Sunday, January 25, 2009

Film History

A tangential post-script to the words below. I am often wary of giving the impression that I think that Hollywood was better (at everything) in the past, and is now nothing more than an imitative shadow-machine of its former self. I think that commercial cinema, in Hollywood or elsewhere, exists as a combination of truths and lies that come encapsulated along the terms of a "contract" (probably could use a better word here, but it would need unpacking: later maybe) between the minority who produce and the populace who view these products. The terms of this Hollywood/populace negotiation are themselves constantly being re-negotiated. In juxtaposition to whatever lies Hollywood told in the past, our present perspective gives us historical views of what the films did not necessarily lie about, but which are being covered over today. I think Hollywood had a lot more honesty about certain aspects of class and poverty until roughly 20-30 years ago; these aspects were able to come through with relative honesty because illusions about these things were not included to the same extent or in the same way in the ideological projects of classical and 60s-70s Hollywood. It is a matter of looking at our cinematic past—which is still living today, as these films are still "products" for the populace—obliquely, and understanding through the vantage points of structural shifts in the system how films (texts/products) come to say things that they were never initially intended to say; how they say things that may not have been noticed before.

This is not a matter of finding subversive or countercultural (in a broad sense) meanings built into films, which is a different issue. It's a matter of finding the things that a system did not take the care to lie about or stylize—at least not in the same ways as they finessed other things which we now clearly, in allegedly enlightened manner, see for ourselves. The negotiation of businesspeople, creators, and technicians to audiences crystallizes into specific film texts. Studying the changes in producers/audiences in tandem with the study of textual/generic/authorial productions gives us a better understanding of the long history of a commercial cinema, the history of the choices offered to every type of player at different points in the game.


Alex said...

If you want to do industry analysis, the best methodology is probably that of economic sociology. NYU's faculty in economic sociology ain't that great, but Columbia's is (my old teacher Toby Stuart now teaches there).

Alex said...

Ah, Toby is now at HBS, sorry. Still, Columbia is a good shop for economic sociology.

Anonymous said...

Why not give Eisenstein, Vertov et alia a stand-alone look in? Can't believe that old film history department tale anymore that their tech. was just simply assimilated into commodity advertising. This becomes increasingly clear as the world-wide recession deepens..

Frank Partisan said...

I think where the problem lies, with Hollywood, are with solutions.

The films are about individuals, who solve problems individually. Even if the panorama shows class analysis.

I love Slumdog Millionaire. but don't expect answers to Mumbai's problems.

Eric Naylor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eric Naylor said...

I don't think this post is necessarily interested in an industry analysis but rather stating that popular cinema reflects the public's psyche through conscious manipulation and subconscious guidance. Film Comment recently published a Bazin article regarding the way cinema highlights a certain population’s dreams (not to oversimplify Bazin or anything). I guess, for example: the prevalence of superhero films and the way in which, rightly or wrongly, Barrack Obama has been exalted. This correlation could reflect a particular mindet?

Sorry for the deleted comment above. I hate when that happens on my blog, but I posted hastily.

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Anonymous said...

Does anybody know some solid film history texts?

ZC said...

Emerging from a brief (figurative) slumber - sorry to be out of touch the last few weeks, all.

Alex, thanks for the tip - and more on that in the future, especially as I'll read more on media industries in the coming months. As for Columbia, well, the chances are good that I'll be leaving my fair city before too long, and may end up in the vicinity of one of your old haunts. (Yet another thing on which there will be more in the future.)

Jake - what kind of solid film history texts are you looking for? Any specific country or time period? For beginners? For the general quality of writing and/or thinking?

Anonymous said...

what kind of solid film history texts are you looking for? Any specific country or time period? For beginners? For the general quality of writing and/or thinking?

Any books that run from the earliest film all the way to the 1940s or 1950s?

Anonymous said...

Worldwide, I mean?

Alex said...

Klaus Kreimeir's The UFA Story, while not precisely what I would do, is very interesting.

Gerben Bakker's Entertainment Industrialised: The Emergence of the International Film Industry 1890-1940

John Sedgwick's An Economic History of Film

Stephen Prince's A New Pot of Gold: Hollywood Under the Electronic Rainbow 1980-1989

Anonymous said...

Thank you Alex!

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