The reel thing

April 14, 1995

As Oxford University tardily embraces film as a subject worthy of academic study, Ian Christie assures the traditionally trained that they can feel comfortable with the seductive magic of the cinema screen.

Why don't you write about cinema?" I asked George Steiner. Back came the disarmingly straight answer: "Because I don't feel I know enough about how film works." Then followed some fascinating hints about what Professor Steiner would say publicly about film if he felt qualified to do so. The occasion for this exchange was the launch of Oxford University's new European Humanities Research Centre, an initiative intended to promote interdisciplinary work in a university not normally associated with such newfangled notions. To signal its ambitions, the EHRC invited as its inaugural fellows, in addition to George Steiner, the American historian Natalie Zemon Davis, well known for her involvement with the film The Return of Martin Guerre, and me - Oxford's first official lecturer in film.

I describe myself these days as a "cinema historian", because most of what I do seems to lead to history. But no one working academically with film can avoid being at least a jack of many trades. Not only are there no, or very few accredited experts in many areas of cinema, but most of film's unruly history and theory seems to be in constant need of revision and reinvention. And since cinema has been a thoroughly international business from its inception - the centenary of which is being celebrated throughout Europe in 1995-96 - a willingness to roam across national and language barriers has always been essential for anyone seriously interested in film.

But Steiner's problem is a real one, and may explain more about British universities' ambivalence towards film than the more obvious logistical and resource problems. How can those trained in literary and even "still picture" culture feel comfortable with the sheer excess and protean fluidity of film, let alone its seductive magic and shameless illusionism?

Significantly, the originator of Oxford's visiting lectureship is the faculty of modern languages, which is also the first faculty to offer an examination paper, albeit optional, in film. For those teaching 20th-century Continental literature this seems quite a natural step. Ever since the generation of D'Annunzio, Bergson and Hauptmann - to name but three early cinema enthusiasts - film has been an important part of Italian, French and German culture, and similar claims could be made in the Spanish and Russian context. More recently, there have been many writer-film-makers, like Pasolini, Bertolucci, Perec, Robbe-Grillet. The concept of film authorship most widely used is still known as the "auteur theory", after its origin in French criticism of the 1960s. And it was mainly from French literary theory of that period (itself influenced by anthropology and psychoanalysis) that film studies assembled its influential theoretical stance of the 1970s and 1980s.

But notwithstanding some obvious de facto cultural reasons for enlarging literature to include cinema, there remain serious issues at the level of text and methodology which may explain why the other faculty supporting Oxford's film initiative, English, has yet to commit itself to an undergraduate course, despite having produced some impressive film-related dissertations over the years. An important question for English might be the fascinating conundrum: what is a film? Is it one, or more, of the many possible versions of a work which we are still accustomed to thinking of as "a film", with its paraphernalia of definite credits and an agreed length? Here sophisticated bibliographers, already committed to, in Don McKenzie's phrase, "a sociology of the text", may well be able to help film archivists who are still struggling with the realisation that there is no ur-text of most film classics, but often a multiplicity of equal status variants.

McKenzie is professor of bibliography and textual criticism at Oxford and a specialist in the history of the book. Not at first sight an obvious supporter of film, but in fact he has been a quietly effective campaigner to bring film into the orbit of the English degree, not simply as a popularising genre, but as a textual system in its own right, closely linked with those of printed literature, theatre, radio and television.

It would be a foolhardy newcomer who tried to intervene in the epic struggles that have convulsed Oxford English over the years, but I can only report that there seems to be an enthusiasm on all sides - ancient as well as modern - for the idea of film finding a permanent place within English teaching. The very absence of major "crossover" authors and auteurs in English literature may even help direct attention towards fundamental problems of film meaning and analysis which in the end will strengthen film studies as an emergent discipline.

But is it, or should it be, a discipline in its own right? So far the record of film's scattered implantation in British universities has been a chequered one of "joint schools" and outgrowths, mainly from departments of literature and visual art. In the "green field" situation of Oxford, is there a case for trying to set up shop on its own, or is there a logical location within an existing faculty?

Outside literature, the other potential home for film is history. If it is a truism that all texts bear the imprint of the history from which they emerge and to which they contribute, then film is perhaps a hyperbolic example of this. From very early in its career, cinema demonstrated a power to make history "come alive" before many millions who may have had little other contact with historical fiction. Indeed it was the immense success of a series of historical spectacles, from The Assassination of the Duc de Guise to The Fall of Troy and Quo Vadis?, that helped universalise film-going between 1908 and 1913. Soon this power would become an active political and social agency, starting with the controversy stirred by Griffith's Birth of a Nation in 1915 and intensifying as early Soviet cinema won hearts and minds for the Bolshevik cause around the world in the late 1920s - and inspired Goebbels to attempt an even more ambitious campaign of film propaganda.

These are the famous chestnuts of "film as history", already widely taught in 20th-century history courses at all levels. But they are only the most notorious examples of a pervasive phenomenon - the recreation of the past for present consumption - and one which has a much wider application than the study of "propaganda". Natalie Davis, who has been at Oxford this year as, appropriately, George Eastman visiting professor, has no doubts about the importance of film as a major influence on our whole understanding of memory, history and authenticity, far beyond the confines of the 20th century. As an historian of early modern France, she was delighted when her study of a 16th-century imposter inspired a highly successful film starring Gerard Depardieu, The Return of Martin Guerre. And since this has been remade in the United States as Sommersby, she lectures on the differences between the two approaches.

Davis believes that historical films offer many kind of lessons, for the professional historian as well as the general audience. They underline the difference between past and present, even as they make the past believable. They can breathe unexpected life into the sources that historians routinely use, at the same time as demonstrating how these will support different versions of the "same" story. Above all, historical films recall the importance of the non-textual for true historical insight: objects, apparel - the world of things - are important for what they meant to the people of the time, for the way things were used to shape space, time, and body, and for the way they make statements about social relations.

Such views, although they carry weight from an historian of Davis's eminence, would probably still strike many British historians as eccentric. And yet, talking informally to Oxford historians, one senses a latent enthusiasm to tackle film, not only as "evidence" in the 20th century, but also as a form of representation, of the imaging and narration of history itself.

In an ideal university, film might perhaps join forces with traditional art history to create a new faculty of the image. In doing so, it would also need to develop links with the social, physical and medical sciences, which are already practised users of the moving image, often with their own specialist archives. However, despite the coming cornucopia of images on demand - thanks to a proliferation of online networks and CD-Rom databases, and soon "video on demand" distribution systems - there are urgent basic resource needs which will probably decide the future location of film at Oxford and elsewhere.

No British university, to my knowledge, has anything like the large film libraries that many US universities take for granted. What many have are informal collections of videotapes (often merely commercial and off-air VHS copies) and video-discs, which have been assembled over the roughly ten years of the home video era. What is urgently needed for the development of cinema studies is wider access to actual 35mm and 16mm prints, as well as electronic copies, and the provision of facilities to use these fully. Onward to the first university videothque!

Ian Christie is visiting lecturer in film at Oxford University and a fellow of Magdalen College.

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