By Marina Brafa
The stakes are high: In the third edition of their introduction to film history, Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell promise no less than an overview about dates, names and developments in the history of film not only in the U.S. but worldwide. How can a book possibly cover such an amount of information? Indeed, the volume contains close to 800 pages with only a few stills or illustrations and the authors provide a flood of facts. Fortunately, they do so in a very structured way so that it is easy to follow their argumentation. Basically, Thompson and Bordwell assume and admit that several inventions and events took place more or less simultaneously worldwide and that one has to consider continuities as well as differences between times and spaces. They come to the conclusion that most occurrences are somehow related. This conclusion is a common thread throughout the rest of their book.
The book is divided in six parts, each covering a certain time period, e.g. Part Two: The Late Silent Era 1919-1929, or Part Five: The Contemporary Cinema Since the 1960s. They chose the periods wisely as the starting points of each are marked by a turning point. However, the authors do not suggest that movements, techniques etc. introduced in one era would stop existing in another but show how they might have been changed, replaced or continued to exist.
Each large chapter is subdivided into smaller ones that focus on specific topics or national cinemas. This structure helps to clearly connect or contrast developments in the film industries on a national or international level. For instance, writing about the era of early cinema - when “cinema” still had to be defined - the authors manage to capture the many relations between technical innovation, audience demand and business foundations in the U.S., France or England. Often, the competition among production companies would force them to be more innovative than others or would cause them to work together on certain areas whilst cutting each other out of other markets. Moreover, Thompson and Bordwell point out decisions that persist in today’s cinema such as editing standards and take a brief look at film markets outside the U.S. or Europe, e.g. early cinema in Japan.
Each chapter introduces not only historical facts and developments but also film terminology that emerged along with technical inventions or events in film history, thus contextualizing and historicizing specific terms that are still of importance in today’s film production. How and why did the “shot/reverse shot” standard form? Where does the word “nickelodeon” stem from? The answers can be found in the book as well as many more explanations of – nowadays - common cinema terminology.
Finally, the book is accessible for film scholars and newbies because of its practical nature. Thompson and Bordwell’s language is concrete and developments and events are never isolated but incorporated into a bigger picture of film industry. Drawing on movies from each era and the people “behind” the stories and history of film, the abstract subject is personalized and thus rendered more traceable and understandable, especially to people without much or any previous knowledge.
However, the authors could have problematized national cinemas from a race and gender point of view in each of the chapters to raise awareness of such questions, especially for a non-academic audience. The book definitely lacks a conscious discussion of important theories from gender studies, queer studies and postcolonial studies in film. This could be addressed in a further edition of the book.
Still, Film History: An Introduction is worth having on your bookshelf or to use in your classroom. It would be impossible to to memorize all the facts and figures provided in this book. The book can serve as an encyclopedia of quick information about a certain type or era of cinema, and it is a relatively short, easy-to-read insight into a comprehensive subject. And most importantly, it makes readers understand that no development is an island!
*Note: There is now a brand new 4th edition of Film History: An Introduction that just came out on March 1, 2018. See how to get a copy of the book here --> from the publisher McGraw-Hill or here --> from Amazon