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Preface: Viewing Terms

We live in a visual culture. From film and television to billboards, magazines and websites, we spend our days immersed in a sea of images and icons. The ability to decode, enjoy and evaluate visual messages is central to our daily lives. In our schools and colleges viewing is now, quite properly, a part of the core curriculum. It takes its place alongside alongside reading as a fundamental literacy skill.

This book is concerned with exploring one aspect of our viewing experience: the world of film and television texts. No longer confined to specialist media courses, film and TV texts are now a part of mainstream study in English, literature and cultural studies programs. As most teachers are aware, students come to such texts with great enthusiasm and a wealth of viewing experience. But the study of film and TV texts can neverthless be challenging. One reason for difficulty, ironically, is our collective virtuosity at reading particular visual texts. Our sophistication as viewers has enabled modern film makers and television producers to create texts that appear almost seamless. The difficulties arise when we try to explain what it is that we do to make sense of such complex tapestries.

A second cause of difficulty is that our skill as viewers is nevertheless quite narrow. Hollywood blockbusters and prime time police dramas use a limited range of filmic codes and styles with which we have become thoroughly familiar. Faced with something different - an early film by Eisenstein or Murnau, or a modern Bollywood musical - we are likely to find ourselves struggling to comprehend. Serious film study necessarily confronts us with the same problems as serious study of literature: the need to understand not only the texts that surround us day to day but also those that preceded them; the need to make comparisons across time and culture; the need to view familiar texts from unfamiliar perspectives. Engaging with film and television texts in this way calls for different kinds of knowledge: about social and historical contexts, about the evolution of film codes and technologies, about viewing practices. Compounding the difficulty is the often complex language of screen studies, which contains a great many specialised terms.

Viewing Terms aims to help teachers and students cope with this complex terminology, and with the task developing a broader perspective on film and television texts. It addresses a selection of key terms and concepts and makes them accessible through explanations and activities. The goal of the book is to help students develop more sophisticated understandings of the structure and operation of screen texts - to help them acquire concepts and skills, not just a vocabulary. With this in mind, most terms have been treated under carefully chosen headings rather than listed as isolated definitions. The key entries relate to cornerstone concepts in study, such as mis-en-scene, montage, suture, the gaze, and to theoretical frameworks such as auteur theory, semiotics and spectator theory. Also included as major entries is a selection of more general critical concepts such as narrative, gender and desire. Specific technical terms, such as tilt, pan, dolly, are treated within the context of these major entries. In addition, a Quick Reference section provides brief definitions of additional terms and concepts, such as Foley artist, gaffer, and grip. By organising information in this way, the book provides a context for the terminology readers are acquiring.

Viewing Terms aims also to historicise the study of film and television. It does this in two ways. First, by building historical detail into its explanations and examples, so that readers gain an understanding of the connections between technology, economics, culture and aesthetics in film and television. And second, by foregrounding the evolution of viewership, through the concept of viewing practices. The emphasis on viewing as a practice reflects a belief that we cannot claim to know how texts work and what effects they have in a culture without investigating the ways in which - and the conditions under which - they are actually viewed by audiences. Throughout the book, the concepts of viewing practices and audience are deployed as reference points against which purely theoretical claims must be tested. This move is very much in line with contemporary developments in film theory, where cognitive and empirical approaches now supplement the semiotic and psychoanalytic models that prevailed in previous decades.

While a certain amount of technical information is provided, Viewing Terms focuses mainly on the reading and analysis of film and TV. It does not aim to teach production techniques. In spite of this focus on analysis, the book avoids levering screen texts into a general "literary" model of textual criticism. This book's goal is to help the student learn to read screen texts on their own terms and not as variations on familiar literary forms. Teachers should also note that although the book covers concepts in both film and television, the focus on television is limited to narrative genres and TV movies, which have much in common with the textual forms and practices of film. Other important television genres and functions, such as news and current affairs, reality TV, game shows and the like, cannot be fully explored in a book of this scope, though they are mentioned in passing in a number of entries.

I hope that teachers and students will find Viewing Terms a useful reference, and one that helps make their study of film and TV texts more purposeful and more rewarding.

© 2014 Chalkface Press & Brian Moon. ABN: 73 632 046 733. Please link to the home page