Film Theory: History, Historiography, Decade Approach, Significant Eras, Crucial Years, Artistic Milestones

Research in progress, Feb 23, 2022

How do we structure and tell film history? How do we write film history?

Popular movies

Historically significant films

Zeitgeist films

Critics choices

Milestones of the art

Some films are all of the above

Characteristics movies of the period, however fugitive and ephemeral, or artistically important films in the larger historical context of cinema?

The film historian asks: How does the past engage the present and look into the future?

Film Studies may or may not be nostalgic, but they should be heritage-oriented discipline.

We need to know the old ways and traditions, without necessarily wishing to maintain or recreate them.


Historiography is a relatively new film theory as the medium itself is rather new, over one century.

The theory of film history involves examining the assumptions, principles, concepts, techniques, methods used.

Cinema is too complex, sprawling, and multi-faceted to be covered–and be done justice–by a single film theory (Giannatti, p. 487)

The filed is vast, an infinite mass of data that that need to be sifted through and organized to be made coherent.

There is no one film history; there are many film histories.

Each film history is defined by particular assumptions, interests, biases, prejudices of individual historians.

Each film history has its own set of philosophical assumptions, methods, sources of evidence.

Four Types of Historiography:

Aesthetic film history: film as art

Technological film history: film as a series of technical discoveries and innovations

Economic film history: film as an industry (division of labor)

Social film history: sociological study of the audiences  values, desires, wishes, fears, and needs

Historiography is necessarily based on selection and emphasis of one set of data over others as foregrounding, isolating fragments of evidence for the purpose of closer study.

Inevitably, there is value judgment, as least implicitly, manifest in the focus and selection of different movies, filmmakers, and events.

Most textbooks emphasize the study of the film medium as art.  Opponents to this approach refer to his as the history of “Great Men,” the study of few gifted individuals.

Aesthetic film historians are considered elitists because  thy concentrate on a small number of filmmakers, Orson Welles, Robert Altman, Scorsese, all great artists.

But sometimes masterpieces are seen  by few viewers, and thus concentrating on them neglects popular movies that are seen by the mass public and may have great influence on their tastes and values.

Instead, those critics choose an institutional approach, study film as a dynamic and complex matrix of social forces, technologies, individual players, and aesthetic values, all of which influence the work of all filmmakers, bothe the geniuses and the routine.

Historically Important Films

Analysis and evaluation of specific films, which are significant due to innovations in theme, representation, technique, style.

According to this approach,  films must be evaluated in terms of their historical context.  Over time, these films  may lose their aesthetic (or sensual) values.

It is important to remember the conditions of the past, what has been done before.

Which innovations have been effective, assimilated, or absorbed.  At what point innovations become standard practice. (Bogg, 474).

To what extent, a film has retained its original innovation, freshness, and power?

If a movie appeals to viewers of different generations, of any time period, they become classified as classics, or historically groundbreaking milestones.

The problem of a film becoming outdated and time-worn.

There are films that have lost their appeal over time (Cocteau’s “The Blood of a Poet”), or films that will always be unique, sort of one of a kind (“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”). (Bogg).

Theory Impact on Film History

Auteurism lead to the revision and restructuring of film history.

As a result of auteurism, there were significant changes in film history, including reevaluations of  directors such as Ford, Hitchcock, Hawks, Lang, and other directors previously ignored or underestimated by critics and historians.

Thus, Nicholas Ray was  elevated in stature above Billy Wilder  or John Huston.

One negative result of auteurism was  the creation of cult personality.

French critic Andre Bazin was against  the hero worshipping of some auteurist critics.

Crucial Moments, Turning Points

The task of the historian is to find out crucial moments, turning points in film history.

Some years are more important than others, but why?

The goal is to identify moments of crisis, periods of profound social instability and  dislocation that led to new art forms that clarify the new events, help viewers discover what is novel.

Radical changes in manners and morals (such as wars) often lead to new cinematic contents and forms.

Quintessential Years:


Major films that changed conventions and styles appeared in 1960:

John Cassavetes’ Shadows

Antonioni, L’ Avventura

Fellini, La Dolce Vita

Bergman, Virgin Spring

Hitchcock, Psycho



Allen, Robert and Douglas Gomery. Film History: Theory and Practice.   NY: Knopf, 1985.

Fraser,  George MacDonald. The Hollywood History of the World: From One Million Years to B.C. to Apocalypse Now. NY: William Morrow, 1988.  268pp.

Rollins, Peter C. (ed). Hollywood as Historian.  American Film in a Cultural Context.  University Press of Kentucky.

Short, K. R. M. (ed) Feature Film as History. University of Tennessee Press.

Smith, Paul. The Historian and Film. Cambridge University Press, 1976.