- Cinema and History: The Telling of Stories by Mike Chopra-Gant
As Mike Chopra-Gant repeatedly reminds the reader in Cinema and History, his slim volume is not intended to present an exhaustive account of film history or the adaptation of history by filmmakers. Instead, this accessible study is designed to introduce students to key contemporary issues defining the critical analysis of films that invoke the past. The book is organized around two main issues, the first of which is how this type of cinema can be used as a form of evidence regarding the social values and discourses predominant during the historical moment in which it is produced, and which Chopra-Gant examines within the context of reception studies. The second issue is how films, in turn, use—rather than merely represent—the past in creating narratives, which allows for an analysis of the effects of postmodern shifts upon historiography.
While Chopra-Gant acknowledges that this focus ignores several ongoing debates regarding the intersection of film studies, historiography, and changing technologies within film production, he maintains that these two issues “are those which are most clearly implicated in the production and circulation of meanings,” and more so than other developments, they highlight meaning-making “in the production of socially pervasive understandings of the past” (98). His goal is to demonstrate that the representation of history is more complicated than it might appear to casual filmgoers. While he concludes that history has no endpoint, and must be understood as a continuous and unending process of revision, he makes the case that viewers nonetheless have a responsibility to recognize methods that can be used to analyze film on an empirical rather than an aesthetic basis.
The book’s four chapters highlight these principle debates along the axes of theory and practice. After the introduction provides a brief overview of film studies, Chapters One and Three supply a basic history of each theoretical concern, while Chapters Two and Four in turn provide illustrative applications of these approaches via case studies. For example, Chapter One contextualizes reception studies by examining how emerging film and literary theory in the 1960-70s analyzed texts in isolation as self-contained forms of knowledge, conceiving of the viewer as a passive being [End Page 77] uninvolved in the process of signification. This attitude shifted in literary studies “towards an understanding of meaning-making as a process that occurs in the interaction between a text and an (active) reader within a particular context” (15). In order to discuss historical reception as an approach within film studies, Chopra-Gant draws on Janet Staiger’s pioneering work, Perverse Spectators (2000), which demonstrates the different ways that horizons of expectation are created to help determine a historically-situated viewer’s reading of individual films. Resources for reception study include, among other sources, publicity materials released by distributors, which serves the function of marketing as well as providing an interpretive framework for audiences, and contemporary newspaper reviews. Chopra-Gant complicates the use of both materials as contextual data by pointing out socioeconomic gaps between reviewers and intended audiences, but he stresses that the benefits for understanding how film interpretation changes over time are worth the potential risks.
Chapter Two seeks to provide an example of reception studies in practice via a case study of Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). Although many analyses have focused on meta-cinematic and psychoanalytical interpretations of the film, according to Chopra-Gant, few have analyzed how the film reflects its historical milieu. Citing several post-World War Two studies alleging the fragility of masculinity, the critic suggests that these social discourses heavily influenced the representation of virility and sexuality in the film. The author does not draw upon the types of sources that he discusses in detail in the Chapter One, such as reviews and prerelease marketing materials, which somewhat lessens the effectiveness of the exercise; nonetheless, his conclusion is convincing, namely that it is “necessary to recognize the fact that the cinematic conventions of meaning-making inscribed within the film ‘text’ operate within a wider cultural context...