The cinema, wrote the documentarist Paul Rotha in the 1930s, 'is the great unresolved equation between art and industry'. It was the first, and is arguably still the greatest, of the industrialized art forms which have dominated the cultural life of the twentieth century. From the humble beginnings in the fairground it has risen to become a billiondollar industry and the most spectacular and original contemporary art.
As an art form and as a technology, the cinema has been in existence for barely a hundred years. Primitive cinematic devices came into being and began to be exploited in the 1890s, almost simultaneously in the United States, France, Germany, and Great Britain. Within twenty years the cinema had spread to all parts of the globe; it had developed a sophisticated technology, and was on its way to becoming a major industry, providing the most popular form of entertainment to audiences in urban areas throughout the world, and attracting the attention of entrepreneurs, artists, scientists, and politicians. As well as for entertainment, the film medium has come to be used for purposes of education, propaganda, and scientific research. Originally formed from a fusion of elements including vaudeville, popular melodrama, and the illustrated lecture, it rapidly acquired artistic distinctiveness, which it is now beginning to lose as other forms of mass communication and entertainment have emerged alongside it to threaten its hegemony.
To compress this complex history into a single volume has been, needless to say, a daunting task. Some developments have to be presented as central, while others are relegated to the margins, or even left out entirely. Certain principles have guided me in this work. For a start, this is a history of the cinema, not of film. It does not deal with every use of the film medium but focuses on those which have concurred to turn the original invention of moving images on celluloid into the great institution known as the cinema, or 'the movies'. The boundaries of cinema in this sense are wider than just the films that the institution produces and puts into circulation. They include the audience, the industry, and the people who work in it-from stars to technicians to usherettes -- and the mechanisms of regulation and control which determine which films audiences are encouraged to see and which they are not. Meanwhile, outside the institution, but constantly pressing in on it, is history in the broader sense, the world of wars and revolution, of changes in culture, demography, and life-style, of geopolitics and the global economy.
No understanding of films is possible without understanding the cinema, and no understanding of the cinema is possible without recognizing that it -- more than any other art, and principally because of its enormous popularity-has constantly been at the mercy of forces beyond its control, while also having the power to influence history in its turn. Histories of literature and music can perhaps be written (though they should not be) simply as histories of authors and their works, without reference to printing and recording technologies and the industries which deploy them, or to the world in which artists and their audiences lived and live. With cinema this is impossible. Central to the project of this book is the need to put films in the context without which they would not exist, let alone have meaning.
Secondly, this is a history of cinema as, both in its origins and in its subsequent development, above all popular art. It is popular art not in the old-fashioned sense of art emanating from the 'people' rather than from cultured élites, but in the distinctively twentieth-century sense of an art transmitted by mechanical means of mass diffusion and drawing its strength from an ability to connect to the needs, interests, and desires of a large, massified public. To talk about the cinema at the level at which it engages with this large public is once again to raise, in an acute form, the question of cinema as art and industry -- Paul Rotha's 'great unresolved equation'. Cinema is industrial almost by definition, by virtue of its use of industrial technologies for both the making and the showing of films. But it is also industrial in a stronger sense, in that, in order to reach large audiences, the successive processes of production, distribution, and exhibition have been industrially (and generally capitalistically) organized into a powerful and efficient machine. How the machine works (and what happens when it breaks down) is obviously of the greatest importance in understanding the cinema. But the history of the cinema is not just a history of this machine, and certainly
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Book title: The Oxford History of World Cinema. Contributors: Geoffrey Nowell-Smith - Editor. Publisher: Oxford University Press. Place of publication: Oxford. Publication year: 1997. Page number: xix.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.