William V. Costanzo’s World Cinema through Global Genres is comprehensive and truly enjoyable. At 431 pages it never becomes dull or opaque, and instead provides clear, detailed investigations of world genres and the ways that they are shaped through processes of internationalisation and globalisation. Film scholars especially will find it to be tremendously valuable, and although it is grounded in the study of film, its many insights can be applied to other media as well. This is appropriate given the multi-disciplinary approach that film and media studies have taken in recent years. Costanzo provides a brief “How to Use this Book” section at the beginning, but World Cinema through Global Genres is so well-organised that it hardly seems necessary. Furthermore, Costanzo does not merely rely on long-established criteria as a means to categorise certain films into genres, but instead finds fresh, invigorating ways to identify their similarities, differences, and manner of influence.
The textbook is arranged into four units that are centred on a specific genre with formal and thematic connections: The Warrior Hero, the Wedding Film, the Horror Film, and the Road Movie. Each unit contains a core chapter that “provides a general discussion of themes and history as well as the cultural and artistic traditions from which it springs.” (p. xvi) Following the core chapter is a deep focus section that closely examines the geographical, historical, cultural and economic factors behind a specific national or regional cinema. The four close-up sections per unit analyse individual films that “exemplify important traditions and trends explored more generally in the unit’s core chapter.” (p. xvi) Although brief, these close-ups illustrate how each seemingly disparate film is a part of a larger dynamism that transcends global boundaries. For instance, Unit 1: The Warrior Hero is illustrated through careful analyses of the US film The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960), the Japanese film Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai, Akira Kurosawa, 1954), the Indian film Sholay (Ramesh Sippy, 1975), and the Hong Kong film Way of the Dragon (Bruce Lee, 1972). Tracing the developments of the American Western alongside the Japanese jidaigeki (Samurai) genre is a familiar analytical tactic, and is an effective method of introducing new students to the study of global cinema.
Collectively, however, these four films are not part of a single, nationally specific, and widely recognized genre such as the Western or the Japanese jidaigeki film. Instead, Costanzo sensibly uses the term warrior hero as an entry point for “comparing cultures and understanding how genres work” (p. 46). In Unit III, “The Horror Film”, he notes that “There is no single blueprint that accounts for every scene or plot […] it is more useful to think in terms of loosely shared traits.” (p. 209) Costanzo begins Unit III by exploring “what other people find horrifying in other parts of the world” (p. v) by first determining the major hallmark of the genre, which lies in its ability to provoke fear, disgust and terror. He then identifies reappearing conventions from film to film, such as the monster that somehow “disturbs the status quo” (p. 209.) With this as a common thread, Costanzo links the US film Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978), the Italian film Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977), Hideo Nakata’s Japanese film Ringu (Ring, 1998) and Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish-Mexican film El espinazo del diablo (The Devil’s Backbone, 2001). The close-ups reveal how the “monsters” in each film can be read as metaphors for the collective fears of their specific cultures. This makes visible the ways in which certain iconographies, character archetypes and narrative formulas have been preserved, appropriated or discarded completely from film to film, as well as the cultural factors that dictate these variances.
World Cinema through Global Genres raises thoughtful questions regarding the issue of genre hybridity across different cultural areas, as well as the difficulty that arises when defining genre itself. Film scholars agree that distinguishing one genre from the next is already problematic. While some are identified by their iconography, some are determined by the emotional effects that they have on the viewer. Others still are determined by their plot structure and means of presentation. Hybrids illustrate a genre’s malleability, and revisionist theorists will argue that generic developments are shaped by socio-political circumstances. Moreover, seemingly universal genres may span from culture to culture, but their subtext does not. As Costanzo illustrates, national cinemas each draw from unique sets of myths, histories and identities. Therefore, can any genre be truly ubiquitous even in a globalized world? What problems arise from translation and appropriation? What specific elements would be adopted or revised, but what would be misread or even resisted? This is a challenge not only for filmmakers on transnational co-productions or for distributors seeking international or even worldwide markets. These issues prove challenging for educators and scholars alike, especially when considering what approach to take when teaching genre studies to international students. For instance, American scholars may find it easy to see how horror films such as Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) and Halloween can be read as allegorical assaults on post war ideologies. But can this easily be explained to a student who has no knowledge of American history, or is completely unfamiliar with American generic conventions? How would a West African student explain the cultural nuances of a Nollywood Ritual Film to his or her American peers? For that matter, would that student even be inclined to categorise a Ritual Film as part of the horror genre,?
Although there is not much to dislike about World Cinema through Global Genres Costanzo himself acknowledges, “One of the great challenges of any film survey course is coverage […] some cinemas are inevitably left out.” (p. xv) Although there is a brief description of the Nigerian director Alassane Moustapha’s 1966 film Le retour d’un aventurier (The Return of an Adventurer) in Unit I (“The Warrior Hero”), there is, for instance, no deeper focus on African Cinemas. Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki (The Hyena’s Journey, 1973) would have been an excellent “close-up” for the “Road Movie” unit, especially when compared to Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960). This would have been an appropriate addition to a textbook on global film genres, especially since Touki Bouki appropriates many stylistic devices of the French New Wave while critiquing the lasting effects of French colonialism on its young, jaded protagonists. And while the canonical Breathless may seem to be a redundant inclusion, Costanzo’s reasons for including such highly recognised films alongside more obscure ones are valid. This makes it easier for scholars to distinguish generic similarities and differences within a global context, and reminds us that certain traditions, whether cultural or cinematic, are far from universal. Furthermore, the book does not undermine the significance of the commercial industry. Costanzo’s careful analysis of Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991) in the “Road Movie” unit, for instance, illustrates how the film “hijacked a male genre and put women at its center” (p. 369), and explores differing audience receptions based on discourses of feminism and gender, and how these are shaped by changing social and political ideologies.
What is most refreshing about World Cinema through Global Genres is the fact that one does not need to be an experienced film scholar in order to appreciate this book. Useful tools, such as a glossary of terms, filmographies, maps, historical timelines and frame enlargements serve to illustrate central ideas, and better position the reader within the history, politics and economics of national industries. Educators and students alike will appreciate the further reading suggestions and discussion questions included at the end of each unit. The Introduction provides a detailed narrative of the business, technology, theory and art of cinema that gives new scholars a substantial foundation of knowledge from which to draw, and provides an excellent review for more advanced film students. Truly, this is an excellent resource for any course on world cinema, as well as for those who seek a better understanding of the role of film in an increasingly globalised world. Costanzo’s thorough and original approach certainly “makes it easier to trace the complex webs of intertextuality by which films and filmmakers influence each other.” (p. xvi)