Third generation

by Linda Williams

from Jump Cut, no. 19, December 1978, pp. 34-35
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1978, 2005

Film Reader 3. Film Division, Speech Annex,  Northwestern University, Evanston IL 60201. 268 pp. $5.00.

In 1975 the first issue of Film Reader, an annual film journal out of Northwestern University, announced its intention of providing a forum for the new semiotic theories and methodologies that have emerged in film study since the late 1960s. Since then two more issues have appeared. Each issue has tempered the rigor and high abstraction of French and British semiotic theory with a Midwestern brand of common sense and practical analysis. What emerges is a journal that fills an important gap in U.S. film scholarship, offering both a forum and a proving ground for theories that are never fully tested and explored in the more avant-garde semiotic film journals such as Screen or the film issues of Communications.

In its first issue Film Reader 1 tackled what was for non-French speakers the most pressing issue of the early semiotics of Christian Metz: the applicability of the Metzian model of the systems of narrative film to a film familiar to U.S. audiences. The resulting section on "Semiotics and CITIZEN KANE" began a focus on the classical U.S. narrative film that is becoming central to our understanding of the codes at work in the tradition of the Hollywood sound film.

In 1976 Film Reader 2 continued the focus on narrative structure and added another section on the technology and ideology of the film industry. Although this issue suffered from a reduction to a nearly microscopic print size (which has been somewhat remedied in the most recent issue), this reduction did allow for a more extensive exploration of a wide range of narrative theory and practice. In my opinion its best issue to date, FR 2 draws upon Barthes, Propp, Todorov, Genette and Frye, combining lead articles by former Screen editors Sam Rohdie and Geoffrey Nowell Smith with analyses by Joyce Nelson and Kristin Thompson.

The current issue of Film Reader (no. 3) offers an extensive section on genre and film and the other arts. Though this issue may have neither the obvious utility of FR 1 nor the theoretical coherence of FR 1 — in fact, its section on film and the other arts seems very poorly conceived — its section on genre offers a helpful delineation of what has often before seemed a particularly murky area of film study. For me this murkiness lies in the fact that what one says about genre either seems so obvious as to not be worth saying (detective movies have detectives as main characters) or so problematic (see any theory of comedy) as to be nearly useless.

Though some of these problems remain, writers in the genre section seem more aware of their potential pitfalls and the consequent need to be absolutely clear as to the definition of the genre discussed. Mark Vernet's lead essay inaugurates a fruitful approach by providing a model of generic qualities. Vernet runs the risk of saying the obvious, but the value of his clear separation of filmic, profilmic and referential categories is born out in the articles which follow. This is especially so in James Damico's piece on film noir in which Damico offers a convincing argument that film noir, usually considered an amorphous mass of stylistic and thematic qualities, is in fact a genre in its own right. Other fine articles in this section include Kristin Thompson's excellent analysis of the function of point of view in LAURA and Chuck Kleinhans' interpretation of film melodrama as a revelation of the contradictions of capitalism.

Unmistakably, the Film Reader appeals to a highly specialized audience. Casual readers will find it tough going. But serious students interested in finding out how semiotics can teach an understanding of how films mean, will find it a highly readable and engaging publication.