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About this book

Irony in Film is the first book about ironic expression in this medium. We often feel the need to call films or aspects of them ironic; but what exactly does this mean? How do films create irony? Might certain features of the medium help or hinder its ironic potential? How can we know we are justified in dubbing any film or moment ironic? This book attempts to answer such questions, investigating in the process crucial and under-examined issues that irony raises for our understanding of narrative filmmaking.
A much-debated subject in other disciplines, in film scholarship irony is habitually referred to but too seldom explored. Combining in-depth theorising with detailed close analysis, this pioneering study asks what ironic capacities films might possess, how film style may be used ironically, and what role intention should play in film interpretation. The proposed answers have significance for our understanding of not only ironic filmmaking, but the nature of expression in this medium.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Introduction

Irony in Film is the first book to offer a detailed engagement with how films can create irony and how we might best interpret it. This introduction establishes the three main kinds of irony with which the study is concerned: situational, dramatic, and verbal (or communicative) irony. Also explained are some of the book’s theoretical assumptions, including the value of taking a rhetorical approach to irony, and the premise that interpreting ironic expression demands inferences about intention. It is suggested that analysing irony in the medium of film requires us to attend to concepts such as tone and point of view. Finally, it is proposed that American narrative cinema represents a productive starting point, not a terminus, for the discussion of irony in film.

James MacDowell

Chapter 2. Irony in Film: Theorising Irony for a Mongrel Medium

This chapter of Irony in Film asks what potential a ‘mongrel’ medium such as film might have for creating irony—in part by comparing its expressive capacities with those of photography, drama, and prose fiction. MacDowell presents the case that, despite claims to the contrary, the live-action fiction film is capable of creating several different kinds of irony by a host of different means: its pictorial qualities help it depict situational ironies, its dramatic and storytelling properties assist in creating dramatic irony, and its narrative dimensions aid its potential to be communicatively ironic. These arguments are supported by close analyses of Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964), Rope (Alfred Hitchcock, 1948), and There’s Always Tomorrow (Douglas Sirk, 1956).
James MacDowell

Chapter 3. Ironic Filmmaking: Properties, Devices, and Conventions

This chapter of Irony in Film turns its attention to specific properties, devices, and conventions of filmmaking and explores how they can be and have been used to ironic effect. The author here offers a sustained engagement with the material particulars of numerous movies, undertaking close analyses of moments where sound, editing, mise en scène, cinematography, and performance help create irony in a host of disparate American movies. The films examined in this chapter include Sunrise (F.W. Murnau, 1927), The Scarlet Empress (Joseph von Sternberg, 1934), The Public Enemy (William A. Wellman, 1931), The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946), Pillow Talk (Michael Gordon, 1959), Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978), Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986), Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995), and Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002).
James MacDowell

Chapter 4. Interpreting Irony in Film: Intention, Rhetoric, and Irony’s Edge

This chapter of Irony in Film confronts key theoretical questions that irony raises for the practice of interpretation concerning intention, rhetoric, and the possibility of misinterpretation. Some theorists claim that irony cannot be a property of texts but is rather an interpretive strategy employed by readers; thus, if a text is not read as ironic, then it is not ironic. By contrast, MacDowell proposes that to express oneself ironically is to have ironic intentions; according to this argument, an irony intended by a film is an irony present in that film, regardless of how it may be read. This case is made partly via an extended analysis of the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ scene from Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979).
James MacDowell


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