Film: a Very Short Introduction

Film: a Very Short Introduction
Michael Wood
Oxford University Press, 152pp, £7.99

Michael Wood's first book on cinema, America in the Movies (1975), begins with a scene from The Mark of Zorro. Tyrone Power plays a dashing, young cadet at the Madrid military academy. A fellow student reminds him that he is supposed to fight a duel at three o'clock that afternoon. Power slaps his forehead and exclaims, "Santa Maria, it had slipped my mind!" As Wood points out, such a moment would seem ludicrous in a serious novel or play, yet in a 1940 swashbuckler it feels just right, "stylishly overdone". Wood goes on to explore how being over the top is at the heart of the golden age of Hollywood, contrasting it with what came before and after.

All of Wood's virtues as a writer on cinema are on display in America in the Movies: his eye for detail, erudition and clear prose style, free of clunky jargon and the excesses of theory. His subject is America, particularly American anxieties and myths, but he is not afraid to quote Althusser, Kafka or Barthes. He is happier asking questions than settling for simple answers. Wood quotes André Bazin on the subtleties of William Wyler's use of depth of focus in The Best Years of Our Lives. But then he reminds us that the film is also an "evasive and cosy little tale". Both aspects of Wyler's film are true and if they clash, that's where the critic's job begins. This is always done with a distinctive, gentle intelligence that makes him both one of the best writers on film and one of the outstanding literary critics of his generation.

Now, almost 40 years later, we have Wood's Film: a Very Short Introduction. What is striking is how much Wood fits into 152 pages. There are interesting accounts of the beginnings of film, a short overview of critical moments in national cinemas, from Weimar Germany to Italian neo-realism and the French new wave and much, much more. The style is always lucid, drawing elegantly on thinkers from Benjamin and Barthes to Susan Sontag and - an old favourite of Wood's - Stanley Cavell.

Yet the book never feels derivative. The insights are fresh and original and, as always, Wood is reluctant to judge or create false hierarchies. His pantheon has room for Buñuel, Dziga Vertov and Godard but also for Bollywood and Looney Tunes. Unlike a populist such as Barry Norman, he has time for Stan Brakhage and Man Ray; but unlike the editors of Screen, he also has great affection for Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire.

The book is divided into three sections. It opens with a typically thoughtful account of the early history of cinema and the conceptual issues it raises. Wood quotes a scene in a Marx Brothers film in which Margaret Dumont thinks she has seen Groucho leave the room and sees Chico (disguised as Groucho) still there. "But I saw you with my own eyes," she says. "Well," replies Chico, "who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?" Wood knows how many central issues about cinema this exchange raises.

The second section, "Trusting the Image", is a ragbag of fascinating questions from the history of cinema. When and why did storytelling become the distinctive feature of the movies? Is the director or producer the author of a film or are there others? Is Hollywood or Europe and Japan the real driving force of 20th-century cinema? Is cinema an art or an industry? Is the multiplex, the DVD player or the computer the future of cinema?

The discussions are always intelligent and concise. Often a passing aside is more interesting than the main debate. At the end of an eight-page section on auteur theory, Wood wonders whether sometimes "the genre is the author" rather than the director or producer. It's easy to see how Hollywood swamped postwar European film industries such as France's but Wood reminds us that this isn't the whole story. "No Nicholas Ray and Sam Fuller, we might say, no Breathless (1960). The French had Jean Renoir to turn to, but much of André Bazin's film theory, for example, was based on the work of Orson Welles and William Wyler." His short (but unrushed) readings of Alain Resnais's Night and Fog and Buñuel's
Las Hurdes cover an awful lot of ground in the debate about fact and fiction in documentaries. And, best of all, Wood emerges as an eloquent cheerleader for animation, that most underrated of forms.

We could all slice the cake differently. But few could offer a more generous and thoughtful introduction to cinema, enjoying its delights from Lillian Gish to Roger Rabbit.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The last Tsar