towards a larger argument that explores the problematic relationship between fiction and history, allegory and specificity. 

Finally I would like to briefly mention two other essays that address under-researched topics. Jerry Mosher’s ‘Having Their Cake and Eating It Too: Fat Acceptance Films and the Production of Meaning’(pp 237-249) examines a series of films (released between 1995 and 1996), which feature over-sized central characters, and explores differences and contradictions in the films’ reception by mainstream, alternative and ‘fat acceptance’ publications in order to demonstrate the different ways that specific audiences consume these films. Central to Mosher’s argument is the fundamental difference in reception between the first and the third type of publications whereby, mainstream reviews relegate questions of fatness to the periphery, opting instead to see the characters as ‘outsiders’ or ‘underdogs’ trying to fit in, whilst fat acceptance publications address the subject directly and therefore push narrative and generic concerns out of the picture.

If Mosher’s work represents research on a topic that is rarely addressed in film journals and other relevant publications, Heather Hendershot’s ‘Waiting for the End of the World: Christian Apocalyptic Media at the Turn of the Century’ (pp 332-341) tackles a subject previously untouched by mainstream film criticism. Largely based on primary research material, the author offers a comprehensive account of the crossover success of The Omega Code, a religious action-adventure film that was produced and distributed by Christian media organisations, and provides an informative insight to the world of Christian media and film with a strong emphasis on distribution business and practices, which, as she argues, are geared towards capitalising on the increasingly growing evangelical audience.

The above brief examples of topics covered in Lewis’s new anthology is, I believe, indicative of the scope of the book. It seems that the New American Cinema has given way to the New American Cinemas, which only loosely share common elements and characteristics. If this is the case then, The End of the Cinema As We Know It is not just ‘a quick shot at the decade past’. Rather, it is a brief glance to the future of American (sort of) cinema.

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