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  Nóra Borthaiser

John Belton: American Cinema/American Culture (Second Edition)

Book review

Nóra Borthaiser is undergraduate student at the Department of American Studies and at the Department of English, University of Szeged. E-mail:




John Belton

American Cinema/American Culture

McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages; 2 edition (August 10, 2004)

480 pages

ISBN 0-07-288627-7 (paperback)

Dimensions: 0.8×7.2×8.8 inches



John Belton’s American Cinema/American Culture (Second Edition) was published in 2005 as a revised version of the 1994 (first) edition. As the title suggests, the book deals with the interplay of the American cinema and culture and in a way is subjected to the method of “The New Film History.” As Belton puts it, this approach does not apply the “time-worn format of chronological narrative of events” but rather tries to give an “updated map of the terrain of American cinema”[1] intertwined with cultural history. Thus, the aim of the book is to cover, show and analyze the amalgam of American cinema and culture starting out “from the emergence of the cinema as an institution” “into the twenty-first century.” Belton claims that after cultural and historical crises of the 20th century, a coherent national identity had to be maintained (or re-created?) and it was precisely the American cinema that served as a kind of social bridge. Recommended for film studies, American studies and cultural studies courses, the book is divided into three parts and subdivided into sixteen chapters that still follow a quasi-chronological order.


After the preface and the introduction, the first part (“The Mode of Production”) opens with the above-mentioned chapter, “The Emergence of the Cinema as an Institution”, in which Belton - a bit hectically - tries to grab the phenomenon of cinema from several points-of-view (historical, technical, social, economic, etc.). Unsurprisingly, cinema is claimed to be the ‘magic’ of the “wizard of Menlo Park”, which is a common conviction of American film theorists. European ones would stand up and chant the name of the Lumière brothers instead that of Edison – and they are most probably not mistaken. Belton spares not more than a line to the Lumières and quickly continues with the following subchapter. Not only in this specific case but in general, we can state for sure that Belton does not deal with European film industry or film history and practically shows cinema as a pure American invention with no roots in the Old Continent. (Considering his claim on the relationship of the cinema and coherent national identity in the preface, his ‘exclusively-American’ approach may be understandable, yet it is far from the complete picture.)


Following a chronological order from the kinetoscope through the nickelodeons to movie palaces, the reader gets a hint of American social relations at the turn of the century, accompanied with the appearance of film narratives (6-20). Inasmuch theory or theories are concerned, Belton puts them aside as much as he can, and even if he tries to pin down his examples to some film theories he does so by referring to American, not so well-known or key-note theorists. Even though Belton does not accept (or at least does not promote) the European version of the origins of film and the cinema, he should apply or tend to refer to European film theorists, semioticians or philosophers in his argumentation. The lack of theoretical background is often disturbing and gives a sense of discredit to some parts of the book, since this background could be a string Belton’s otherwise inspiring and colorful examples would be placed on.


Subsequently, in the first part of the book, we have a chapter on narration in classical Hollywood cinema (22-44). Starting out from a general, structural description of narratives, Belton summarizes the way film narratives can be analyzed and introduces the term “segmentation.” Segmenting three films as illustrations of the method (30-41), I assume Belton did a good job, still I miss the articulation of the distinction between the notions ‘story’ and ‘plot’ (or ‘fabula’ vs. ‘sujet’), which does have a place here. In chapter 3 (45-65) we get an unarguably clear definition of mise-en-scène, camera movements, lightning, sound and editing – a brilliantly well-structured chapter with great illustrations of the 180-degree rule and the three-point lightning system.


Chapters 4 and 5 deal with the studio and star systems in Hollywood (66-125). The listing and introduction of the major and minor studios throughout the 20th century somewhat remind me of the entries of an encyclopedia: titles, actors, actresses, dates – seemingly unimportant facts gathered just for the sake of the ‘necessary’ length of the chapter. The films mentioned are hardly known and, what is more important, too old to be easily available for those who would like to watch them (at least in this part of the world). Belton picked the wrong horse with this listing approach since this chapter turns out to be one of the least exciting ones in the book. Moreover, the useful and important information on the Hollywood studio system get oppressed by this load of data – the only exception may be the subchapters dealing with vertical integration and block booking, blind bidding, runs, zones and clearances. The following chapter has a somewhat similar approach – more than necessary examples are piled upon one another. Yet, the subchapter “Mechanics of Stardom” gives a pretty clear overview of the financial, economic and social background of being a star. With case studies of Tom Hanks, Marilyn Monroe and others, Belton turns again to his encyclopedia-building approach and slows down (or even breaks) the flow of the chapter; the historical overview of stardom even seems a bit old-fashioned. However, the last two parts entitled “Different Faces: The Rise of Black Stars” (119-122) and “Economics and Contemporary Stardom” (122-124) are probably the most inspiring to students since the names and films mentioned here are the ones known to most students today.


In the second part of the book six different types of genres are introduced and analyzed, namely: silent film melodrama, musical, American comedy, war movies, film noir, western. The reason why Belton decided on these particular genres is not articulated, but reading through the introductory paragraphs of the second part, we get the hint that Belton considers these genres ‘as American as apple pie.’ The introductory pages are otherwise a good summary of what genres are and what (financial) necessities of them can be mentioned.


In Silent Film Melodrama (chapter 6) Belton introduces the genre by referring to E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and A. I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), which are definitely not silent films, but their applying is a great way to give students an idea what melodrama is. The author points out that melodrama is a modal genre and thus “exists primarily as an attitude or method of treatment,” (134) therefore films like The Godfather (1972) or Spider-Man (2002) can be coined as melodramatic. In this respect, Belton’s argumentation might seem a bit loose, which does not necessarily mean that it is false; yet, the application of theories concerning the working-pattern of melodrama or melodramatic films would certainly back up Belton’s argumentation.


Belton starts with the silent film period presumably to maintain a sort-of chronological order (the reason of which is not perfectly clear to me since in the very beginning of the book he claims that the book is written in the method of “The New Film History”, i.e. neglecting the what-happened-when, strict chronological order). Emphasizing the social factors of melodrama, the author connects film and culture up to the point where he claims that “melodramas embodied the American dream, offering success to anyone with the courage and strength to pursue it” (139). After turning to the political side of melodramas, Belton draws under scrutiny Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and proves the melodramatic nature of the film and, at the same time, calls the reader’s attention to the racial issue raised by the film. Actually, the aim of the chapter to emphasize the strict relation of (melodramatic) film and culture is wittily fulfilled, although the theoretical background is still missing, or vaguely mentioned.


Dancing, singing and the ‘realistic’ world of musicals are presented in chapter 7 (150-169). Structured on the basis of musical forms, the chapter gives an extensive overview of this genre – an easy-to-understand categorization of musicals is presented to the reader. Although most people would claim that musicals are seemingly unrealistic or fantasy-like, Belton soon convinces the reader that in its context, the musical is just as realistic as any other genre (therefore should not be prejudged). Brightly, the author adds at the end of the chapter that animated features for children prepared the stage for the comeback of musicals (yet it is worth considering whether this comeback would be as successful and long-lasting as it was decades ago).


Belton argues in chapter 8 (170-199) that American comedy and culture cannot be separated since it is precisely culture or rather the tensions within culture that generates comedy. Referring (wittily) to Freud and a quasi-psychoanalytic approach to comedies, he legitimizes the existence and importance of comedies as a genre that is never taken seriously, therefore has the possibility to articulate unspeakable problems within culture and society without being attacked for it (170-171). Belton constructs this chapter so that he can mention all the matters that generate the finally articulated tensions: racism, social integration/disintegration, sex and politics. This summary is a brilliantly composed one with just the necessary amount of examples. The second part of the chapter gives introspection into the history of American comedy starting from the silent film era (Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, etc.) through screwball comedies to the more up-to-date animal and ironic romantic comedies.


The reader is guided to the “world of extremes” in chapter 9: “War and Cinema” (200-224). Belton claims that war film is the maximization of spectacles and emotions. He approaches the topic from several points-of-view, partly concentrating on structural differences (“deviant narratives” (202-204)), psychoanalytical factors (204-208) and partly focusing on the ideological background of war films. The topic of race and ethnicity comes back again. A historical approach also appears (quite rightly), focusing on the Vietnam War, the Gulf War and World War II. Belton concludes with the war film as the mediator between us and (the possibility of) wars: “all contemporary wars are waged on two fronts – on the battlefield and on the screen” (223). War films serve as educators, inasmuch as they tell us why wars are necessary, how to bear defeat or victory; but moreover to emphasize our right to wars even though we may not be the winner.


Providing a historical and ideological background of film noir, Belton introduces probably his best composed and most to-the-point chapter in the book (225-247). The author acknowledges that film noir lacks the institutional status of traditional genres and can be defined in several ways. To provide the clearest picture of it, he approaches film noir from several stands, including aesthetics, themes, archetypical characters and cultural background (production code, censorship, etc.). The illustrative subchapter on noir and its literary origins (236-239) serves as the penultimate piece in the film noir puzzle; the picture gets completed with the outstandingly informative subchapter on women characters’ social and psychological role and effect on the audience (239-242). Applying the theories of Laura Mulvey and Sigmund Freud helps Belton pinning down his argumentation on women, especially on the character of the femme fatale.


Originating from the nineteenth-century, the myth of the Western is just as important and strong these days as it used to be – that is the claim of the author in chapter 11 (248-276). Belton articulates the American-ness of the genre in a couple of pages, gathering more and more historical and ideological proof. He repeatedly refers to Frederick Jackson Turner and his frontier thesis as a kind of theoretical base of the Western (250-251). Turner’s idea about the closing of the western frontier got revised in the 1960s when outer space becomes the next (final?) frontier – this approach can also be detected in film studies. However odd it might seem, it is true, and Belton manages to prove it pretty well: science-fictions like Star Wars are also Westerns in the sense of iconography.


The third part of the book investigates postwar American cinema. Including the subchapters on the Cold War era, the age of television, the significant and transforming role of counterculture, the film school generation and the changes towards the twenty-first century, this part leads the reader to nowadays American film culture.


The thorough historical review of the Cold War period is of great help for non-American readers especially for those who were born at around the end of it. This period is far in space and time for young readers and as a matter of fact the activity of Hollywood related to this topic is even more out of the spectrum in the case of students coming from post-socialist countries. For political and ideological reasons American anti-Communist films were cut off from the peoples of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Block. Because of this very reason, this chapter proves to be the most informative for these students. Belton first gives an overview of the historical and ideological background of the Cold War and then turns towards the ‘screen’ to illustrate how anti-Communist ideology got projected in American films and what the effects of the era were on film industry. Though not closely connected to today’s film industry, the description of the Cold War-period film making is outstanding in its coherence.


Chapter 13 depicts “Hollywood in the Age of Television” (304-323). After losing much of its audience due to social changes, Hollywood had to come up with a couple of technological inventions to attract people. The mechanisms of these new phenomena (Cinerama system, 3-D, CinemaScope,Todd-AO, etc.) are explained by Belton in a very clear and accessible way, yet the subchapter on making CinemaScope Fit on TV seems to be a bit vague. Belton concludes with a remark on the fact that movie-goers have lower and lower expectations towards the cinema, since it has not been changed fundamentally in the last 30 years, whereas – as previous subchapters point out – home entertainment is getting more and more advanced and spectacular (even awesome) (322).


The clash of the marginal and the mainstream is in the focus of chapter 14: “The 1960s: The Counterculture Strikes Back” (324-347). Belton points out several political factors that generated an overwhelming change in the American cinema: the Vietnam War, heightened tension within society, movements, etc. When these problems surfaced in the 1960s, the cinema had to accommodate itself to the new waves. This change, with the explicit articulation of taboos (drugs, sex, etc.), soon led to a different kind of audience (with a different kind of morality). Hair, Bonnie and Clyde or Easy Rider are just three of this prolific period, and great examples to explain the distinctive features of counterculture cinema. Belton reminds the reader that a split in the cinema can be detected in the 1960s: the conservative, middle-aged, middle-class movie-goers attended the once-mainstream films; the younger generation watched the taboo-less youth-cult ones.


Belton examines the “Film School Generation” in chapter 15 (348-374). After the introductory part (in which he describes how European films and, alongside, film theories ‘conquered’ the United States), he turns to Andrew Sarris and his auteur theory, but unfortunately gives just some hints of this important phenomenon. The otherwise smooth flow of the chapter is (again) disturbed by the hundreds of unnecessary data (which are actually collected at the end of the chapter in a table format).


Concluding with the chapter “Into the Twenty-First century” (375-413), the author tries to provide the ideological background working behind today’s American cinema. The challenge is great, since the films presented are so recent that it seems to be hard to pinpoint any clear-cut ideology behind them. Belton tries as hard as he can to define the influencing factors and does have some brilliant observations but the coherence of the chapter is a bit off balance. The subchapters on digitalization and fantasy films are detailed thoroughly; the linking between the fantasy-related subchapters and the following “Prefiguring September 11, 2001” (407-410) is amusing (by citing Adorno and Freud, Belton wins the day). In my opinion, dealing with the effects of 9/11 on American cinema is a great challenge, one that is now almost impossible to be carried out – Belton tries it only by referring to film related to this topic (some theoretical backup would certainly be of Belton’s help here).


John Belton’s American Cinema/American Culture is a great accompanying book to introductory film studies courses. Its language is smooth, the pictures are illustrative and its logically built up structure helps the students get initiated to the field of film studies step by step. The concluding tables (“Select Filmography” and “Select Bibliography”) at the end of each chapter are of great help to the reader; the glossary at the very end of the book is necessary to have the clear definitions of technical terms, since they often do not get articulated in the relevant chapters. Due to the very limited amount of theoretical background, Belton’s argumentation and interpretations prove to be somewhat baseless several times.


The book is useful not only for American students but for others as well; yet, a great percentage of the films mentioned and/or analyzed in the book (mostly the older ones) are hardly accessible in countries like Hungary.





[1] John Belton. American Cinema/American Culture. 2nd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005., xx. All subsequent references to this book will be in the text.



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