Saturday, December 02, 2006

Preface to A History of Narrative Film

Reading the numerous entries in Andy Horbal's Film Criticism Blog-a-thon has gotten me thinking about what initially ignited my interest in film analysis/criticism. I've always loved movies but pin-pointing exactly when I began to think seriously about them is a different matter. I think that the shift toward being made aware of movies as an art form and a tool of communication rather than simply a means of entertainment started to occur in my teen years and didn't really hit "critical mass" until I got to college. One of the facilitators of this "awakening" was my good friend Tucker who, when I was 16 years old, held a weekly session on the history of film which lasted for 20 weeks. I was very excited about this because I had never taken a film class before and haven't really since. We watched a lot of great films there (Battleship Potemkin, Citizen Kane, Rules of the Game, etc), many of which, I am ashamed to say, I didn't like at the time. I have since repented of my iniquities.

I do remember, though, being very struck by a sheet of paper which he handed out the first week, a sheet which contained something that would play a big part in helping me formulate my future attitude/philosophy toward movies. It was the preface to David Cook's A History of Narrative Film (a book which I still consider to be, along with James Monaco's How to Read a Film, one of the seminal texts on the subject of cinema). I mentioned that I had never taken a film class before or since Tucker's, but I have managed to teach a couple to other high school students and I always begin by handing out a sheet of paper with the same preface on it. Thus, as a "tribute" to the essay which proved so influential to me personally, and without which I probably wouldn't even be participating in this "conversation" (not to mention a sort of "thank you" to the individual who first brought it to my attention and who subsequently taught me so much about cinema), I thought I might re-print the preface to A History of Narratiuve Film here. This isn't necessarily another contribution to the Blog-a-thon (because I didn't even write it) but it is food for thought regarding the medium of the moving image and a good reminder as to why film criticism is so important.


We spend much of our waking lives surrounded by moving photographic images. They have come to occupy such a central position in our experience that it is unusual to pass even a single day without encountering them for an extended period of time, through either film or television. In short, moving photographic images have become part of the total environment of modern industrial society. Both materially and psychologically, they have a shaping impact on our lives. And yet few people in our society have been taught to understand precisely how they work. Most of us, in fact, have extremely vague notions about how moving images are formed and how they are structured to create the multitude of messages sent out to us by the audiovisual media on an almost continuous basis. If we made an analogy with verbal language, we should be forced to consider ourselves barely literate–able to assimilate the language form without fully comprehending it. We would, of course, be appalled to find ourselves living in a culture whose general verbal literacy level corresponded to that of a three-year-old child. Most persons living in such a culture would, like small children, be easy prey to whoever could manipulate the language. They would be subject to the control of any minority that understood the language from the inside out and could therefore establish an authority of knowledge over them, just as verbally literate adults establish authority over children. Such a situation would be unthinkable in the modern industrial world, of course, and our own culture has made it a priority to educate its children in the institutions of human speech so that they can participate in the community of knowledge that verbal literacy sustains.

Imagine, though, that a new language form came into being at the turn of the twentieth century, an audiovisual language from that first took the shape of cinema and became in time the common currency of modern television. Imagine that because the making of statements in this language depended upon an expensive industrial process, only a handful of elite specialists were trained to use it. Imagine, too, that although public anxiety about the potentially corrupting influence of the new language was constant from its birth, it was perceived not as a language at all but as a medium of popular entertainment–that in this guise the language was gradually allowed to colonize us, as if it were the vernacular speech of some conquering foreign power. Finally, imagine waking up one day to discover that we had mistaken language for a mode of dreaming and in the process become massively illiterate in a primary language form, one that had not only surrounded us materially but that, as language forms tend to do, had invaded our minds as well. What would we do if that happened? We could choose to embrace our error and lapse into the anarchic mode of consciousness characteristic of preliterate societies, which might be fun but would most certainly be dangerous in an advanced industrial society. Or we could attempt to instruct ourselves in the language form from the ground up and from the inside out. We could try to learn as much of its history, technology, and aesthetics as possible. We could trace the evolution of its syntactic and semantic forms from their birth through the present stages of development, and try to forecast the shapes they might take in the future. We could, finally, bring the apparatus of sequential logic and critical analysis to bear on the seemingly random structures of the language in order to read them in new and meaningful ways.

This scenario conforms quite accurately, I believe, to our present situation in the modern world. The language of the moving photographic image has become so pervasive in our daily lives that we scarcely notice its presence. And yet it does surround us, sending us messages, taking positions, making statements, and constantly redefining our relationship to material reality. We can choose to live in ignorance of its operations and be manipulated by those who presently control it. Or we can teach ourselves to read it, to appreciate its very real and manifold truths, to recognize its equally real and manifold deceptions. As a lifelong student and teacher of language forms, both verbal and audiovisual, I believe that most intelligent and humane persons in our culture will opt for the latter. It is for them that I have written this book.

8 comments:

andyhorbal said...

Ah! A History of Narrative Film played a key role in my own development as a cinephile! It was the text used by one of my favorite film profs in the first course (of many) I took with him, called simply World Film History.

I can remember the moment I fell in love with Citizen Kane: I was a freshman in college in a coffee shop pouring over the stills in that book. It's funny to think that when I learned to really look at movies I wasn't even watching one...

Anyway, that book occupies a place of honor next to my desk to this day!

Pacze Moj said...

A History of Narrative Film is also one of my favourite film books, and certainly the most worn! I keep going back to it, out of boredom, out of curiosity, for essays. I remember being especially blown away by Cook's description of how cinema actually, physically works, and his little tidbit, near the beginning, that when we go to the theatre we spend as much as half the time in the dark! Having said all that, appropriately enough, I hadn't read the preface until now!

Thanks for pointing out another facet of a great film book. Heck, maybe even their Citizen Kane!

Tucker said...

Damian,

It blows me away that that little film history class so many years ago still reverberates to this day. I can't really take much credit for it myself. I feel as though all I did was introduce some films to others that were introduced to me. Thanks for the tribute. Of course, you and I had some good discussions as well!

It's also good to be reminded of Cook's book, his introduction, and to think that his book emerged from his own love of cinema just as your blog does.

Damian said...

To tell you the truth, Tuck, it kind of blows me away too, but as I said, I had always loved movies and was entering into an important period of my life at that point, a period where I was starting to think seriously about a lot of things (not just film) and I was surrounded by a lot of good people who helped me: you being one of them. You're right too in that we did have some good discussions over the next few years, a couple of which I actually remember.

Anyway, thanks for opening my eyes up to a whole world of cinema I didn't even know about. Just as you were introduced to great films and in turn introduced me to some great films I wanted to introduce others to them. Hence, the aforementioned film workshops I did with high-schoolers. Sure enough, just like me at that age, they didn't care for a number of the films I showed..... but I eventually came around, so hopefully some of them did too.

Tim K. said...

Damian,

I teach a high school film class (that I absolutely love), and I own this book, but I had never read the preface until now. I will strongly consider using it at the beginning of each semester. How does it go over with kids? Thanks.

Damian said...

You know, Tim, you're the second person on here to mention that although you love and own the book, this is your first time reading the preface. I think that is quite interesting.

I'm glad to hear that you're seriosuly thinking about using it now to open your class. I think that's a great idea. I'm not sure how the kids will respond to it though because when I used it they never really demonstrated any sign of it affecting them in any way. However, I take comfort in the fact that I didn't really respond to either initially. It wasn't until later that I realized how much it had penetrated my mind.

Anyway, good luck with your class! :)

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