Teaching the History of Film Craft (pt. 6)

Teaching the History of Film Craft:


Sixth in a series of posts about teaching the history of below-the-line film artists (cinematographers, sound designers, etc.) and of screenwriting.

Part 1 introductory post
Part 2 scholarly books 
Part 3 video resources
Part 4 student research projects
Part 5 the theory of craft
Part 6 limitations
Part 7 Syllabi

I've written this series of posts because I believe this kind of course can be a valuable addition to a curriculum, particularly in a production department. I see real benefits to teaching a deeper history of cinematography or film sound of screenwriting. It can engage students in film history, even those who might not have thought of themselves as interested in history.

But there are some limitations to such a course:

Cinema Outside the US
Craft is equally important to other national cinemas (or maybe almost as important - Hollywood's capital intensive production does engender development of craft), but the English-language historical scholarship on non-Hollywood areas of craft is less prevalent. Outside of US, Europe, and Japan, it gets even sparser. The reasons for this are multiple. Hopefully the wave of scholarship on the history of cinematography or sound or editing, etc. expand in other contexts. For now, it's a fact that a course on the history of one of these crafts will tend to be Hollywood specific, at least to the extent one integrates scholarship into the syllabus.

Moreover, since the readily available trade press resources in English are mostly Hollywood or American indie sources, research projects are harder for students outside of these contexts.

That said, there is some terrific scholarship for non-US craft, including transnational studies, and I do believe it's possible to strike a balance between a course which charts how craft has developed in the studio system and how it develops in other industrial and aesthetic contexts - whether classical Japanese cinema, European art cinema, experimental cinema, or contemporary global cinema. Other instructors will have a different balance, surely, but it can be productive to have students approach craft in a comparative manner.

Formalist bias
I certainly see nothing wrong per se with a focused look at film aesthetics, but formal choices aren't all that most of us want to examine in cinema, or to teach. To the extent one is organizing a course around artistic practice, it's not organizing around the deep historical/political context of cinema.

But I do think multi-tasking is possible. With each discussion, I like to guide discussion along multiple lines, from close reading to historical-political context.

Women and non-white filmmakers
Some fields, notably cinematography, have been historically dominated by men, whereas others instituted a hierarchy between male supervisors and women workers. And, to my knowledge, the major craft practitioners in the Hollywood commercial film industry up until the 1980s - with the sole exception of James Wong Howe - were white. So a syllabus on the history of craft may have a bias toward mostly men or mostly white artists. It's an issue familiar to those teaching the history of Hollywood or European cinema in the studio era, but perhaps exasperated.

I find the balance harder to strike here, but it has made it imperative for me to put more emphasis on the contemporary moment than I might otherwise and to make a point of including a broad selection of film artists. Including documentary and experiemental work may be a way of expanding the social purview of the field, too.

There are areas in which craft helps address the eclipsing of women's talent in Hollywood history. Editing and screenwriting, for instance, have both substantially involved women artists, and this history helps supplement the common male-directorial auteurism. I had one screenwriting student who was working on a paper that had premised the male dominance of screenwriting and was pleasantly surprised to find that women screenwriters were common in classical Hollywood.

Obsolete technology
There's a tension at play in some of the courses I've taught. On the one hand, it's worth learning about the development of film technology in order to better understand how movies were made. On the other hand, many of the technologies are now obsolete. Students won't be shooting black and white films with the same celluloid constraints or dealing with optical soundtracks. The basics are important to learn, certainly, but I wrestle with how to strike the balance. Certainly, I've increasingly put more representation of digital cinema in my syllabi.  I've tried to think about how to frame older technologies for conceptual lessons.


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