Film History


Given the fact that film is at once art, industry, mass media, and influential form of cultural communication, it is not surprising that the history of film can be approached from a number of quite distinct angles. A concern with technology, for example, raises questions about the invention, introduction, and diffusion of moving picture projection systems and cameras, as well as color, sound, and wide-screen processes. Technological history has been especially prominent in discussions of the pre-1900 period, the transformation to sound in the late 1920s and the 1930s, and the struggle to compete with television during the 1950s. To explore the history of home movies and amateur film also necessarily involves questions of so-called "small-gauge" technology (most notably, 8 mm and 16 mm), and any broader overview of film exhibition must take into account the technology of the movie theater, including the projection apparatus and, from the 1980s on, sophisticated sound systems.

Technology is intimately connected to the economics of the motion picture industry, another key aspect of film history that has received considerable interest from scholars. Most attention has been given to the internal workings and the ongoing transformations of the Hollywood studio system, both in terms of how individual studios have operated and also in terms of the concerted efforts by studios to maintain monopolistic control over the industry. Economic history also takes up labor relations and unionization, government attempts to regulate the film industry through antitrust actions, and the financial framework and corporate affiliation of major studios in the United States and Europe. Equally central to any historical understanding of the economics of the industry are the complex relations among production, distribution, and exhibition, including the role of Hollywood in exporting American films to the rest of the world. While exhibition has recently received considerable attention—as in, for example, Douglas Gomery's Shared Pleasures (1992) and Gregory A. Waller's Moviegoing in America (2002)—distribution remains understudied.

More than economics, technology also figures in what has been called formalist or aesthetic histories of film, which tend to focus on questions concerning narrative and audio-visual style and, more generally, the art and craft of cinema. This approach has tended to emphasize masterworks and great directors, celebrating their innovations and contributions to a tradition of cinematic art. The auteur theory, for example, has informed much popular film history. At the same time, more systematic (even statistically based) approaches to the history of film style have looked less at world-famous directors like D. W. Griffith (1875–1948), Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948), and Jean Renoir (1894–1979) and more at the norms and opportunities available to filmmakers under specific conditions of production, in and out of Hollywood. Such approaches consider, for example, how editing practices, camera movement, and uses of the soundtrack have changed over time.

The historical study of film genres also takes up formal concerns, as well as other topics having to do with the cultural and ideological role of popular film. American film history has sometimes been understood primarily in terms of the changing fortunes of genres like the gangster film, western, film noir, and the musical. More interesting is the considerable amount of historical work that has been done on individual genres, offering a complex picture of how genres emerge, flourish, and decline both in terms of the films produced and the reception of these films by audiences at the time and by later generations of fans and critics. The history of film genres, as presented, for example, by James Naremore in More Than Night (1998), has also raised important questions about intermedia relations, that is, the way the course of film history has been significantly affected by contemporary practices in literature, live theater, radio, popular music, and television.

Popular genres, as might be expected, often figure prominently in social or cultural histories, which seek in a variety of different ways to situate film within a broader context or to shift focus away from individual films, directors, and studios to questions about how cinema is constructed, circulated, understood, and monitored in a particular class, region, or subculture or in society at large. One prominent concern of social history is the film audience: How has it been defined and policed? What is its makeup in terms of class, race, and gender? What is its reception of particular movies and cinema in general? To explore what moviegoing has meant in specific historical situations has necessarily involved a greater attention to the practices and strategies of film exhibition. From nickelodeon and picture palace to drive-in and suburban megaplex, the movie theater has proven to be a key site for exploring the place of film in the everyday life of the twentieth century and for considering how a film experience intended for a national or global audience is presented and consumed at a local level.

Other major areas of social and cultural historical research are the ideological import of cinematic representations (of race, gender, and sexuality, for example); the formal and informal processes of censorship; the role of official government cultural policy (which is of particular import outside the United States); and the connections between cinema and consumer culture, through advertising, product tie-ins, and so on. Of crucial importance in this regard is the vast amount of written material surrounding and concerning the movies, from trade journals and promotional matter to reviews, fan magazines, and—more recently—Internet sites.

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