Looking Past the Screen: Case Studies in American Film History and Method

By Pepper, Shayne D. | Film Criticism, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Looking Past the Screen: Case Studies in American Film History and Method


Pepper, Shayne D., Film Criticism


Looking Past the Screen. Case Studies in American Film History and Method

By Jon Lewis and Eric Smoodin (editors)

Duke University Press, 2007. 413pp. $24.95 paper, $89.95 cloth.

As the discipline of film studies has grown and evolved over the years, the field has clearly become increasingly interdisciplinary, and our object of study has moved beyond the film text to include a wide variety of materials. The essays collected in Looking Past the Screen: Case Studies in American Film History and Method expand the list of those materials, attempting to do a "film history without films" through a method of examining archival materials and historical practices that are perhaps often overlooked in canonical approaches to studying film history.

This type of historical analysis gives us a new understanding of much-studied figures such as Marlene Dietrich, F.W. Murnau, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg. It also brings into the conversation understudied topics such as the relationship between foreign censorship and the Production Code Administration and the market for 8mm adult films designed not for stag parties but for individual home viewing, over thirty years before VCRs made such a practice commonplace. This edited collection brings together a number of scholars who stray from the beaten path of standard methodology and come back with valuable insights into the history of American cinema.

In his introduction, Eric Smoodin offers four basic and familiar categories of study for practicing and teaching film history: industrial systems, regulatory systems, reception, and representation. He writes:

   In the most brute term s, however, the primary materials
   for studying industry, regulation, and reception
   cannot be the films themselves. Instead, they will
   most typically be on paper (and on microfilm and the
   Internet) as the material evidence left, for instance,
   by fans, censors, critics, and government officials; in
   other words, the very materials most often studied by
   historians working in other disciplines (5).

The contributors to this collection have mined this material evidence from the historical archive to give us new understanding of star studies, regulation, reception, production histories, and our own institutional history. Textual analysis in this book is very light in comparison to the analysis of newspaper and trade journal reviews, internal studio memos, state department documents, and local public records.

Smoodin's introduction traces the history of the film studies discipline from early aesthetic, economic, and social scientific studies of motion pictures to the literary and representational studies in the middle of the century. He makes note that while the 1960s and 1970s are mostly associated with modes of textual analysis that to an extent still dominate the field (semiotic, Marxist, and psychoanalytic approaches), another trajectory was taking shape, interdisciplinary projects of historiography moved decidedly outside of the film text itself to examine "non-filmic" evidence in order to understand the historical context, production history, and reception of films. Smoodin cites several important examples of this shift, such as the influential book edited by Michel Foucault, I, Pierre Riviere, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister, and My Brother, Garth Jowett's Film." The Democratic Art, and Lea Jacobs' The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman Film, 1928-1942.

Smoodin also cites Robert Allen and Douglas Gomery, who write in their Film History: Theory and Practice, "For certain investigations, film viewing is really an inappropriate research method" (11). More than simply the injection of cultural studies into the discipline of film studies, Smoodin and the contributors to this collection call for another look at what we call film history and wish to "increase our sense of the participants in that history, and to provide methodologies for the uses of a variety of primary materials that, in some cases, may have seemed only tangentially connected to the cinema" (19).

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