Magazine article Journal of Film Preservation

The Appreciation of Film: The Postwar Film Society Movement and Film Culture in Britain

Magazine article Journal of Film Preservation

The Appreciation of Film: The Postwar Film Society Movement and Film Culture in Britain

Article excerpt

This book offers an engaging and accessible history of British film society culture, addressing both the social and intellectual goals of the movement and the practical mechanisms that facilitated its post-war expansion. In choosing to focus primarily on the period of peak filmsociety activity - from the 1940s to the 1970s - Richard MacDonald provides a necessary corrective to the dominant academic picture of film society culture in the UK. Prior scholarly work has overwhelmingly emphasised the pioneer years of the 1920s and early 1930s, selectively championing the most aesthetically and politically radical elements of the movement. The collective effect of this has been to render the movement's much larger mainstream almost invisible, save as the "moribund" backdrop to those progressive British critical developments widely understood to have shaped formal film studies. The undertaking of this book is to highlight the connections and continuities between the conceptual structures and practices of this mid-20th-century generation of film society activists, and the development of a professionalised academic film culture, which, in its early years, self-consciously defined itself in opposition to the perceived bourgeois conservatism of its amateur predecessors.

To this end, MacDonald introduces the reader to the volunteer-led culture of amateur organised exhibition, discussion, and debate that flourished in the immediate post-war period, providing widespread access to international cinema, and making the case for film as a cultural form worthy of serious attention. He explores the enthusiasm and sense of civic duty that motivated the movement's organisers, and in positioning the expansion of the movement in relation to a wider growth in adult education and the post-war pursuit of democratic cultural ideals, reframes their work in terms more relevant to their own values.

Each chapter has a thematic focus, but the book is also structured chronologically. The first two chapters deftly sketch the key 1930s and wartime contexts for understanding the middlebrow uplift agenda and DIY ethos of the post-war movement. This enables an examination of how, by the 1940s, the film societies came to position themselves not only in opposition to the perceived passive mode of consumption associated with commercial cinema, but also against elite aestheticism and overt political propaganda. Interviews with older activists add richness to the account of the kind of new members who grew the movement. Chapter Three addresses popularisation and the precise meaning of "film appreciation" through a close examination of the values embodied by Roger Manvell's hugely influential little film society "bible", Film (London, Penguin Books/Pelican, 1944).

Chapters Four and Five turn to the technologies and infrastructural developments that enabled post-war growth and their relationship to the shifting principles and practices of film programming. Key topics include 16mm and expansion beyond the urban centres; the role of the British Film Institute, National Film Library, and the British Federation of Film Societies in facilitating programming; the ideal of "balance"; the importance of Edinburgh as an alternative node of film culture authority; and the rise of commercial distributors such as Contemporary Film, who catered to the specialist 16mm market but also remained tied to the metropolitan mechanisms of release and publicity. However, across these two chapters, the choice of thematic framing and a slightly looping structure results in discussion of some of the larger themes - particularly those relating to geographic dynamics - becoming fragmented.

The regular film society audience remains a scattered presence throughout the book. Given the sources available, this is a project that understandably favours the perspectives of the movement's leaders, and it is at its strongest when it makes this the explicit object of critical interrogation. …

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