- Scenes of Instruction: The Beginnings of the U.S. Study of Film
As a discipline, film studies takes great pride in its youth. Frequent are the claims, made at Society for Cinema and Media Studies conferences and elsewhere, that the relative newness of the field allows it to be far less rigid and more adaptable than other branches of the humanities. Such an attitude certainly informs the standard thumbnail history of the field recounted to graduate seminars—including one enrolled in by this reviewer a number of years ago—that declares film studies to be almost entirely a post-68 invention. In this way, the story goes, Mulvey, Metz et al. rose out of the ashes of the scorched universities to offer their polemical works of film theory as the first irrefutable signposts pointing toward the field’s inevitable transformation into a professionalized academic discipline.
In his excellent new book, Scenes of Instruction: The Beginnings of the U.S. Study of Film, Dana Polan reveals how this celebratory association of academic film studies with the revolutionary impulses of the 1960s has created a deliberately limited perspective, a truncated history of the discipline that conveniently dismisses the deeper and deeply revealing history of pre-1960s efforts to study film within American universities. With this in mind, Polan’s book reaches further back than one might imagine, not to the post-World War II years, but rather to the period between 1915 and 1935—in order to recover the fascinating history of early film study in the United States. The result is a lively and engaging chronicle of various attempts to define the cinema as a subject fit for serious intellectual inquiry by a curious and somewhat unexpected cast of scholars, intellectuals, businessmen, and leading figures in the motion picture industry. Long before anything resembling a unified disciplinary field had taken shape in this country, Polan shows, the study of film followed a number of coincident and at times contradictory paths, a series of close variations on the theme of film’s unrealized and often elusive potential as a pedagogical tool.
But who were these early advocates for cinema’s place in the classroom? A number of the figures discussed by Polan, such as Terry Ramsaye, Harry Allan Potamkin, and Joseph [End Page 90] P. Kennedy, are quite familiar names to film scholars and historians. Yet, Polan reexamines each from new perspectives by delving into little known but crucially important chapters of their respective careers. In the case of Ramsaye and Potamkin, for example, Polan unearths one-time film history courses—taught, in both cases, at the New School for Social Research—brought to life through a close analysis of rich primary materials, including Potamkin’s detailed syllabi for his prescient seminar on national cinema, Lands, Films and Critics. Here and throughout Scenes of Instruction, Polan works hard to reveal not simply the interdepartmental university politics that conditioned film study, but also the everyday work of its practitioners, the quiet tilling of the field.
Among the strengths of Scenes of Instruction is precisely this ability to draw upon sources such as syllabi, course listings, and lecture notes to vividly evoke the texture and tone of courses taught across the period of Polan’s study. A distinguished professor himself, Polan is able to read between the lines of these teaching materials to closely observe their salient eccentricities and innovations. Polan also expertly captures the complexities and seeming contradictions of the universities that hosted the experiments in film study examined in his book. Polan’s insight is especially valuable, for example, for his discussion of the historic course on the motion picture industry organized by Joseph P. Kennedy at the Harvard School of Business and featuring lectures on studio history and business practices by a luminary group of Hollywood’s founding fathers including Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, Will Hays, and Adolph Zukor. At Harvard, Polan reveals, Kennedy’s visionary seminar, for all of its impressive display of power, barely drew the notice of the perpetually distracted university administration...