A Delayed Response: Historians and the Study of Film

Film is widely used by many historians to investigate past and present social, cultural and political currents. Film historians make use of the traditional primary source materials—production records, scripts, trade journals, the diaries and memories of film-makers, and publicity records such as box-office sales and film reviews—but the main sources for film historians are films themselves. This creates a unique dilemma, because films are complex cultural texts that are in many ways different from traditional historical sources such as letters and government records or even traditional literary texts such as novels. As such the analysis of film requires specialist methods and skills that are unique to film history.

It’s important to distinguish between historians whose interest is the movies and historians who are interested in movies. Historians whose interest is the movies are committed to researching the international film industry that has aspects which are economic, technological, social, psychological and visual. In short, these historians are interested in film or movies as a medium. Other historians might simply use movies as evidence of popular views of the society and politics, or perhaps to reflect on ideological and cultural issues affecting one nation or culture in a particular context and time. Although both groups research and/or use film in their study, the title of film historian is generally reserved to the historian who is interested in film as a medium.

No work of history, portrayed in any medium (film, images, books etc.) can ever be completely historically accurate. Even an academic book written by an established scholar and published by a well-known academic press will have historical flaws. This is not to suggest a mass failure on the part of all historians, but rather stands as a simple statement of humility. The most basic job of the historian, as we understand the task so stipulated by the discipline today, is to amass a wide and diverse body of evidence from which to reconstruct the past in a particular context and time. Invariably, any reconstruction of the past is but one interpretation and you are ultimately free to agree or disagree. When broken down into parts, historians collect evidence in the form of books, photographs, films, and other textual as well as visual pieces and then examine the collected evidence through investigative means. We ask questions of a body of evidence, thereby interpreting a recollection of events that may or may not hit the historical mark. The entire process is heavily dependent on the mind, and just as the human condition is inherently flawed so too are the results of the cognitive process known as history. Historians understand and accept that perfection is merely an ideal, a goal to strive towards that remains elusive. In many respects, history is more about the journey than the destination, as cliché as that sounds. The process of collecting and sifting endlessly through evidence allows for reinterpretation, and with each new written history perhaps our collective understanding of the past is more refined and closer to a more complete representation. 

Film is still a relatively young academic subject. Although the history of the medium can be traced back to the first public exhibition of moving images which occurred in France and Germany towards the end of nineteenth century, and despite the rapid growth in popularity of American cinema throughout the early twentieth century, it was not until the 1960s that film appeared on the academic curriculum. Until that time film history was an area seemingly reserved to collectors or connoisseurs of cinematic memorabilia. Film history was very much viewed as a pastime rather than a profession, or as the realm of the amateur film buff rather than the province of the academic historian. The study of film or cinema was also restrained for many years by strong intellectual and institutional currents that resisted the notion that film made proper academic study. Simply put, film was thought too trivial a subject to be taken seriously by the ‘most’ academic schools or scholars. Film didn’t emerge as a strong academic subject until scholars began to reinterpret the notion of ‘culture,’ thereby accepting that the more ‘popular’ aspects of society can be educational as well.

By the 1960s resistance started to fade and scholars began to experiment with different methodologies or uses of film. Emerging principally from English literature, it developed into an appreciation for textual analysis that focused on ‘reading’ rather than ‘viewing’ films. From this study, genre criticism emerged with a focus on the western, the gangster, the melodrama, and the musical. As critical tools and methods were imported from a range of disciplines or academic traditions, early film studies emphasized formal analysis to trace repeated patterns and motifs. Also emerging in the 1960s was an approach to history called the ‘new social school,’ a topic familiar to Clio’s Current. As scholars began to examine the institutional and cultural contexts of film-making, they also began to consider the relationship between films and the societies in which they were produced and consumed. Textual analysis alone was recognized as an insufficient means to understand films as cultural artifacts. All films—including the products of both mainstream, commercial entertainment cinema and alternative practices such as art cinema, documentary, or ‘amateur’ film-making—exist within their various ideological, political, social, cultural, economic and institutional contexts, and must be studied accordingly. This recognition or revelation in film studies is known as the historical turn. Historians now accept that in order to properly reconstruct a version of past events that is widely representative we must rely on evidence from many mediums, rather than what David Bordwell has called ‘the sterile notion of the self-sufficient text.’

In this process of thinking about how to interpret and/or use film in historical study, film history has become increasingly specialized. David Robinson, for example, has observed that ‘cinema involves an aesthetic, a technology, and an economy and an audience,' and all four of these elements will condition what moving images appear on the screen at any particular place and in any particular period. Others such as Robert Allen and Douglas Gomery, both widely recognized for making one of the first attempts to lay down a methodological framework for film history in their book titled Film History: Theory and Practice (1985), differentiate between aesthetic film history, technological film history, economic film history, and social film history. Within such frameworks, Allen and Gomery suggest the role of the film historian is to show ‘how film as art, technology, social force, [and an] economic institution developed over time or functioned at a given moment in the past.’ Rather than analyze or interpret one film or a collection of films, they suggest furthermore that the film historian attempts to ‘explain the changes that have occurred to cinema since its origins, as well as account for aspects of the cinema that have resisted change.’

Film history has emerged of late as a relatively young but lively field of ‘accepted’ inquiry. As complex cultural texts, which once seemed trivial to many academics, films and the film-making process are today viewed with intrigue rather than neglect.