Filmish – A Graphic Journey Through Film review

Fascinating graphic novel Filmish provides fans with what's missing from so much film theory: genuine enthusiasm and love for the subject...

Film tends to hook people when they’re young. For those who are really passionate, even obsessive in their interest, it’s an addiction that finds its way into your blood at a very early stage, and those first film experiences are as formative, as sacred and as far-reaching in their effects as your first lost teeth, your first playground fights and your first terrified scrabblings around after clumsily breaking your mum’s vase.

I’ve always adored film. And as cynical as I can be about most other things, film still plugs directly into my wide-eyed inner child, inspiring a level of excitement that few other things can match. So when I studied it at university, and found myself neck-deep in dense critical works about its history, techniques and cultural ramifications, one of the things that struck me was how gosh darn dry film-related writing could be sometimes. Obviously it’s a complex subject, so attempting to explicate it is naturally going to produce complex results. This is not an anti-intellectual, ‘hey, speak English maaan’ screed. But far too often, when reading set texts, the feeling I got was that the authors had spent so much time thinking incredibly deeply that they’d forgotten to communicate the love and excitement that must surely be integral to one’s passion for the medium.

Filmish does this handsomely. A graphic novel by Edward Ross, it’s a fascinating and highly entertaining journey through the history of this most magical art form, and even if the author didn’t say so in his introduction it would be obvious that he is a total, unabashed movie geek – his enthusiasm and love for his subject positively bleeds from the pages. This enthusiasm, coupled with the fact that he clearly knows his way around the theoretical side of things too, makes the book a real pleasure to read.

The form is kind of a no brainer – after all, comics are arguably a best-of-both-worlds combination of literature and film, so what better method of bridging the gap between the two mediums? Combining short, informative blocks of text with varied panel layouts containing a wealth of excellent illustrations, Ross has created a highly accessible book suitable for budding and established film fans alike, whether you’re dipping your toe in the waters, in need of a primer before starting a course, or simply looking to refresh your memory. Or, y’know, if you’re just after a fun read.

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Ross flits between many key points and themes, from pioneers like Muybridge and Méliès; to Laura Mulvey’s infamous male gaze; to a discussion of the leap from early vaudeville-influenced acting styles to later, more naturalistic methods; to different ways in which directors have explored the human body, time and chronology and architecture; to questions of race, ideology and violence. This all-encompassing approach, which never lingers for too long and is careful not to get bogged down in too much detail, enables a zippy pace (helped enormously by the art) and gives a nice broad view, making it a good jumping-off point for those wishing to explore in more depth. An exhaustive bibliography is full of suggestions for further reading, and Ross adds more of his own thoughts here as well, points of interest and notes that wouldn’t necessarily have fitted in the main book, but round things out nicely when presented at the end.

Ross’s black and white art is clean and very appealing, striking an effective balance between cartoonish simplicity and and careful detail. His quirky recreations of the many, many films that he cites are charming, and the book is full of fun little riffs and easter eggs for eagle-eyed film buffs to pick out. The author actually inserts himself into the book’s narrative at points, popping up here and there to offer his thoughts on particular areas, sometimes even appearing in reproduced scenes from famous films, about to pull the lever in Dr Frankenstein’s lab, swinging around Gene Kelly’s rain-dashed lamp post or standing outside TechNoir, waiting for the arrival of a certain cybernetic killer from the future. It’s a device that could easily be self-indulgent or jarring in the wrong hands, but it’s skilfully done here; Ross knows when to make an appearance and when to remain absent, and his visual interjections simply add to the feel of being accompanied by a very knowledgeable, enthusiastic tutor or friend.

The book will undoubtedly appeal to viewers with eclectic tastes, although its willingness to discuss any and all films – Ross is as happy using Disney’s Dumbo as an example as he is citing Marco Ferreri’s La Grand Bouffe or Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy – might slightly limit its suitability for younger ages. The author freely admits to being enthralled by The Terminator at the age of eight, and far be it from me to suggest who should be watching what at what age (during my formative film viewing years, the more unsuitable it was, the more desperate I became to see it), but some of the references will undoubtedly set impressionable minds a-whirring, and they’ll either be revolted or determined to seek out these more transgressive works. I don’t have children, and ultimately I think that only individual parents will know what their children are and aren’t emotionally equipped to handle, so for anyone thinking of buying Filmish as a gift for a young film fan, I’d suggest having a little look through it first before making up your mind. Some of the theoretical stuff, accessibly presented as it is, might go over their heads anyway, but there’s plenty of other information and discussion packed into its pages. And I would absolutely recommend it for a teenage reader – I’d have loved to have had a book like this before I decided to study film at university. I might have been less at sea with the theory if I had.

Filmish is clearly a labour of love, an infectious and impassioned paean to the wonder of film, and would make an excellent Christmas gift for the film geek in your life. And if that film geek turns out to be you… enjoy!

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4 out of 5