Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Kyle Stevens reviews Cinematic Overtures

Annette Insdorf. Cinematic Overtures: How to Read Opening Scenes. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017. 208 pp.

Review by Kyle Stevens

25 July 2018

The meeting of academic film study and cinephilia typically results in a meta-level consideration of spectatorial attitudes towards the cinematic object. But in Cinematic Overtures: How to Read Opening Scenes, Annette Insdorf presents a more pragmatic—and charming—outcome. She applies her considerable scholarly know-how to analyzing the opening scenes of movies she clearly loves, and in doing so gives us an expansive and highly engaging ode to the value of close reading. In looking and listening carefully—displaying the level of investment demanded by what she calls “sympathetic scholarship”—Insdorf builds her case that a movie’s opening scene does not just establish narrative information or mood but functions as a toolbox, providing spectators with instruments to conceptually and emotionally cohere the film that is about to unfold and, equally crucially, to assemble the ways that the film connects to the audience’s world (p. 122). The book is a refreshing and highly pleasurable plunge into style’s persistent specificity.

Its eight chapters focus on matters of the frame, adaptation, mise-en-scène, montage, point of view, misdirection, flashbacks, and the collective protagonist. Readers interested in adaptation will find her treatment of the relation of page to screen especially edifying (see, for instance, her examination of The Unbearable Lightness of Being [1988]). Passages devoted to particular films might be easily excerpted for undergraduate classroom use, and several of them would be ideal for encouraging students to confront questions concerning the nature and use of visual and aural metaphor.

But highlighting the book’s potential pedagogical use is not to say that it lacks scholarly heft. Insdorf oscillates between commercial and noncommercial, as well as canonical and quirky, fare—from Aguirre: Wrath of God (1972) and Hiroshima mon amour (1959) to Little Miss Sunshine (2006) and Ajami (2009)—serving up timely proof that the essayistic mode lurks in all manner of films, regardless of genre or production history. While it is somewhat surprising that readings of well-canvassed cinematic openings (such as Touch of Evil [1958], Sunset Boulevard [1950] or The Graduate [1967]) are offered up as entirely original, the range of examples also illustrates that there is much more shared thematic and formal ground than most critics, scholars, and audiences typically suppose. Ultimately, Cinematic Overtures testifies to the merit of meeting a film on its own terms. For Insdorf, reading is about praxis, not about crafting or demonstrating a theory. That is, she draws from the history of film theory (and philosophy) but only when doing so aids in the understanding of a movie.

This stance plays to one of Insdorf’s distinct strengths: addressing registers of readers with different levels of training and knowledge of film history. Indeed, Cinematic Overtures has already inspired online streaming service FilmStruck to collect and make available many of her case studies for subscribers. Perhaps, too, because it grew out of Insdorf’s courses at Columbia University, the book serves as a demonstration of what professors often do in the film studies classroom. She even quotes her students’ insights. And visiting Insdorf’s classroom is a pleasure. It is clearly a space for humanistic discovery, where students—and reader—may arrive at a genuinely new thought about a film in a matter of minutes.