What is cinema history?

Map of early Scottish cinemas, from http://earlycinema.gla.ac.uk
Map of early Scottish cinemas, from http://earlycinema.gla.ac.uk

The art of Biography
Is different from Geography.
Geography is about maps,
But Biography is about chaps.

I thought of E.C. Bentley’s pithy poem while I was attending the What is Cinema History? conference in Glasgow. The conference was organised by the Early Cinema in Scotland project (on whose advisory board I sit), and addressed the subject of what is sometimes referred to as new cinema history, being a history that looks at cinema as a socio-economic phenomenon, analysing the empirical evidence to show how cinema fitted into the society that accommodated it. Often this results in spreadsheets, tables, bar charts and maps. This is distinct from – and sometimes at war with – traditional film history, which looks at the films, those who made them and those who have pronounced upon them. Maps, or chaps. Take your choice.

It’s viewed as new cinema history because there hasn’t been much of it until recently, which is rather extraordinary. Film history, up to a decade or so ago, has existed predominantly within its own world, looking at films because they were film and valuing them chiefly because they existed within a world of their own. Film was its own justification. There were a few historians who placed film within its wider social contexts (e.g. Garth Jowett’s Film: The Democratic Art), and some individual economic studies (e.g. Kristin Thompson’s Exporting Entertainment), but these made overall little impact on the understanding of what the history of film meant. There were some dedicated souls who wrote histories of cinemas, but they were generally viewed as mere nostalgists.

And so it was that film acquired a history for which basic questions that one would expect a historian to ask of any social phenomenon were simply overlooked. Why did people go to the cinema? What was the cost to them? What economic choices had to be made? Where did the money come from? Why did cinema succeed? How did cinema spread across different territories and when and why? How did films move from a to b? Who were the audiences and how were they differentiated? What did they think about cinema?

To answer such questions requires a different skill-set to that offered at the average film studies course, which may explain the resistance there has been in some quarters to the new cinema history. It involves of sifting through empirical evidence (local authority archives, government papers, directories, insurance records, newspapers), a lot of calculating, much use of spreadsheets, tables and maps. You have to know about geo-location, mapping tools, and databases. You have to see film, or cinema, as part of other worlds, not as something existing within its own self-justifying bubble. And in doing so you may end up wondering what is so special about cinema after all, and should you be pursuing other questions of which cinema is only a part? You may end up, as one delegate at the conference said, asking not the question ‘What is cinema history?’ but ‘What is cinema history for?’

All of this emerged during a fine conference that provided a platform for a wider range of scholars, many of them young, who are building on the pioneering work of scholars such as Robert C. Allen and Douglas Gomery, who began asking those awkward questions back in the 1980s. It was one of those conferences where papers were broken up into parallel panels, so I only saw a portion of what was said. But those I saw included Alison Loader on the history of Edinburgh’s camera obscura (a pre-cinema attraction with lessons on why we find the projected image so entrancing); Frank Gray on the differences between histories of British film according to the different outlooks of their creators; Isak Thorsen on the Nordisk Film Company, many of whose business papers survive enabling the scholar to see how many print were produced of each title, where they were distributed to, and how the economic peaks and troughs differed from what one would expect.

The Cinema Palace, Smyrna, c.1920, from levantineheritage.com
The Cinema Palace, Smyrna, c.1920, from levantineheritage.com

The international perspectives were particularly valuable. I enjoyed the papers by Nadi Tofighian on early film screenings in Manila (set within the context of American imperialism) and Dilek Kaya showing us photographs of the seafront of Smyrna, now Izmir in Turkey, pointing out what were once cinemas that are no more. From the Early Cinema in Scotland project itself, Caroline Merz spoke engagingly on ‘cinema colleges’ in Scotland, schools on how to get into the film business which are usually viewed as a racket but one of which did encourage film production that had some relationship with contemporary Scottish life (Football Daft, 1921) but which failed because cold film economics and national aspiration did not add up. From the same project Julia Bohlmann recounted the intriguing history of a local authority-run ‘municipal cinema’ in Kirkintilloch in the 1910s/20s, socialist in management but forced to bow to the market when it came to providing entertainment.

One thing that came across clearly to me was that in cinema history space doesn’t matter. The history of cinema, or cinemagoing, across a whole country is no more important that a so-called micro-history that may look at a single town. There will be come regional differences, in social composition and taste, but a lot of similarities whatever the size of territory. What matters is that you define your territory and systematically analyse the evidence that you find there. That’s why the Early Cinema in Scotland project could focus a seemingly narrow field and yet accommodate an international conference asking as broad a question as What is cinema history? It’s a way of looking.

‘All I saw at the Picture Palace’, postcard c.1910, from the Nicholas Hiley collection
‘All I saw at the Picture Palace’, postcard c.1910, from the Nicholas Hiley collection

We didn’t get all kinds of cinema history, however. I was surprised that almost nobody spoke about the audience, the people for whom all this activity was created [in fact quite a few did – see comments]. Even among new cinema historians there is a bit too much sentimentality about the art of film (you can see where my prejudices lie) and not enough clear-headed thinking about the social phenomenon of film. Only Chris O’Rourke, author of the excellent London Filmland blog, looked at the audience among the papers I witnessed, with an entertaining account of the unpublished diaries of man-about-town Archibald Walker in 1915 (there was a whole panel on post-war Italian audiences from the Italian Cinema Audiences project but unfortunately I missed it). Walker went to the cinema a lot, but he seldom mentioned what films he saw, and seems mostly to have used cinema as a means to kill time before going to a club or restaurant. Looking at the audiences is a good way of de-romanticising ideas of how people were totally in thrall to the screen. Oftentimes they were not. It just fitted in with their lives overall. So what is cinema history?

And there was more. Samantha Wilson spoke enterprisingly on early scenic films and how they can be read with reference to 18th century ideas of the sublime (not exactly new cinema history, but a kind of film seldom discussed). Scott Curtis came up with a challenging talk on how we should more at the methodologies of early research filmmakers (the kind who filmed scientific or medical processes using the cinematograph as a form of measure), their disciplinary logic providing lessons on how to understand film form. Jon Burrows, author of a forthcoming and much-anticipated economic history of Edwardian cinema (written with Richard Brown), spoke on who were the investors in the first British cinemas (mostly shopkeepers), showing a single graph which would have taken months to compile as he had been through records of 5,000 people in Board of Trade files, cross-referenced with census records. Phyll Smyth told us more about using census records, revealing some of 17,000 or so people in the 1911 UK census who put themselves down as working in the cinema business in one form or another, and the significant presence of women among them.

A team from the British Film Institute told us about their amazing plans to digitise many more films – including every surviving British film 1895-1901 – and were very much of the mind that the general public tends to value the early documentaries and actualities that they have released online so far more than scholars, who tend to keep to the canon of great films and no explore further (the panel was a little unkindly entitled ‘Of the scholars, nothing is to be expected, I am afraid’, a quote from documentary filmmaker Arthur Elton complaining back in the 1950s how historians ignored film as a source).

There’s an organisation, the HoMER Network, under whose auspices the conference was organised, which brings together all this international work into the history of moviegoing, exhibition and reception (hence the acronym). The world map of projects on its website is fascinating, though incomplete (a project on London cinemas pre-1914 on which I worked is missing, for example). The cinema history map is full of holes. But no one hole is more important than another, and filling each one will enrich our understanding, even if ultimately we discover that cinema history is only a part of other histories (social, economic, leisure-based etc). Does cinema history stand alone, and if so why? It’s a good question to keep on asking.


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3 thoughts on “What is cinema history?

  1. Thanks for your kind words on my paper – i should point out that it was a joint piece of work with Susanne Ellis.
    From your statements on audiences you may have missed the panel which began with what Peter Stanfield claimed was possibly the most revealing, and certainly the coolest, image of the conference : A teenage girl, laid transverse across across the trunk of a roadster, drinking a soda at a drive in. What this told us about cinematic spaces, said Stanfield, is that she owned this one, that her sense of self and self of place came together here – and he charted, across film, records and current events, why tho might be so. He may have been wrong on the coolest phot though, Tim Snelson followed it with a paper on audience behaviour at jitterbug movies, the dos and don’ts of dancing in the aisles, and the photographs of teenagers doing just that, as well as those mixed race audiences,who forced reversals in billing – insisting that the film was the b-feature and the band the main attraction were very cool scenes indeed. Daddio. While next door I was very sad to miss Shelley Stamp’s Phantom Ladies – the women in the audiences for what are thought of as male genres.
    All arguments for why the key question of HoMER should not be What is History for? But Why isn’t HoMER2015 four days long?

  2. Clearly bad scheduling on my part to have missed those papers on audiences. So HoMER was a well-rounded conference after all. I agree it should have been longer. And I should have given a paper. Maybe next time (Potsdam is a particularly pleasant spot).

  3. Perhaps some of us (myself included) take it for granted that we begin with the audience, and need to flag it more in our abstracts. Ian Goode’s paper on highland and island audiences need for and reactions to 16mm screenings was in part an interesting microstudy of audiences too.

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