Screen Histories: A Screen Reader

Annette Kuhn & Jackie Stacey (eds),
Screen Histories: A Screen Reader.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
ISBN 019815 9498
233 pp

(Review copy supplied by Oxford University Press)

Uploaded 1 March 2001

The most interesting thing about this book is the fact that it was published at all, that both a prestigious journal (Screen) and an equally prestigious publishing house (Oxford University Press) considered that this collection of articles would be intellectually valuable and presumably also economically viable as a book. I am not challenging that decision- merely pointing out that even a few years ago it is a judgment that would not have been made.

The two editors make this clear in their introduction, where they describe history as the “poor relation” of film studies. The publication of this collection seems, then, to be a useful step towards acknowledging a problem and beginning to redress it. But for those of us who have been struggling for many years under the weight of history’s poor reputation within film studies, it also feels like the editors of Screen “protesting too much”. At the back of the book is a list of all the articles on historical subjects printed in the journal, but this only points up just how little of this nature has reached those hallowed pages over more than twenty-five years. I did my own calculations from the publication dates provided in the appendix, and discovered that, of approximately twenty major articles published across the four issues each year, there were only three articles across the eight years 1972-79, eleven across the ten years 1980-89, and twenty-one across the nine years1990-98 on historical subjects. This does indicate that history has been slowly gathering momentum over the decades, but not evenly so: there are three peaks, in the years 1982-3 (five articles), 1990-91 (eight articles) and 1996-7 (six articles), and there have been years when none were published at all (1973-4, 1977-9, 1981, 1987-8). A cursory glance across the table of contents for the issues published after the listing in the appendix does not show any marked variation from this.

Of course, we will never know whether this is merely the result of the number or quality of the articles submitted to the editors for consideration – in other words, it was all the historians’ own fault. But, just maybe, in publishing this collection the editors of Screen have decided to jump on a bandwagon that the historians have slowly and with enormous effort been persuading to roll at last.

At this point I will stop looking in the gift horse’s mouth, and instead rejoice at having so many seminal articles in one place, available easily to a new generation of film students and scholars, and with Screen’s imprimatur of respectability to encourage emulation.

The articles are divided into four sections: reception histories (Robert C.Allen and Janet Thumim on methodologies for locating the historical audience, Jackie Stacey on women’s recollections of Hollywood stars), social histories (Constance Balides on women in the cinema of attractions, Mary Beth Haralovich and Annette Kuhn on aspects of censorship), institutional histories (Jeanne Allen on copyright, William Boddy on American television in the early thirties, Douglas Gomery on Warner bros and sound, Mark Langer on animation studios, and Richard Maltby on studio complicity in censorship), and textual histories (Ben Brewster and Noel Burch on the development of filmic narrative, Tom Gunning on film and the telephone). Any student or teacher of film history will be familiar with many of these, and will find new and fascinating insights in the others.

In addition, together they chronicle the changes in the field itself over these years. It was important in 1976 to have Douglas Gomery remind film scholars of the need to go back to the primary data, or in 1982 to have Ben Brewster revisit films of the 1910s in the search for understanding of the building blocks of narrative. It is rather sad to see Noel Burch’s apologetic opening paragraph in 1982, but also a relief to realise that such self-deprecation would (hopefully – even as I write this I wonder if I am being too optimistic) not be necessary in 2000.

If your library does not have a full run of Screen (and – let’s face it – most libraries have had their collection diminished or defaced by enthusiastic readers over the years), here is a way to make up. If the area is a new one to you, here is access to an important selection of key texts. So, do buy this book, but at the same time I hope that the representation of history in the pages of Screen will leap in the future, and so demonstrate that the editors of the journal have really taken the importance of film history to heart.

Ina Bertrand

About the Author

Ina Bertrand

About the Authors

Ina Bertrand

Ina Bertrand is Principal Fellow, Cinema Programme, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, Australia. She was foundation editor of Screening the Past.View all posts by Ina Bertrand →