Since the 1970s there has been an increasing awareness and understanding of the role of film as a social practice. This means exploring the relationship between films and the societies in which they are produced and consumed. To some extent this can be seen as an outgrowth of the ‘film and history’ movement with its focus on film as a historical source — indeed some of the same players are involved as the above quotation from Ferro attests — but the net is cast wider to include all fiction films regardless of their empirical content. Social film history, as Allen and Gomery call it, involves ‘relating the social structure of a given time and place to the representation of that structure in a film’.2 This may be done in relation to realist films such as The Grapes of Wrath or the films of the British new wave; but it can equally be applied to non-realist and fantasy films such as The Wizard of Oz or the Hammer horror films. At its most basic level the relating of films to their social contexts is expressed through the idea of film as a ‘reflection’ or ‘mirror’ of society. This is one of the most pervasive but also one of the most contested ideas in film history. Social film history is generally concerned less with the individual film, as in aesthetic film history, but rather with popular genres and cycles. As one historian puts it: ‘Routine circuit fodder may have little artistic merit but can prove richly rewarding as a reflection of certain ideas and preoccupations.’3 Therefore this chapter will also consider how genre theory and criticism have informed our understanding of film as a social practice: this involves analysing films not in terms of their unique properties and features but rather in relation to recurring themes and motifs. The chapter concludes, again, with a case study, not this time of an individual film but rather of a cycle (film noir) that demonstrates all these issues.
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