The Oxford History of World Cinema

By Geoffrey Nowell-Smith | Go to book overview

Two decades earlier, the avant-garde had time-shifted cubism and Dada into film history (both movements were essentially over by the time artists were able to make their own films). By the 1940s, a new avant-garde again performed a complex, overlapping loop, reasserting internationalism and experimentation, at a time as vital for transatlantic art as early modernism had been for Richter's generation. Perhaps the key difference, as P. Adams Sitney argues, is that the first avant-garde had added film to the potential and traditional media at an artist's disposal, while new American (and soon European) filmmakers after the Second World War began to see film- making more exclusively as an art form that could exist in its own right, so that the artist-film-maker could produce a body of work in that medium alone. Ironically, this generation also reinvented the silent film, defying the rise of naturalistic sound which had in part doomed its avantgarde ancestors in the 'poetic cinema' a decade before.


Curtis, David ( 1971), Experimental Cinema.

Drummond, Phillip, Dusinberre, Deke, and Rees, A. L. (eds.) ( 1979), Film as Film.

Hammond, Paul ( 1991), The Shadow and its Shadow.

Kuenzli, Rudolf E. (ed.) ( 1987), Dada and Surrealist Film.

Lawdor, Standish ( 1975), The Cubist Cinema.

Richter, Hans ( 1986), The Struggle for the Film.

Sitney, P. Adams ( 1974), Visionary Film.



I am the serial. I am the black sheep of the picture family and the reviled of critics. I am the soulless one with no moral, no character, no uplift. I am ashamed. . . . Ah me, if I could only be respectable. If only the hair of the great critic would not rise whenever I pass by and if only he would not cry, 'Shame! Child of commerce! Bastard of art!'

('The Serial Speaks', New York Dramatic Mirror, 19 August 1916)

It is rare indeed for a promotional article in the 1910s to lapse, however briefly, from the film industry's perennial mantra, 'We are attracting the better classes; We are uplifting the cinema; We are preserving the highest moral and artistic standards . . .' Probably few readers ever took such affirmations as anything more than perfunctory, and dubiously sincere, reassurances to a cultural establishment that approached the cinema with an unpredictable mixture of hostility and meddlesome paternalism. Nevertheless, it is unusual -- and telling -- that a studio mouthpiece (in this case, George B. Seitz, Pathé's serial tsar) should see fit to abandon the 'uplift' conceit altogether. Clearly, it was impossible even to pretend that the serial played any part in the cinema's putative rehabilitation. The serial's intertextual background doomed it to disrepute. Growing directly out of late nineteenth-century working-class amusements -- popular-priced stage melodrama (of the buzz-saw variety), and cheap fiction in dime novels, 'story papers', feuilletons, and penny dreadfuls -- the serial was geared to a decidedly lowbrow audience.

As early titles like The Perils of Pauline, The Exploits of Elaine, The House of Hate, The Lurking Peril, and The Screaming Shadow make obvious, serials were packaged sensationalism. Their basic ingredients come as no surprise: as Ellis Oberholtzer, Pennsylvania's cranky head censor in the 1910s, described the genre, 'It is crime, violence, blood and thunder, and always obtruding and outstanding is the idea of sex.' Elaborating every form of physical peril and 'thrill', serials promised sensational spectacle in the form of explosions, crashes, torture contraptions, elaborate fights, chases, and last-minute rescues and escapes. The stories invariably focused on the machinations of underworld gangs and mystery villains ('The Hooded Terror', 'The Clutching Hand', etc.) as they tried to assassinate or usurp the fortunes of a pretty young heroine and her heroboyfriend. The milieu was an aggressively non-domestic, 'masculine' world of hide-outs, opium dens, lumber mills, diamond mines, abandoned warehouses-into which the plucky girl heroine ventured at her peril.

Serials were a hangover from the nickelodeon era. They stood out as mildly 'shameful' at a time when the film industry was trying to broaden its market by making innocuous middlebrow films suitable for heterogeneous audiences in the larger theatres being built at the time. Rather than catering to 'the mass' -- a homogeneous, 'classless' audience fancied by the emerging Hollywood institution -- serials were made for 'the masses' -- the uncultivated, predominantly working- and lower-middle-class and immigrant audience that had supported the incredible 'nickelodeon boom'. Oberholtzer again offers a sharp assessment:

The crime serial is meant for the most ignorant class of the population with the grossest tastes, and it principally flourishes in the picture halls in mill villages and in the thickly settled tenement houses and low foreign-speaking neighborhoods in large cities. Not a producer, I believe, but is ashamed of such an


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The Oxford History of World Cinema
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Contributors ix
  • Contents xi
  • Special Features xv
  • List of Colour Illustrations xvii
  • General Introduction xix
  • 1 - Silent Cinema 1895-1930 1
  • Origins and Survival 6
  • Early Cinema 13
  • Transitional Cinema 23
  • The Hollywood Studio System 43
  • The World-Wide Spread of Cinema 53
  • The First World War and the Crisis in Europe 62
  • Tricks and Animation 71
  • Comedy 78
  • Documentary 86
  • Cinema and the Avant-Garde 95
  • Serials 105
  • French Silent Cinema 112
  • Italy- Spectacle and Melodrama 123
  • British Cinema from Hepworth to Hitchcock 130
  • Germany- The Weimar Years 136
  • The Scandinavian Style 151
  • Pre-Revolutionary Russia 159
  • The Soviet Union and the Russian émigrés 162
  • Yiddish Cinema in Europe 174
  • Japan- Before the Great Kanto Earthquake 177
  • Music and the Silent Film 183
  • The Heyday of the Silents 192
  • 2 - Sound Cinema 1930-1960 205
  • The Introduction of Sound 211
  • Hollywood- The Triumph of the Studio System 220
  • Censorship and Self-Regulation 235
  • The Sound of Music 248
  • Technology and Innovation 259
  • Animation 267
  • Cinema and Genre 276
  • The Western 286
  • The Musical 294
  • Crime Movies 304
  • The Fantastic 312
  • Documentary 322
  • Socialism, Fascism, and Democracy 333
  • The Popular Art of French Cinema 344
  • Italy from Fascism to Neo-Realism 353
  • Britain at the End of Empire 361
  • Germany- Nazism and after 374
  • East Central Europe before the Second World War 383
  • Soviet Film under Stalin 389
  • Indian Cinema- Origins to Independence 398
  • China before 1949 409
  • The Classical Cinema in Japan 413
  • The Emergence of Australian Film 422
  • Cinema in Latin America 427
  • After the War 436
  • Transformation of the Hollywood System 443
  • Independents and Mavericks 451
  • 3 - The Modern Cinema 1960-1995 461
  • Television and the Film Industry 466
  • The New Hollywood 475
  • New Technologies 483
  • Sex and Sensation 490
  • The Black Presence in American Cinema 497
  • Exploitation and the Mainstream 509
  • Dreams and Nightmares in the Hollywood Blockbuster 516
  • Cinéma-Vérité and the New Documentary 527
  • Avant-Garde Film- The Second Wave 537
  • Animation in the Post-Industrial Era 551
  • Modern Film Music 558
  • Art Cinema 567
  • New Directions in French Cinema 576
  • Italy- Auteurs and after 586
  • Spain after Franco 596
  • British Cinema- The Search for Identity 604
  • The New German Cinema 614
  • East Germany- The Defa Story 627
  • Changing States in East Central Europe 632
  • Russia after the Thaw 640
  • Cinema in the Soviet Republics 651
  • Turkish Cinema 656
  • The Arab World 661
  • The Cinemas of Sub-Saharan Africa 667
  • Iranian Cinema 672
  • India- Filming the Nation 678
  • Indonesian Cinema 690
  • China after the Revolution 693
  • Popular Cinema in Hong Kong 704
  • Taiwanese New Cinema 711
  • The Modernization of Japanese Film 714
  • New Australian Cinema 722
  • New Zealand Cinema 731
  • Canadian Cinema/Cinéma Canadien 731
  • New Cinemas in Latin America 740
  • New Concepts of Cinema 750
  • The Resurgence of Cinema 759
  • Index 785
  • List of Picture Sources 823


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