Film & History's Philosophy

The fact that film has been the most potent vehicle of the American imagination suggests all the more strongly that movies have something to tell us not just about the surfaces but about the mysteries of American life.

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
In American History/American Film: Interpreting the Hollywood Image
edited by John O'Connor and Martin Jackson, founders of Film & History

 

Wriitng in 1979, the eminent historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (who served on the Advisory Board of the journal until his death, in 2007), argued for the centrality of film to the understanding of American history--and by extension for the centrality of arts peculiar to the history of each culture. That vision lies at the heart of Film & History's cross-disciplinary approach to film and television, which sees audio-visual media as a window on the "surfaces" and "mysteries" not just of American life, but of life -- past and present -- throughout the world.

Guiding Principles

Two perspectives on art and society must be considered when evaluating an artifact. Raymond Williams, a cultural critic, reminds us that we "cannot understand an intellectual or artistic project without also understanding its formation," by which he means its cultural and historical environment. By comparison, Helen Vendler, a poetry critic, reminds us that we cannot understand any artistic project without understanding the formal environment in which its objects or events are represented and arranged: a rose or a flag or a handshake "means" whatever it does primarily because of its function inside that constructed environment, be it simple or complex, historical or fictional, formulaic or avant-garde. For Vendler, "content" always refers to the arrangement of content: to content-in-context.

Both Williams and Vendler accept that context determines meaning, but Williams privileges the external context, the institutions of society (and sometimes the natural world), whereas Vendler privileges the internal context, the individual art and mind. Film, as we know, is rarely the work of just one person (and Foucault has reminded us that, at some level, neither is a novel or a poem), but even if it were (as "auteur" theories emphasize), the question that Williams and Vendler ultimatley raise is this: If we are to operate with any pragmatic distinction--and we always do--between plural external forces ("history," "society," "modes of production") and singular internal forces ("individual," "imagination," "genius" ), then where and how do these two sets of forces determine what a text, a painting, a film, or any other form of art "is" or "means" or "does"? That pragmatic field--where the plural mind of history and the single mind of art compete, collaborate, or do something else to speak the language of moving-images--is the principal focus of the journal Film & History.

Methodology

In determining evidence, F&H works on the principal of "proximate cause": closer (internal) influences generally weigh more than distant (external) influences. This is a forensic rule in both the sciences and the humanities (the phrase "proximate cause" comes from jurisprudence), not unlike most rules of grammar (whether generative, stochastic, categorial, etc.), which account for syntactically viable statements or expressions in terms of proximate relationships and markers (from most to least proximate). In less theoretical terms, readers incapable of understanding the internal context of a film--its formal shape, its stylistic tone, its conceptual order--are, in whatever larger historical sense to which they aspire, helpless at saying anything useful about the film overall as a construction of experience.

In practice, Film & History examines the responses of the moving-image arts to contemporary pressures and the responses of contemporary pressures to the moving-image arts. While cautioning against reducing film to historical symptom, F&H looks to understand film--how it works formally, who makes or consumes it, why and where its forms succeed, how those forms mediate or reflect our understanding--in the context of social and historical themes, genre patterns, and critical events.

Film & History emphasizes the mutually constructed nature of both fields described by its title. How is each made, and how does each make or re-make the other? How does history create film? How does film create history (or our apprehension of it)? What modes, styles, devices, formulas, conventions, influences, or inventions do they share or impose on the other? How do films, like the historical narratives woven implicitly or explicitly through them, become artful or popular or both? Who makes them so? When and why does a film seem "bad" to one generation and "beautiful" to another? What stories do certain groups of people want or need or fear? In what style must those stories be told? When and why does cinematic genius arise?

These material questions about film construction always figure in the scholarly equation because they explain how film--rather than painting or literature or physics--uniquely reflects or shapes our knowledge of the world. Content cannot be separated from its form, not in cakes or cocktails or rollercoasters and not in poetry or film or any other shaped experience. Indeed, in its compression, its editing, its visual and aural lyricism, film is often closer formally to poetry than to prose, and it is almost always closer, even as documentary, to art than to history. To put it plainly, film is not history; it is an art form (however successful) that can and should be read historically--but only while it is read formally, as a self-contextualizing whole, lest the film be dissolved by the historian into incoherent parts.

Film's aesthetic distance from history reveals, in fact, the aesthetic nature of history itself. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., having long served as an F&H editorial advisor, routinely emphasized the contribution that film has made to the understanding of history as a genre, as a peculiar form of knowing--with its own rules of predication and standards of excellence--not as a mere transcript or ledger of facts (see John E. O'Connor's encomium, below). "History," though necessarily grounded in empirical evidence, is a set of interpretive stories. If it is the referential antipode of "fiction," history is still narrative, still a qauntitative and qualitative selection of events for the purpose of constructing (or reconstructing) a meaningful event. Whatever graphs or statistics it employs, history is rooted in the teleology of storytelling. So that is where any criticism of it, as with film, must begin.

The "&" in Film & History

Because Film & History recognizes the constructed nature of almost every film, even of documentaries, the journal publishes scholarship that understands both the aesthetic and historical contexts of the work under study. A constructed world has both internal and external rules, which must be explained in relation to each other. Graphically and semantically, the "&" in Film & History represents this suture between aesthetic and historical scholarship.

 

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