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Book Review: The Film Experience

The Film Experience: An Introduction While certain approaches in film studies look
first at a film’s formal construction or at the
Timothy Corrigan and Patricia White historical background of its production, The
2015, 4 edition Film Experience begins with an emphasis on
Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's movie spectators and how individuals respond
544 pp., 978-1457663543 (p.b.), CAD$106.99. to films. Our different viewing experiences
determine how we understand the movies,
Review by Joakim Ake Nilsson and, ultimately, how we think about a particu-
Kwantlen Polytechnic University lar movie—why it excites or disappoints us.
An instructor is faced with several challenges While Corrigan and White do well to value au-
when teaching an introductory film course in the dience response to films, they quickly emphasize
twenty-first century. Most students will come to the the importance of spectators being “active viewers”
class having experienced a variety of narrative films, (9). Although film is obviously the subject matter
but will need to acquire the detailed technical vo- in an introductory course on film studies, it also
cabulary and develop the analytical skills required teaches broader academic skills, particularly critical
to engage critically with a film. Furthermore, apart thinking and effective writing, and connects to ed-
from the proliferation of social media and the pop- ucational and social concerns beyond the film stud-
ularity of video games that have made films less ies classroom. The authors feel that students should
popular and influential, students today have a vari- move beyond subjective responses, reminding
ety of platforms to access a broad range of main- them that to
stream, independent, and international films. This
means that beyond the latest Star Wars film or pop- think seriously about film and to study it care-
fully is therefore to take charge of one of the
ular Disney animation, students will likely share a most influential forces in our lives. Expanding
limited number of commonly watched films an in- our knowledge of the cinema—from its formal
structor can refer to when providing examples. The grammar to its genres to its historical move-
instructor’s goal then is to choose films — classics? ments—connects our everyday knowledge to
the wider sociocultural patterns and questions
foreign? popular? documentary? experimental? — that shape our lives. (17)
that teach students to critically engage with films,
Corrigan and White provide a text that takes a
not only by building their skills in analyzing the
very broad approach to introduce students to the
themes and issues addressed in films, but also by
many facets that make up film studies. The chapters
presenting terminology and concepts that will give
are well-organized, and most follow the same struc-
them the means to discuss and write about how the
ture, which makes the text more user friendly for
formal and narrative elements of film communicate
students. For example, Chapter Three, titled “Cin-
those themes and issues.
ematography: Framing What We See,” begins with
In The Film Experience: An Introduction (4th edi- “A Short History of Cinematography” and then
tion), Timothy Corrigan and Patricia White eschew discusses “Elements of Cinematography” and then
the “Great Films and Directors” approach, and in- concludes with “Making Sense of Cinematog-
stead make the pedagogical choice to emphasize raphy.” In this last section, students are asked to
the role of the spectator/student in the film expe- think about the expressive effects of framing and
rience. As they explain in the Introduction, camera distance, moving from identifying and de-
scribing formal elements of cinematography to

Joakim Ake Nilsson

“defining our relationship to the cinematic image” with a “Concepts at Work” section. Many introduc-
(122). This structure, as seen in all chapters, reflects tory film textbooks end each chapter with a detailed
the authors’ emphasis on critical thinking, and how summary of the main ideas and concepts presented
the student should progress from identifying for- in the chapter. Consistent with their focus on criti-
mal elements to discussing how those formal ele- cal thinking, Corrigan and White have chosen in-
ments work in the film to communicate specific stead to provide a brief summary, and then present
ideas to, and evoke certain feelings in, the audience. questions and activities that ask students to apply
the concepts to specific films: at the end of the
In each chapter, the authors provide a large
Chapter Four, “Editing: Relating Images,” they ask
number of brief references to films, each accompa-
students to “Draw a floor plan of Marlowe’s office
nied by a single frame image. These images are
based on the spatial cues given in The Big Sleep’s ed-
drawn from films from a variety of time periods
iting” (173). This requires students to apply the
and countries, and provide a broad array of exam-
principles of film editing in an imaginative way,
ples that students and instructors can explore in
which is far more valuable than simply asking stu-
more detail. However, as most of the film refer-
dents to memorize and describe different types of
ences given in the text are very brief, they may not
editing. What would be useful at the end of each
have much meaning to students if they have not
chapter to both students and instructors is an al-
seen the film; without the ability to connect the ex-
phabetical works cited list of all referenced films,
ample to the concept being discussed, students may
given the large number of films included in each
not be able to “see” the concept in action. This ap-
proach stands in contrast to a much shorter and less
visual text like Ed Sikov’s Film Studies: An Introduc- In Part One, “Cultural Contexts: Watching,
tion (2009); Sikov instead provides more generic, Studying, and Making Movies,” Corrigan and
hypothetical, though more concretely-detailed ex- White discuss the importance of students engaging
amples to explain formal and narrative elements. critically with film. In the Introduction, “Studying
Corrigan and White also provide a few additional Film: Culture and Experience,” they ask students to
detailed examples in the “Form in Action” and think more critically about how the viewer’s iden-
“Film in Focus” sections in each chapter, which of- tity plays a key role in the film experience--how “ex-
fer lengthier discussions of films, as well as a link to periential circumstances” and “experiential histo-
the LaunchPad Solo website. This is a very valuable ries” (10) shape a viewer’s emotional and/or critical
resource where students can view over sixty mon- response to a film. In Chapter One, titled “Encoun-
tages and film clips and instructors can find instruc- tering Film: From Preproduction to Exhibition,”
tional resources, and select and embed videos clips the authors present an overview of the making,
for lectures and assignments. Website access is free marketing, and exhibiting of films, and how culture
for instructors, and can be bundled with the text- and technology play a role in the changing ways
book for no additional cost, giving students a six- viewers experience films. Continuing their focus on
month subscription to the website. the role of the viewer in all aspects of film, they
begin the chapter by suggesting that students
Another valuable feature of the text is that each
should “think of production and reception as a cy-
chapter begins with “Key Objectives,” a point-
cle rather than a one-way process: what goes into
form list of the main ideas to be covered, and ends

2 Vol. 1, No. 1 | Winter 2016

Book Review: The Film Experience

making and circulating a film anticipates the mo- own history and formal elements, and analyzing ex-
ment of viewing, and viewing tastes and habits in- perimental film requires a strong knowledge of nar-
fluence film production and distribution” (20). This rative film that the students are still developing. An
overview also provides a valuable context in which important element of narrative film that the authors
students can explore the expressive qualities of the do not discuss is how stories, whether original or
formal and narrative elements of film, which the adapted, become screenplays, which are then
authors address in the next two parts of the text. turned into films. Screenwriters are only mentioned
in a paragraph in Chapter One, and some instruc-
In Part Two, “Formal Compositions: Film
tors may feel that more attention should be paid to
Scenes, Shots, Cuts, and Sounds,” Corrigan and
how the written word shapes the narrative and non-
White examine the formal elements of film in de-
narrative elements of a film. The final chapter of
tail, dedicating a chapter each to mise-en-scène, cin-
Part Three addresses the history and elements of
ematography, editing, and sound. They clearly de-
genre, and briefly outlines the features of six im-
fine and explain technical terms, using numerous
portant genres: comedies, westerns, melodramas,
examples and images from a range of national and
musicals, horror films, and crime films. This is an
historical films and film genres, including detailed
effective choice, as the variety of genres will give
discussions of mise-en-scène in Spike Lee’s Do the
students and instructors the opportunity to explore
Right Thing (1989) and the animated Fantastic Mr.
one or more of these genres in more detail. In dis-
Fox (2009), editing in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and
cussing each genre, Corrigan and White describe
Battle Potemkin (1925), and the relationship between
key features and themes, as well as subgenres, such
image and sound in Singin’ in the Rain (1952). In the
as Psychological versus Physical Horror films. They
“Concepts at Work” section that ends the chapter
also challenge students to think more critically
on film sound, the authors again prompt students
about what attracts viewers to a particular genre.
to think critically about the relationship between
They explain that “[c]omedies celebrate the har-
sound and other formal and narrative elements of
mony and resiliency of social life. Although many
the film. As a suggested “Activity,” they ask stu-
viewers associate comedies with laughs and humor,
dents to “select a scene or sequence from a film that
comedy is more fundamentally about social recon-
uses orchestral music” and then substitute another
ciliation and the triumph of the physical over the
type of music or a song and reflect on ways in
intellectual” (322). They describe the appeal of hor-
which “the changes redirect our understanding of
ror films as rooted in social and psychological ca-
the scene and its meaning” (209).
tharsis: “horror films dramatize our personal and
Part Three, “Organizational Structures: From social terrors in their different forms, in effect al-
Stories to Genres,” dedicates one chapter, “Narra- lowing us to admit them and attempt to deal with
tive Films: Telling Stories,” to discussing the narra- them in an imaginary way and as part of a commu-
tive elements of film. Other chapters follow, focus- nal experience” (332). The authors provide an ef-
ing on documentary films and “Experimental Film fective description of each genre, but also ask stu-
and New Media.” The authors effectively outline dents to reflect on how films can cross between
each area of film. However, for instructors teaching genres or can challenge genre conventions.
a one quarter/semester class, it may be enough to
Part Four, “Critical Perspectives: History,
discuss narrative film; documentary film has its
Methods, Writing,” will force instructors to make

Joakim Ake Nilsson

content and pedagogical choices based on the tween different common writing assignments re-
amount of content they think they can effectively lated to film, the authors provide a sample of a crit-
ask student to engage with, and on the level of crit- ical film review of Minority Report (2002), and then a
ical thinking skills their students possess. Chapter sample essay presenting of a more objective analy-
Ten, “History and Historiography: Hollywood and sis of Rashomon (1950). Corrigan and White clearly
Beyond,” is a valiant attempt to cover, in forty explain the need for primary and secondary
pages, the history of Hollywood cinema, Interna- sources, and discuss how to effectively incorporate
tional cinema, Independent cinema, and cinema by and correctly cite sources in the unfortunately now-
women, African Americans, and the LGBTQ com- outdated seventh edition of Modern Language As-
munities. This broad approach stands in contrast to sociation (MLA) style. To further assist students in
the choice made by John Belton in American Cin- their research, the authors provide a good list of In-
ema/ American Culture, 4th edition (2012); taking a ternet sources related to film studies. They also pro-
cultural studies approach, Belton provides a more vide a full-length sample research essay that ex-
detailed exploration of how post-World War Two plores the connection between historical context
American cinema reflects the cultural and political and violence in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).
changes in American society. Corrigan and White Furthermore, after an extensive Glossary, the au-
have clearly emphasized inclusivity, and instructors thors include a final section entitled “The Next
can choose to provide more detail regarding one or Level: Additional Sources,” which provides a list of
more of these areas of film history. In the next secondary sources related to each specific chapter,
chapter, Corrigan and White explore film theory, some of which are mentioned in the particular
which many instructors may decide is simply too chapter.
much to ask of students in a first-year film class—
Corrigan and White have provided instructors
most instructors will introduce a particular theoret-
and students with a text that effectively covers most
ical approach simply by emphasizing political or so-
aspects of film studies, and provides an expansive
cial issues, such as representations of race or gen-
range of examples, both in the text and through the
der, but most universities leave a more detailed ex-
accompanying website. Teaching the text cover to
ploration of film theory for a second- or third-year
cover may be more appropriate for a course divided
over two quarters/semesters, but instructors can
The last chapter of this section, and the final choose particular areas of genre, film history, and
chapter of the book, “Writing a Film Essay: Obser- film theory to suit their needs. The structure of the
vations, Arguments, Research, and Analysis,” is text is easy to follow, and the outlining of “Key Ob-
one of the highlights of the book, and one of the jectives” at the beginning of each chapter allows
best chapters on writing about film that I have en- students to focus their attention on specific learn-
countered. The authors discuss the importance of ing outcomes for that chapter. Again, the “Con-
students moving from personal opinion to critical cepts at Work” section that ends each chapter does
objectivity, and provide an excellent model of the not focus on summarizing the main concepts ad-
writing process, by which students work from crit- dressed in the chapter; instead, it provides ques-
ically watching a film to establishing a topic to de- tions and activities that help students analyze how
veloping a thesis. To help students distinguish be- the ideas presented inform our understanding of
the film experience. The greatest strengths of The

4 Vol. 1, No. 1 | Winter 2016

Book Review: The Film Experience

Film Experience: An Introduction are the more detailed fectively-supported film analysis. This book effec-
analyses of films that can be viewed on the tively provides the tools necessary to develop a stu-
LaunchPad Solo website, a valuable resource for stu- dent’s skills in analyzing, researching, and writing
dents and instructors, and the last chapter, which about all aspects of film.
provides students with all the tools necessary to
move from active viewing to critical thinking to or-
ganizing their ideas into a clearly-structured and ef-