Inventing Film Studies

Lee Grieveson and Haidee Wasson (eds),
Inventing Film Studies.
Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2008
ISBN: 978 0 8223 4289-2
US$27.95 (pb)
(Review Copy supplied by Duke University Press)

In 1969, when I was a freshman in college, I could not have told you who John Ford or G.W. Pabst were, although I did experience my first taste of Godard and Ingmar Bergmann at the student film society that year. I was not a film buff who professionalized. Actually, I didn’t get wind of the fact that one could study film until the winter of my sophomore year, when I shared a flat with several students, including a photographer named Joe, who started dragging home all manner of film books, which I read. I also took a non-credit seminar on Sergei Eisenstein that winter. Eisenstein was a tough entre into cinephilia, yet I realized almost intuitively, that, unlike History and English, cinema studies was for the most part terra incognita. Before I turned film lover, though, I became a film bibliophile, buying and reading every little film book I could get my hands on. Among my first purchases: Lewis Jacobs’ Movies as Medium, Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen, and my personal bible, Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema; I actually got to meet Sarris (thanks to Gerald Barrett) and write about him in the college newspaper, where I also published my first film reviews. Gerald Barrett, the professor of record for all my film courses, was involved in Literature/Film Quarterly, but eventually left the field, ABD with a couple of film monographs published. When Barrett asked to publish my first term paper, on the rise and fall of the Czech New Wave, in a volume on film studies pedagogy that never materialized, I was hooked.

It is a sign of maturity for a field of study, when it begins to historicize itself and critically exam its own evolution. Reading Inventing Film Studies, edited by Lee Grieveson and Haidee Wasson, reminds me how much I’m a first generation, academically trained film scholar, a card carrying member of the pre-video, cinephile generation, to quote in this volume my friend and contemporary, David Rodowick. The history of academic film studies from the 1960s onwards indeed reflects my own subjectivity as a student, professor, and film preservationist. Three of the contributors to the anthology are my students, while two others qualify as partial mentees; collectively, they represent the second through fourth generation of film scholars.

As Dana Polan, who contributes an essay to this volume, has demonstrated in Scenes of Instruction: The Beginnings of the U.S. Study of Film (see my review in Screening the Past, No. 22), film studies entered the academy in the 1910s, but it was not until the late 1950s, early 1960s that the field was institutionalized in undergraduate and graduate film programs, organized and taught by a professorship that had come from other disciplines or from the arena of film culture. Likewise, publications about film and film history were written by sociologists, cinephiles, film critics from the press, and film practitioners. Not surprisingly, then, more than half the contributions in the present anthology analyze the evolution of film studies outside of the academy, in order “to present detailed examinations of the social, political, and intellectual milieus in which knowledge of cinema has been generated,” (p. xii) to quote the editors. Their second goal is to show how these varied forms of knowledge congealed in the 1970s into a field with its own theories, methodologies, and practices.

When I went to graduate film school in Boston, I averaged thirty to forty films a week, between class screenings and Boston’s unbelievable repertory art house scene, e.g. the Orson Welles Theatres, where I discovered R.W. Fassbinder, only to publish my first professional film review in 1974 in The Village Voice on Fassbinder (thanks to Sarris). I saw every Ozu, Mizoguchi, and Ford available in 16mm at a church on Harvard Square. I imbibed classic Hollywood films at the Park Square and Kenmore Square Theatres, keeping a diary of every film I saw, including films on late night television. I studied with George Bluestone, author of Novels into Film (1957), which has never been out of print; George had practically disowned the book and taught courses on sex/religion in the cinema. Gerald Noxon, a member of Grierson’s gang, and an original founder of the Society of Cinematologists (now SCMS), taught close analysis. Evan Cameron was my thesis advisor on Lubitsch; more importantly, he first suggested I write about film preservation for his film production methodology seminar and eventually recommended me for the George Eastman House gig.

Editor Lee Grieveson begins the book with his essay on the first sociological and social psychological studies on the “effects” of film viewing, published in the early years of the 20th century by social reformers, thus extending his own work on censorship in the same period, Policing Cinema (2005). Grieveson sees these early studies, which attempted to gauge to what degree film images influenced social behavior, in the light of efforts by governments and other social institutions to control impressionable social groups within modernity, including the working classes, women and children. However, neither Grieveson, nor David Rodowick whose essay closes the volume with the invention of a hypothetical sociologist from 1907, mention Emile Altenloh’s seminal but unfortunately not yet translated 1912 doctoral dissertation, Zur Soziolgie des Kinos (1914). This gap points to a critical weakness in Anglo-American film studies: other than French language work, the field has almost completely failed to acknowledge efforts, published in the rest of the world.

In 1974, while researching my master’s thesis, Ernst Lubitsch and the Rise of UFA, I discovered that Hermann Weinberg’s The Lubitsch Touch included large passages of text from an uncredited German source. I was incensed and put together an essay, painstakingly comparing texts, and sent it to Sight and Sound. It was summarily rejected. I next sent it to Andrew Sarris, who wrote back a very nice note: While he agreed that Weinberg was probably lax in naming all his sources, he also noted that the critic could probably do much more to ruin my budding career than I could ever do to him by publishing the piece. It was good advice that I took. Weinberg’s subsequent edition of the book, which is still in print, included a note about research help for the German portion of Lubitsch’s career. I was secretly vindicated, but this episode I believe epitomizes my generation’s academic stringency, which insisted on protocols, in order to further our case within the academy. I also now know that Weinberg’s accomplishments as a filmmaker, critic, art film subtitler, and historian are monumental.

Mark Lynn Anderson follows up on Grieveson’s thread with his essay on the famous or infamous “Payne Fund Studies” of the early 1930s, which germinated at the University of Chicago, a product of ruling class anxieties about how the cinema might influence potentially chaotic social forces, unleashed by the great Depression. As Anderson notes, the Payne Studies may have been discredited intellectually for their forgone conclusions, but they did result in the acceptance of “media experts” within the Academy. Dana Polan’s essay in this volume focuses on intellectual attitudes towards cinema within the academy of the 1930s onwards, allowing film instruction to sneak into the curriculum at the margins, even if it would be a while before canonization lead to the creation of whole departments and programs. On the other hand, by focusing on educational documentary filmmaking, rather than film pedagogy, Zoë Druick’s essay seems to fall completely outside the parameters of this anthology; not that there is not a need for more institutional histories of documentary and, especially, educational filmmaking.

The Anthology’s second section continues an analysis of cultural institutions promoting the study of film outside the academy, beginning with Haidee Wasson’s look at the founding of the Museum of Modern Art’s film department, which extends her ground-breaking work in Museum Movies (2005).  She describes the Museum’s efforts to collect, distribute, and screen art films to an educated audience, as well as create and disseminate film scholarship. MOMA distributed films non-theatrically in 16mm to hundreds of film societies, many of them bundled together in the Film Councils of America, the subject of Charles R. Acland’s highly informative essay. As Acland notes, film education now implied both an education about film, as well as the use of 16mm educational and documentary films in the classroom.

My post-graduate NEA funded museum internship at George Eastman House (GEH), turned me into a film archivist/historian. Collector-curator James Card and film historian, George Pratt, both legendary figures, became my mentors into the mysteries of silent film. Jim taught me to love John Collins and Maurice Tourneur, George initiated me into the rites of primary archival research. Like Eisner, Jacobs, and Sarris, these role models weren’t academics, but cinephiles. Through Jim, I met William K. Everson, who would show up at Eastman House for marathon screenings weekends, and had a truly encyclopedic knowledge of classic film history. Bill paid me the greatest compliment I can imagine, when shortly after I assumed the reigns at GEH in the mid-1980s, he mentioned me as a “new hope in the archives” in his acceptance speech for the Jean Mitry Award at the Giornate del Cinema Muto. Through Bill, I met and learned to appreciate many other film collectors, including Phil Serling, an ex-boxing promoter, cop, and founder of the legendary Syracuse “Cinefest.”

Michael Zryd’s essay looks at the way avant-garde cinema production/exhibition impacted calls from a new generation of university students for film study within the academy. Not only did an ever increasing number of filmmakers subsidize their artistic efforts through teaching, including Stan Brakhage (Denver), Hollis Frampton (Buffalo), and Ken Jacobs (Binghamton), they also defined the parameters of what the younger generation called “alternative cinema,” while training the next generation of avant-garde filmmakers.

Accordingly, not Hollywood, but rather non-mainstream cinema set the agenda for 1960s student movement demands for “participatory” culture and the proliferation of film courses at American college campuses in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Fittingly, then, the section closes with an interview with Peter Wollen and Laura Mulvey, initially cinephiles, whose film publications, Signs and Meanings in the Cinema and “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, respectively, defined film studies for my whole generation. Personally, Wollen’s chapter on Eisenstein and Mulvey’s essay certainly heavily influenced my own increasing focus on the avant-garde.

In my work on avant-garde cinema, Weinberg reappeared, like the return of the repressed. While researching an exhibition and catalogue on the European avant-garde cinema in the 1920s, I became aware of his early criticism; when I put together Lovers of Cinema (1995), his work as a filmmaker and “little cinema” operator in Baltimore popped into view. Weinberg’s Autumn Fire became a central piece of evidence for my thesis about the early American avant-garde’s unique montage of romantic yearnings for nature with modernist film idioms. In Lovers of Cinema – the title was actually culled from a Weinberg piece – I sought to explode the myth of an American film avant-garde’s genesis in World War II, while also insisting that an analysis of modes of production, distribution, and reception must be central to any avant-garde history, not just aesthetic analysis and biography. As a film archivist, I was able to find, preserve, and catalogue many of early American avant-garde films that had fallen out of the history books. Those successes, as well as the failure to find other titles made me realize the importance of film preservation and restoration to the film historical project.

The next section of Inventing Film Studies opens with Haden Guest’s look at post World War II film periodicals, e.g. Films in Review and Film Culture, and, in particular, the film historical writing of Seymour Stern and Theodore Huff. Along with William K. Everson, Hermann Weinberg, Gilbert Seldes, Jay Leyda, and others, these pioneering film historians “sought to cast off the distorting myths and legends that clung to the cinema’s past by patiently establishing the essential facts and figures of the medium’s past…” (p. 236) This generation of non-academic film historians created the conditions for the new history, by making lists, establishing reliable filmographies, collecting primary documents and films, and creating a body of literature, which would become my academically trained generation’s mother’s milk.

Thanks to my GEH experience, I attended the fabled FIAF organized Brighton Film Conference, which literally established the field of early cinema studies, and afforded me the opportunity to meet legends, like Irish film historian, Liam O’Leary, and Young Turks, like Tom Gunning and Charles Musser, both of whom were students of Jay Leyda. Afterwards, I hunkered down to complete a PhD on anti-Nazi films by German-Jewish Émigrès in Hollywood, at a German university, where I discovered Altenloh, Max Weber, Marx, Althusser, but also the Berlin avant-garde of the 1920s. I was in a communications department with semioticians as my closest colleagues, so my work mixed cultural studies, communications and reception theory, literary deconstruction, and propaganda analysis. My dissertation advisor, Prof. Dr. Winfried B. Lerg, was a specialist on radio history and a neo-liberal; he had ideological reservations against French semiology, so he made me replace every usage of the word “sign” (and there were plenty) with the German word Zeichen; this in the pre-computer age of typewriter manuscripts.

I, not my professor, was reading new publications like ScreenCamera Obscura, and the Cinema One monograph series, each of which are the subject of an essay in this section. Philip Rosen reviews Screen’s seminal contributions to 1970s film theory, in particular its reception of French semiotics, structuralist, Marxist, and psychoanalytic theoretical models for film studies, and its homegrown feminist interventions. Of course, as Rosen demonstrates, Screen was subject to intense controversy and sectarian battles between various formations of film and television scholars around the British Film Institute.  If previous generations had fought for the acknowledgement of film as an art form, film theorists now explicated the medium as a textual system, reflecting ideology. Presenting less of a historical retrospective than a state of the union, a statement of feminist principles, articulated by the founding female editors of Camera Obscura, has been reformulated by the present editors for this volume. Like the interview with Wollen and Mulvey, this chapter gives voice to the subjectivity of actual participants.  Mark Betz’s encyclopedic “Little Books” essay makes the journey from the many English language little film book series of the 1960s and 1970s, some based on French monograph series, like “Cinema aujourd’hui,” to the tidal wave of university press film publications (Betz calls them ‘big books”) in the 1980s and1990s that documents film studies institutionalization in the academy. While many of these earlier monographs focused on auteurist studies of directors, other volumes explored genres, stars, gender and sexual preference within defined theoretical parameters, which sometimes subjected them to criticism for being “obscurantist and theoretically dogmatic” (p. 329). But Betz also notes a revival in the last decade of film monographs, published for a broader, academically trained, but not highly specialized audience. Film culture continues to develop within and outside the academy.

Inventing Film Studies closes with a short section that takes the book to the present day. Alison Trope discusses the phenomenon of DVDs as not only a distribution medium for Hollywood content, but as a format that has incorporated film studies into its message by offering extra footage and outtakes, commentaries, primary documents, and film historical analyses. While acknowledging that such dvd extras are as much a marketing strategy, as they are attempts at popular film education, Trope is careful not to conflate the phenomenon with academic film studies. And yet, anyone who has taught undergraduate film students knows that whole papers have been constructed around a dvd’s myriad texts. David Rodowick, then, as mentioned above, concludes the anthology with a call to the field to return to film theory in the face of the digital dilemma. After reviewing the history of film theory over the past three decades, Rodowick postulates the relevancy of those debates for the digital age, by insisting on the difference between film as a concrete, discursive, analogue entity and its virtual cinema existence as a narrative form and psychological experience that carries over into video games or internet moving images.

In conclusion, Inventing Film Studies is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of film studies as an academic endeavor. Like many anthologies, the volume is not without its heterogeneities, but it clearly sets the agenda for further research into the history of film studies. The editors also more than adequately fulfill their goal of identifying the intellectual and institutional spaces where film studies first germinated.

Dedicated to the memory of George Bluestone, who passed away at age 80 on 3 August 2009, as I was preparing this review and less than a week after I last saw him to say good-bye.

Jan-Christopher Horak,

Created on: Sunday, 30 August 2009

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 →