Friday, September 22, 2006

The History Problem

Lately, I've been reading James Morrison's Passport to Hollywood: Hollywood Films, European Directors (SUNY UP, 1998). Partly because I once had the pleasure of being on an SCMS panel with him and was impressed by his work (then on Orphans of the Storm) and partly because research paths have directed me back to the question of European talent working in Hollywood. Anyway, it's been a fun and thought-provoking read.

First off, let me say that this is not an historical account of one main question I'm interested in: to what extent "Europeanness" adheres to the emigre director/cinematographer/writer, etc. and to what it extent it's a production imperative caught up in the social field the film industry is caught in.

Rather, Morrison is interested in reading larger socio-cultural formations (high culture, the art film, modernism) in certain key films, which if not representative moments are at least moments pregnant with significance. Murnau's Sunrise, Renoir's This is Our Land, Lang's Scarlet Street, Losey's M, Lester's Petulia and Foreman's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest are all multi-layered texts which bespeak an intersection, collision even, of "American" and "European" discourses. I haven't read all the analyses for the simple reason I've not seen all the films, but where I have, his knack for textual reading and erudition are on full display. Sometimes it leads to unexpected but convincing readings - New American Cinema as homosexual panic - while at other times the book offers fascinating tidbits of cinema heritage. (I had no idea that there was a Hollywood remake of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in the 1960s!)

Still, I wanted history. Not simply because that's what I do, but because the project itself cries out for some. If we are talking about sociocultural formations, why not have fuller consideration? Morrison, instead, seems dismissive:
Recent approaches in film study to issues relevant to this book have frequently implied that 'empirical' research is the most valuable avenue to understanding, say, the formations of national culture. The critical approach of this project registers my disagreement. Indeed, this book attempts to define ineffable, distinctive features of these films' textuality - their schismatic attitudes, their stylistic complexities, their ideological structures, their emotional textures - that empirical research cannot comprehend (25).
It will come as no surprise that I disagree vigorously to the relegation of the empirical to scare quotes any more than the textual or any other intellectual method. Besides, I honestly don't understand the hostility to empirical work. Clearly Morrison thinks there's some truth status
to certain historical claims. Empirical study of those claims assures a) that they adequately capture reality, e.g. that they're not mythological remembering of how things actually happened (Donald Crafton's reception study of The Jazz Singer illustrates this boldly); b) that texts and various textual proliferations such as reviews, polemics, etc. are understood in their proper representativeness (who shared Losey's take on Europeanness and Americanness? - this seems to matter a great deal); and c) that normative claims about culture's ideological dispositions are in fact sensical (is capital accumulation or globalization in fact the best way to make sense of economic activity?). It's not that I don't think that textual reading provides insight or contributes some crucial pieces of the puzzle, but increasingly I'm interested in the methodology we use to ground textual reading, particularly when our goals are to perform the kind of historically, socially and ideologically inflected readings that call attention to History's importance.

Now, I know it's unfair to expect a different kind of book than the one written, especially when that book does so much well, but at the very least the History problem is worth reflection as film studies sees more and more competing claims from "theory" and "history" and more attempts at broad-scale synthetic analysis.

4 comments:

zp said...

I would love to find something recently written and good on Orphans of the Storm . . . does it come up in Passport to Hollywood?

zp said...

Just checked the index, mentions of Orphans are right on, but slight. Now what . . . ?

Chris said...

A quick looks shows that the essay never made the light of publication.

zp said...

Yeah, I didn't find anything when I looked for the essay as article. And the Griffith Project hasn't gotten to Orphans yet. I don't think I can wait 2 years . . . some google-ing found lots of references to a restored print at MOMA, but didn't anyone see it and get inspired to write something??!