Historiography and the Teaching of Film History
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 10, Number 2, May 1980
- pp. 1-6
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- Additional Information
Thefollowing articles by Douglas Gomery and Robert C. Allen were adapted from papers presented at a session on Histoiy and Film at the Purdue Film Studies Conference in 1979. They offer two especially interestingperspectives on the way some scholars trained infilm are using the methods ofthe historian. The Editors HISTORIOGRAPHY AND THE TEACHING OF FILM HISTORY By Robert C. Allen Robert C. Allen teachesfilm studies at the University ofNorth Carolina at Chapel Hill. Film and History has recognized the fact that the historians and film scholars do not exist in separate worlds, but can and should borrow from each other theories, methodologies, and analytical approaches. The nexus at which Film and History locates the interaction between film scholar and historian is where a filmic text is read as a cultural artifact, or, put another way, where an aesthetic object becomes an historical object. I'd like to suggest another point at which film history and other types of historical inquiry come together: historiography. I am not contending that Film and History readers should abandon projects that attempt to relate films to their historical contexts, but that the issue ofhow the history of film gets written might lead to projects equally as important. My point ofdeparture for this polemic is pedagogic rather than theoretical. After spending four years studying what was presented to me in a graduate film program as film history, I came to the conclusion that I know a good deal about the Jesuitical upbringing ofcertain directors, how to make the White House appear as if it were on Red Square, and the members ofthe Motion Picture Patents Company, but little about the process by which history gets written down, codified, perpetuated, and consumed. Having done a fair bit ofprimary research in early American film history for my dissertation, I was also reluctant to pass offto my students as "history" the contents of survey histories that I know to be not only inaccurate in many instances, but whose philosophical and political assumptions prevented them from raising important historical questions. When I combined the above concerns with the fact that, as at most universities some distance from major film archives and libraries, my university's library did not offer substantial resources with which introductory film history students could work, I was forced to ask myself: What should I be doing in a film history course? I have come to the conclusion that just as important as film history are histories of film. In other words, what teachers of film history should do is open the secondary works we assign our students to read to the same degree of scrutiny we expect them to apply to the so called "facts" contained within these works. This historiographie analysis of secondary works in film history is not only solid pedagogic practice, but it has the advantage of forcing the student to examine the relationship between film history and other types ofhistorical analysis and 1 encouraging him/her to subject other historical books he/ she encounters to a similar "symptomatic" reading. Having been a college student in the late 1960s, I found it difficult to accept the apparent willingness with which my students would take voluminous notes on everything I said in class without questioning anything. They seemed to me to be far too willing to become "little vessels, arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim"—as were the students ofThomas Gradgrind's academy in Dickens' Hard Times. I found that in many cases history courses had reinforced in them the notion that they were to be passive receptacles into which predigested facts were to be poured and stored until exam time. Hence, for the past two years I have been trying various methods of integrating historiography into the teaching of film history. The first time I attempted to do so, I began by trying to place film history within the context of historical analysis in general. I had them read E. H. Carr's What Is History? and chapters from David Hackett Fischer's Historians' Fallacies. We discussed in class such concepts as objectivity, bias, the nature ofhistorical fact, generalization...