A HISTORY OF NARRATIVE FILM by David A. Cook

A HISTORY OF NARRATIVE FILM

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KIRKUS REVIEW

What Cook (Emory U.) attempts here is indeed an all-in-one history of ""narrative"" (as opposed to documentary or avant-garde) film: his scope is thoroughly international; he addresses the business of movies as well as developments in technology; while intensely director-oriented, he touches on other artistic contributions. And the result, though almost inevitably problematic and uneven, is an impressively researched, conscientious study which, if rarely fresh, generally rises above mere textbook-level with its enthusiastic detail, its literate prose, and its willingness to explore complex, controversial aesthetic issues. As with most comprehensive film histories (e.g., David Robinson's less scholarly The History of World Cinema), this one is best in the beginning, charting the evolution of the first films--from optical toys to MÉliès (""the cinema's first narrative artist""); from Edwin S. Porter's discovery of ""the shot"" (""he seems to have grasped only vaguely the significance"" of his own inventions) to the coming of the feature film to the intra-frame/inter-frame innovations of shallow bigot-genius D. W. Griffith, ""a nineteenth-century man who founded a uniquely twentieth-century art form."" (Cook's slightly preachy close-analysis of Birth of a Nation makes no apologies--""but we cannot quarrel with his basic assumption that American society was, and is, profoundly racist."") Solid discussions of German expressionism and Eisenstein's montage theory follow, with frame-by-frame focus on Potemkin. And Cook's somewhat auteur-ish leanings begin to sharpen as he covers Hollywood in the Twenties (Chaplin was ""a competent, conventional director with some unconventional ideas""), the shift to sound, and the studio-system heyday: only four directors' films--those of von Sternberg, Ford, Hawks, and Hitchcock--get full-scale treatment. (Preoccupied with narrative technique, Cook seems unresponsive to film's more literary elements, especially those in comedy.) Then it's on to Renoir's long takes and the related triumph of Citizen Kane, ""the first modern sound film."" (The scene-by-scene tribute here may strike many as a bit too uncritical.) And US film is, not surprisingly, hardly in the picture after World War II: rather there's the New Wave (which ""can be credited with almost singlehandedly revitalizing the stagnant British and American cinemas during the Sixties""); Bergman (""never a great innovator in narrative form like Welles, Antonioni, or Godard""); Bunuel (""the most experimental and anarchistic film-maker"" ever); Fassbinder (""the most exciting young director of the Seventies""); films of Japan, India, and the Third World. (Among today's American directors only Robert Altman gets taken seriously.) This, of course, is fairly standard film-school doctrine, notwithstanding a recent, increasing body of film (movie?) criticism that would give the likes of Frank Capra or Leo McCarey as much space as Pier Paolo Pasolini. But on his own, perhaps-limited terms, Cook is shrewd and balanced, presenting counter-arguments to some of the mainstream opinions and using his vast bibliography to good advantage (particularly apt quotes from Lewis Jacobs). So, with a 20-page glossary and a wide (though terribly undersized) array of illustrations, this is a valuable reference (on foreign film especially) and perhaps the best all-inclusive history for the serious student.

Pub Date: Nov. 9th, 1981
ISBN: 0393179443
Publisher: Norton