If you view film as a realistic medium, the escapism of Hollywood begins to look like a successful spin-off. Most cinema remains shackled to lifeby Mark Cousins / September 26, 2004 / Leave a comment
Around 8,000 books on film history are available in English. Of these, over 200 purport to cover the whole of the subject. Some, such as those by Robert Sklar, Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell, and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, are outstanding. They cover every period and most countries and between them run to over a million words.
Eleven decades into the history of the medium, we have surely reached saturation point with such books. There are only so many times you can read about the marvel of Citizen Kane or the influence of Kurosawa. Bernardo Bertolucci recently reacted wearily to news of a new single volume history to be published this month: “Another history of cinema? Something I didn’t think I needed.” I’d be as sceptical as he is were it not for this fact: I wrote it.
To justify adding to the groaning bookshelves on the subject, I should at least have been revisionist. Yet at the centre of The Story of Film is the traditional assumption of modern film criticism, that the director is an artist. Worse still, I show little interest in accounting for cinema in economic or sociological terms. I even begin with a quotation from Lauren Bacall – “the industry is shit, it’s the medium that’s great” – the position of the aesthete that has been around since at least the 1960s.
So why fell all those trees for a book which doesn’t sound particularly new? Because cinema isn’t how it appears in most film books. The majority misrepresent it in three ways. The first is the most obvious. They focus on entertainment cinema. This is like telling the history of art by looking to what people flocked to in the Parisian salons – splashy history works, sentimental scenes and so on. Cinema set out from the start to divert us, and some of its greatest glories have been made in the Hollywood idiom. But narrative, “escapist” cinema is nothing of the sort. Unlike painting, theatre, music or literature, film is, as a photographic medium, inextricably linked to the real world. Directors stage and modify that world for the camera, but cinema is less good at being escapist than any other art form. For better or worse, as André Bazin, perhaps the greatest film critic, argued, it is shackled to life.
From this perspective, Hollywood musicals and Bollywood love stories are not the norm, but rather…