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

The film historian asks: How does the past engage the present?

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.

There are 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

Theory Impact on Film History

Auteurism lead to the revision and restructuring of fil 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?

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.

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