Museum Movies: The Museum of Modern Art and the Birth of Art Cinema

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MUSEUM MOVIES: THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART AND THE BIRTH OF ART CINEMA Haidee Wesson Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005, 314 pp.

Museum Movies helped explain a little puzzle for me. Haidee Wasson's confidently composed book would probably help anyone in film studies with a thing or two. Her history of the Museum of Modern Art's Film Library is, in a sense, the story of where film studies came from; as the subtitle says: The Birth of An Cinema. My own problem was a special film show in Chicago in 1926, "Old-Time Movie Week," which included a selection of Griffith, Sennett, and other shorts from the early 1910s. Also included was a clip of McKinley's 1901 inauguration, which allowed the entire show to be incorrectly bannered, "the movies of 25 years ago... the films of our childhood." For its time, this chance to see old movies again was unique, and the advertising supposes nostalgia is the only reason to go. I knew it was exceptional, but only after reading Museum Movies did I understand why. The book explains that habits, discourses, networks, and even postures of watching films as art, specifically watching old movies for aesthetic purposes, were institutionalized in the 1930s, most concretely as a result of the founding of MoMA's Film Library in 1935. More generally (and this is why the book is really about the origins of film studies itself), Wasson argues that art cinema is socially constructed, but she avoids the pitfalls of now-routine "invention of" books by leaving this conclusion largely implicit. Rather than offering an overstated genealogy of film studies, the book shows how film appreciation owes a great deal to specific people, like Iris Barry and John Abbott at MoMA, and its Film Library, which came about because of a few well-connected people, changes in the technology of film, and the cultural purpose of the museum.

Wasson's introductory chapter, "Making Cinema a Modern Art," lays out the argument that cinema could be widely understood as an art form only when the conditions to facilitate that sensibility had been developed. In other words, she offers a material sociology of cinephilia, a social history of texts, spaces, manners, technologies, and economies that came together to make the Film Library "a novel, hybrid, and quintessentially modern institution, one that resonated with other institutional projects to make film respectable or institutionally useful." The remaining chapters are organized loosely around those other institutional conditions and contexts: technology, the museum, the film industry, distribution circuits, and the audiences themselves. Perhaps surprisingly, but with great rewards, the Film Library itself does not become a central character until the halfway mark. The first half of the book, instead, lays out the contexts that allowed the very idea of the Film Library and mass film appreciation to flourish.

A chapter on the possibilities of mobile theaters explains how the technological and industrial conditions of an "amateur" 16mm gauge of film stock and portable projectors facilitated new types of film viewing. Eastman Kodak, Bell & Howell, and Victor Animatograph coordinated the adoption of 16mm in 1923. Amateur, educational, and industrial filmmaking flourished, almost all of it nonprofit. An unintended outgrowth of the new standard of 16mm, Wasson argues, was the ability to more easily view movies, even mainstream ones, for aesthetic appreciation. The educational, non-profit aspects of the Film Library were largely inherited from existing industrial networks set up around 16mm exhibition.

The next chapter looks at MoMA and modern museum practices more generally, especially in relation to film. If many modern artists wanted to create art for the masses, places like MoMA gave shape to a "mass museology." Design and architecture were included alongside the traditional fine arts, expanding the conventional boundaries of objects worthy of art appreciation. …