University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, Film Study and the Motion Picture Resources of Eastman House

Volume XXVIII · Number 2 · Winter 1975
The International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House: 
Film Study and the Motion Picture Resources of Eastman House


In spite of the growing acceptance in recent years of film study as an academic discipline in its own right, the more traditional academic disciplines have been slow to recognize the appropriateness of including motion pictures in their courses of study. To a certain extent, this reluctance is understandable even though the study of films could enhance most subject areas of the humanities and social sciences. Much of the hesitation, I suspect, stems from the popular, deeply ingrained belief that movies -- even those more respectfully referred to as "film" -- are essentially ephemeral entertainments scarcely deserving close attention, let alone the weight of scholarly inquiry.

While deeply held, this attitude is more a myth created out of economic necessity by film distributors than an evaluation derived from the films themselves. The reasons for this are not difficult to discover. From the point of view of commercial film distributors, for whom a new film is simply a new product to be marketed, the prolonged and easy availability of a film for study is inimical to their economic self-interests, since the motion picture industry depends upon box office receipts for the financing of future productions. The profits from currently exhibited films pay the start-up costs of films still in production. It is to the benefit of the industry, then, to keep its audience's attention focused solely on the very latest films in order to perpetuate this financing arrangement. As a necessary consequence, therefore, older films -- even those perhaps only a few months old -- may well be withdrawn permanently from circulation unless they continue to provide sizeable income at the box office. Seen in this light, it is not surprising that the popular myth of the movies as merely transient entertainment should be so widely held, since the economics of film distribution scarcely allow the myth to be tested.

Only where there is relatively easy access to films can they be used for study purposes, research, or as part of curricula. Given this kind of availability, individual films may be studied intensely either alone or in relation to other films with the kind of reflective consideration one normally associates with scholarly investigation. But even the continued availability of many films in 16mm format from non-theatrical rental companies -- at upwards of $60.00 a title -- does little to relieve the difficulty one faces in securing a particular film for study purposes. Moreover, rental fees are often high and generally permit a renter to keep a film for only a day or two. A newer innovation, the right to lease a 16mm film for a period of several years, provides some relief to those who wish to secure study prints of important films but entails higher costs -- several hundred dollars or more per film -- than many institutions can afford. In any event, even the availability of 16mm prints of a film through rental or lease may be terminated suddenly. This was the case recently with the 1949 film version of The Great Gatsby. Prior to the theatrical release of the new production of The Great Gatsby, all rental prints of the earlier film were withdrawn from circulation, lest its continued availability siphon away any paid admissions from the new version.

I offer this lengthy discussion of the difficulties generally involved in securing films for scholarly purposes as an introduction to the resources and facilities of the Film Department of the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House in order to underline the mutuality of educational interest shared between the Museum and the academic community. For while the Film Department, under the direction of James Card, functions primarily as a film archive with the main goal of acquiring and preserving all kinds of film, it is equally committed -- in sharp contrast to the normal interests of commercial distributors -- to the educational and scholarly use of the films in its large collection. In part, this commitment takes the form of courses in film taught under the auspices of the University of Rochester by Museum staff in the Museum's Dryden Theatre. During the current academic year, for example, five film courses are offered through the University of Rochester's departments of Fine Arts and English. More importantly, however, films in the motion picture collection are available for general scholarly use without most of the hindrances normally associated with film study.

Thus, the inclusion of a film in the archival collection immediately frees it from the economic pressures of distribution and allows it to be viewed, and re-viewed if necessary, with the disinterestedness of scholarly inquiry. In the case of older films, archival preservation further insures their continued availability for educational purposes and permits a viewer, over a range of films, to investigate the historical development of thematic material or technical innovations. As a result, the film archives of the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House are a rich source of primary research materials comparable in their holdings to rare book libraries. As such, they offer the ideal opportunity to test the popular belief that the movies offer only lightweight entertainment.

Currently, the Film Department facilities include the Dryden Theatre for larger groups and a smaller 16mm screening room which can accommodate groups of up to twenty persons. The acquisition and installation, in the near future, of three new individual viewers will increase the flexibility of our research facilities. The only limitations imposed upon serious screening requests -- for which application should be made to the Film Department -- result from the availability of space and staff. For this reason, application should be made well in advance so that scheduling may be properly handled. Films do not circulate and may be viewed only at the Museum during its regular, weekday hours. (As an adjunct to its film collection, the Museum also maintains a growing collection of film literature and periodicals housed in the Research Center collection, as well as a collection of over one million motion picture stills for study purposes.)

Naturally, however, no single film archive can include more than a small percentage of all the films produced since 1895. Nevertheless, the several thousand films included in the collection offer a representative cross section of the development of the motion picture in its various forms. Thus, the archives include foreign and domestic feature films, newsreels, animation, teaching films, medical films, short subjects, military films, experimental films -- films, indeed, reflecting virtually all of the uses of the medium from the first Lumière films of 1895 to the present of special interest are the extensive collections of rare American silent films, silent German Expressionist films, and films produced under the Third Reich.

Apart from the primarily cinematic interest which one might take in these films-and far beyond whatever incidental use they might serve as aids in teaching foreign languages -- the films offer nearly unlimited possibilities for research. Most immediately, for those involved with literature and drama, the films offer the chance to study cinematic adaptations of well-known works, examples of differing acting styles, or the individual performances of noted actors. In addition, the films provide the opportunity to follow the development of thematic genre material, dramatic shaping, and narrative technique in a fictive mode that largely parallels drama and literature.

Little need be said of the intrinsic value of newsreel footage to historians. Fiction films, however, may seem a less likely subject for historical research. Nevertheless, the ways in which historical events may be altered in fictional films offer intriguing material for deeper study. Some changes merely reflect a desire for a consonance in characterization or tone. Other alterations bespeak a propagandistic intent. Still others may reflect falsifications of fact deeply necessary for the maintenance of a particular ethos. Furthermore, since fictional history, as it appears in the American feature film, for example, comprises a large portion of its audience's continuing "historical education," it would be interesting, on the basis of content analysis, to compare this received "history" with actual fact.

Feature films offer much the same opportunity for comparative study by sociologists who can trace in them, among other topics, the depiction of minority groups, the presentation of various modes of social control, or the evolution -- within a fictional framework -- of social values. The fact that such material is often embodied naïïvely in films of mass appeal further argues for their closer examination, since the naïveté with which they are presented suggests an audience's uncritical acceptance of them. And while there already exists a large body of literature on the effects that film-going may have upon an audience, much remains to be done on the development of finer discriminations in content analysis.

Much the same may be said for the investigation of film from a psychological point of view. In addition to the various manifestations of psychological mechanisms evident in storylines -- transference, displacement, and projection, for example -- the richly affective condition of the medium remains to be studied. Here, it would be worth while to study not just the psychological motivations of the fictional characters, but audience response to the patterning of verbal and physical gestures and mannerisms embodied in the films. In this way, investigation would extend the early psychological recognition that fictional representations offer an attempt -- by both the creator and the consumer -- to work through real problems via the surrogate realities offered in feature films.

Even these brief and relatively simple suggestions of potential areas of film study point to the larger prospect of interdisciplinary approaches. A feature film is neither pure art nor base commercialism, but a variously textured artifact resulting from the confluence of both motivations as they are modified by an awareness of the need to satisfy a potential audience. And while the recognition of this centrality of the audience in the creation of feature films has led some critics to dismiss the process as a form of pandering, a more realistic assessment of such films would demand the cooperative talents of perhaps an economist and a social historian, or a psychologist and an aesthetician. Anything less would yield only partial explanations, no matter how interesting they might be.

Such an interdisciplinary approach to film study remains an intriguing prospect dependent, probably, upon the still greater acceptance of the idea that a mass art, like the movies, is worthy of serious attention. In the context of the American feature film, for example, the economic emphasis on financial success-and the manipulation of content in order to draw audiences to the box office -- suggests that mass appeal, in this case, may be more a reflection of traditional democratic values than of greedy opportunism. For the long insistence of film makers on the need to reflect their audiences' concerns argues their faith in the masses they mean to serve, not a crass commercialism. The sentiment is best typified by René Clair, the great French director who worked happily within the Hollywood studio system during the Second World War:

The audience can be a collection of imbeciles, idiots, and cretins. They may not know anything about movies, perhaps they don't know anything about anything. But by bringing them together a sort of collective genius arises from among them, a collective, spontaneous way of reacting to your film. And that genius is right, no matter how wrong each of them might be separately. When they start coughing you know you've lost their attention. And when you've lost their attention, it's time to start wondering what you've done wrong.1

With a sensitivity to this kind of attitude, among others, and a supple critical approach, scholarly film study may well enable us to understand more fully the profound attraction that the movies have exerted over audiences for more than seventy years.


1. R. C. Dale, "René Clair in Hollywood: An Interview," Film Quarterly, 20 (Winter 1970-71), pp. 37-38.


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