Inventing Film Studies (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Michael Sicinski
Edited by Lee Grieveson and Haidee Wasson. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008. 446pp., illus. Hardcover: $99.95 and Paperback: $27.95.
Certain academic disciplines are deeply aware of their own genealogy. The field of English has numerous internal historians, with Richard Ohmann and Gerald Graff among the most prominent. The profession of Art History has its own specialized wing of “historians of art history,” which includes the likes of Michael Ann Holly, Keith Moxey, and Donald Preziosi. By contrast, Film Studies hasn’t had a particularly self-reflexive bent when it comes to examining its institutionalization. While there have been numerous accounts of the history and development of “film theory” as a relatively autonomous set of ideas and precepts regarding “Cinema,” the more concrete aspects of the discipline, including its own establishment within the academy, have received relatively scant attention. As a materialist corrective to this idealist tendency, Inventing Film Studies is an invaluable intervention. Editors Lee Grieveson and Haidee Wasson present essays which examine the entire history of Film Studies, as well as the discipline’s nascent prehistory, in order to chart key moments of institutional foundation, paths not taken, and other specters that continue to haunt our methodologies to this day, many without our ever having understood their true provenance.
Inasmuch as there is a common understanding of “the history of Film Studies,” it generally coalesces around the 1960s and ’70s with the application of French structuralist textual analysis on individual works of cinema, “close reading” at the shot-by-shot microlevel. This importation of “literary” maneuvers definitively shifted Film Studies into the humanities, since cinema’s closed textual system seemed to obviate the continued relevance of sociological / Communications Studies models. The chief naysayer to this direction, of course, has been David Bordwell. In book after book, Bordwell has been all too happy to articulate not only what he considered to be the shaky premises of what he called “SLAB Theory.” (The acronym stands for Saussure, Lacan, Althusser, and Barthes, by the way.) But perhaps more importantly, Bordwell has argued that Film Studies has left many other possible avenues—quantifiable formalism and poetics, above all—unexplored in the “rush to theory.”
Inventing Film Studies, by contrast, explicates entire episodes in the institutional prehistory of the discipline in order to account for the stakes involved in a young field’s formation. Why does one trajectory attain traction while others fall by the wayside? Often it has to do with money, but just as often the cultural exigencies of the moment are to blame. In the book’s first section, “Making Cinema Knowable,” the essays examine different constructions of “cinema” as a discourse from the medium’s earliest days. Dana Polan’s contribution, “Young Art, Old Colleges: Early Episodes in the American Study of Film,” is probably the most intriguing essay in this section. Polan details various early attempts to situate Film Studies in the academy, many of which seem utterly random in their conception, all of which proceeded by fits and starts. Far from viewing cinema with suspicion, conservative American institutions like Harvard actually welcomed film into the Ivory Tower. Faculty saw parallels between working with and understanding cinema, on the one hand, and internalizing the rules of grammar on the other. That is, both practices instilled “mental discipline,” and in fact, Polan locates in the work of “cinema’s first professor,” Victor Freeburg, a sort of protostructuralism haunting Harvard’s halls at the start of the twentieth century. In a completely different and equally random approach to professing cinema, one Scott Buchanan, an educational advisor who helped St. John’s College of Annapolis, MD, convert to its Great Books program in 1937, argued that it was logical to end a great books curriculum with cinema. Studying Tradition of Qualityesque literary adaptations and costume epics, it seems, was deemed preferable to having to dirty one’s hands on the scourge of European modernism! In a sense, Polan’s fine essay operates as a kind of microcosm of Inventing Film Studies ’ overall project, demonstrating both lost opportunities, unfulfilled historical trajectories, and thankfully dead ends.
Other articles in the “Making Cinema Knowable” section are less ambitious than Polan’s but equally grounded in valuable historical data, examining particular case studies in greater depth. Zoë Druick’s contribution, for example, details the early discursive production of the category “documentary,” tracing its lineage as a governmental inheritance from early twentieth-century liberal-colonialist social formations. In particular, the League of Nations and UNESCO (the prototype for the modern NGO) instilled the category from the start with the charge of nation-building in the Western liberal mode. Mark Lynn Anderson’s essay “Taking Liberties,” meanwhile, zeroes in on what has to be the U.S.’s most infamous effort at bringing cinema in line with just those social hygiene imperatives Druick describes. Anderson revisits the Payne Fund studies, wherein teams of freshly minted social scientists, newly armed with the latest theories on social deviancy, childhood development, and the differential capacities of the working classes, began studying the effects of “the nickelodeon” and “the photoplay” on young children. In focusing on what he rightly calls “the invention of the media expert,” Anderson demonstrates that efforts to censor or otherwise control the cinema were integral to the very birth of Chicago School sociology and its emphasis on correcting the “social disorganization” of the poor.
In the book’s second section, “Making Cinema Educational,” the essays tend to present a few key historical ideas without demonstrating any larger theoretical stakes they might have for the field. Haidee Wasson’s compelling history of the introduction of film into the Museum of Modern Art, for example, with its detailed discussion of the founding of the film library and film’s “taking of place” alongside the museum’s other modernist objects, is commendably thorough. Wasson hints at the reverberations implicit for “Cinema,” as an object and as a discursive formation, when it enters the museum and becomes “foundational,” part of a permanent physical archive, but the ramifications are largely left unexplored. By contrast, avant-garde film scholar Michael Zryd’s contribution, “Experimental Film and the Development of Film Study in America,” details the shifting role of avant-garde film exhibition on college campuses, from the heyday of “underground film” in the 1960s to the academicization of “The Avant-Garde” in the 1970s through today. Moreover, Zryd considers the lasting contemporary impact of this shift.
The third section, “Making Cinema Legible,” focuses on the history of writing about film within the academy, and in many respects it is the most thorough, suggestive, and engrossing section of the tome. This is not entirely surprising, since Inventing Film Studies, however its editors may want it to be an all-expansive disciplinary intro/retrospection, is a book edited by two film professors. It stands to reason that all concerned would share much more fluency with the history of the discipline’s written output than with this or that institutional moment. In the section, the editors reprint a collectively drafted document from the editorial board of Camera Obscura, created on the occasion of that august journal’s thirtieth anniversary. In it, the current board details the struggles and rewards of founding CO, what they see its role as having been, and what work they think it still has to do. Possibly the densest and yet in some ways the most frustrating single essay in the book, Philip Rosen’s “ Screen and 1970s Film Theory,” recaps the major contributions of the pivotal British journal from its most fecund decade. But in doing so, naturally Rosen must sacrifice many of the nuances that made the key theoretical contributions within those pages exciting and persuasive in the first place.
Of the two remaining essays in this section, Haden Guest’s piece on film journals of the 1950s is a particularly suggestive contribution, especially when read against the Rosen essay. If some have found the theories of Screen to be a bit of a dead end, Guest explores earlier, less “disciplined” modes of film historical inquiry, such as Herman G. Weinberg’s “Coffee, Brandy and Cigars” column, which was published in the pages of Film Culture. The column thrived on seemingly illogical, Surrealist-influenced juxtaposition and lateral thinking, grouping films by trainspotting criteria like shot length or the appearance of some random detail, and providing a metahistorical approach that anticipated the cine-structuralism of Michael Snow, Ernie Gehr, and Hollis Frampton.
But the strongest and most startling essay in the section (and in the entire collection, in fact) comes from Mark Betz. His piece is titled, innocuously enough, “Little Books.” What are “little books”? Well, as Betz explains, from 1965 through 1980, with a particular concentration between 1965 and ’71, Film Studies publishing mostly produced small, well-illustrated texts, “usually around 18 cm x 13.5 cm,” released in series and pitched to a readership comprised of academics but also cinephiles and the interested connoisseur. As Betz explains, the fact that these books could fit in the coat pocket, that they were easily perusable on the bus or the train, and could tackle a single topic such as “gays in film” or “the films of Raoul Walsh” in short order, all point to a distinct attitude toward film culture and preacademicized Film Studies. As he writes, “little’ here loosely designates not only a physical quality but also a disposition, a relationship to the formal constraints of university-based scholarship that is circumscribed by clear ideas and practices of disciplinarity.” By contrast, Betz cites the thudding tomes of the Bordwell school, whose very size “presuppose… a very different student of film than the little book, one less mobile and autodidactic, bound to a seat of higher learning, the university library, the college dorm room study desk—a student now, to put it plainly, ‘institutionalized.’” With historical acumen, dialectical rigor and sly humor, Betz produces an argument that places Film Studies, in space and with material bodies, in a concrete set of publishing practices and inside a shifting set of communities, ones increasingly closed. Betz’s essay deserves to be a new classic text within Film Studies.
While nothing else in Inventing Film Studies matches Betz’s sheer insight (or audacity), the final section of the book, “Making and Remaking Cinema Studies,” contains two well-considered valedictory essays, both researched and argued with precision. Alison Trope’s “Footstool Film School” considers the role of DVD and other home technologies in bringing “Film Studies” into the domestic (and partially deinstitutionalized) sphere, with the advent of DVD commentary, scholarly essays, and audio tracks, while D. N. Rodowick’s concluding essay, “Dr. Strange Media,” argues that Film Studies, and film theory in particular, remains one of the most valuable tools for analyzing “post-cinema” forms, since on some level they remain tied to the image, to editing and sequence, to narrative and temporal relations, and mimesis.
So, for a field that doesn’t look into its own past or genealogize its own methodological assumptions with the regularity of other disciplines (whose “gaze” can, at times, be a bit navelocentric), Inventing Film Studies represents an excellent opportunity for solidifying underdocumented or underknown histories, and taking stock of where to go next. Every third think-piece on film assumes that “cinema is dead,” but Film Studies lumbers on. Perhaps, however, that’s because “Film Studies” is and always has been a far more pluralistic, less predictable set of procedures than its official instantiation might lead its practitioners to believe. If, as it appears, our field will outlive its object, maybe it can also seize unexplored possibilities from its less encumbered days, becoming fleet of foot like a pixel flickering across a screen as it miraculously outstrips its accrued institutional ballast. We shall see.
To buy Inventing Film Studies, click here.
Michael Sicinski is a writer and teacher based in Houston.
Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.