Engaging Cinema: An Introduction to Film Studies (Nichols, 2010)

Bill Nichols’s Engaging Cinema: An Introduction to Film Studies is a textbook that not only recognizes that the Internet exists but also understands how the presence of the Internet can make textbooks cheaper. Engaging Cinema is a textbook about film that includes not a single photograph, still, or cel reproduction; other than a few line drawings to illustrate some film-making lingo, there are no images of films, actors, directors, or even movie posters. Nichols points to DVDs and the Internet as “one of the great facts of contemporary film distribution and exhibition” (xxiii); consequently, a film text need not include all of those images which require costly releases. Why make your book prohibitively expensive when all a student or professor needs to do is hop over to YouTube to find examples and scenes from just about any classic film one might want to examine in class?

Nichols also understands that the student in an introductory film course may not be an embryonic film historian or film maker. Engaging Cinema deftly combines discussion of technical film-making technique, history, and social engagement. Nichols carefully lays out the Formal and Social contexts in which we view films and illustrates the ways in which they overlap and inform each other. His explanations of various film movements make clear how the historical moment and technological developments combined to create new aesthetic possibilities. The chapter on ideology in film is as good a primer on Marxist analysis as you are likely to find, and the chapters on masculinity and femininity draw a subtle line between gender studies and feminist analysis. As an introduction to film, the approach presents students with a panorama of the possibilities available in studying even the most commercial film.

Perhaps it is this kind of high-wire act that makes the text so successful. Engaging Cinema: An Introduction to Film Studies pulls off a very satisfying balance. Nichols manages to show the beginning student a wider world of cinema without belittling the Hollywood blockbusters filling the mall cinema multiplex. He provides any number of historical examples of films most college freshmen have never heard of while referencing films likely to be readily available through online streaming or making regular appearances on cable. Students may not be excited about montage editing or the 180-degree rule, but Nichols is able to show how these techniques affect the viewer and build social engagement.

Of course, for a textbook, the ultimate test is in the classroom. I used Engaging Cinema in a sophomore-level course that was focused more on comparative anthropology than on film. I hoped that the book would give us a language to use as we compared different cultures as they presented themselves through film. Even students who were the most resistant to the overall project of the course found themselves applying concepts from Engaging Cinema in effective ways to talk about the films. The more engaged students were regularly excited by the new insights into their favorite films towards which Engaging Cinema led them. In the end, Engaging Cinema was an effective classroom tool pitched appropriately to the first- or second-year college student.

Todd C. Truffin is a teacher, writer, disc golfer, home brewer and cinephile. He is the co-host of The Thin Place Podcast at Film Geek Radio.

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