Blackmail (Alfred Hitchcock, 1919)
Blackmail (Alfred Hitchcock, 1929)

A Book Review by Dean Goldberg.

While the introduction to this collection of published essays from the storied Spectator, the University of California’s premier film journal, provides an articulate jumping off point for the text, the book itself is certainly not a page turner. Not that it should be; Spectatorship: Shifting Theories of Gender, Sexuality and Media, edited by Roxanne Samer and William Whittington (U of Texas P, 2017) is, emphatically, a text and, quite possibly, a useful one for those academics who wish to integrate some excellent writing into their pedagogy. That said, I found this book laden with jargon and much too hung up on its own self-imposed rigor and while thematically organized, lacked a theoretically narrative cohesion.

The mission of the book, as well as the journal, described on the first page aims to serve students as well as broader film culture:

Founding Editor Professor Marsha Kinder described the aims of the journal as three fold: “to provide a vehicle for our students’ writing, to document and reflect on the diverse     range of exciting film and television events that occur at USC, and to present our perspectives on the state of the art and the state of film and television discourse” (1).

Spec 01While Samer and Whittington’s collection remains true to the mission, I found myself shaking my head non-plussed at some of the finer points that the individual authors were trying to make. For example, in the first essay of the collection, titled “Feminine Discourse in Blackmail” writer Amy Lawrence “explores the use of sound (in Hitchcock’s Blackmail, 1929)…and its reinforcement of gender dynamics of speech as they relate to power and control” (21). An interesting premise? Perhaps, but I simply couldn’t help feeling that Lawrence was confusing early technology with narrative muteness and male domination with an early attempt by Hitchcock to create an entertaining thriller. Yet, while reading, I also found myself going through the familiar (at least to me) process of finding the proper placement between theory and practice. Hitch himself would have probably said something to the effect of “it’s just a movie, darling,” a phrase in itself that could be the subject of a feminine discourse. But, Ah, here lies the rub: is there a line in the cinematic sand that signifies (oops! Another minefield!) too much rigor? My friend, Warren Buckland, whose works include The Cognitive Semiotics of Film and Puzzle Films might say absolutely not, even while he might mean the opposite – but that’s just the type of guy he is. And while I celebrate Warren’s obtuseness, I was disappointed with this collection mostly because at first glance I thought it might be a terrific text for a class of the same name. Unfortunately, in the end, I found it too darn esoteric. The essays range from really silly – Raffi Sarkissian’s take on “LGBT Politics of Entertainment Award Shows” seemed, at least to me, oxymoronic – to the really excellent – I found Christie Milliken’s essay, “The Articulation of Body and Space in Speak Body,” well thought out and well written. They remain, in the end, components of a university press collection, and like many of those, they overflow with great passion and insight as well as trite assertions and plain old wrongheadedness.

The book itself is laid out methodically into five parts: Revisiting Film Subjects and the Pleasures of Cinema; Speaking up and Sounding out, Queering Media; Containment and Critiques; Fandom and Transmedia. There are seventeen essays, and while I’ll admit to the comicality, or at least my attempt at it of this review, the essays are interesting and are chock full of the vitality of new academic engagement that remains the strength of the USC journal.

I received a soft covered version of the book which retails for $29.95. Amazon has it in hardcover for half the price, and while Spectatorship: Shifting theories of Gender, Sexuality and Media might not be required reading for my own film class on gender in film, it would certainly make my “recommended” list.

Dean Goldberg is an associate professor of communication arts and film studies at Mount Saint Mary College, a small liberal arts college in upstate New York. He spent more than half of his adult life as a film editor, writer and director and has, for the last fifteen years, been a full-time teacher. He teaches both production and film studies. His article “More Than a Touch of Madness” on Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (1970) appeared in issue 15.3 of Film International.

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