Monday, May 02, 2016

The Auteur Bias of History Textbooks

I will need to update my reviews of film history textbooks, but now that I'm wrapping up a semester of teaching a film history survey, I would like to circle back to two general complaints I've had about film history textbooks. First, they are often too completist and not well suited for many undergraduate pedagogical contexts. Second, they are often too auteur-oriented, listing major director after major director.

The good news is that I've been fairly happy with the book I've been using this semester, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and Wheeler Winston Dixon's A Short History of Film, which seems to have the right balance of coverage and concision. But even here, I can point to an example of the limitations of the auteur bias in textbooks.

I'm setting aside the bigger debates about auteurism here. What I mean is that the granularity of film lists and auteur profiles gets in the way of the bigger picture that a good film history survey can provide. In their discussion of New German Cinema, Foster and Dixon profile major auteurs (Fassbinder, Wenders, Herzog, and Straub/Huillet) and mention a few others (Schl├Ândorff, von Trotta, Syberberg, Kluge). However, missing is any generalization about what New German Cinema meant as a movement. Yes, it's a heterogeneous movement, but there are important aspects: the critical self-examination of German history and contemporary West German politics, the synthesis of Brecht and Hollywood-style narrative, and the importance of television and government subsidy.

I understand that one function of a film history textbook is introduce students to the canon, by listing films and directors they should consider watching. But ultimately, the bigger picture is more useful to students than a list of auteurs and, I would argue, is central to the tough work of asking students to think about film historically.

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