Film Criticism and the Historian
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 11, Number 1, February 1981
- pp. 1-8
- Additional Information
FILM CRITICISM AND THE HISTORIAN By Eugene McCreary The Winter 1974/75 issue of Cinema Journal was devoted to a series of papers given at a Symposium on the Methodology of Film History sponsored by the International Federation of Film Archives. These papers and the discussion ranged over a variety of problems and tasks facing the film historian: the great number of films which have been lost, the poor condition and even unreliability of prints which have survived J the necessity to establish the direction and extent of influence, the need to examine the formal and stylistic evolution of film, an absence of professional historical canons which undermines the worth of so much early writing in the history of film. A number of remedies were proposed, a number of strategies and methodological approaches advanced which merit the serious attention of any historian interested in film. And yet, surprisingly, no one mentioned the potential value of analyzing film criticism contemporary to films being studied. The utility of such analyses is, however, logically apparent, or should be. The professional critic would tend to be a more reliable judge of the quality and importance of a film than writers in the trade journals who frequently have been much closer to advertising than to criticism. And many of the films which have been lost will have been reviewed at the time they appeared, and we can learn at least something about them. These considerations alone would justify attention being paid to the major critics, but there is more to be gained, on the one hand by someone interested specifically in film history, and on the other by someone interested in film as one of the historical sources to be Eugene C. McCneary Is Pnofaesson ofa Hlstony at SUNy, Bnockpont. He will best be nemembened among readers ofa Film è History faon his pnoductlon ofa the falZm Confanontatlon '68. exploited in an effort to reconstitute and comprehend the past in a more general sense. The historian, coming later, can see patterns where contemporaries could see only individual films or at best, trends. He can pick out the fragile web of attitudes too close to contemporaries, too much their own, to be perceived. But the historian can never experience an older film in the same way that contemporaries did. Because film is so technologically rooted and technology has undergone a constant process of change. Because it is an art form with its own internal evolution. Because styles in narration, sets, costumes, even in heroes, heroines and dramatic concerns so closely derive from the culture and period in which the films are produced. Because it is a commercial product of mass entertainment and any success is immediately copied, today's innovation becoming almost at once tomorrow's cliche. We can not today relive the aesthetic shock of seeing the first film shot on panchromatic stock, hearing the first synchronized dialogue, or experiencing the pleasure of the narrative complexity permitted by the first featurelength films. We can not really recapture the impact of the rythmic editing and revolutionary message of Potemkin, of understanding for the first time the dramatic power of light as revealed by The Cheat or that of distorted perspective as revealed by The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. But critics have recorded these reactions and we can at least become conscious of their existence. Through them we can learn what was seen and understood then. 2 To someone less interested in film history than in film as historical source material, the analysis of film criticism can be equally fruitful. The film critic, like the films he reviews, shares in the values and concerns of his culture and period. It does not matter whether he views his function as primarily one of judging or one of explaining, one of proposing standards of excellence or one of providing a link between the artist and the public. A study of what he finds relevant or important, of what he condemns or praises, of what his vision is of what film can or should be, can shed a great deal of light on the ideas, preoccupations, and assumptions of his contemporaries . I would like to offer an example based on work...