Elsaesser, Thomas; Buckland, Warren. “Preface.” In Studying Contemporary American Film. A Guide To Movie Analysis, edited by Thomas Elsaesser and Warren Buckland, vii–x. London: Arnold, 2002.

Preface [Studying Contemporary American Film]

Thomas Elsaesser and Warren Buckland

from Studying Contemporary American Film: A Guide to Movie Analysis by Thomas Elsaesser, Warren Buckland

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Chuck Kleinhans recounts an anecdote about a society located in a tropical paradise that has never developed biological sciences. This society is surrounded by thousands of species of birds, and bird-watching is a favourite pastime amongst the locals, who enthusiastically watch, discuss, and write about birds. Then, one day,

some people arrive from another society. They explain that they too want to watch the birds, discuss them, and even write about them, but they will be doing it differently. The newcomers seem as interested in recording data as appreciating the birds' beauty. They spend days studying the same bird and discussing questions such as how birds are able to fly, to migrate, to build the same kind of nest year after year. At first the natives try to laugh off the outsiders. But after a while, when the foreigners start dissecting and labelling birds and claiming that they know more about birds than the people who grew up watching them, it's gone too far. No longer does it seem adequate to dismiss it as a fad. The visitors are now discussing birds using a whole new vocabulary. Enough is enough! (Kleinhans 1976: 37)

This anecdote can apply to the academic study of film. Academic film studies has created a specialized vocabulary around films, mostly American films (and Hollywood in particular). But the specialized vocabulary is simply the tip of an iceberg: it represents a new way of seeing and thinking - that of 'the expert' - much like the biological sciences in the above story. The expert goes beyond the immediate, common-sense view of films (their consumption as entertainment, or their appreciation) and begins to ask a set of questions that common sense has no need for. Film scholars are experts who develop a passionate interest in 'unusual' theories, and ask 'strange' and 'obscure' questions about films. Where do these questions come from? Why are they important? What do you need to know to ask such a question, let alone answer it?

Studying Contemporary American Film: A Guide to Movie Analysis attempts to outline the various questions film scholars ask, to go beyond their obscurity and clarify their meaning and purpose, and to spell out why those questions are important. Furthermore, we do this in a unique way: in each chapter we outline, in as clear and as concise a manner as possible, the premises of a particular film theory, distil a method from it, and then analyse a particular film. In the same chapter we then analyse the same film again with a different method derived from another theory. We have structured and written each chapter in an identical way. We hope that our standardization of each chapter will render each theory and its method of analysis less opaque and more accessible, and make comparison easier. We want to demonstrate that film theories and methods are purposeful, or can be useful once their design is made explicit. The proof of the value of each theory and method is in the results achieved through the analysis of individual films. The critical reader may want to determine whether such results can be achieved without the assistance of the theories and methods outlined in each chapter.

Perhaps we can extend Chuck Kleinhans's anecdote and imagine that some of the natives, who have enthusiastically watched birds all their lives, took an interest in what the experts were saying and writing. This does not mean that they have to accept what the experts said, but it does mean that they critically engage with the experts' way of seeing and thinking by applying, correcting, and developing their ideas. The American philosopher W.V.O. Quine gives the hypothetical example of an anthropologist studying the language of a culture foreign to him. The anthropologist points to a rabbit; a native says 'gavagai', and the anthropologist writes down 'gavagai = rabbit'. However, it is only at meal time that he finds out that 'gavagai' means 'dinner'. The expert's knowledge is not necessarily better than the native's common-sense understanding. Both are asking different questions - the anthropologist in Quine's example is writing a dictionary; the native is thinking about his next meal.

In film studies, the film scholar is asking different questions to the 'native' film spectator. However, if that spectator wants to see films differently, he or she may turn to film studies. Yet many students are put off from film theory and methods largely because, we argue, they are not gradually introduced to the film scholar's way of thinking; students are simply presented with the results of that thinking. In this book we have not only published the results of our thinking about a group of important contemporary films. We have also tried to render our thinking processes accessible, to lay bare the procedures by which we achieved our analysis, in the hope that those procedures can be imitated, corrected, and extended. We do not apologize for presenting film theory as a specialized form of knowledge; we cannot and do not want to escape from this fundamental idea. But we do want to make that specialized knowledge accessible. Only after students have absorbed and internalized that specialized knowledge can they hope to go beyond it. Nietzsche argued that the atheist must become a priest before he or she can attack religion. The same applies to all world views, including film theories and their methods of analysis.

After working out the content and structure of each chapter, the authors divided up the writing as follows: Thomas Elsaesser wrote Chapters 2, 8, 9, and the Conclusion. Warren Buckland wrote Chapters 3, 5, 6, 7, and the Preface. Both authors collaborated on Chapter 1, and Warren Buckland wrote the first half of Chapter 4 and Thomas Elsaesser the second half. Both authors, of course, commented on and revised each other's chapters.

Thomas Elsaesser's acknowledgments

I want to thank Warren for his persistence in bringing this book about and his patience in managing the logistics of two authors working on a joint project in different physical locations. I also want to thank my colleagues at the University of Amsterdam for their comments on different chapters: Gerwin van der Pol and Patricia Pisters for Chapters 2 and 9, Charles Forceville for his acute remarks on Chapter 4, and Wim Staat for his generous and constructive comments on Chapter 8. My students at New York University in the spring semester 2001 were closer witnesses to the process of revision than they may have liked. I also much appreciated Ed Branigan's good humour and enthusiasm. Finally, it is to the post-viewing sessions of Hollywood movies at the Tuschinski and the Bellevue with Warren, Michael Wedel, and Peter Kramer that the book is dedicated.

Warren Buckland's acknowledgments

This book emerged from Thomas's frequent invitations to me to teach on the MA programme in film studies at the University of Amsterdam. As well as thanking Thomas for the numerous invitations, I also wish to thank the many students who listened to my reformulation of various film theories and methods.

My interest in film theory and its methods of analysis go back to the mid-eighties. I first encountered this new and 'exotic' way of seeing film while I was an undergraduate student of photography at Derby College of Higher Education (now the University of Derby). It was at Derby that John Fullerton introduced me to Bazin and Eisenstein and Metz, to Citizen Kane and Apocalypse Now and early Swedish cinema (there was a lot of early Swedish cinema). In 1999, now located at the University of Stockholm in Sweden, John invited me to teach a three-day workshop on film methodology. My preparation for that workshop enabled me to give shape to and refine many of my chapters in this book. And it was during that workshop that I began to feel nostalgic for those halcyon days in the mid-1980s when John devoted a great deal of his personal time and energy to my initiation into film studies. I hope my chapters in this book show that his efforts were worthwhile.

Additional friends and colleagues have read or listened to various drafts of my chapters, including: Sean Cubitt, Peter Krämer, Lydia Papadimitriou, Jay Stone, and Yannis Tzioumakis, but especially Alison McMahan, who saved me on numerous occasions from making errors in writing and argument. Geoffrey King also contributed his musical knowledge to the opening of The Fifth Element, and screenwriter John Leary generously located and provided videos, DVDs, and scripts.

I have presented various chapters at different conferences: the second part of Chapter 3 (on statistical style analysis) at the conference 'Style and Meaning: Textual Analysis, Interpretation, Mise-en-scène', at the University of Reading, 17-19 March 2000; the second part of Chapter 5 (video game logic in The Fifth Element) at the conference 'Consumption: Fantasy, Success, Desire', Liverpool John Moores University, 21-2 November, 1998 (published in Moving Images, ed. J. Fullerton and A. Soderbergh (London: John Libbey, 2000): 159-164); the second part of Chapter 6 (levels of narration in Lost Highway) at 'Wild at Heart and Weird on Top: The Films of David Lynch', University of Sheffield, 13 February 1999. Finally, I presented a version of the second half of Chapter 7 (possible worlds in Jurassic Park and The Lost World) at the Screen Studies Annual Conference at the University of Glasgow, June 1997, and, in revised form, at 'Technologies of Moving Images', University of Stockholm, 6-9 December 1998. It was subsequently published in Screen, 40, 2 (1999): 177-92). I wish to thank John Libbey publishers and Oxford University Press for permission to reprint material.