Tom O'Regan. Introduction. In T. O'Regan & B. Shoesmith eds. History on/and/in Film. Perth: History & Film Association of Australia, 1987. 1-4.
History and Film is a conjunction of growing academic importance not only for film and media studies but also for historians. The relation between History and Film can take a number of different guises: whether as film history, history on film, or the problems film poses for History and vice versa. Why is there an interest in this particular conjunction - at this time? In film and media studies there has been a renewed interest in history - particularly the history of film and TV which has been accompanied by a perception of these medium's historicity. The revival of interest in film history has seen a renewed interest in, and the incorporation of, historical methods into film studies. Accompanying this recent interest in questions of film and TV history has come attempts to locate them both within a broader media history. Both film and TV are increasingly being seen as transitional phenomena inasmuch as they were preceded by, and have to some extent been succeeded by other forms of visual and audio-visual pleasure. If video and personal computer games, bingo halls, advertising and TV have to some extent taken over the traditional audiences for the cinema; it is only now becoming apparent the debt cinema owes to other media - to vaudeville, to the short story, to phantasmagorias, and to photography.
In short Film History can no longer be content with the integrity of the feature film as constituting the outer and inner limits of its theoretical object. The move in film studies must be rather towards specifying film's (and TV's) relation to the wider issue of the specular and auditory organisation of public life. Such an interest means that both are perceiving the necessity of repositioning themselves with reference to the political, historical, and social sciences on the one hand and the visual arts on the other to explain phenomena which cut across these fields.
Within History itself there is a growing recognition of the important place that the visual and audio-visual media play not only in social history, in popular culture, but also in political history (encapsulated in the phrase "televised politics"). Social historians need to take into account leisure and entertainment; and political historians the increasing role of politicians and political party "images". In an increasingly visually and aurally saturated world historians are more and more having to interpret images - photographic, filmic, artistic and architectural. It is thus necessary to develop an interest in film and visual representation in the history curricula both at a high school and a tertiary level. Some of the dimensions of this challenge facing historians can be gleaned from the work of the American historian John O'Connor represented in this volume. Taking an historical docudrama as his example O'Connor suggests that it can be profitably examined by historians from four perspectives. Firstly, it can be analysed for the ways in which the myriad choices made by its producers may have influenced the interpretation presented; secondly, it can be studied as a cultural artifact of the period in which it was made; thirdly, it can be seen as a document for understanding the development of the docudrama in the context of the history of TV; and fourthly, if archival newsreel clips were used these can be anlaysed for the factual evidence they contain. The relation between history and film, whilst largely unexplored in Australasia, is of increasing importance in the USA. We hope this volume will bring these issues before an Australian readership through the local publication of works by John O'Connor and Charles Geshekter in the USA and Tony Barta at La Trobe, Melbourne.
Cutting across both the fields of History and Film Studies is history on film: the issue of historical representation on film. As Charles Geshekter notes in this volume filmic representations of history - whether they be "historical" films, mini-series, or documentaries - are providing the vast majority of people with their only experience of history or historical discourse. If this fact demonstrates the need for historians to become more involved in audio-visual representations of history, it also suggests the social importance of these acts of rememoration for the society in which and for which they are made. The presentation of historical events and the offering of historical interpretation have been a feature of film practice from the earliest silent film offerings to the TV series of today. But it's only recently that this audio-visual representation of history has come under sustained theoretical attention - and historical reflection. Historians themselves - only a few, but a growing band - have in their work as filmmakers started to raise questions about how the audio-visual media's demands interact with those of an historical practice traditionally oriented around writing.
We should declare our structural bias in this book: the majority of papers collected here come from within Film Studies not History. As such they represent the renewed interest in historical questions and historical film from the standpoint of those working within Film and Media studies. This bias also was reflected in the conference - The Third Australian History and Film Conference held in Perth in 1985 - from which these papers were drawn. Of the articles collected here roughly half relate to Film History and most of these focus around film practice in the 1930s and 1940s.
This book does not seek to disguise this bias. It is a necessarily partial rather than representative collection of articles in the general field of Film and History. Nonetheless it is also another step along the way to extending the terms of engagement between History and Film.
This interest in Film History on the part of Film and Media Studies personnel in Australia and elsewhere provides the opportunity for common ground between Historians and Film writers unthinkable a few years ago. This development also provocatively poses the possibility that Film History might well come to be considered another kind of Historical object within the field of History. Clearly, for such a coming together many differences in theoretical, methodological, and descriptive practices would need to be addressed. Nonetheless what is important is that a new range of issues and set of priorities for both history and film studies are posed by the conjunction of history and film. This volume is dedicated to this exploration.
The articles collected here are organised into different sections. The collection starts with three articles which, by their nature, frame generally what follows. The first by John O'Connor considers the production, reception and ethical questions of representation raised by the TV program See it Now (1954) in which Ed Murrow made a devestating attack upon Senator Joe McCarthy. This program was instrumental in McCarthy's political downfall. The second, by Peter Morris, is a study of the political, organizational, and aesthetic philosophy of John Grierson. The third, by Bill Routt and Richard Thompson is a study of the 1930s Hollywood musical Roman Scandals. The authors consider the film not only as an example of particular tendencies within thirties film making revolving around "populism" and the figure of the "show girl", but also as raising fundamental questions about the analysis of films and the kind of films typically chosen for analysis by film critics.
These three articles chart the terrain in which this volume circulates: the analysis of perhaps the most celebrated TV news/ current affairs broadcast of its time; a thoroughgoing revision of an important filmmaker/ film theorist of documentary; and a polemical article which not only urges a recasting of theoretical stances taken towards film analysis but also does a detailed analysis of a neglected film practice in the thirties which does much to advance our understanding of it.
The book then subdivides into a number of sections with articles constructed around particular themes. The first theme is Film History which has been divided into two separate sections: "Film History: the 1930s" and "Australian Film History".
The former concerns developments within the film industries of Europe, Japan and India during the 1930s and the effects that these had upon the nature of the films produced. This period saw not only the mixed introduction of sound in France, Japan and India but a gradual demise of a pan-European film movement, and its replacement by language based, nationally oriented film production strategies. Kristin Thompson examines the attempt to develop a common market to combat Hollywood dominance in the Film Europe Movement and its subsequent demise with the rise of fascism, the advent of protectionism in the wake of the depression, and the introduction of sound. Colin Crisp addresses editing practices in French cinema in the 1930s and relates these to the straitened economic and industrial conditions in French cinema at this time. Brian Shoesmith puts the "Heyday of the Studios" in Indian cinema in the 1930s into a wider perspective by considering the kinds of capital involved in the industry and related government - particularly Colonial government - policy toward it. The phased in introduction of sound to Japanese cinema is the subject of Freda Freiberg's analysis. Freiberg explains why sound cinema as we know it today took so long to be introduced in Japan and the hybrid cinematic forms that preceded and accompanied its introduction.
The second section of Film History concerns Australian film history ranging from the 1930s to the most recent past. These articles do not so much emphasise continuity of film practice, but discontinuity. In their juxtaposition they emphasise not only the range of approaches taken in Australian film history but also the range of possible objects of study. The past decade has seen an important expansion in the study of Australian film history. From this work it is becoming clear that the writing of Australian film history needs to turn away from constructing continuities in film output, and instead to emphasise the patent discontinuities in film practices not only existing within the same period but also common across periods. The articles collected here begin to do just this.
Stuart Cunningham writes on Chauvel's attempt to develop a school of scenario writing to rectify the perceived problem in 1930s Australian script-writing. He finds in the lessons a written articulation of Chauvel's departure from the norms of Hollywood classicism exhibited in his film practice of this period. Albert Moran's work on the Commonwealth Film Unit in the 1950s does much to further the understanding not only of documentary film - but also restores to view what is, after all, the forgotten film output of the 1950s. Moran finds a commonality of themes and film style in the Unit's output which is uncharacteristic of earlier and later documentary work at the Unit. He labels this the period of "documentary consensus": consensus about the style of documentary filmmaking to be adopted; and the consensus imposed at a political level by the years of unchallenged Conservative rule. Neil McDonald focusses on the transformation of the war time cameraman, Damien Parer's, documentary footage into a Cinesound newsreel and how this differs from Parer's own sense of how the material should be put together. Ina Bertrand focusses on a neglected sphere of film analysis in Australia namely regional exhibition and distribution - in this case Perth in Western Australia. Finally my paper (Tom O'Regan) addresses the historiographical problems raised in the analysis of the Australian film revival of the 1970s. Briefly, I take issue with a number of perspectives on the revival and its conditions of possibility, and use recent advances in film theory to advance a new agenda for its analysis.
Another major theme is History on Film. This theme is covered in a variety of ways in the papers presented here. There is a whole section on New German Cinema's "rediscovery" of the Nazi past. These papers - by Leonie Naughton, Tony Barta and Ron Burnett - ask how is it that this past is represented in the discourse of the films and of the filmmakers themselves; and what more generally has led to the success and popularity of this kind of cinema within Germany. The papers of Naughton and Barta seek to locate this "re-memoration" within post-war German film and social history. Burnett's paper examines more generally the nature of the imaginary relationship with the Nazi past that particular German filmmakers construct.
The second section of History on Film deals with more general issues around this topic. Two different ways in which history on film is covered is represented by the work of Charles Geshekter and Sally Stockbridge. Geshekter outlines a number of lessons for filmmakers about their involvement in film, based in part on his involvement in the documentary film, Parching Winds of Somalia. Stockbridge takes up the issue of the recycling of old footage in contemporary video clips. She also finds in 1930s experimentation a precurser to contemporary video clip forms. In the final paper in this section Jane Madsen analyses the Straub/Huillet film Fortini-Cani as Marxist rather than Brechtian reflection. She situates the film within the 1930s reassessment of Marx's writing and argues for Fortini-Cani as an historical materialist film practice.
Our final theme concerns History and Film in the Curricula. Here we publish an interview conducted by the editors with John O'Connor concerning the Moving Image project in the USA. This project, sponsored by the American Historical Association, is concerned to develop an awareness of film amongst historians through the production of course and other materials. Finally, Tony Barta deals with his experience in organising and running a course with Robert Newton on Film and Video for first year History students at La Trobe University in Melbourne.
Finally a debt of acknowledgement is due to the History and Film Association of Australia (WA) for their support of this publication. And our thanks must go: firstly to Rita Shanahan for helping with the typing and proofing; secondly to Alec McHoul for assistance with typesetting, and thirdly to those who have shown their support for this volume by generously making their papers available for publication and supporting this venture.