- The History of Cinema: A Very Short Introduction by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, and: Hollywood: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Decherney
Geoffrey Nowell-Smith's The History of Cinema and Peter Decherney's Hollywood are two worthy additions to Oxford's 'Very Short Introduction' series which has, up until this point, been rather lacking in media offerings. Both books fulfil the objective of the series to provide concise and accessible introductions to the topics under review.
The History of Cinema provides an international overview of 120 years of cinema. The book opens with an engaging introduction that probes the concepts of both history and cinema, with Nowell-Smith explaining that the latter is no one thing: "Cinema is films, the machinery that makes them, and the places where people go to see them. It is a technology, an industry, an art form, a way of viewing the world–or of creating worlds to be viewed" (1). This introduction clearly sets up the rationale for the book's thematic structure. 'Technology' and 'Industry,' the first two of the four body chapters, cover a wide range of subjects from the introduction of sound and colour, to the studio system. The former chapter is particularly brief, but the latter does an excellent job of exploring how the industry developed in Europe and Asia as well as the USA. 'Cinema as Art Form' charts cinema's evolution into a recognized art form, something which Nowell-Smith reminds readers was never guaranteed. Editing, genre, and the impact of sound are considered, as well as the contribution of the neorealists and French New Wave. The final body chapter, 'Cinema and the Outer World,' places cinema in the context of world events and looks at how cinema "recorded and reflected these changes," and also "changed or was forced to change in response to them" (74). While American cinema receives much of the attention (which it must in any history of cinema, given its primacy) this is balanced throughout with discussion of various national cinemas. It is not only Rossellini, Truffaut, Kurosawa and their respective movements that receive attention, but also lesser known Thai, Indonesian and Czechoslovakian filmmakers, to name but a few. The History of Cinema demonstrates that the history of cinema is, and continues to be, a global history.
Decherney's slightly longer Hollywood consists of eight chapters that are generally organized chronologically. The book opens with a very brief, and slightly disappointing, introduction that outlines five observations about "how and why Hollywood has developed," but little context or explanation is provided to accompany these five theses, presented as they are at the start of the book (1). Much stronger are the body chapters, which encompass over 100 years of Hollywood history, from Edison's kinetoscope to the rise of Netflix. Decherney adeptly considers how Hollywood, as both an industry and a producer of art, has been shaped by, and adapted to, technical developments and significant current events. A key argument made across the text is that Hollywood has continually managed to overcome and thrive on challenges posed by potential threats emerging from both within and outside of the industry. Indeed, the book ends on an optimistic note about the future of Hollywood with Decherney stating that there "is no evidence to suggest that Hollywood will not continue to grow bigger and stronger and continue to dominate global media production for the foreseeable future" (129). A strength of the book, and part of what makes it such an engaging read, are the mini case-studies of films that are dotted throughout to illustrate key developments and moments in Hollywood's history: the use of music in Sunrise [End Page 106] (Murnau, 1927) and the political message of Confessions of a Nazi Spy (Litvak, 1939). Decherney's history of Hollywood is not only surprisingly thorough for such a short time, but always manages to bring the content to life.
Both books are structured and formatted in the clear, readable style of the 'Very Short Introduction...