Book Review: Film and Nationalism

Alan Williams, ed. 2002. Film and Nationalism. Depth of Field. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, pp. 261.

At a time when funding for film projects is raised globally, Hollywood films dominate most international markets, and non-Hollywood films often adopt Hollywood conventions in order to compete on a global stage, film scholars increasingly face the question: does national cinema still exist and, if so, what is it? The essays contained in Film and Nationalism all grapple with this question from different perspectives and using often dramatically contrasting methodological approaches. Though predominantly featuring scholarly contributions, the collection also includes the thoughts of several film critics. The anthology offers an excellent introduction to its central question and forces non-film scholars to confront the still larger quandary: what does it mean to be a nation in a period of global markets and instant communication.

In his well-rounded introduction, Alan Williams points out that "Nationhood . . . is not merely established, it must be maintained; its definition, therefore, will inevitably shift over time" (3). This point very nicely sets up the collection has a whole. Nations persist precisely because they are flexible enough to adapt to new circumstances. The greater question becomes how exactly nations are bent according to new demands. This is where a topic like film might be broadly useful. The way in which "national" cinema has developed and evolved might provide clues toward understanding the evolution of nations and nationalism.

The volume is divided into four major sections. The first offers three theoretical approaches to understanding the position of the nation in film—two of which will be addressed here. Stephen Crofts argues that individual national cinemas have had to respond, in one way or another, to the hegemony of Hollywood. This adaptation leads him to categorize national cinemas according to the approach each has adopted. Crofts’s argument has two major problems. First, it leads us to ignore the specifics of individual cases in order to fit them into a pre-defined category. Second, and far more troublesome, by looking only at the top-down construction of national cinema, Crofts ignores the group that should be the scholar’s primary concern—the nation’s members. By contrast, Andrew Higson rightly invites us to consider the "consumption" of national cinema. Just as important (and maybe more so) as those who make movies are those who watch them. He suggests that such an approach

Involves a shift in emphasis away from the analysis of film texts as vehicles for the articulation of national sentiment . . . to an analysis of how actual audiences construct their cultural identity in relation to the various products of the national and international film and television industries, and the conditions under which this is achieved. (65)

The second section contains three case studies of national cinemas. First, Tom O’Regan looks at Australian cinema in terms of what it has in common with other national cinemas and, in this way, helps us better understand national cinema. Ultimately, he suggests that national cinemas are a product of international cinema and are thus defined by what they are not. This creates a relationship in which the national is reconfigured by the international. National cinemas transfer culture into the international sphere, just as they appropriate international themes and styles. It is a complicated relationship and one that deserves far more attention. The final two essays in this section, one Eric Rentschler and the second by Noel Burch and Genevieve Sellia provide useful case studies of how film might be used as historical text and in so doing often shed light on questions that other modes of study do not fully answer—in this case, the popularity of the NSDAP and changing gender roles in France between 1930 and 1947 respectively.

The third section considers the tensions experienced by national cinemas, both historically and in the present period. In a rant directed against Western critics of Hong Kong cinema, Stephen Teo illustrates one avenue through which western ideas define and, in his mind, undermine a unique national product. He argues against film critics who are able to canonize some directors (usually those creating something similar to a Western product), at the expense of true indigenous talent. Meanwhile, Ana M. Lopez argues that Hollywood is not purely a consumer of national stereotypes, but instead acts as an ethnographer by identifying, codifying, and presenting images of the "other."

The final section deals with the "’postnational’ future?" of film. Jonathan Rosenbaum suggests that the notion of "national" cinema has become "shopworn" (220) and argues that Hollywood film, in the twenty years between the making of Star Wars (1977) and the making of Starship Troopers (1997) ceased to contain anything uniquely American. This raises the question: just what is uniquely American? Or uniquely Japanese, Belgian, Irish, and so forth. It is a question that none of the essays presented here really prepare us to answer. Finally, Janet Staiger concludes the anthology with a neo-Marxist argument that nations were a product of the demands of Fordist capitalism and, now that we have moved on to a more global form of capitalism, have become redundant. The problem with this argument, of course, is that it is a-historical. Capitalism has always been global, even in the days of the British empire. Far less has changed that scholars like Staiger suggest.

In the end, Film and Nationalism does what any good anthology should do: it presents a range of arguments and approaches, often contradicting one another, and leaves the reader to sort them out. Ideally, it should draw greater attention to the continual re-formation of nations and push scholars towards a deeper consideration of how this process occurs.