First cut is the deepest

Dr Jenny Barrett

Disney’s Robin Hood was her first film, and Star Wars took her breath away as a teenager. But it was Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves, made in 1948, that really sparked Dr Jenny Barrett’s lifelong fascination with the power and reach of film. Since then our Reader in Film Studies and Popular Culture has immersed herself in the medium, taking her research across the Atlantic, and focusing on Hollywood and its depiction of the American experience, especially the Western. Working with Edge Hill’s International Centre on Racism, her research draws attention to ongoing patterns of racism in the cinema.

Dr Jenny Barrett

The first film I remember seeing was Disney’s Robin Hood.
I think I was about four or five years old and I was rather overwhelmed with the giant, dark auditorium, the swinging seats and the volume. It wasn’t until I got to around fourteen years old that I realised I could have my own taste in films, just about the same time that I was able to see AA certified films! (for those too young to know, AA was the category for 14 years and older). But it was Star Wars that first, quite literally, took my breath away. I’m not a huge science fiction or fantasy film fan, but that film swept me up so completely, I wanted to see it over and over again. And many years of watching Saturday matinees on TV meant that I knew Westerns more than your average teenager.

The first time that I saw the Italian neorealist film The Bicycle Thieves, I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I’d never seen anything like it before, showing the terrible lives of people living in poverty after the Second World War. I knew that I needed to know more about what film could do.

The Bicycle Thieves © MGM
The Bicycle Thieves © MGM

I’m hopelessly emotional when I watch films. I have a mental commentary in my head which ponders on colours, performances, music – so much, in fact, that I have to watch a film more than once if I want to actually know what happened! I cry, laugh, jump out of my seat, even though I’m fully aware of all of the devices used by filmmakers to create those visceral reactions. It’s keeping an ear open to my critical mind that’s essential, but often it’s the second time of viewing that I hear it.

Often people will remark that film theorists and critics are ‘reading too much’ into the films we watch: I have to disagree. A film is more than a film. It’s a view on the world, an agenda, a dominant opinion, or even a contrary opinion. Films may be re-written histories, affirmations of identity and political manifestos. They can be experiments, breaking the rules of cinematic language, or formulaic re-tellings of stories we’ve heard a hundred times before. And even if it’s ‘just entertainment’, it still tells us so much about the world that produced it. We also have the stars, the directors, the box office, the awards and the festivals. There’s so much to study about film.

My core research is into historical representations of America’s past. That includes the Western, and constructions of racial identities in those films. Since I started studying film I’ve been really engaged with how Hollywood has depicted the American Civil War, what kind of American ‘ancestor’ is up there on the screen and how that ancestor changes over time. I’m also fascinated with the idea of genre and how it both repeats and changes its conventions. Why does a Western from 1939 represent heroic violence in a different way to a Western from 1969?

The Birth of a Nation continues to be a significant film, over a hundred years later. Its director, DW Griffith, has been called ‘the Father of Film’, having firmly established cinema as an artform before Hollywood as an industry even existed. Not only can we find within this film some of the most common stereotypes of black people from a white perspective, we can also see the way that a film gripped a nation with its sweeping, melodramatic tale of war, love and heroism. When it was released, people protested on the streets for its racist representations of African Americans, wrote to newspapers, and even threw eggs at cinema screens, trying to get the film banned. But over the last century it has informed the work of many filmmakers seeking to destroy black stereotypes, such as Spike Lee.

Hollywood sign in LA, America
Hollywood sign in LA, America

Watch anything but watch it twice. Ask yourself why did the filmmaker choose that camera angle? Why was that colour used? Why did they cast that actor? Who directed this? What are they trying to say? Then read about it. Not just Rotten Tomatoes or Wikipedia, go to newspaper reviews. Maybe buy or borrow a book or two. Ask yourself where your interest is taking you and get a book on, say German Cinema, or Disney, or on a specific director. Allow your interest to guide you. Studying films and reading about them enriches your love for them. It brings them alive.