The Double Life of Véronique (1992).
Just over twenty years ago Kristin and I embarked on a perilous task. We decided to write a synoptic history of world cinema.
The task wasn’t perilous because it was innovative. Since the 1930s, there has been no shortage of historical surveys of international filmmaking, and such items continue to be published. But when we decided on this project in 1987, we wanted something different.
Soon that book will appear in a third edition. We take this occasion to explain the whys and wherefores.
Just start over
For a very long time, and sometimes still, film histories written by Americans took a very partial look at the phenomenon of cinema. For one thing, they tended to focus on a series of masterpieces, films that had been deemed important within a narrow canon. The earliest lineup went pretty much this way: Lumière films, Méliès’ Trip to the Moon, Porter’s Great Train Robbery, Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and/ or Intolerance. Then came national schools, such as German Expressionism (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), Soviet Montage (Battleship Potemkin), and Continental Dada and Surrealism (Entr’acte, The Andalusian Dog). Early sound was M and Sous les toits de Paris and maybe Love Me Tonight. The 1940s was Grapes of Wrath and Citizen Kane and Enfants du Paradis and Italian Neorealism. And so on.
But in the 1970s archivists began opening their doors to researchers. Thanks to wider and deeper viewing, new film historians, young and old, were questioning the canon. André Gaudreault and Charles Musser showed that Porter’s Life of an American Fireman, which supposedly gave birth to crosscutting, did not do so; in fact the version people had used for years was a re-cut print! In Jay Leyda’s seminars at NYU, young scholars like Roberta Pearson were tracing what Griffith actually did and didn’t do, a task taken up by Joyce Jesionowski as well. At the same time, Eileen Bowser, Tom Gunning, Noël Burch, and others began questioning the idea that “our cinema” developed step by step from “primitive” beginnings. In England, Ben Brewster, Barry Salt, and others were minutely analyzing changes in film technique in the earliest years. Here at Madison, Tino Balio and Doug Gomery were revising the study of Hollywood as a business enterprise. Specialists working on national cinemas, from Russia, Italy, and the Nordic countries, were showing that there was far more diversity in world cinema than was dreamt of in orthodox histories.
We were part of this generation of revisionists. In the 1970s and 1980s Kristin concentrated on European and American silent film, studying both stylistic movements and film distribution, as well as particular filmmakers like Eisenstein, Godard, and Tati. I did work on European and Japanese cinema. We spent years working on a reconsideration of the history of American studio film in collaboration with Janet Staiger. Writing The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 we realized that asking fresh questions was both necessary and exciting.
That’s what made our task perilous. Everything, it seemed, needed to be rethought.
Most obviously, countries outside Europe and North America had been neglected. One of my favorite film statistics is this, to quote from our book:
In the mid-1950s, the world was producing about 2800 feature films per year. About 35 percent of these came from the United States and western Europe. Another 5 percent were made in the USSR and the Eastern European countries under its control. . . . Sixty percent of feature films were made outside the western world and the Soviet bloc. Japan accounted for about 20 percent of the world total. The rest came from India, Hong Kong, Mexico, and other less industrialized nations. Such a stunning growth in film production in the developing countries is one of the major events in film history.
Traditional histories, and film history textbooks, had virtually ignored the bulk of film-producing nations. Only one or two major directors would step in from the shadows. Kurosawa summed up Japan, Satayajit Ray stood in for India. And the books’ layout of chapters indicated this second-class status. The history of film was Euro-American, with East Asia, Southeast Asia, South America, and Africa, appearing, if at all, in periods when westerners first got glimpses of their film culture. So Japan was typically first mentioned after World War II, when Rashomon won a prize at the Venice Film Festival. One would hardly know that there were many, and many great, Japanese filmmakers working in a long-standing tradition.
As if this weren’t enough, we were determined to include other varieties of artistic filmmaking. Documentary cinema, animation, and experimental film had attracted subtle historians like Bill Nichols, Mike Barrier, and P. Adams Sitney. We weren’t experts in these areas, but we were keenly interested in the debates in that domain, and so, guided by these and other scholars, we sought to integrate the histories of documentary, avant-garde, and animated cinema into our survey.
Kristin and David’s excellent adventure
Straight Shooting (1917).
In sum, we decided that we could write a plausible international history of cinema—not a be-all and end-all, but a new draft that reflected the rich variety of new findings and fresh perspectives. Like all historians, we had to be selective. We couldn’t, for instance, track every nuance of the “false starts and detours” in early film technique. More globally, we decided to concentrate on three lines of inquiry.
First, we studied changes in modes of film production and distribution. This inquiry committed us to a version of industrial history. How filmmaking was embedded in particular times and places, how it connected to local culture and national politics: these factors affected the ways films were made and circulated. For example, the early distribution of films followed the trade routes of late nineteenth-century imperialism. That global system started to crack with the start of World War I. A new world power, the United States, became the major film exporting country—a position it has enjoyed for most years since then.
Secondly, we studied changes in film form, style, and genre. We treated these artistic matters as not wholly the products of individual innovators but also as more widely-developed practices and norms. This emphasis on norms allowed us to link, in some degree, the development of technique to opportunities and constraints presented by film industries.
This angle of approach also meant looking at older works with a fresh eye, informed by others’ research but also by our own interests in film as an art. We were obliged to seek out films lying outside the orthodox story. Birth and Caligari and M feature in our account, but so do The Cheat and Assunta Spina and Liebelei. In those pre-DVD days, few of the titles we sought could be found on video, but we preferred to watch film on film anyway. So it was off to the archives. Fortunately, many collections were wide-ranging. We saw Egyptian and Swedish films in Rochester, French and Italian films in London, Indian and Japanese films in Washington, D. C., Polish and African films in Brussels. Committed to documenting our claims with frame enlargements, not production stills, we were lucky to be able to take photos from many of the movies we saw.
In looking at national film industries and artistic change, we wanted to go beyond local observations. So a third question pressed upon us. What international trends emerged that knit together developments in different countries? We could not claim expertise in all the relevant national traditions, but we could, by drawing on films and other scholars’ writings, create a comparative study that gave a sense of the broad shape of film history.
For example, we could point to the emergence of tableau cinema in many countries in the 1910s. We could consider various models of state-controlled cinema in the 1930s and discover the “New Waves” that emerged not only in France but around the world in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Citizen Kane popularized a “deep-focus” look, but comparative study showed us that its principles were prefigured in Soviet cinema of the 1930s and spread to most major filmmaking nations in the 1940s. Not all trends march in lockstep, but there was enough synchronization to let us plot broad waves of change across the 100 years of film. Our aim was a truly comparative film history.
As a kind of overarching commitment, we wanted readers to think about what historical processes had shaped earlier historical frames of reference. How, for instance, did the “standard story” and the mainline canon get established in the first place? Part of the answer lies in the growth of film journalism and film archives. Why did Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, and other directors get so much fame in the 1950s and 1960s? True, they made exceptional films, but so did many other directors who remained unknown to a wider public. We suggested that the “golden age of auteurs” owed a good deal to developments in film criticism and to the postwar growth of film festivals. What led Japanese anime to a period of international popularity in the 1980s? Not only worldwide television distribution, but also devoted fans who spread their gospel through fanzines, videocassettes, and the youthful Internet. The “institutional turn” in film research of the 1970s and 1980s pushed us to consider how film industries and international film culture governed the way films were made and circulated.
The research programs that were launched in the 1970s were characterized by a greater self-consciousness than we had seen before. Historians questioned their assumptions and explanations. Why attribute originality only to “great men” without also examining their circumstances? Why presuppose that film technique grows and progresses in a linear way? To capture this new self-consciousness about purposes and methods, we incorporated something that had never been seen in a film history before: an introduction to historiography. In its latest incarnation it can be found elsewhere on this site. We also appended to each chapter short “Notes and Queries” discussing intriguing side issues, debates in the field, and topics for further research.
Up-to-date, and beyond
10 Canoes (2006).
The result of our efforts was first published by McGraw-Hill in 1994 as Film History: An Introduction. A second edition appeared in late 2002. More recently, we’ve spent about twenty months preparing a third edition, which will be published on 20 February this year.
We thought that writing the first edition was bloody hard, and it didn’t get any easier on the second or third pass. As usual, however, visiting new material broadens your compass. Writing my portions of the first edition had a profound impact on my research, but also on my personal tastes. The activity awakened my interest in Hindi cinema of the 1950s, Latin American cinema of the 1960s, experimental work of the 1980s, and African film of the 1990s. On this third round, I was caught up in the innovations of contemporary Korean film and of avant-gardists like Sharon Lockhart. Overall, our urge to trace cinematic creativity around the world led us to a greater appreciation of the wonders of film.
Film History‘s third edition consists of six parts. The first looks at early cinema, from the 1880s to the end of the 1910s. The second considers the late silent era through the 1920s and slightly beyond. Part Three surveys the international development of sound film, up to 1945. The postwar era, from 1945 to the end of the 1960s, constitutes Part Four. We next consider the contemporary period, generously conceived as running from the 1970s to the present. The last section, Cinema in the Age of Electronic Media, makes up for the broad compass of Part Five by reconsidering trends that took shape during the 1980s.
What’s new in this edition? Several small changes have been made in the early portions to reflect newly available films and filmmakers now recognized as important. We have updated coverage of documentary with discussions of the rise of the theatrical doc and its two most striking practitioners, Errol Morris and Michael Moore. We have likewise expanded our section on avant-garde filmmaking by considering “paracinema,” which should have been in earlier editions, and the increase in cinema presented as installations and gallery works.
As for national cinema developments, we have extended our survey of western Europe and the USSR (Chapter 25), continental and subcontinental cinemas such as Latin America, Africa, and India (Chapter 26), and East Asia and Oceania (Chapter 27). New coverage is given to the recovery of the Russian and Chinese industries, the increasing world presence of Bollywood, and fresh talent from the Middle East and South Korea.
The book’s last part continues to host a chapter (28) on American cinema’s development in the light of home video and the rise of independent filmmaking; the blockbuster and Mumblecore are among the subjects we tackle. As in the second edition, we devote a chapter to globalization, which lets us trace the struggle between Hollywood’s global blockbusters and countervailing trends in other regions. This chapter allows us to study other globalizing processes, such as multiplexing, the Internet, fan culture, piracy, and diasporic populations.
Chapter 30 is new to this edition. It examines the effects of the digital revolution on all aspects of film production, as well as on new means of distribution and exhibition. The subjects covered include 3-D animation, DIY independents, and online distribution. We end by recognizing film as no less international an art form than it was in the earliest decades, when silent films slipped freely across national borders.
As in the early editions, we’ve tried to synthesize contemporary contributions but also add our own research and our own interpretations. Here, for example, is our very cine-centric conclusion about “the death of film.”
Will this barrage of new media ultimately overwhelm the cinema? Will the Internet, video games, and personal music players take over as the preferred forms of entertainment? Possibly, but there is evidence against that notion.
Each time that a digital platform appeared, it initially lacked the capacity to show films. Yet each platform adapted itself in order to add that capacity. In the 1990s, computers acquired the power to display movies. The Internet originally did not show films, but now it has Quicktime and downloads. Cell phones started out as communication devices, but later models included a camera and screen so that users could shoot and view films. The first game consoles could not show movies, but after the advent of DVDs, the next generation of machines became combination players. The original iPod and other personal music devices were strictly for audio, but Apple added the capacity to download digital video from computers, DVDs, and the Internet. The iPod enlarged its screen to better display films, even though that meant abandoning the signature click-wheel in favor of touch-screen controls.
Far from killing movies, digital media have allowed them to leave the theater and our living rooms. Now they can travel with us almost anywhere. In effect, film has reshaped the new media to accommodate it. As new digital devices emerge, we suspect that they, too, will adjust themselves to the cinematic traditions that have developed over 110 years.
No book can be definitive, partly because things change astonishingly fast. When we wrote the revision, DreamWorks was firmly within the Paramount family, and our chart of media conglomerates on p. 683 left it there. In page proofs, we shifted it when it seemed all but certain to move to Universal. Now comes the news that DreamWorks has signed with Disney. Likewise, the flow of important research hasn’t abated, and valuable books, like Jay Beck and Tony Grajeda’s Lowering the Boom: Critical Studies in Film Sound, were published after we went to press. Another peril of writing contemporary history, then: Keeping up.
To squeeze in our new material, we’ve had to excise the historiography essay mentioned above, as well as our Notes and Queries and our plump bibliographies. Those, all updated, have appeared at the McGraw-Hill site. Even if you’re not reading the book, feel free to go to the Student Edition tab and browse through the Notes and Queries for each chapter. Some of these brief, bloggish items may pique your interest.
Without exactly planning to do it, we seem to have come up with the most wide-ranging, extensively illustrated survey of world cinema history available in English. The third edition of Film History: An Introduction runs to 750 large-format pages, not counting the index. It contains hundreds of black-and-white frame enlargements and thirty pages of color illustrations.
We hope that if you’re interested in film history you’ll take a look. Feel free to write to us with your thoughts, especially if you find misprints (we’ve been chasing them for months) and factual errors. We’d also appreciate comments about our larger arguments and interpretations. We improve only by constantly rechecking what we say and how we say it.
The quotation about 1950s world film output comes from Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell, Film History: An Introduction, third ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009), 373.
Tokyo Drifter (1966).