Doing Film History
Nearly everybody loves movies. We aren’t surprised that people rush to see the latest hit or rent a cult favorite from the video store. But there are some people who seek out old movies. And among those fans there’s a still smaller group studying them.
Let’s call “old movies” anything older than twenty years. This of course creates a moving target. Baby boomers like us don’t really consider The Godfather or M*A*S*H to be old movies, but many twentysomethings today will probably consider Pulp Fiction (1994) to be old — maybe because they saw it when they were in their teens. Our twenty-year cutoff is arbitrary, but in many cases that won’t matter. Everybody agrees that La Grande Illusion from 1935 is an old movie, though it still seems fresh and vital.
Now for the real question. Why would anyone be interested in watching and studying old movies?
Ask a film historian, professional or amateur, and you’ll get a variety of answers. For one thing, old films provide the same sorts of insights that we get from watching contemporary movies. Some offer intense artistic experiences or penetrating visions of human life in other times and places. Some are documents of everyday existence or of extraordinary historical events that continue to reverberate in our times. Still other old movies are resolutely strange. They resist assimilation to our current habits of thought. They force us to acknowledge that films can be radically different from what we are used to. They ask us to adjust our field of view to accommodate what was, astonishingly, taken for granted by people in earlier eras.
Another reason to study old movies is that film history encompasses more than just films. By studying how films were made and received, we discover how creators and audiences responded to their moment in history. By searching for social and cultural influences on films, we understand better the ways in which films bear the traces of the societies that made and consumed them. Film history opens up a range of important issues in politics, culture, and the arts—both “high” and “popular.”
Yet another answer to our question is this: Studying old movies and the times in which they were made is intrinsically fun. As a relatively new field of academic research (no more than sixty years old), film history has the excitement of a young discipline. Over the past few decades, many lost films have been recovered, little-known genres explored, and neglected filmmakers reevaluated. Ambitious retrospectives have revealed entire national cinemas that had been largely ignored. Even television, with some cable stations devoted wholly to the cinema of the past, brings into our living rooms movies that were previously rare and little-known.
And much more remains to be discovered. There are more old movies than new ones and, hence, many more chances for fascinating viewing experiences.
We think that studying film history is so interesting and important that during the late 1980s we began to write a book surveying the field. The first edition of Film History: An Introduction appeared in 1994, the second in 2003, and the third will be published in spring of 2009. In this book we have tried to introduce the history of cinema as it is conceived, written, and taught by its most accomplished scholars. But the book isn’t a distillation of all film history. We have had to rule out certain types of cinema that are important, most notably educational, industrial, scientific, and pornographic films. We limit our scope to theatrical fiction films, documentary films, experimental or avant-garde filmmaking, and animation—realms of filmmaking that are most frequently studied in college courses.
Researchers are fond of saying that there is no film history, only film histories. For some, this means that there can be no intelligible, coherent “grand narrative” that puts all the facts into place. The history of avant-garde film does not fit neatly into the history of color technology or the development of the Western or the life of John Ford. For others, film history means that historians work from various perspectives and with different interests and purposes.
We agree with both points. There is no Big Story of Film History that accounts for all events, causes, and consequences. And the variety of historical approaches guarantees that historians will draw diverse conclusions.
We also think that research into film history involves asking a series of questions and searching for evidence in order to answer them in the course of an argument. When historians focus on different questions, turn up different evidence, and formulate different explanations, we derive not a single history but a diverse set of historical arguments.
What Do Film Historians Do?
While millions are watching movies at this moment, a few thousand are studying the films of the past. One person is trying to ascertain whether a certain film was made in 1904 or 1905. Another is tracing the fortunes of a short-lived Scandinavian production company. Another is poring over a 1927 Japanese film, shot by shot, to find out how it tells its story. Some researchers are comparing prints of an obscure film to determine which one can be considered the original. Other scholars are studying a group of films signed by the same director or set designer or producer. Some are scrutinizing patent records and technical diagrams, legal testimony, and production files. And still others are interviewing retired employees to discover how the Bijou Theater in their hometown was run during the 1950s.
Questions and Answers
One reason is evident. Most film historians—teachers, archivists, journalists, and freelancers—are cinephiles, lovers of cinema. Like bird-watchers, fans of 1960s television, art historians, and other devotees, they enjoy acquiring knowledge about the object of their affection.
Movie fans may stop there, regarding the accumulating of facts about their passion as an end in itself. But whatever the pleasure of knowing the names of all the Three Stooges’ wives, most film historians are not trivia buffs. Film historians mount research programs, systematic inquiries into the past.
A historian’s research program is organized around questions that require answers. A research program also consists of assumptions and background knowledge. For a film historian, a fact takes on significance only in the context of a research program.
Consider this image, from a film of the silent era.
A film archivist—that is, someone who works in a library devoted to collecting and preserving motion pictures—often comes across a film that is unidentified. Perhaps the title credit is missing or the print carries a title that differs from that of the original film. The archivist’s research program is, broadly, identification. The film presents a series of questions: What is the date of production or of release? In what country was it made? What company and personnel made the film? Who are the actors?
Our mysterious film carries only the French title Wanda l’espione (“Wanda the Spy”)—most likely a title given to it by a distributor. It was probably imported rather than made in Belgium, where the print was discovered. Fortunately there are some clues in the print itself. The lead actress, seated in the foreground, is a famous star, Francesca Bertini. Identifying her makes it almost certain that the film is Italian. But Bertini was a star from 1907 into the 1930s. How can we narrow the dates further?
The film’s style helps. The camera points straight toward the back wall of the set, and the actors seldom move closer to the camera than they are seen here. The editing pace is slow, and the action is staged so that performers enter and exit through a rear doorway. All these stylistic features are typical of European filmmaking of the mid-1910s. Such clues can be followed up by referring to a filmography (a list of films) of Bertini’s career. A plot description of a 1915 film in which she starred, Diana l’affascinatrice (“Diana the Seductress”), matches the action of the unidentified print.
Note that the identification depended on certain assumptions. For example, the researcher assumed that it’s extremely unlikely for a modern filmmaker to create a fake 1915 Italian film, just to baffle archivists. (Film historians need not worry about forgeries, as art historians must.) Note, too, that the researcher needed some background knowledge. She had reason to believe that films staged and cut a certain way are characteristic of the mid-1910s, and she recognized a star from other films of the period.
Most historians go beyond identification and tackle broader subject areas. Consider another common situation. An archive holds many films made by the same production company, and it also has numerous filing cabinets bulging with documents concerning that company’s production process. Its collection also includes scripts in various drafts; memos passed among writers, directors, producers, and other staff; and sketches for sets and costumes. This is a rich lode of data—too rich, in fact, for one researcher to tackle. The historian’s problem is now selecting relevant data and salient facts.
What makes a datum relevant or a fact salient is the historian’s research program and its questions. One scholar might be interested in tracing common features of the company’s production process; he might ask something like, “In general, how did this firm typically plan, execute, and market its movies?” Another historian’s research program might concentrate on the films of a certain director who worked for the company. She might ask, “What aspects of visual style distinguish the director’s films?”
Some facts would be central to one program but peripheral to another. The historian interested in the company’s business routines might not particularly care about a daring visual innovation introduced by the director who is the focus of the other historian’s inquiry. In turn, the stylistic historian might be uninterested in how the company’s producers promoted certain stars.
Again, assumptions exert pressure on the researcher’s framing of questions and pursuit of information. The company historian assumes that he can trace general tendencies of production organization, largely because film companies tend to make films by following fairly set routines. The director-centered researcher assumes that her director’s films do have a distinct style. And both historians would mobilize background knowledge, about how companies work and how directors direct, to guide their research.
Historians in any discipline do more than accumulate facts. No facts speak for themselves. Facts are interesting and important only as part of research programs. Facts also help us ask and answer questions.
Film History as Description and Explanation
Inevitably, a historian needs at least a little information, along with background knowledge and assumptions, to prod her to ask questions. But the historian does not necessarily sift through mountains of facts and then judiciously ask a question. A historian may begin with a question, and sometimes that question might be better described as a hunch or an intuition or even just an itch.
For example, one young historian saw a few of the “anarchic” American comedies of the 1930s and noticed that their vulgar gags and absurd situations were very different from the more sophisticated comedy of the period. Suspecting that stage comedy might have been a source, he framed a question: “Might vaudeville and its performance style have shaped these particular comedies of the early 1930s?” He began to gather information, examining films, reading coverage of the comedians in the Hollywood trade press, and studying shifts in American taste in humor. The process of research led him to refine his question and to mount a detailed account of how comedians introduced a vaudeville aesthetic into sound films but then muted it in accord with Hollywood’s standards of taste.1
Nonhistorians often visualize the historical researcher as a cousin to Indiana Jones, braving library stacks and crawling through attics in quest of the treasure-lode of documents that overturn popular opinion. Certainly new documentation has a key role to play in historical research. One scholar gained entry to the long-inaccessible files of Hollywood’s self-censorship agency, the Hays Office, and she was able to put forth a new account of the office’s procedures and functions.2 Similarly, the increasing availability of films from cinema’s earliest era has created an entire subfield of cinema history.3
Still, many research programs rely more on asking new questions than on unearthing new data. Sometimes the research question seems to have been answered by previous historians, but another researcher comes along and suggests a more complete or complex answer. For example, no historian disputes the fact that Warner Bros. was quick to invest in talking pictures in the mid-1920s. For a long time most historians believed that Warners took this risky step because it was on the verge of bankruptcy and was desperate to save itself. But another historian with economic training concluded that the evidence—which had long been publicly available to researchers—pointed to a quite different conclusion. Far from facing bankruptcy, Warners was quickly expanding and investing in sound films was part of a carefully planned strategy for breaking into the ranks of the major studios.4
Our examples all indicate that the historian’s research program aims to do at least two things. First, the historian tries to describe a process or state of affairs. She asks What and who and where and when. What is this film, and who made it, and where and when? In what ways does this director’s work differ from that of others? What was the vaudeville comedic style? What evidence is there that a studio was nearly bankrupt? Who is the actor in this shot? Who was responsible for scripts at this company? Where was this film shown, and who might have seen it? Here the historian’s problem is largely one of finding information that will answer such questions.
Accurate description is indispensable for all historical research. Scholars have spent countless hours identifying films, collating versions, compiling filmographies, establishing timelines, and creating reference works that supply names, dates, and the like. The more sophisticated and long-lived a historical discipline is, the richer and more complete its battery of descriptive reference material will be.
Second, the historian tries to explain a process or state of affairs. He asks, How does this work? and Why did this happen? How did this company assign tasks, lay out responsibilities, carry a project to completion? How did this director’s work influence other films from the company? Why did Warners pursue talkies when larger companies were reluctant to do so? Why did some sound comedians adopt the vaudeville comedic style while others did not?
The film historian, like a historian of art or politics, proposes an explanatory argument. Having asked how or why, she puts forward an answer, based on an examination of evidence in light of assumptions and background knowledge. In reading historical writings, we need to recognize that the essay or book is not just a mass of facts but an argument. The historian’s argument consists of evidence marshalled to create a plausible explanation for an event or state of affairs. That is, the argument aims to answer some historical question.
Most arguments about film history rely on evidence. Evidence consists of information that gives grounds for believing that the argument is sound. Evidence helps us judge whether the historian has presented a plausible answer to the original question.
Film historians work with evidence of many sorts. For many historians, copies of the films they study are central pieces of evidence. But this data set is partial. Although the cinema is a relatively young medium, invented only a little over a century ago, many films have already been lost or destroyed.
For decades, movies were seen as products with temporary commercial value, and companies did little to ensure their preservation. Even when film archives began to be founded in the 1930s, they faced the daunting task of collecting and sheltering the thousands of films that had already been made. Archivists had to choose what they could afford to retain. Moreover, the nitrate film stock, upon which most films up to the early 1950s were shot and printed, was highly flammable and deteriorated over time. Deliberate destruction of films, warehouse fires, and the gradual decomposition of nitrate stored in bad conditions have led to the loss of many titles. In the frame below, from Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn, an Irish film from 1918, severe nitrate deterioration has obliterated the most important figures.
According to rough estimates, only about 20 percent of silent films are known to survive. Many of these are still sitting in vaults, unidentified or unpreserved due to lack of funds.
More recent films may be inaccessible to the researcher as well. Films made in some small countries, particularly in Third World nations, were not made in many copies and did not circulate widely. Small archives may not have the facilities to preserve films or show them to researchers. In some cases, political regimes may choose to suppress certain films and promote others. Finding reliable copies to study is a major challenge for the historian whose questions center on the films.
Historians also rely on print sources. These may be published sources, such as books, magazines, trade journals, and newspapers, or unpublished ones, like memoirs, letters, notes, production files, scripts, and court testimony. Historians of film technology scrutinize cameras, sound recorders, and other equipment. A film studio or an important location might also serve as a source of evidence.
Usually historians must verify their evidence. Often this depends on using the sort of descriptive research we have already mentioned, such as combing primary documents, checking filmographies and reference works, and the like. The problem of verification is particularly acute with film prints. Films have always circulated in differing versions. In the 1920s, Hollywood films were shot in two versions, one for the United States and one for export. These could differ considerably in length, content, and even visual style. To this day, many Hollywood films are released in Europe in more erotic or violent versions than are screened in the United States. In addition, many old films have deteriorated and been subject to cutting and revision. Even modern restorations do not always reproduce the original release version.
Often, then, the historian doesn’t know whether the print she is seeing represents anything like an original, if indeed there can be said to be a single original version. Historians try to be aware of the differences among the versions of the films they are studying. The fact that there are different versions can itself be a source of questions.
Historians generally distinguish between primary and secondary sources. As applied to film, primary usually refers to sources the people directly involved in whatever is being studied. For example, if you were studying Japanese cinema of the 1920s, the surviving films, interviews with filmmakers or audience members, and contemporary trade journals would count as primary material. Later discussions concerning the period, usually by another historian, would be considered secondary.
Often, though, one scholar’s secondary source is another’s primary source, because the researchers are asking different questions. A critic’s 1966 essay about a 1925 film would be a secondary source if your question centered on the 1925 film. If, however, you were writing a history of film criticism during the 1960s, the critic’s essay would be a primary source.
Explaining the Past: Basic Approaches
There are distinct types of explanation in film history. A standard list would include:
Biographical history: focusing on an individual’s life history
Industrial or economic history: focusing on business practices
Aesthetic history: focusing on film art (form, style, genre)
Technological history: focusing on the materials and machines of film
Social/cultural/political history: focusing on the role of cinema in the larger society
This sort of inventory helps us understand that there is not one history of film but many possible histories, each adopting a different perspective. Typically, the researcher begins with an interest in one of these areas, which helps him to formulate his initial question.
Nevertheless, such a typology shouldn’t be taken too rigidly. Not all questions the historian may ask will fall neatly into only one of these pigeonholes. If you want to know why a film looks the way it does, the question may not be purely aesthetic; it might be linked to the biography of the filmmaker or to the technological resources available when the film was made. A study of film genres might involve both aesthetic and cultural factors. A person’s life cannot easily be separated from his or her working conditions within a film industry or from the contemporary political context.
We propose that the student of film history think chiefly in terms of questions, keeping in mind that some interesting questions are likely to cut across categorical boundaries.
Explaining the Past: Organizing the Evidence
Finding an answer to a historical question may involve both description and explanation, in different mixtures. The techniques of descriptive research are specialized and require a wide range of background knowledge. For example, some experts on early silent cinema can determine when a film copy was made by examining the stock on which it is printed. The number and shape of the sprocket holes, along with the manner in which a manufacturer’s name is printed along the edge of the film strip, can help date the print. Knowing the age of the stock can in turn help narrow down the film’s date of production and country of origin.
Historical explanation also involves concepts that organize the evidence produced by specialized knowledge. Here are some of them.
Chronology Chronology is essential to historical explanation, and descriptive research is an indispensable aid to establishing the sequence of events. The historian needs to know that this film was made before that one or that event B took place after event A. But history is not mere chronology. A chronology stops short of explanation, just as a record of high and low tides gives no hint as to why tides change. History, as we have already seen, centrally involves explanation.
Causality Much historical explanation involves cause and effect. Historians work with conceptions of various kinds of causes.
Individual Causes People have beliefs and desires that affect how they act. In acting, they make things happen. It is often reasonable to explain a historical change or a past state of affairs in light of the attitudes or behavior of individuals. This is not to say that individuals make everything happen or that things always happen as people originally intended or that people always understand just why they did what they did. It is simply to say that historians may justifiably appeal to what people think and feel and do as part of an explanation.
Some historians believe that all historical explanation must appeal to person-based causes sooner or later. This position is usually called methodological individualism. A different, and even more sweeping, assumption is that only individuals, and exceptional individuals at that, have the power to create historical change. This view is sometimes labeled the Great Man theory of history, even though it is applied to women as well. Earlier generations of film historians, for example, were inclined to treat D.W. Griffith as the most important figure in the U.S. silent cinema because it seemed that he invented a number of editing techniques that became widespread. More recent historians have developed a counterargument, thanks to the greater availability of films by other directors and a more comparison-based method. These scholars claim that Griffith developed certain tendencies that were already present, pushing them to a new level of expression. Moreover, his most original techniques were not picked up by others, so in some respects other directors had more influence on standard editing practice. As an individual Griffith remains important, but he is probably not the Great Innovator that people once considered him.
Group Causes People often act in groups, and at times we speak of the group as having a kind of existence over and above the individuals who compose it. Groups have rules and roles, structures and routines, and often these factors make things happen. We speak of a government’s declaring war, yet this act may not be reducible to more detailed statements about what all the individuals involved believed and did.
When we say that Warner Bros. decided to adopt sound, we are making a meaningful claim, even if we have no information about the beliefs and desires of the individual decision makers at the company; we may not even fully know who they were. Some historians assert that any historical explanation must, sooner or later, ground itself in group-based causes. This position is usually called holism, or methodological collectivism, as opposed to methodological individualism.
Several sorts of groups are important to the history of cinema. Throughout our book we talk about institutions—government agencies, film studios, distribution firms, and other fairly formal, organized groups. We also talk about more informal affiliations of filmmakers. These are usually called movements or schools, small assemblies of filmmakers and critics who share the same interests, beliefs about cinema, conceptions of film form and style, and the like. The Soviet filmmakers of the 1920s—Lev Kuleshov, Sergei Eisenstein, V.I. Pudovkin, and many others—are a classic instance of a movement. Despite their individual differences, these men held in common a commitment to editing, often disjunctive editing, as central to a movie’s effects on a viewer.
Less well-defined cases of a movement would be German Expressionist film of the 1920s, Italian neorealism after World War II, and French New Wave filmmaking during the 1960s. In these instances, the filmmakers often insisted that they shared no consciousness of belonging to a movement. Still, historians often find common trends in the films, in the production circumstances, and in the local film culture, and these factors justify treating the filmmakers as a group, even if not a full-fledged movement.
Influence Most historians use some notion of influence to explain change. Influence describes the inspiration that an individual, a group, or a film can provide for others. Members of a movement can deliberately influence a director to make a film a certain way, but a chance viewing of a movie can also influence a director.
Influence does not mean simple copying. You may have been influenced by a parent or a teacher, but you have not necessarily mimicked his or her behavior. In the arts, influence is often a matter of one artist’s getting ideas from other artists’ work but then pursuing those ideas in a personal way. The result may be quite different from the initial work that stimulated it. The contemporary director Jean-Luc Godard was influenced by Jean Renoir, although their films are markedly different. Sometimes we can detect the influence by examining the films; sometimes we rely on the testimony of the filmmaker.
A body of work by a group of directors may also influence later films. Soviet cinema of the 1920s influenced the documentary director John Grierson. The Hollywood cinema, as a set of films, has been enormously influential throughout film history, although all the directors influenced by it certainly did not see exactly the same films. Influences are particular kinds of causes, so it is not surprising that influences may involve both individual activity and group activity.
Trends and Generalizations Any historical question opens up a body of data for investigation. Once the historian starts to look closely at the data—to go through a studio’s records, examine the films, page through the trade press—she discovers that there is much more to explore than the initial question touches on. It’s like looking into a microscope and discovering that a drop of water teems with organisms of confounding variety, all going about very different business.
Every historian omits certain material. For one thing, the historical record is already incomplete. Many events go unrecorded, and many documents are lost forever. Further, historians inevitably select. They unweave the tangles of history and create a more coherent pattern. A historian simplifies and streamlines according to the question he is pursuing.
One principal way historians go about such simplification is by postulating trends. Lots of things are going on, they admit, but “by and large” or “on the whole” or “for the most part,” we can identify a general tendency. Most Hollywood films of the 1940s were made in black and white, but most Hollywood films today are in color. On the whole, there has been a change, and we can see a trend toward the increasing use of color film stock between the 1940s and the 1960s. Our task is to explain how and why this trend occurred.
By positing trends, historians generalize. They necessarily set aside interesting exceptions and aberrations. But this is no sin, because the answer to a question is necessarily pitched at a certain level of generality. All historical explanations pull back from the throbbing messiness of reality. By recognizing that tendencies are “for-the-most-part” generalizations, the scholar can acknowledge that there is more going on than she is trying to explain.
Periods Historical chronology and causation are without beginning or end. The child who incessantly asks what came before that or what made that happen soon discovers that we can trace out a sequence of events indefinitely. Historians necessarily limit the stretch of time they will explore, and they go on to divide that stretch into meaningful phases or segments.
For example, the historian studying American silent cinema already assumes that this period within film history ran from about 1894 to around 1929. The historian will probably further segment this stretch of time. She might break it down by decade, treating the 1900s, the 1910s, and the 1920s. Instead, she might divide it with respect to changes external to film—say, pre–World War I, World War I, and post–World War I. Another possibility is creating periods that mark phases in the development of storytelling style, such as 1894–1907, 1908–1917, and 1918–1929.
Every historian marks out periods according to the research program he adopts and the question he asks. Historians recognize that periodization can’t be rigid: trends do not follow in neat order. It is illuminating to think of the American “structural” film of the early 1970s as a response to the “lyrical” film of the 1960s, but lyrical films were still being made well in the 1970s and afterward. Histories of genres often mark off periods by innovative films, but this is not to deny that more ordinary movies display a great deal of continuity across periods. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) brought Satanic horror into the A-picture realm, but in the years that followed, most horror films continued to be low-budget product.
Similarly, we ought not to expect that the history of technology or styles or genres will march in step with political or social history. The period after World War II was indeed distinctive, because this global conflict had major effects on film industries and filmmakers in most countries; but not all political events demarcate distinct periods in relation to changes in film form or the film market. The assassination of President Kennedy was a wrenching event, but it had little effect on activities in the film world. Here, as ever, the historian’s research program and central question will shape her sense of the relevant periods and parallel events. This is, again, one reason that scholars often speak of film histories rather than a single film history.
Significance In mounting explanations, historians of all arts make assumptions about the significance of the artworks they discuss. We might treat a work as a “monument,” studying it because it is a highly valued accomplishment. Alternatively, we might study a work as a “document” because it records some noteworthy historical activity, such as the state of a society at a given moment or a trend within the art form itself.
Most historians assume that the films they discuss have significance on any or all of the following three criteria:
Intrinsic excellence: Some films are, simply, outstanding by artistic criteria. They are rich, moving, complex, thought-provoking, intricate, meaningful, or the like. At least partly because of their quality, such films have played a key role in the history of cinema.
Influence: A film may be historically significant by virtue of its influence on other films. It may create or change a genre, inspire filmmakers to try something new, or gain such a wide popularity that it spawns imitations and tributes. Since influence is an important part of historical explanations, this sort of film plays a prominent role in most histories.
Typicality: Some films are significant because they vividly represent instances or trends. They stand in for many other films of the same type.
The three criteria don’t have to combine. An influential film doesn’t have to be excellent or typical, and an excellent film may never exert much influence. The films of Robert Bresson are usually considered exceptionally good, but for a long time they influenced no other filmmaking. But of course in some cases the criteria can combine. A highly accomplished genre film, such as Singin’ in the Rain or Rio Bravo, is often considered both excellent and highly typical. Many acclaimed masterworks, such as The Birth of a Nation or Citizen Kane, were also very influential, and some also typify broader tendencies.
Some Key Questions
The preface to Film History: An Introduction, third edition, outlines the questions we focus on, but it’s probably worth mentioning them here as well.
Although the book surveys the history of world cinema, we could hardly start with the question What is the history of world cinema? That would give us no help in setting about our research and organizing the material we find. Instead, we have highlighted three major questions.
1. How have uses of the film medium changed or become normalized over time? Within “uses of the medium” we include matters of film form: the part/whole organization of the film. Often this involves telling a story, but a film’s overall form might also be based on an argument or an abstract pattern. The term “uses of the medium” also includes matters of film style, the patterned uses of film techniques (mise-en-scène, or staging, lighting, setting, and costume; camerawork; editing; and sound). In addition, any balanced conception of how the medium has been used must also consider film modes (documentary, avant-garde, fiction, animation) and genres (for example, the Western, the thriller, or the musical). So we also examine these phenomena. All such matters are central to most college and university survey courses in film history.
A central purpose of our book is to survey the uses of the medium in different times and places. Sometimes we dwell on the creation of stable norms of form and style, as when we examine how Hollywood standardized certain editing options in the first two decades of filmmaking. At other times, we examine how filmmakers have proposed innovative ways of structuring form or using film technique.
2. How have the conditions of the film industry—production, distribution, and exhibition—affected the uses of the medium? Films are made within modes of production, habitual ways of organizing the labor and materials involved in creating a movie. Some modes of production are industrial; that’s when companies make films as a business. The classic instance of industrial production is the studio system, in which firms are organized in order to make films for large audiences through a fairly detailed division of labor. Hollywood’s studio system is the most famous, but there have been studio systems of production in many countries.
Another sort of industrial production might be called the artisanal, or one-off, approach, in which a production company makes one film at a time (perhaps only one film, period). Still other modes of production are less highly organized, involving small groups or individuals who make films for specific purposes. In all these instances, the ways in which films are made have had particular effects on the look and sound of the finished products. An avant-garde films, made on a low budget by an individual filmmaker, is more likely to be a personal expression than a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster.
The ways in which films are exhibited have also affected film history. For example, the major technological innovations associated with the early 1950s — wide-screen picture, stereophonic sound, increased use of color — were actually available decades earlier. Each could have been developed before the 1950s, but the U.S. film industry had no pressing need to do so since film attendance was so high that spending money on new attractions would not have significantly increased profits. Only when attendance dropped precipitously in the late 1940s were producers and exhibitors pushed to introduce new technologies to lure audiences back into theaters.
3. How have international trends emerged in the uses of the film medium and in the film market? In Film History we try to balance the consideration of important national contributions with a sense of how international and cross-cultural influences were operating. Many nations’ audiences and film industries have been influenced by directors and films that have migrated across their borders. Genres are vagabond as well. The Hollywood Western influenced the Japanese samurai film and the Italian Western, genres that in turn influenced the Hong Kong kung-fu films of the 1970s. Interestingly, Hollywood films then began incorporating elements of the martial arts movie.
Just as important, the film industry itself is significantly transnational. At certain periods, circumstances closed off countries from the flow of films, but most often there has been a global film market, and we understand it best by tracing trends across cultures and regions. We have paid particular attention to conditions that allowed people to see films made outside their own country.
Each of these how questions accompanies a great many why questions. For any part of the processes we focus on, we can ask what conditions caused them to operate as they did. Why, for instance, did Soviet filmmakers undertake their experiments in disturbing, aggressive narrative? Why did Hollywood’s studio system begin to fragment in the late 1940s? Why did “new waves” and “young cinemas” arise in Europe, the Soviet Union, and Japan around 1960? Why are more films produced now with international investment than in the 1930s or 1940s? Historians are keen to know what factors made a change occur, and our general questions include a host of subquestions about causes and effects.
Recall our five general explanatory approaches: biographical, industrial, aesthetic, technological, and social. If we had to squeeze our book into one or more of these pigeonholes, we could say that its approach is predominantly aesthetic and industrial. It examines how types of films, film styles, and film forms have changed in relation to the conditions of film production, distribution, and exhibition within certain countries and within the international flow of films. But this summary of our approach is too confining, as even a cursory look at what follows will indicate. Sometimes we invoke an individual — a powerful producer, an innovative filmmaker, an imaginative critic. Sometimes we consider technology. And we often frame our account with discussions of the political, social, and cultural context of a period.
Take, for example, our central question: How have uses of the film medium changed or become normalized over time? This is a question about aesthetic matters, but it also impinges on factors of technology. For instance, conceptions of “realistic” filmmaking changed with the introduction of portable cameras and sound equipment in the late 1950s. Similarly, our second question — How have the conditions of the film industry affected the uses of the medium? — is at once economic, technological, and aesthetic. Finally, asking how international trends have emerged in the uses of the film medium and in the film market concerns both economic and social/cultural/political factors. In the early era of cinema, films circulated freely among countries, and viewers often did not know the nationality of a film they were seeing. In the 1910s, however, war and nationalism blocked certain films from circulating. At the same time, the growth of particular film industries, notably Hollywood, depended on access to other markets, so the degree to which films could circulate boosted some nations’ output and hindered that of others. In addition, the circulation of U.S. films abroad served to spread American cultural values, which in turn created both admiration and hostility.
In sum, we have been guided, as we think most historians are, by research questions rather than rigid conceptions of the type of history we are writing. And what we take to be the most plausible answer to a given question will depend on the strength of the evidence and the argument we can make for it — not on a prior commitment to writing only a certain kind of history.
History as Story
Our answers to historical questions are, however, not simply given in a list or summary. Like most historical arguments, ours takes a narrative form.
Historians use language to communicate their arguments and evidence to others. Descriptive research programs can do this through a summary of findings: this film is Diana l’affascinatrice, made in Italy by Caesar-Film in 1915, directed by Gustavo Serena, and so on. But historical explanations require a more complicated crafting.
Sometimes historians frame their explanations as persuasive arguments. To take an example already cited, a historian investigating the development of sound by Warner Bros. might start by considering the various explanations already offered and taken for granted. Then he might set forth the reasons for believing his alternative interpretation. This is a familiar form of rhetorical argument, eliminating unsatisfactory beliefs before settling on a more plausible one.
More often, historians’ explanations take the form of stories. Narrative history, as it is called, seeks to answer how and why questions by tracing the relevant circumstances and conditions over time. It produces a chain of causes and effects, or it shows how a process works, by telling a story. For instance, if we are trying to answer the question How did the Hays Office negotiate with firms to arrive at an agreement about an acceptable film? we can frame a step-by-step narrative of the censorship process. Or, if we are seeking to explain what led the Hays Office to be created, we might lay out the causal factors as a story. As these examples indicate, the story’s “characters” might be individuals or groups, institutions or even films; the “plot” consists of the situations in which the players operate and the changes they initiate and undergo.
Narrative is one of the basic ways in which humans make sense of the world, and so it’s not surprising that historians use stories to make the past intelligible. Film History: An Introduction follows tradition in creating a large-scale narrative, one that includes several stories within it. We divide film history into six large periods — early cinema (to about 1919), the late silent era (1919–1929), the development of sound cinema (1926–1945), the period after World War II (1946–1960s), the period running from the 1960s to the 1980s, and the contemporary era (1980s-the present). These divisions reflect developments in (1) film form and style; (2) major changes in film production, distribution, and exhibition; and (3) significant international trends. The periodization can’t be exactly synchronized for all three areas, but it does indicate approximate boundaries for the changes we try to trace.
An alternative organizational pattern is that of the topical history. Topical history treats an idea or theme rather than a story. If you were writing a book-length history of Manhattan, for instance, you might devote one chapter to geography, another to political dynamics, another to social changes, another to the events of 9/11, and so on. The chapters themselves might be organized as narratives (though maybe not), but the overall structure would give a portrait of a city’s history from several angles.
The historian must decide, at various levels, between narrative organization and topical organization. Suppose your question was How did America’s postwar occupation of Germany affect the local film industry and culture? Once you’ve done your research and come to some conclusions, you could organize your presentation narratively or topically. That is, your chapters could proceed in chronological order to trace the changes in the industry between 1945 and the early 1950s. Or each chapter could deal with events occurring across the entire period, but in different spheres — production, censorship, journalism, exhibition, and the like. In another topical layout, you could organize the book around key films or film policies that had an impact on different spheres of German life.5
A CASE STUDY
To suggest the flavor of doing historical research, we offer one of our own experiences. Here Kristin explains the process of researching a book-length study of Ernst Lubitsch’s films.
Herr Lubitsch Goes to Hollywood: German and American Film after World War I (University of Amsterdam, 2005).
Of the directors widely considered to be among the greatest, Ernst Lubitsch has had relatively little of substance written about him. The other directors of Germany’s “golden age” of the silent cinema, F. W. Murnau and especially Fritz Lang, have received more attention. Perhaps this has been the case because Lubitsch has no one thematic concern underlying his work. Murnau and Lang also are linked to the German Expressionist movement, while Lubitsch worked outside it. His habit of moving between vast historical epics and broad comedies for his German films makes him hard to pin down. But why is he important?
Filmmakers and cinema buffs love Lubitsch, partly for the sheer quality of his work, from the hilarious silent comedies of the late 1910s, like I Don’t Want to Be a Man and The Doll to the masterpieces of the sound period, most notably Trouble in Paradise (1932) and The Shop around the Corner (1940). Apart from his being a great director, though, why is Lubitsch significant?
There are many things a historian could say about Lubitsch. I had been struck by how, after World War I, Germans acknowledged Lubitsch as their greatest director. After he moved to Hollywood, he quickly came to be considered the greatest director there as well. Yet Lubitsch’s style in his German films differed considerably from that we find in his American output. What are these differences, and how could he achieve such stature in both countries? A study of Lubitsch could also highlight how American and German national films styles differed during these crucial years in the development of the cinema as an art.
According to traditional historical accounts, during the 1920s, imaginative German techniques like Expressionist set design and the freely moving camera quickly influenced Hollywood films. Historians had not considered the influence might move in the opposite direction, from Hollywood to Germany. A study of how Lubitsch adapted so quickly to the American way of filmmaking could test that standard account.
How long a period should the book cover? Lubitsch had begun as a silent-film comedian, directing some of his own shorts and short features during the war. He moved into features in 1918. I decided to limit my focus to the ten-year period from 1918 to 1927, the year of Lubitsch’s last surviving silent film. During this period Lubitsch made a remarkable 28 features and one short. Of these titles, seven are not known to survive. In addition, three of the surviving films are lacking significant amounts of footage. The 21 available films became the core body of evidence for my study.
Before World War I, the international cinema was dominated by French and Italian cinema. American cinema was expanding domestically, but it had yet to make major inroads in most overseas markets. During the war, however, production declined in France and Italy, and the American firms quickly stepped in to supply theaters in many territories. Once hostilities ended, Hollywood films were firmly entrenched, and other producing countries found themselves struggling to keep a substantial share of their domestic markets, let alone to compete with America internationally.
The war had, ironically, strengthened the German industry. In 1916, the government banned the import of all but Danish films. This ban was kept in place until December 31, 1920. Thus for nearly five years, German film production was free to expand, and the industry emerged from the war second in size and strength only to Hollywood. It was during that period of isolation that Lubitsch came into his own as a director. Institutional circumstances played a role in making him the finest proponent of the German approach to filmmaking (a style which was largely the same as that used in most European producing countries).
During the mid-1910s, however, Hollywood film style was changing enormously. What has been termed the “classical” style emerged, the underlying principle of which was to tailor film technique to tell a story as comprehensibly and unobtrusively as possible. Scenes were broken up into closer shots through analytical editing, shifting the spectator’s eye to the most salient part of the action at each moment. Filming in diffused light in the open air or in glass-sided studios was abandoned in favor of “dark” studios illuminated entirely by artificial lighting. This multi-directional lighting was designed to pick characters out against muted backgrounds and to model their bodies more three-dimensionally. The technique became codified as three-point lighting.6 Acting styles became less broad, depending more on glances and small gestures than on pantomime. Set design evolved to make the space containing the action simpler and hence less distracting. In sum, a new trend had begun, led by American filmmaking.
Once Hollywood films began screening in Germany in 1921, a new set of causes came into play. German filmmakers started absorbing the American style, and Lubitsch was in the forefront of this change. His German films of 1921 and 1922 reflect his new knowledge of classical technique, and he was clearly ready to make the leap into Hollywood filmmaking even before he went there. Once in America, he rapidly honed his application of classical principles, and soon he was in turn influencing the filmmakers there with a string of masterpieces, including The Marriage Circle (1924) and Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925).
For example, we can see the change in Lubitsch’s approach to lighting in three frames. The first, from Carmen (1918), shows lighting coming entirely from the front; there’s no backlighting to pick out the gray uniform against the gray background.
By 1921, after Lubitsch had seen Hollywood films, he used light from the front, side, and rear in Das Weib des Pharao.
In Hollywood, Lubitsch routinely used back lighting to make his actors stand out against the sets, as in this frame from Three Women (1923).
In setting out on my project, I asked a small number of questions. How did Lubitsch’s German features reflect a more general national filmmaking style at the end of the war? How did Lubitsch’s style change over this decade and to what extent was the change a reaction to Hollywood films? What impact did the new classical Hollywood style have more generally on German filmmaking in the 1920s?
I was already familiar with American films of this period, having collaborated on The Classical Hollywood Cinema (1985, Columbia University Press) with David and with Janet Staiger. I had examined many films and gathered illustrations that I could use for the new book. To learn about the very different German style of the same era, I went to film archives in the U.S. and abroad to study Lubitsch’s films in detail, watching them on an editing table and making frame reproductions for use as illustrations. I examined Lubitsch’s context by watching about 75 films by other directors, also collecting images for illustrations. (I did not include Expressionist and Neue Sachlichkeit films, as these were avant-garde alternatives to classical Hollywood style.) I wasn’t looking at acknowledged masterpieces, for I wanted to track typical trends in German film style.
In libraries I went through film-industry publications, primarily the Lichtbildbühne and Film-Kurier, and the two main technical journals of the 1920s, Die Kinotechnik and Die Filmtechnik. Cinematography manuals and the memoirs of people who had worked with Lubitsch filled in details of the director’s working methods. Legal papers in the United Artists collection of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research shed light on Mary Pickford’s dealings with Lubitsch during and after their work on Rosita (1923) — dealings about which some widely believed myths had persisted. Reviews of Lubitsch’s films in the German and American press revealed how Lubitsch’s films were viewed and what expert viewers noticed about their look.
All this evidence allowed me to answer my initial questions. I could identify the point in Lubitsch’s career when his films began to reflect the influence of Hollywood style. I was able to do the same with more ordinary German films of the post-war era. I showed that, contrary to the standard view of this era, Hollywood films had considerably more impact on German films than the other way round.
In writing the book, I didn’t organize the chapters to give a chronological account of Lubitsch’s career during this ten-year period. Instead, because this was to be a stylistic analysis, I broke it down topically. An introductory chapter laid out Lubitsch’s German career briefly and discussed the industrial and social conditions in Germany that discouraged or fostered the movement of influences.
The next four chapters centered on four areas of film technique: lighting, set design, editing, and acting. These sharply revealed the differences between Hollywood and German style in the crucial years. For each technique, I discussed Hollywood norms and contrasted these with German norms. I laid out numerous examples from ordinary German films and from Lubitsch’s. Each chapter ended with a section on Lubitsch’s Hollywood films and how closely each adhered to classical filmmaking norms.
The final chapter dealt with the influences of Hollywood film on mainstream commercial German cinema of the era after Lubitsch had left his native country. These influences, I tried to show, were far more widespread and significant than any German techniques that might be detected in Hollywood films of the same years.
Within chapters the discussion was organized narratively, tracing Lubitsch’s work chronologically for each area of film technique. The overall argument moved from specific to general. While the opening chapter dealt largely with Lubitsch’s career and work, the last one left Lubitsch and concentrated almost entirely on German cinema of the 1920s.
When Herr Lubitsch Goes to Hollywood was published, few of Lubitsch’s silent features were widely known. Since then, DVD releases have made it possible for a broad audience to see some of the classic films he made in each country. The Eyes of the Mummy(1918) is available. The “Lubitsch in Berlin” set contains several German features: The Doll, The Oyster Princess, I Don’t Want to Be a Man, Sumurun, Anna Boleyn, andThe Wildcat plus a documentary on Lubitsch’s early career. (Each is available separately as well.) Lubitsch’s two most important Hollywood films are also on DVD: His romantic comedy The Marriage Circle (1924) is available, and a restored print of what is arguably his masterpiece of the silent period, Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925), is part of the “More Treasures from American Film Archives” set. Perhaps now readers can evaluate my answers to the questions my book seeks to answer, and I hope that other historians will ask new ones of their own.
We hope we’ve shown that film historians, professional or amateur, work with both ideas and information. They mount projects within research programs. They don’t simply state facts; they try to ask questions. They don’t just pile up data; they make arguments. The facts and questions, data and arguments combine to make doing film history a fascinating pursuit.
Historical writing about films will probably never be as common as film criticism; most people prefer to comment about films by analyzing, interpreting, and evaluating them. Writing an essay on film history takes a lot more time and effort than writing a review of a current film. Nonetheless, historical study offers unique pleasures. If you want to understand the context of a film that you admire, you would enjoy reading film history. Just as important, a deeper understanding of film history introduces you to a range of new films to enjoy. Finally, if we have any curiosity about the films that captivate us now, we can start to satisfy it by thinking historically. What happens today springs from what happened yesterday. By trying to understand film history, we better understand the movies of our moment.7
1 : This research program is described in Henry Jenkins, What Made Pistachio Nuts? Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992).
2 : See Lea Jacobs, The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman Film (1991; reprint Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).
3 : See, for example, Yuri Tsivian, et al., Silent Witnesses: Russian Films 1908–1919 (Pordenone: Giornate del Cinema Muto, 1989); Charles Musser, Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); Tom Gunning, D.W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film: The Early Years at Biograph (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991); and Ben Brewster and Lea Jacobs, Theatre to Cinema: Stage Pictorialism and the Early Feature Film (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).
4 : Douglas Gomery, “The Coming of Sound: Technological Change in the American Film Industry,” in Tino Balio, ed., The American Film Industry, rev. ed. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), pp. 229–51.
5 : See Jennifer Fay, Theaters of Occupation: Hollywood and the Reeducation of Postwar Germany (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).
6 : See David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, eighth ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008), 128-130.
7 : In our weblog, we often try to put recent films into various historical contexts. See www.davidbordwell.net/blog.
A common tendency among undergraduates is to short-circuit the process of writing a paper by ignoring what could be called the “prewriting” stage, which involves a number of steps that should be initiated LONG before the due-date. This “9-step program” is as follows:
The research stage actually starts with the selection of a topic, i.e., the broad subject area for investigation. It is often a good idea to start with a few films that you like, a filmmaker whose work you particularly enjoy or a period in history that intrigues you. The main secret to writing a good essay is to focus on a topic that interests you.
Refers to the specific focus of the research. An important first step in research is to narrow the topic to manageable proportions. You should limit yourself to a few films or a very specific historical period. Avoid being too broad (like trying to write the complete history of world cinema!). But you should also avoid being too narrow (although there are fine fine books on individual films, you should try to cover at least two or three productions). The nature of the issue selected is important in choosing the appropriate approach.
Start with a single, stimulating research question. Possible hypotheses may emerge at the working outline stage, but these should be based on wide reading and thinking – not on a “hunch”. The research question sets the direction of the assignment. The student’s task is to develop an answer or thesis (what is it that this paper will try to “demonstrate”). This stage is a crucial one. Besides setting the direction of the research, the phrasing of the question helps to establish the tone of the paper and defines its scope. Although the essay may contain descriptive, narrative, or biographical material, the solution to the problem requires analysis.
Students should develop a working bibliography – books, periodicals, magazines, newspapers, web sites etc. – before starting the working outline. Learn how to use a complex research library. There are many resources available to help you find articles and books on films and filmmakers. You should start by visiting the Carleton University Library Web sites devoted to Film-related resources: http://www.library.carleton.ca/
If you cannot find enough sources, change the issue immediately.
Developing a preliminary structure for the essay before you have finished collecting information is most helpful. The working outline is a tentative list of main factors around which you anticipate the final answer will be structured. Unlike the Plan (stage 7), the working outline puts less emphasis on a linear structure than on a fluid arrangement of ideas emerging from the research question. Points included in the working outline constitute parameters within which the thesis will be articulated. During later stages of research, these points will be tested, and their importance and relevance determined. A good working outline provides an analytical framework for the next stage – the collecting of information. It helps to ensure a disciplined and ordered piece of work. The preparatory reading associated with the development of this working outline provides a solid background reservoir of knowledge on the topic as well.
Collecting and Classifying Information
Only now are you ready to start the research proper – the gathering and weighing of evidence to develop an answer to the research question. Systematic information-gathering and recording are essential if you are to make the best use of your research time and apply your discoveries to construct a coherent and convincing essay. The working outline provides the structure not only for collecting information but also for classifying and evaluating it. If a piece of information does not fit into this framework, you have two choices – either discard it as irrelevant, or create another section in the working outline to incorporate the information. A comprehensive and organized system of research notes is essential for a successful essay.
At this point, the ideas from the outline must be arranged much more specifically as “arguments” founded on the information gathered in stage 6. Too many essays are of the “cut-and-paste” variety, composed of excerpts from a few books spread out on the table, or from “highlighted” photocopies of periodical articles. A good piece of work should have a clear linear structure that should be worked out at this stage. The plan might include five main sections: an introduction; three main arguments (it could be two or four); and a conclusion. Subsequently, each of the three (or two or four) central arguments could be subdivided into two or three specific points. If your notes have been classified according to the headings in your outline, the progressive breakdown of detail at each stage is not difficult.
Drafting the material in the body to substantiate the thesis is a most important task. Many students seem determined to cram all their research notes into the paper. In doing so, they clutter and destroy their answers. If the research has been carried out properly, you should end up with far more material than you can possibly use. In the rough draft stage, there is a tendency to overwrite, and this is all right to a point, but be prepared, in the final stage, to prune ruthlessly. Ideally, every word, every phrase, every sentence, every paragraph must justify its presence. If you have prepared the ground properly, according to this model, the rough draft should very nearly “write itself”. Now is the time to let it flow without worrying too much about the niceties of style and form. Suppress the urge to polish your writing – one sentence at a time – at this stage. Get it out. Here, your subconscious plays an extraordinarily major role.
Along with the various stages of the prewriting process, this final stage is the one most frequently overlooked or wilfully ignored. Too often, the student submits what in effect is still a rough draft. This is insulting to the reader and, needless to say, simply unprofessional. A clean and polished final draft is important because readers are impressed by a neat, orderly, coherent piece of work. Imagine sitting down to read a section of your favorite Guide to Film Studies and being comforted wit numberous spilling terrors, vaulty gammar and tynsax, purky and caucasionally, nery vearly nicomprenensnible snapages with suspicious stains – gravy, jam, coffee, blood, sweat, tears, or worse – we have seen it all!! I suspect you would give it up in disgust and scream: “Who the &*#$ wrote this piece of &*!% ?” So the old saw applies here, too: you not only have to be professional, you have to appear to be professional. The “look” of your paper (cover page; standard margins; standard font; page numbers; titles in italics; appropriate indents for quotations etc.) is of the essence at this stage.
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