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TheCanadian Review of American Studies, Volume 12, No. 1, Spring 1981 Clio inCelluloid Jtilm E O'Connor and Martin A. Johnson, eds. 4111 c11 ca11 HistOJylAmerican Film. New York: fn:derid,Ungar, 1979.320 + xxix pp. J.M. Skinner If.asMarshallMcLuhan long since opined, we are livingin a post-Gu tenbergian ageof revolution in the field of human communication, the cinema stakes a fair claim to our attention as an integral part of that revolution. Our appreciation of the social history of the present century will benefit from the study of the commecial motion picture as a reflection of its time, its makersand its country of origin. Not only is the film exceptional among all theinventions of modern technology in that it reached a mass, working-class audience before slowly spreading up the social scale to those who long affectedan intellectual contempt for it, but it is no less important because it retained a powerful and special appeal for its working-class devotees. It remained, in Arthur Knight's phrase, "the popular art," while poetry, paintingand classical music have increasingly become the exclusive preserve of a cultural elite. Artists seem to create for fellow artists and critics whereasthe vast majority of filmmakers still try to speak to millions. Before the advent of television, the prime characteristic of this relationship of massaudience to the cinema was habitual attendance. Tens of millions of North Americans went to the movies at least once a week. They spent thousands of hours before the screen during their most impressionable years.Any study of the history of popular culture is lacking if it ignores thisphenomenon. 124 1.M.Ski1111,: These thoughts are prompted by the appearance of American Riston· . American Film, a collection of fourteen brief essays, each by a differ;rauthor , with a foreword by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Fourteen specific filllb are examined ranging, chronologically, from Way Down East (1920)toRock\ (1976), and dealing with the well-known (D1: Stangelove, The Big Paiad~ as well as the obscure (The Scar of Shame). The prime purpose of thebook according to its editors, is "to understand the way in which each filmdocu-' ments American social history and captures the state of mind of the American people at the time it was released for popular distribution" {p. xvi).Iti, a mark of the book's partial success that it causes one to wonder whythi 1 approach has been tackled so rarely before. The commercial feature film can be a valuable resource for the perit~· in which it was created though not-and the distinction is important-abo, 1 : the period with which it purports to deal. Thus the quiet heroics ofAlan Ladd in Shane and of Gary Cooper in High Noon are useless as portraitsor small-town lawmen in the age of western expansion in the United States 1 r the nineteenth century; but they are fascinating for the insight they giveo;: certain attitudes towards law and order in the early 'Fifties when the liberal· conscience of a producer like Stanley Kramer jostled uneasily withth~' authoritarianism engendered by McCarthyism. Furthermore, the role ofthe feature film as a social-cum-historical document has received cursory treat·· ment to date. If it is judged at all, it is by writers of a literary persuasion whose concern is to evaluate as popular entertainment and, much more infrequently, for cultural significance and impact. Film, whether fictional0: documentary, is primary evidence for the study of social and political attitudes which have been enhanced by exposure to the medium. Historical analysis is not a simple matter, however. The historian of the future wil· have to be careful when writing about Cruising, for example, since its recep tion at the hands of the sizeable gay communities of San Francisco andNeu York was utterly different from that of rural areas. In any case, disappointingly little attention has been paid to film in historic~ terms even though narrative histories of film have become legion. The motion picture, because of its commercial nature, makes a brief impactor the audience and then sinks into its subliminal consciousness, there tojostle with all the other myths and misconceptions gleaned from the media which so vitiate a proper comprehension of the historical...


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