Scenes of Instruction. The Beginnings of the U.S. Study of Film

Dana Polan,
Scenes of Instruction. The Beginnings of the U.S. Study of Film.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.
ISBN: 978 0 520 24962 2
US$24.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by University of California Press)

This reviewer entered the field of academic film studies in the 1970s, when, at least in the United States, film education was not yet the mass industry it has since become, with film courses of all kinds being taught at every university and college in the country. When I started looking for a graduate film program, my goal was to learn how to make films, so I could write intelligently about movies as a film critic, like my then hero, Andrew Sarris (critic for The Village Voice). So New York University was out, because they split filmmaking and film studies into separate departments. Being on the East Coast of the United States, I had only a handful of choices, three of which were imbedded in communications departments. Given this personal history, I, too, bought into the often told creation myth of film studies, as arising out of the 1960s, a product of the very Auteurism Sarris heralded (at that time from outside academia).

Dana Polan’s new book on the birth of academic film studies in the United States, Scenes of Instruction. The Beginnings of the U.S. Study of Film, takes aim at exactly that myth, demonstrating in exhausting detail that film study entered the academy as early as the 1910s. That decade also produced Vachel Lindsay’s loopy but serious attempt at film theory (1916) and Emile Altenloh’s Sociology dissertation on German film audiences in 1912, my candidates for first academic film publishing. The author’s project was partially financed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Film Scholar’s Award. In the interest of journalistic ethics, I should mention that I, too, have now become a recipient of the Award. Interestingly, the Academy is a key player in Polan’s story, but is certainly not handled with kid gloves. In any case, Polan takes us on a course by course tour over the next 376 pages. What emerges is a portrait of an evolving field, less an anthropomorphic creature taking shape than a series of chemical reactions, none coalescing to such a degree as to allow independent life. He ends his narrative with the year 1935, leaving open the possibility of a sequel, covering the period 1936 to 1959, the year the Society of Cinematologists – now known as the Society of Cinema and Media Studies – was constituted.

Dana Polan calls his study a prehistory of the discipline, arguing that his effort is the first step in writing a complete history of film studies, which will supercede the Urmythos. That creation myth went as follows: Despite isolated attempts at film education, the 1950s privileging of high culture and concomitant disdain for popular culture, precluded any concerted or sustainable efforts to establish the field. Film Studies emerged in the 1960s, at the very same historically precipitous moment as Auteurism rehabilitated the Hollywood film work of previously neglected directors, while the American film avant-garde took New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles by storm, and various European ‘new waves’ brought art to narrative feature filmmaking, all of which called attention to the medium’s potential for self-reflexivity. Suddenly, intellectuals of every stripe began discussing film seriously. Polan concludes: “For modern film studies to be imagined heroically as an achieved professional discipline, the figures who came before had concomitantly to be imagined as non-professionals in the area” (5). This argument makes absolute sense to me. Indeed, I made the same case, when I discussed the suppression of the history of the first American avant-garde, 1919-1945, by Jonas Mekas, P. Adams Sitney and others, most of whom were directly connected to the emerging New American Cinema avant-garde of the 1960s.

Dana Polan’s narrative goes beyond recuperating a moment in the history of film studies, by reconstructing the actual classroom practice of teaching filmmaking and film appreciation at a time when neither university administrators, nor the faculty teaching courses, nor the outside interests, lobbying for or financing such film courses, were exactly clear about what the goals for such pedagogy should be. Moving from the microcosm of the classroom to larger pedagogical and film theoretical issues, Polan wants to portray “the moment of self-invention,” (19) when the field’s identity was yet unformed. Over the first seven chapters, Dana Polan analyses film courses taught at Columbia (1915 – ), the New School for Social Research (1926, 1932), Harvard Business School (1927), the University of Southern California (1929 – ), Syracuse University, (1934 – ) and NYU (1933 – ). Some represent filmmaking programs, but the majority are already moving towards film studies, called by various names. Given that Columbia, USC and NYU represent top-tiered academic film programs today, Polan can indeed lay claim to documenting the birth of film studies.

Falling out of the established pattern of looking at the microcosm of the classroom, Polan’s final chapter punctures the creation myth from a completely different angle by outing the “Great Books” cultural elitists of the 1950s, who had so vehemently opposed the reception of mass culture with the academy. The archconservative and anti-communist professorship, who argued for a strict classical education and became the cultural icons of such neo-cons as critic Hilton Kramer, turn out to have been closeted film buffs in the 1930s. At St. John’s College, one of the flagships of the ‘Great Books’ movement, they planned to incorporate an ‘Institute of Cinematics’ into the curriculum. Mortimer J. Adler, the fabled ‘Great Books’ professor at the University of Chicago wrote a section about film in his incredibly influential Art and Prudence, a study in practical philosophy (1937), as well as a film essay for The National Board of Review Magazine. For Polan, this is “the most explicit act of cinema appreciation on the part of high cultural intellectuals” (374).

Indeed, the confrontation between film and the high culture of academia turns out to be a major theme of the preceding seven chapters. For example, there was Boris Morokovin at USC, an intellectual jack-of-all-trades, who came out of comparative literature and would end up in speech pathology via a period of obsessive film activity in the mid-1930s, during which he taught film courses, edited an early film art magazine, Cinema Progress, and produced his own films with students. Or Harvard Business School’s Howard T. Lewis, a marketing professor, who spent the late 1920s and early 1930s studying Hollywood business practices, but only as one business among others “to be studied in a dry, rigorous fashion” (133). Or Sawyer Falk at Syracuse, who was aligned with a theatre program, but taught a film appreciation course for twenty-seven years, which was rigorously formalist, dogmatically insisting that film was “an art of visual totality, kinesis, and energetic graphics” (263). And finally Frederic Thrasher at NYU’s School of Education, who was an expert on youth gangs, but also taught a film appreciation course which hypothesized that making students aware of and able to judge good films will inevitably create a general audience willing to demand more artistic cinema, thereby actually impacting film production. Such a premise had been articulated in the late 1920s by the Berlin based avant-garde filmmaker and painter, Hans Richter, in his polemical film tract, Film Enemies of Today, Film Friends of Tomorrow (1929) and was behind Amos Vogel’s exhibition philosophy in his Cinema 16 series (1940s – 1960s).

Other pioneers in Polan’s study enter academia as working film critics. For example, Terry Ramsaye, a film industry journalist, whose massive anecdotal history of the American cinema, A Million and One Nights. A History of the Motion Picture Through 1925 (1926), got him a gig at the New School in New York, where he taught a version of his book. Harry Potemkin, an influential New York-based film critic and dedicated leftwinger, taught one course at the New School, but also developed a whole unrealized program of film study, before dying prematurely in 1933. Financed by Joseph Kennedy, Hollywood bigwigs, like Will Hays, Jesse Lasky, Adolph Zukor, Marcus Loew, Cecil B. DeMille, William Fox, and Harry Warner, lectured at Harvard’s Business School, in what was to be but never became a continuing program to train film executives for the industry; a published volume of lectures, The Story of the Films (1927) remains.

One of the more interesting aspects of Dana Polan’s study concerns the efforts on the part of the film industry, better said, its umbrella organizations, to gain influence in academia and simultaneously improve Hollywood’s moral and ethical standing by aligning itself with higher learning. Certainly, that was the impetus behind Kennedy’s effort at Harvard (although he reneged on his full financial commitment). Will Hays and the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association had their fingers in several early efforts, including at Columbia, Harvard, USC, and Stanford. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, apart from instituting the Oscars awards in 1927, got involved in the founding of the USC filmmaking program. At the time, the newly formed AMPAS organization was still searching for an identity, professional training being one role to play, since it was considered a necessary step towards standardizing industry practices. As a result, the first film course in 1929 featured such illustrious guest speakers as Irving Thalberg, Paul Bern, William Cameron Menzies, and Milton Sills. USC, for its part, was hoping to become the research and development arm of the industry, guaranteeing a steady flow of cash to the university. Thanks to the work of an ambitious young AMPAS staffer, Lester Cowan, several lecture courses with a revolving cast of industry characters were pulled off, but the Academy quickly lost interest in the project, focusing its attention in the early 1930s on heading off attempts by the screenwriters and other creative personal to organize in a real union, rather than the company union AMPAS represented.

Finally, what we see in the development of film education in these early years are attempts to grapple with some of the same questions that have remained au currant until today. Is film an art form or a business or both? Should the emphasis be put on training filmmakers or on educating film audiences? Is the mass media of film a tool of propaganda or one of enlightenment? Then as now, the answers depend on your point of view. Thanks to Dana Polan we now at least know that these questions have structured the field of film studies, since its very inception.

Jan-Christopher Horak,

Created on: Monday, 3 December 2007

About the Author

Jan-Christopher Horak

About the Author

Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is Director, UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, UCLA Critical Studies. PhD. Westfaelische Wilhelms-Universitaet, Muenster, Germany. Publications include: Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995). Presently writing a book on the American designer, Saul Bass.View all posts by Jan-Christopher Horak →