Within the academic community over the past 35 years, the study of film has developed across three kinds of enquiry. Douglas Gomery and Robert C. Allen delineated these approaches in their pioneering work, Film History: Theory and Practice (New York, 1985). The first paid attention to the nature of the medium itself and its communicative power, elaborating theories derived from Marxism, feminism, structuralism and poststructuralism, and psychoanalysis. Its essentialist ambitions meant that its purchase upon film culture became increasingly tenuous the more rarefied and internecine its postulations grew.
The second avenue of enquiry drew upon literary and cultural studies approaches, focusing on ways of reading and classifying film texts. In this manner, film might be categorised, for example, by the work of particular directors (auteurs) or in terms of genres. Here, attention to specific texts was generally astute and thorough, but film criticism's interpretative strategies lacked contextual grounding. And theories of both genre and the auteur came to be considered limited and problematic when they ventured beyond an approved critical canon.
Film history has become the third branch of investigation, though its historiography has much longer roots. In the early 1930s Paul Rotha's seminal, if partisan, The Film Till Now: a Survey of World Cinema (1930), and Frances Consitt's The Value of Films in the Teaching of History (London, 1931), demonstrated different, though parallel, concerns with film history, the latter under the auspices of the Historical Association.(1) And these pioneers established the fundamental dualism of the discipline: histories of cinemas and film as a historical source.
That said, it is more accurate to locate the origins of academic film history in four key initiatives of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The first of these was a conference held at University College London in April 1968, papers from which were published as Film and the Historian (London, 1969). The second was John Grenville's inaugural lecture at Birmingham University in 1970, reproduced in Film as History: the Nature of Film Evidence (Birmingham, 1971). These advances, as Anthony Aldgate notes, were accompanied by two significant publications: Raymond Durgnat's A Mirror For England: British Movies from Austerity to Affluence (London, 1970) and Jeffrey Richards's Visions of Yesterday (London, 1973). Both, in different ways, addressed the problems of using popular film as historical evidence.(2)
In the evaluation of any kind of historical enquiry it is important to ask: what are its aims, what are its methods, and what are its sources? The aim of film history is to recover evidence about the past through an examination of film texts. It proceeds from the assumption that any film text will always have something to reveal about the time, place and circumstances in which it was made. However, film history, pace Durgnat, resists the notion that films can be read straightforwardly as reflecting period concerns. Rather, films (and particularly feature films) occupy an uneasy twilight zone as both primary and secondary sources. They do not yield their meanings (no matter how unequivocal) in a transparent way, because film is a dense medium. To some extent such an assertion throws us back upon film theory and film criticism to explain the range and nature of film's power and influence. But film history goes further too.
Film history asserts that since film is a collaborative, creative medium, due attention must be paid to production, sponsorship and the negotiations between the creative agents involved. Examination of the production context may not only offer a conventional Marxist sense of the extent to which the economic base determines the cultural superstructure; it may also reveal something of the cultural capital of its progenitors. From careful analysis it may be possible to determine how the circumstances of production (results of planning, struggle and happenstance) affect the nature of the finished film, and how the ideas of its collaborators are realised and transformed there.
With its emphasis on the importance of contextual enquiry, film history's methods have been primarily empiricist, relying upon the availability and interpretation of archival evidence from a range of public and private sources. To this extent film history has been as concerned with the regimes of production (film studios, financiers and personnel) and constraint (government legislation, censorship) as it is with the film text itself.
Much valuable work has been accomplished over the past 20 years which has reinterpreted film through an appreciation of its social and historical context – the context of both its production and its critical and audience reception. But moreover, social historians have employed film as a particularly rich, if not unproblematic, new source. It is this reappraisal through the prism of film, especially among British historians, that has made film history such a dynamic, and essentially revisionist, enterprise. Instrumental here has been groundbreaking work by the likes of Roy Armes, Charles Barr, Rachael Low, Jeffrey Richards, Anthony Aldgate, Sue Harper, Vincent Porter, James Chapman, Andrew Higson, Andrew Spicer, John Hills, Robert Murphy and Sarah Street.
However, thorough in many quarters as this re-evaluation has been, the nature of the medium of film itself has often been marginalised, or taken for granted. This is where popular social historians have often failed to address the complex and unstable relationship between cultural texts and social change. This is the first challenge to film history: to take proper account (especially at the level of visual style) of the fact that the meanings which a film can yield are complex and its cultural registers are uneven. We need to appreciate the richness and density of film as a medium if we are to understand the cultural competence of its creators and receivers alike. Following Williams, films may revive residual elements in a culture as well as capturing the spirit of emergent ones. But useful as his model has been, it is time to move beyond it.
It may also be possible, for instance, for films to manifest a cultural unconscious; that is, to say two things. First, a film text may reveal to careful scrutiny the marks of chance and accident in the process of inception, beyond the conscious intention of its progenitors. Second, the teleological act of recovery and reappraisal from a position of historical distance betrays what the filmmakers could never know: how differently a text exists in its own past. At its most sophisticated, a historical reading can recapture a sense of the structures of feeling of a particular period, its predilections and its anxieties – but only if rigorous contextual research supports a sensitive reading of the text itself.
Of course film history, like any historical enquiry, is dependent upon and limited by the nature and scope of its sources. History is written on the basis of the evidence which has survived and been privileged, rather than that which has been lost, destroyed, marginalised or suppressed. And fate has a hand in this as well. In this way, for example, our knowledge of the first decades of cinema is comparatively limited, because fewer films have been preserved. Furthermore, no discipline is free from the tendency towards the 'natural selection' created by canon formation. And film historians have tended to privilege those texts whose complexity or notoriety yields greater riches. Literary heritage and documentary realism have dominated (and sometimes skewed) the critical appraisal of British film history, for example. That said, we are now reaching a position where the great books have been written and the territory has largely been mapped, in many cases comprehensively so.
The early years of British cinema have been admirably catalogued by the likes of Rachael Low, Andrew Higson and others. The 1930s and 1940s have been the province largely of Jeffrey Richards and Anthony Aldgate, while Marcia Landy, Charles Barr and Robert Murphy have addressed major studios and the recurrent themes of realism and escapism. Sue Harper has dealt comprehensively with the costume film and the function of the past in popular cinema. Sarah Street and Margaret Dickinson have scoured The National Archives to produce detailed work on government intervention, legislation, financial and production constraints. Sue Harper and Vincent Porter have written the definitive film history of the post-war period (The Decline of Deference: British Cinema of the 1950s (Oxford, 2005)), and Robert Murphy and John Hills have largely covered the British New Wave and the 1960s. Alternative analyses, often focused upon gender studies, subcultures, national identity and thematic concerns, have been offered by a range of scholars including Marcia Landy, Sue Harper, Andrew Higson, Sarah Street, Amy Sargeant, Steve Chibnall and Andrew Spicer. British documentary has drawn considerable attention from film historians, notably Ian Jarvie, Paul Swann and Elizabeth Sussex, while encyclopaedic work by Denis Gifford, Brian MacFarlane, Robert Murphy and Duncan Petrie, among others, has provided thoroughgoing maps of British film personnel and production histories.
The pioneering work of Allen Eyles in the neglected realm of cinema exhibition has recently been augmented with a broader history of the topic by Stuart Hanson. Film censorship has been addressed in a number of important works by Anthony Aldgate, James Robertson and Julian Petley. And audience reception has been the subject of important contributions by John Sedgwick, Annette Kuhn, Mark Jancovich and Robert James. British film historians also acknowledge the important archival and curatorial roles provided by the British Film Institute and the British Universities Film and Video Council. For sure, much has been accomplished; yet much remains to be done.
So where next for film history? What are the challenges and opportunities for its future as a discipline? The first challenge, as indicated above, is by way of recourse to the text itself which, in some cases, deserves recuperation from the weight of its archival baggage. This is the challenge of interpreting visual style in any period or body of work, and the emphasis here must be upon the richness, variety and orchestration of mise-en-scéne. But there is also much potential in new approaches to archival organisation and scrutiny, which will not only present for scholarly and public access material previously unavailable, but may, through digitisation, open the archives to new critical perspectives. There is also scope for the re-examination of marginal or neglected periods, cycles and texts, and significant new work is underway in this area, for example Steve Chibnall's studies of British 'B' movies, and the University of Portsmouth's Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded project on the 1970s.(3)
The second emphasis should be on film reception. It is notoriously difficult to establish (beyond crude figures of popularity) how audiences of the past viewed film, the pleasures they derived and the needs it fulfilled; suffice to remind ourselves that, for the first half of the 20th century, it was the predominant audiovisual medium commanding millions of regular viewers. Jeffrey Richards and Dorothy Sheridan produced important surveys of Mass-Observation material, John Sedgwick has developed innovative economic models of reception analysis, and Sue Harper, Vincent Porter, Annette Kuhn, Julian Poole and Robert James have each focused on different aspects of audience response.
But film history of the present and future is rather different – its fan bases are diverse, articulate and ubiquitous. For every new film released there is a welter of promotional material, critical appraisal and fan discourse which has altered the boundaries of the film text itself and rendered them more permeable: the film text is a far more amorphous concept now than ever before.
The third ambition of film history should be to venture beyond the archive in another sense. Historians cannot afford to rest on the laurels of a secure methodology which holds good for all time; historicism, in Karl Popper's terms, has no place here.(4) Film history must embrace the interdisciplinary openness which has enriched and enlivened other branches of social history (in the work, for example, of Peter Burke). Films never exist in isolation, and are always related to the wider cultural output of any era. An understanding of the relations between the forces of sponsorship and production, the finished film and its reception will only suffice if it is sufficiently flexible and responsive to changing historical conditions. For those key determinants do not operate in the same, predictable manner over time.
The status of cinema as a commercial industry and a social pastime, and film as an entertainment art form, has altered immeasurably in the past 100 years. As its monolithic position diminished in the second half of the 20th century, so its conditions of production diversified and its audience fragmented into discrete taste- communities. In assessing popular cinema since the 1960s it is necessary to examine very carefully the financial and creative determinants upon a film's production and the nature of its constituency. Film has faced competition from a range of other audiovisual media, its national borders have been redefined by US cultural hegemony and globalisation, and its sites of consumption and technological platforms have been radically transformed.
Film language also changes and is subject to the same shifts in discourse, enunciation and manner which affect other cultural texts. So the film historian needs to be sensitive and responsive to such shifts, and must adopt a more dynamic model of cultural inscription than has been the case thus far to augment, not replace, the rigours of more traditional archival work. Why, as Michel Foucault asks, is it only possible for certain ideas to be expressed in particular forms at precise historical moments? How does the nature of what can be uttered and what remains taboo, vary over time? Why do given themes or motifs gain currency in films of one period, and not in others?
The aim of histories of popular culture should be to recover (insofar as is possible) not only what people of the past thought, but how they felt. As challenging as this ambition may be to empiricist orthodoxy, film can claim two advantages as a source. First, for the first half of the 20th century at least, it was the dominant medium of audio-visual representation and, at its height, what A. J. P. Taylor called the 'essential social habit' of an age.(5) But second, beyond its popularity, feature film deals not only in ideas, but also in emotions.
While film never reflects social reality, it always refracts and mediates it and may, to some extent, be considered the repository of currents of feeling in any age. If film can reveal the dreams and aspirations of the denizens of the past, in the post-modern era it is also the museum of nostalgia. More than any other popular medium, film is the expression of both desire and loss. In this way also, film can be considered to lay bare the cultural unconscious.
In the second half of the 20th century the focus of history broadened to embrace the popular (and its cultural expressions). By the close of the last millennium it had also begun to engage with private and informal discourse, beyond the realms of the public and official. These hidden histories, these other pasts, are for future study. But this is dark matter upon which film can cast considerable light.
Finally, just as for Freud a cigar was sometimes just a cigar, so film is sometimes (mostly even) just an entertainment. It is the responsibility of the cultural historian therefore to be circumspect (through contextual grounding, theoretical application and rigorous 'triangulation') about the nature and influence of film itself.
Justin Smith is principal lecturer and subject leader for Film Studies in the School of Creative Arts, Film and Media at the University of Portsmouth.