- Scenes of Instruction: The Beginnings of the U.S. Study of Film
The legend of film education in the United States goes something like this: with the exception of the "company town," the University of Southern California (USC), film education was virtually unknown in the United States until the late 1950s. Then, inspired by Cahiers du cinéma and the rest of the French New Wave, and further fueled by the creative dynamo that was the 1960s, college-level film study sprang forth like Athena from the brow of Zeus.
Today, this is widely known to be legend. Still, even experienced film educators may not be aware of how far from fact is the legend. Dana Polan's text aims to remedy that situation. This in-depth tome documents the efforts at film education that existed before the French New Wave films and, for that matter, before some of the French New Wave filmmakers.
These efforts reach back to "Photoplay Composition," offered in 1915 in Columbia University's extension program. This course, taught first by Victor Freeburg and then, for much longer, by Frances Taylor Patterson, is the first solidly documented university-sponsored course in film study, according to Polan. Polan goes on to explore the attempts at film education at New York's New School and at Harvard, Stanford, New York University, and even St. John's (Maryland), [End Page 66] in addition to the origins of USC's film program.
Polan intends his text to serve as a foundation for those interested in applying ideas from the emerging field of disciplinarity to film studies. From a historical viewpoint, he succeeds admirably. The text is painstakingly documented and brings to light hitherto-forgotten, yet quite substantial, efforts in academe. It also brings to light the behind-the-scenes efforts of groups and figures not often associated with academe, including Joseph P. Kennedy, the National Board of Review, and Will Hays, to establish and influence film education according to their own views.
In perusing the text, the history-loving reader may also be reminded of the adage, "Those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it." In more than one setting, film courses or whole programs of study were launched with great fanfare. Preeminent in this regard was Harvard's first effort at film study, in which the guest lecturers included Cecil B. DeMille, Adolph Zukor, William Fox, and Harry Warner. And yet more often than not, these early efforts either fizzled out altogether—as did Harvard's—or simply faded into obscurity. The case of Frances Taylor Patterson is especially touching; after teaching film in Columbia's adult education for more than forty years, she simply vanished from the record.
Thus, the main strength of Scenes of Instruction may be the lessons for today. Eager young instructors and ambitious administrators who are busily launching the latest "new media" program may benefit from observing the sporadic, isolated, and usually abortive (because sporadic and isolated) efforts of the first twenty years of film study. And even if this potential audience fails to recognize the cautionary aspects, Polan has done a service to students of film by re-presenting those who labored in the shadows before the spotlight of auteurism gleamed.