Thursday, 13 September 2012

On film history, and the art of studying it

I recently said that there is a difference between taught film history and actual film history. By this I meant that film history as it is presented in books, essays and lectures is more often than not a romantic effort to simplify something that is very complex and often beyond our reach. Film is not that old as an art form, but it is old enough to hold more films, movements, people and happenings than is possible for us to remember and evaluate. Most of it is forgotten, as all the unwarranted claims that has been made about Citizen Kane (1941) makes perfectly clear. Any film history book or film history course should be based on this humbleness, and acknowledge that what we think we know is not enough, and neither is it necessarily correct.

I think this is partly the reason why so much of taught film history is either wrong or at least highly questionable. Even though it is often very difficult to say what is right, it is often rather clear what is wrong, and where taught film history is problematic and when films, people, movements and eras are misunderstood, misconstrued or decontextualised. It can be the French New Wave, the Hollywood studio system, Rashomon (1951), neorealism, Citizen KaneJaws (1975), Westerns, audience demographics and so on and so forth. I want to mention some concrete examples today.

Beside the lack of awareness of the full spectrum of actual film history there are also the persistent efforts to make film history consist of clear demarcations. It is often argued that "Film noir was a genre that lasted between 1941 and 1958." or "The first film of the French New Wave was Le Beau Serge (1958)" or "The first film of the French New Wave was The 400 Blows (1959)." As if. Film history is not that neat. It is a process, with no definitive firsts and no definitive lasts. We can talk about something called the French New Wave without having to claim that one film was "the first". (Beside the two mentioned above there is also Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows (1958).) Taught film history is often exclusive (trying to exclude what is not considered part of a movement or a genre, often for spurious reasons), when it would be more accurate to be inclusive (to show how everything is interconnected). Nothing is gained by reducing film noir to films made from The Maltese Falcon (1941) to Touch Of Evil (1958). I would not call it a genre either.

So that is one weakness of taught film history, the problematic and unnecessary habit of tidying up things, and compartmentalising it. This is linked to the widespread idea of film history as a series of revolutions. First came "cinema of attractions", then came Griffith, then came sound, then came deep focus, then came neorealism and so on and so forth, and one leading to another, the one being an improvement upon what came before. This is film history as if based on Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, but this is not how cinema, or the arts, work. It is much more fluid, and simultaneous. Deep focus was almost always there, and neorealism was not new, it has been a tradition of filmmaking since the early days of cinema. There is very little that is new, and it does not matter whether something is new or not. The cult of the new, which I blogged about last year, has always seemed to me to be very shallow, as if something is not worthwhile if it is not new.

Sometimes the whole premise is wrong, or something has been simplified to such an extent that it stops having any bearing on anything real. One example would be a common argument which goes like this: "Ingmar Bergman was an auteur because he was his own man, whereas Hollywood filmmakers did work in a studio system." Only Bergman did also work in a studio system, with a producer breathing down his neck. He did not become independent until the late 1960s. Of course, he had a lot of freedom within the studio, at least after Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) won the Grand Prix in Cannes, but that is not what makes him different from Hollywood directors, it is what makes him similar to Hollywood directors, including the bit about becoming independent.

To some extent these errors are due to poor research, or complete lack of research. Instead much writing is based on myths, preconceptions and prejudices. In another earlier blog post I suggested that a concept made famous by the German sociologist Max Weber, Gedankenbilder or Ideal Types, is useful in understanding our perception of film history. In that previous post I explained Gedankenbilder as "an abstract model of something, say a phenomenon that we are studying, but a model which doesn't necessarily exist in reality, it is only a reference point." In our case a model of a genre, a filmmaker, an era, a movement or whatever it might be. This model, this ideal image, is then taken to be true, even though there might not be a single film that is actually like this image. When somebody thinks of a film noir, the film in their head probably has a voice-over narration and shadowy, expressionistic lightning, and while it is true that many film noirs have these traits, many do not, whereas many films not considered film noir do have these traits. The problem is not that there are ideal types, but that it seems to be so very hard to forget that it is only that, an ideal type. (I will discuss the special case of neorealism in a later post.)

Another reason is most likely the combination of ideology and romanticism that is often involved. Many scholars seem to have a romantic vision of neorealism or the various New Waves of the 1960s and 1970s that cloud their judgements, and so they sometimes attribute things to them which are not there, or is there but is not as revolutionary as they claim. A certain elitist view of cinema also plays a part, with American cinema bad and European cinema good (or vice-versa), even though many, if not most, of the differences are more perceptual than real. Sometimes the prejudices are against "old" cinema in general (and here old can mean anything from before World War Two to anything before Quentin Tarantino).

Of course sometimes things are deliberately exaggerated to simplify for argument's sake. But too often the exaggerations and simplifications distorts reality to the point that the argument becomes baseless and often it is also the case that the scholar does not know any better, partly because there are too many films that should be watched and too little time, but perhaps also due to a lack of interest in watching films. I often get the feeling that many scholars prefer to read books by other scholars instead of watching the actual films themselves, so if one person makes a mistake or says things that are not correct, then that gets repeated over and over again. The same phenomenon as when critics only quote from press releases, without acknowledging that they are quoting from a press release, and if there was a mistake in that press release it is repeated in every newspaper and magazine. This can be down to laziness or lack of time but the outcome is still the same.

In John Ford's sad and magnificent The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) the famous quote is "This is the West sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." That sadly, but not magnificently, is also the unspoken truth about too much of the world of cinema studies, whether in lecture halls, books or journals.

For those who would like to read a book which is a perfect example of all the things I have mentioned here as flawed and problematic, then this one will suffice.

There is apparently no consensus as how to write film noir in plural. Films noirs, film noirs and films noir have all been suggested.


  1. It would be more interesting if you argued against some actual film historians instead of against stupid things that are "commonly said" or "often argued".

  2. Whilst I completely agree with you on one level, I do think that some form of simplification has to come in when one is teaching film history - especially at undergraduate level. There is an inevitable 'semesterization' that imposes a certain narrative on film history in all its messy glory. The real shame is that these stories have ossified into dogma, and new scholars inevitably have to engage with them and end up retelling them. Perhaps a more self-reflexive approach to film history could allow us to utilise the usefulness of the 'old stories' of Neorealism and the New Wave whilst also acknowledging the limits of this view?

  3. Max, I did actually provide a whole book as an example, a book to which a number of scholars have contributed. But since my blog post was about common ways of looking at film history I felt that naming particular scholars was beside the point.

    However, in earlier posts on the subject I have specifically engaged with named scholars, so you are free to explore those posts. I linked to two of them.


    thanks for your thoughtful comment. Of course, you must simplify, you can't talk about all the millions of films that have been made. But simplification too often leads to an invented film history. And sometimes simplifications merely complicates matters.