Scenes of Instruction: The Beginnings of the U.S. Study of Film

By Martin, Carey | Journal of Film and Video, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Scenes of Instruction: The Beginnings of the U.S. Study of Film


Martin, Carey, Journal of Film and Video


SCENES OF INSTRUCTION: THE BEGINNINGS OF THE U.S. STUDY OF FILM Dana Polan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007, 406 pp.

The legend of film education in the United States goes something like this: with the exception of the "company town," the University of Southern California (USC), film education was virtually unknown in the United States until the late 1950s. Then, inspired by Cahiers du cinéma and the rest of the French New Wave, and further fueled by the creative dynamo that was the 1960s, college-level film study sprang forth like Athena from the brow of Zeus.

Today, this is widely known to be legend. Still, even experienced film educators may not be aware of how far from fact is the legend. Dana Polan's text aims to remedy that situation. This in-depth tome documents the efforts at film education that existed before the French New Wave films and, for that matter, before some of the French New Wave filmmakers.

These efforts reach back to "Photoplay Composition," offered in 1915 in Columbia University's extension program. This course, taught first by Victor Freeburg and then, for much longer, by Frances Taylor Patterson, is the first solidly documented university-sponsored course in film study, according to Polan. Polan goes on to explore the attempts at film education at New York's New School and at Harvard, Stanford, New York University, and even St. John's (Maryland), in addition to the origins of USCs film program.

Polan intends his text to serve as a foundation for those interested in applying ideas from the emerging field of disciplinarity to film studies. From a historical viewpoint, he succeeds admirably. The text is painstakingly documented and brings to light hitherto-forgotten, yet quite substantial, efforts in academe. …

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