Memory, Images, History
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Blog written by Jan-Christopher Horak, Director, UCLA Film & Television Archive
The professionalization of moving image archives over the past three decades has been accompanied by changes in film studies, which have precipitated a new consciousness not only in media historians, but also in moving image archivists themselves. Earlier generations of film historians perceived film history teleologically as a progressive evolution towards film art, a hermeneutic upward spiral of technical and aesthetic improvements that brought the medium to its maturity with the addition of sound, color, and 3-D. But history is not that easily compartmentalized. Moving image media and culture have been subject to breaks, fissures, dead-ends, two steps forward and one step backwards, all of which did not inevitably lead to what we now term classical Hollywood narrative or some variation there of.
The new film historians have been much more interested in contextualizing film and television history in the broader arena of cultural studies and cultural critique. They have attempted to ground film history in an empirical methodology, based on academic conventions of evidence gathering and presentation. No longer is film history a matter of connoisseurship and the analysis of individual examples of film art or the oeuvre of so-called film auteurs. Rather, the new media historians see film and television as one form of evidence in an historical discourse.
While the goal of standard film histories of the past was to establish aesthetic norms of quality for cinema history, the new media history is interested in describing and analyzing the technological, economic, social, political, ethical, and aesthetic development of the medium of film and the institution of cinema. Furthermore, the new methodologies have shifted the focus from a critic’s reading of a given artifact to a reconstruction of the historical audience’s readings and usage of cinema and television.
Such an agenda means that virtually any form of moving image can function as historical evidence, whether fiction feature film or short, documentary or avant-garde film, advertising film or ethnographic film, industrial or medical film, amateur film or newsreel. It also means that the material culture of moving image media has become a much more important factor in the construction of history. Not just the images, but the documents produced in film production, distribution, and exhibition become the raw materials of the new history, whether film scripts and treatments, film production records, contemporary film reviews, film industry trade periodicals, film stills and posters, oral histories, and personal correspondence.
The inevitable conclusion for moving image archivists must be that they should neither exclude material from their archives, nor actively participate in the judgmental game of deciding what is important and what is not. Finally, it means that a symbiotic relationship now exists between archivists and historians: new academic research leads to the formulation of new preservation priorities. For example, a new sensitivity in the archives to amateur film was brought about by academic research, concerned with the cultural value of such material. Conversely, the preservation of materials outside of the classical canon, has lead to further reevaluation of moving image history.
Only the continual interplay between archives and academics will lead to increased knowledge of these media which have so vitally impacted on our perceptions of the world.