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About this book

Film is the pre-eminent mass medium of the modern age. It is a valuable source of evidence for the study of both the past and the contemporary world, and is a social practice that has affected the lives of millions. How can historians engage with this important and influential medium?

Written for both students and teachers, Film and History:

• provides a concise, accessible introduction to the use of film in historical enquiry and a summary of the main theoretical debates
• charts the development of film history as a subject area and a discipline in its own right
• considers different approaches to film history, including film as an art form, as ideology, as a historical source, and as a social practice
• includes case studies to ground discussion of theories and approaches in specific examples.

Wide-ranging and authoritative, Film and History equips students with the methods both to analyse film texts and to understand the place of film in history and culture.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
This statement by the founding editor of the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television makes a useful starting point for a book entitled Film and History because it makes a crucial methodological distinction between the subject of film history (‘Historians whose interest is the movies,’ Short amplifies, ‘are committed to researching an important international industry which has aspects which are economic, technological, social, psychological and aesthetical’) and a broader group who are not necessarily interested in the medium in its own right but who may nevertheless draw upon it in their work (‘The historian who is interested in the movies is motivated by the question of whether the central line of research can be supported or illuminated by evidence drawn from the world of the movies’). So, while a film historian researching, say, Gladiator (2000) would seek to document the making of the film, consider its relationship to other films by its director Ridley Scott, analyse its reception and perhaps speculate on the reasons for its popularity with audiences, other historians might use the film either as evidence of popular views of the society and politics of Ancient Rome at the end of the twentieth century, or perhaps as a reflection of ideological and cultural issues affecting its country of origin, the United States of America, in the year 2000.
James Chapman

1. A Brief History of Film History

Abstract
Any attempt to identify ‘firsts’ in a particular field is fraught with problems. Just as there are competing claims for who produced the first moving pictures — including Thomas Edison in the United States, the Skladanowsky brothers in Germany, the Lumière brothers in France and Robert Paul in Britain — so there are various contenders for the first film histories. Allen and Gomery nominate Robert Grau’s The Theatre of Science (1914) and Terry Ramsaye’s A Million and One Nights (1926) as marking the origins of film history in America.2 The preface to a reprint of the latter described it ‘the first complete source book on the motion picture’ and Ramsaye as ‘the first authentic film historian’. The best claimant for the first synoptic history of world cinema is the British critic Paul Rotha’s book The Film Till Now (1930). This was followed by Benjamin Hampton’s A History of the Movies (1931), Lewis Jacobs’s The Rise of the American Film (1939) and Georges Sadoul’s multi-volume Histoire générale du cinéma (1948–54).3 It would be fair to say that none of these early histories would meet the standards of academic rigour expected of the discipline today. They were not meant to be scholarly studies: they were written for general readerships and were as much works of journalism as history. Their value, however, as Ramsaye pointed out, is that they were contemporaneous with the history they described. To that extent these works are the film world’s equivalents of Thomas Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution or Winston Churchill’s history of the Second World War. For all their flaws and limitations, they are the foundational texts of film history. They established a narrative that, albeit with many caveats and modifications, continues to inform popular histories of film to this day.
James Chapman

2. Film as an Art Form

Abstract
The most common approach by far to film history is aesthetic — the history of film as an art form. It is quite common for works of film history to describe themselves in this way. Terry Ramsaye, for example, begins his book A Million and One Nights with the statement that it ‘endeavours to cover the birth of a new art’.2 Mark Cousins, writing nearly 80 years later, similarly avers that his book The Story of Film ‘tells the story of the art of cinema’.3 To describe film as an art form — or an individual film as a work of art — assumes that a degree of cultural or aesthetic value is being attached to it. We should acknowledge from the outset that not all cultural commentators would necessarily accept Mast’s assertion that film is an art form. Marxist critics, such as those associated with the Frankfurt School in the 1930s and 1940s, have argued that film cannot be considered an art because it is, first and foremost, a commercial product. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, for example, in their influential Dialectic of Enlightenment — a sustained polemic against what they termed the ‘culture industry’ — claimed that ‘all mass culture is identical’. ‘Movies’, they asserted, ‘no longer pretend to be art. The truth that they are just business is made into an ideology in order to justify the rubbish they deliberately produce.’4 A less polemical, and more common, position is to accept that some films might be deemed works of art whereas others are not, while many critics distinguish between an art cinema on the one hand and a commercial or mainstream cinema on the other.
James Chapman

3. Film and Ideology

Abstract
The 1970s saw the emergence of a radical, polemical and highly theorized new style of film criticism that rejected many of the tenets of classical film aesthetics and embraced instead the notion of cinema as an ideological apparatus. This trend began in France, where in 1969 the new editors of Cahiers du Cinéma turned their back on the Romantic notion of the film-maker as an artist represented by la politiques des auteurs and declared their commitment to what Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni in a polemical editorial-manifesto referred to as ‘scientific criticism’ with ‘a clear theoretical base to which to relate our critical practice and its field’.2 This radical shift of editorial direction was a consequence of the upheavals within French intellectual culture in 1968 which had seen, among other things, a fierce popular backlash against the sacking of Henri Langlois as curator of the Cinémathèque Française — a protest led by film-makers including Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Alain Resnais — and the establishment of a self-proclaimed ‘Estates General of the French Cinema’ to call for state support for film production and education.3 Cahiers du Cinéma no longer subscribed to the critical evaluation of film as an art form but rather to the analysis of cinema as an instrument of ideology. A similar trajectory was followed in Britain by the journal Screen, which in the early 1970s declared its intention ‘to go beyond subjective taste-ridden criticism and to try to develop more systematic approaches over a wider field’.4
James Chapman

4. Film as a Historical Source

Abstract
The role of film as a historical source involves a very different set of questions and debates to those involved in analysing it either as an art form or as an ideological apparatus. Yet the idea of film as a historical record predates the emergence of both theories of aesthetics and cinema as a social practice. Indeed, as Terveen indicates, it is as old as the medium itself. As early as 1898, for example, the pioneer Polish cinematographer Boleslas Matuszewski, whose films included records of state occasions such as the Coronation of Tsar Nicholas II (1897) and the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria (1897), declared that film was ‘a new source of history’ and predicted that ‘animated photography … will give a direct view of the past’.2 The notion of film as a historical source attaches a very different evidential value to film than aesthetics: in this approach the value of film is not to be found in its artistic or formal properties but in what it reveals about social and historical conditions at the time at which it was made. The discourse around film as a historical source has tended to focus on actuality and non-fiction films rather than on the fictional feature films that dominate aesthetic histories. However, the discursive terms are similar to those we have seen in Chapter 2. Matuszewski’s notion of the ‘truth’ of the filmic image anticipated André Bazin by over half a century:
Perhaps the cinematograph does not give history in its entirety, but at least what it does deliver is incontestable and of absolute truth … One could say that animated photography has a character of authenticity, accuracy and precision that belongs to it alone. It is the ocular evidence that is truthful and infallible par excellence … In short, one wishes that other historic documents had the same degree of certitude and clarity.3
James Chapman

5. Film as a Social Practice

Abstract
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.
James Chapman

6. A Historical Sociology of Film

Abstract
Hortense Powdermaker’s Hollywood the Dream Factory (1950) is a pioneering study of the film industry. Powdermaker, a social anthropologist, spent a year in Hollywood conducting interviews with studio executives, producers, writers and actors in order ‘to understand better the nature of our movies’.2 Her work marked the first academic study of the film industry, as seen through the outlook and values of those who worked in it, rather than the more familiar biographical or autobiographical accounts that are rich in anecdote but reveal little or nothing about the actual working practices and professional ideologies of the industry. Powdermaker saw beneath the tinsel of Hollywood to identify a system of social organization where ‘most of the men who enjoy power have it simply because they got there first and were able to form the social structure of movie making as they desired’, whereas creative artists ‘fight openly to gain power, that is, to get into positions in which they can make important decisions and influence the movies’.3 In this regard little changes: Powdermaker’s account of the industry in terms of social networks and power relations is much the same picture of Hollywood as that put forward 40 years later in Robert Altman’s film The Player (1992).
James Chapman

Conclusion

Abstract
It will be clear that the discipline of film history has come a long way over the last 40 years or so. Since the 1970s the Standard Version of film history as an evolutionary narrative of new technologies and the corresponding formal and aesthetic advances in the medium has been more or less superseded by revisionist histories that instead emphasize the historical specificity of particular periods and different film practices. At the same time the failure of ‘Screen theory’ to provide a totalizing theory of cinema as an ideological apparatus brought about a reconsideration of the historical and empirical approaches that had until then been marginalized. There are now authoritative histories of Hollywood and most (though still not all) European film industries. In particular there has been a proliferation of case studies — histories of the production and reception of specific films, analyses of previously neglected genres and cycles, critical studies of hitherto overlooked film-makers — that has done much to fill the gaps in our historical knowledge and understanding of cinema. However, as Maltby notes, the shift from grand narratives to micro-level histories — what might be termed film history from the ‘bottom up’ — has perhaps eclipsed some of the wider theoretical issues.
James Chapman
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