During 2009-2010, I was given the opportunity of spending a year in Europe. When I left the United States, the DVD market was shifting to Blu-Ray, but the market seemed to be solid. When I came back, the DVD market had collapsed, with the “home video” market shifting to various on-demand services, including video streaming, and DVR-made-on-demand. And the decline in the DVD market has only continued, with many of the major companies (Warner Home Video, Sony, 20th Century Fox) basically curtailing their operations.
Though the change in the DVD market has been severe, I would like to concentrate on the implications in terms of film history and the attendant critical values. What I'd like to do is make a few remarks about the situation of film history in the United States since the 1950s, and then discuss the shifts in critical and cultural values. Though there was always historical precedents within film even from the very beginning, by the 1950s the history of film became an active component in terms of the general culture. During the period of the changeover to sound, many film theorists began to enunciate a critical history of the medium; Béla Balázs, Paul Rotha, Erwin Panofsky, Vachel Lindsay, and Iris Barry were among those who published treatises during the 1920s and 1930s which sought to establish a history of the cinema. One of the situations which became apparent was that the defining aesthetic of the cinema had to be established in order to elaborate on the historical dimensions of the medium. The fact that the cinema was, as an artform, a medium which could encompass and incorporate other artforms (primarily theater and literature) provided the impetus for the theoretical considerations which attended the definition of the cinema. By the 1950s, there came an avalanche of books on film, many further attempts to create a history of the medium, starting with John Grierson's emendation and revision of Paul Rotha's The Film Till Now (1950). Critics such as Penelope Houston (The Contemporary Cinema: 1945-63), Arthur Knight (The Liveliest Art), Parker Tyler (Classics of the Foreign Film), V.F. Perkins (Film As Film: Understanding and Judging Movies), and Peter Cowie (A Concise History of the Cinema) provided a relatively stable litany of the historical progression of the cinema.
Starting with the primitive era (Edison, the Lumière Brothers, Méliès), the development of narrative cinema (embodied in the figure of D.W. Griffith) and the various national cinemas* (Scandinavian - Sjöström, Stiller, Dreyer, Christensen, Schnéevoigt, etc.; German - Wiene, Lubitsch, Murnau, Lang, Pabst, etc.; Soviet - Shub, Kuleshov, Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Dovzhenko, etc.), as well as American slapstick (Mack Sennett, Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Langdon, Laurel and Hardy), were some of the accepted signposts of the continuity of cinematic history. Then there was the development of the industrial model of cinematic production with the rise of the Hollywood studios, as well as the technical innovation of the addition of sound, but there was the acknowledgement of alternatives, starting with the French cinema of the 1930s (Renoir, Carné, Vigo, Duvivier, Grémillon, Feyder, Guitry, etc.) and continuing with the development of Neo-Realism in Italy in the postwar period (De Sica, Visconti, Rossellini, De Santis, Castellani, etc.) and the introduction of Japanese cinema to the West (Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Kinoshita, etc.) and the rise of additional national cinemas such as Poland (Wajda, Has, Munk, Polanski, Skolimowski, etc.), India (Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, etc.), Brazil (Glauber Rocha, Carlos Diegues, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, Ruy Guerra, Nelson Pereira dos Santos, etc.), Czechoslovakia (Forman, Chytilová, Namec, Menzel, Passer, etc.), and Hungary (Miklós Jancsó, Károly Makk, Pál Gábor, Márta Mészáros, István Szabó, etc.). But by the end of the 1960s, this model of cinematic history began to crumble. There were many reasons for this, but I shall mention two.
By the end of the 1960s, it became obvious that the standard histories of film were often negligent in terms of the actual expanse of the field. An example could be shown in terms of Japanese cinema. The standard history emphasized the revelation of Kurosawa's Rashomon at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, but in 1970, when Donald Richie programmed a six-month series at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City detailing a historical survey of Japanese cinema, it was obvious that there had been a classic Japanese cinema prior to 1950, which had rarely been given exposure in the West. In particular, masters such as Ozu and Naruse were discovered, and the history of Japanese cinema was re-examined to great enthusiasm. Ozu's films had never been in distribution in the West; the reasons cited included the notion that Ozu was considered too Japanese for export, and so his films were deliberately withheld from international distribution. Yet, in the 1970s, when Dan Talbot's New Yorker Films released several Ozu films throughout the United States, the films (notably Late Spring and Tokyo Story) proved to be highly successful on the arthouse circuit. The success of Ozu's films, and, to a lesser extent, Naruse's films, meant that the exclusion of these now-acknowledged masters revealed deficiencies in the standard cinematic histories.
The quest for the cinematic often took the form of asserting the primacy of action in the cinema. Simply put: the politique des auteurs as popularized by Andrew Sarris* in the United States helped to elevate various genre forms into artistic models. However, the problem is that, as the politique des auteurs continued as a methodology, the adherents corrupted and coarsened the politique such that critical standards were upended. In his initial argument regarding the politique des auteurs, Andrew Sarris had written, If Hollywood yields a bit at the very summit, it completely dominates the middle ranges, particularly in the realm of the 'good-bad' movies and genres. Note that Sarris is not saying that Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Phil Karlson's The Brothers Rico, or Joseph H. Lewis's Gun Crazy should replace Mizoguchi's Ugetsu Monogatari, Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, or Vigo's L'Atalante; rather, he was asserting a methodology which would allow for variations rather than rigid classifications between high art and popular culture, but he never intended for the dismissal of high art.
In the last few months, in anticipation of the annual Sight & Sound poll of international film critics which will be published in September of 2012*, there have been innumerable lists of the greatest films; what has been depressing is that there is very little self-awareness, and virtually no inquiry into the socio-cultural underpinnings of the results. Most of the results which I have seen, from critics of my acquaintance, have stressed the output of the Hollywood studios of the 1950s; no one seems to mention that, for people in their 40s and 50s, who grew up during the 1960s, when the politique des auteurs was being introduced and taught, there was an emphasis on what many (including Sarris) referred to as the autumnal works of the Hollywood masters, such as Hitchcock, Ford, and Hawks. One of the problems with film education now is that there is no longer any overlap with traditional liberal arts education. Art history, literary history, and theatrical history are no longer the basis for film education. But as the cinema has gained ascendancy, the declension in an awareness of traditional cultural values has been virtually complete.
In 2004, Warner Home Video decided to poll its customers as to possible DVD releases. Out of 15 choices, which included several previously acknowledged masterworks (such as Erich von Stroheim's Greed); the five films chosen included Where The Boys Are (1960) and The Wind and the Lion (1975). This was (of course) to be expected, since the general public (certainly in the United States) is not an educated public, so the historical importance of a film such as Greed has no relevance, but this confirmation of the lack of an awareness of cinematic history has only been consolidated. The recent plethora of these endless lists emphasizing the Hollywood output of the 1950s has been overwhelmingly myopic, but there has been no amelioration and no acknowledgement that there might be a necessary short-sightedness. Instead, there has emerged in critical circles an arrogance in relation to one's limitations.
All this, to me, has been perplexing. Quite frankly, when most of the people I know talk about movies, I have no idea what they're talking about, because I have no idea what their values are, and from where their opinions have been formed. In the last Sight & Sound poll of 2002, I was appalled by the deliberate omission of many people I knew: these people had participated in the polls since 1962, but the current editorial staff had made the decision to exclude these people, claiming that, since most of these people were past the age of 50, their opinions were no longer relevant. Some of these people included: Jonas Mekas, Stanley Kauffmann, Annette Michelson, Andrew Sarris, and Amos Vogel. Not only that, but two of the editors of Sight & Sound during its heyday from the late 1950s until the 1980s were also excluded: Penelope Houston and Tom Milne! The editorial staff of Sight & Sound was undermining the historical validity of the poll, because eliminating anyone with the educational foundation beyond the current film studies curriculum only reinforced the myopia afflicting present-day critical discourse. In point of fact, I have more understanding of the viewpoints of Mekas, Kauffmann, and Michelson than I do the viewpoints of most of my contemporaries.
In the July 2012 issue of Now Playing (the monthly guide to Turner Classic Movies), Robert Osborne makes the point that the Star-of-the-Month, Leslie Howard, had no interest in appearing in the movie which has become the most famous movie of his career, Gone With the Wind. But what Osborne does not explain was that Howard had a notable stage and screen career, where he had played in works by Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet), George Bernard Shaw (Pygmalion), Robert Sherwood (The Petrified Forest), Philip Barry (The Animal Kingdom), Somerset Maugham (Of Human Bondage), among the works of other notable writers. Howard's fear, that commercial success would negate the artistic values of his previous work, was actually well-founded. Though in literary terms Gone With the Wind has proven to be a negligible work (it has not entered the literary canon), as a film Gone With the Wind remains a classic. Why this should be, when in every detail Gone with the Windnegates any traditional artistic values, is symptomatic of the erosion of culture when confronted by commerce. Yet Howard's reluctance should be understandable: by any cultural standards in the Anglo-American tradition extant in the late 1930s, Gone With the Wind was a work of imposing commercial success, yet by every other standard, it was a dubious work. And on political and ethical grounds, Gone With the Wind was more than dubious, it was a reactionary apologia for the Ku Klux Klan! (Wisely, this aspect of the novel was excised in the film version; if the film had been as faithful an adaptation as is sometimes claimed, the movie would be regulated to those works of political controversy on the order of The Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will.) To close with a quote from Andrew Sarris: Gone With the Wind is one of the notable exceptions to the notion of directorial authorship.... That Gone With the Wind succeeded as entertainment is due largely to the inspired casting of Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara. That it failed as personal art is due to the incessant interference with a project that was always too big to be controlled by a single directorial style.
With the advent of DVDs, there seemed to be an opening into the possibility of an archives project creating an individuated history. This hope proved unfounded, as the commercial aspects of the business gradually overwhelmed critical and cultural considerations. This can be seen in the constant restorations/reissues of the same titles, the most commercially viable titles, such as Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind. Here I would like to comment on the problems which have surfaced in regards to how the DVD market has affected film history. The ubiquity of certain titles has conferred the status of classic on a number of films which might have proven debatable otherwise. But that isn't the only problem that has been caused by the DVD market. What the market has created is a sense of historical continuity which limits the perspective from which the cinema might be viewed. But there is also another problem, which must be addressed.
Although the beginnings of the cinema involved various incarnations including the kinematoscope, the nickelodeon, and the magic lantern, with the projection of the film strip, the cinema soon became a theatrical venture, and this became the predominant mode of cinematic experience. Certainly, from the 1910s on, the movies became an additional theatrical experience: a temporal artform experienced as part of an audience in a theatrical setting, as much as dance recitals and music concerts had been for centuries. But by the 1950s, the mass marketing of television brought about a change: in order to program for the entire day, many networks and local affiliates began to turn to prepackaged programs, the easiest being old movies. The Hollywood studios had a stockpile of old movies in storage; one requirement was simply the transference of the film to video transmission. Once that was accomplished, the movies became part of the daily program. So, by the 1950s, an entire generation of Americans was being inundated with a makeshift history of American commercial cinema.
But this history had severe limitations. The Motion Picture Production Code, which had been enforced after 1934, was still in effect, so the majority of films which were made in what is now known as the Pre-Code* era were not allowed to be shown on television, as the content was judged too salacious. Though there were occasions when silent films were shown on television (Chaplin's shorts often appeared during the 1950s and 1960s), this also was rare, so that the predominance proved to be films from 1934 to the 1950s. With this in mind, the skewing of critical values to accentuate the Hollywood studio product of the 1930s through the 1950s makes sense. What seemed to be the ubiquity of this available history made the displacement of cultural values inevitable. When familiarity occasions the acknowledgement of cultural importance, alternative perspectives become precarious.
All of this is simply a backdrop to explain my feelings of bafflement at the current state of cinematic scholarship, and how that scholarship has been informed by the deficiencies in the DVD market. The idea that the new medium of the digital-video-disc has now made cinematic history accessible is problematic for several reasons, including the fact that not everything is available on DVD, and the fact that conditions for viewing DVDs are not the same as conditions for cinematic viewing. In terms of the latter: early in the development of film as a theatrical medium, the element of scale became part of the allure of the cinema. The Italian spectacles The Last Days of Pompeii (1913) and Cabiria (1914) proved successful internationally because of the photographed splendor of the enormous sets, and this proved influential on other filmmakers, such as D.W. Griffith, who responded with Judith of Bethulia (1914) and Intolerance (1916). The idea of scale reasserted itself in the 1950s, when the movie studios were responding to the threat of television. Cinemascope, VistaVision, Technirama, and other wide-screen formats were developed to meet the challenge, but this has also brought problems in terms of the transfer to DVD: most Cinerama presentations are virtually unintelligible. The reason is that, because of the sheer scale of the Cinerama image in a proper theatrical setting, long shots of actors read as close-ups, but when seen on a video monitor, no matter how large monitor is in relation to a home setting, the image can never approximate the scope of the theatrical original. In a film such as The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm(1962), the performances are rendered ineffective, because there is no chance to read facial expressions (which, in a proper Cinerama screening, would be perfectly legible). This is not to say that The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm is a great movie, it's not, but it might as well be a lost film because it's so difficult to discern the visual information properly.
During the 1960s, when film history was being codified, there were certain films which were acknowledged classics. Over the last decade, there have been attempts to bring many of these films to the DVD market. Companies such as Kino Lorber, Criterion, Milestone, Flicker Alley, and Cinema Guild (in the United States) have worked tirelessly (often with questionable remuneration) to make these films available to the audience for home video. The major companies, such as Columbia Pictures Home Video (a division of Sony), regurgitate the same titles endlessly: how many restored versions of Lawrence of Arabia are really necessary? Yet (as with all the Hollywood studios), Columbia Pictures has a variegated history, and so much of that history is being ignored. In the 1930s, Columbia was not one of the major studios; the films were made on low budgets, the studio had a production and distribution network, but no exhibition network i.e. Columbia did not have a theater chain. In the 1930s, it became a studio which was a way-station for directors and writers willing to work cheaply, on projects with some personal meaning.
In 1932, Frank Borzage, the first director to win an Academy Award (for Seventh Heaven), had left Fox (where he had been under contract since 1925). First, he made a stop at Paramount, where he would direct the prestige production of A Farewell to Arms, based on the Hemingway novel, starring Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes. Then he would direct Mary Pickford and Leslie Howard in the remake of Secrets (a film he had directed in 1924, starring Norma Talmadge) for Pickford's own production company. His next stop would be Columbia Pictures, where he would make two films: the Depression idyll Man's Castle (1933), starring Spencer Tracy (on loan from Fox) and Loretta Young (on loan from Warner Brothers), and the antiwar allegory No Greater Glory (1934), based on Ferenc Molnár 's The Boys of Paul Street. Then he would move to Universal, where he directed Little Man, What Now? (1934), starring Margaret Sullavan and Douglas Montgomery, another Depression romance, only this one set in the devastated Germany in the period after World War I. Borzage was one of the most important American directors in that period of the changeover to sound; he won a second Academy Award as Best Director in 1931 for Bad Girl. In 2008, Fox Home Video released a massive DVD boxset, Murnau, Borzage and Fox, which contains Seventh Heaven and Bad Girl. When Sony Home Entertainment started their on-demand DV-R series in 2010, one of the first titles was No Greater Glory. But so far, there have been no announcements and no plans for the home video release of Man's Castle. How can any director's reputation survive when two of his most important films, Man's Castle and Little Man, What Now? remain unavailable? (Not only that, but the 1937 romantic drama History Is Made at Night, produced by Walter Wanger and starring Jean Arthur and Charles Boyer, is also unavailable; that makes three of Borzage's finest sound films that are not available.)
I'm using the example of Frank Borzage because he was a director with a major reputation whose reputation has been in a steady decline, not because of changing values, but because of the changes in film viewership. The fact that, for so long, his films were totally absent from any home video format, meant that his films were not seen; this unavailability should not have meant that his career was without merit, but that's what it amounts to: if it's not on DVD, it might as well never have existed, and it’s worth is now in doubt. During the 1960s, when I was starting to learn about film, I read a lot of the different film journals (Film Culture, Sight & Sound, Film Quarterly, Movie, Film Comment), I read as many of the various books on film as I could, and I read a lot of different film critics. From this, I tried to see as much as possible, going to the various museum screenings and revival houses in New York City, in order to gain a genuine historical perspective on film.
Even in the 1960s, though, there were many problems: I'd read a lot about the Carné-Prévert Le Jour se lève (1939), one of the classic French fatalistic melodramas, but in the 1960s, it was not readily available, because RKO had produced a remake in 1947, The Long Night, which starred Henry Fonda and was the first film for Barbara Bel Geddes, and the original was taken off the market for a while, and no one had thought to try to revive it until the early 1970s. But I knew about Le Jour se léve, it was one of the films discussed in the classic André Bazin article about the tragic fate of Jean Gabin (which was included in What Is Cinema? the collection of Bazin's essays translated by Hugh Gray). So I was on the lookout for Le Jour se lève, and when the film reappeared on the revival circuit, I remember going with friends to see it. And I remember the fact that the print was a bit tattered; it was an old print, and, as with most foreign films from the 1930s and 1940s, the subtitling was sporadic. But that points to another aspect of film history in the period: the sense of a communal experience, because to see a film, you had to go to some theatrical setting, and you usually went with friends. Borzage's name appeared in any number of books about film, so his films were those which one sought out, so that one could understand his reputation as one of the major American directors of the late 1920s and early 1930s, and one looked for those titles which were considered major works, such as Man's Castle, Little Man What Now? and History Is Made at Night.
But now, with DVDs, the experience of collecting is a solitary one, developing a home archive is more an obsessive behavior than a communal experience; not only that, but the discourse around film is no longer as collegial. There are too many people who are simply content to define classic cinema as that which was popular and commercial.
I am reminded of a recent incident, in which I was answering a question on one of the message boards I sometimes contribute to: the question was name a movie star who does not have a classic film to his or her credit. One answer was Loretta Young, and I took exception to that, because Loretta Young's career is problematic in terms of what is available. Most of the films which have been available on television and on DVD have come from the latter half of her career; aside from the anomaly of Orson Welles's The Stranger (1946), most of her films were relatively undistinguished. But Loretta Young made most of her films in the pre-Code era, where she was one of the pre-Code heroines* (along with Sylvia Sidney and Helen Twelvetrees) par excellence. From 1930 until 1934, she was signed by Warner Brothers, and appeared in innumerable pre-Code melodramas, such as Employee's Entrance, Heroes For Sale, Taxi, The Hatchet Man, Midnight Mary; during that period, she alternated with Barbara Stanwyck as one of William Wellman's favorite actresses. Two of her finest films were the romantic fantasy Zoo In Budapest, costarring Gene Raymond and directed by Rowland V. Lee for Fox, and (of course) Borzage's Man's Castle, where she was the quintessential Depression waif. So when I mentioned this, I was rebuked with the statement that the films I mentioned could not be classics, because this person had never heard of them! Yet, if that person had taken the time to actually read critics (such as Pauline Kael, or Andrew Sarris), that person would have found many references to Young and to some of her classic films. But that wouldn't prove classic status to this person. A classic is Casablanca or Gone With the Wind, a title that's ubiquitous, even if the actual merit of the film is dubious. Though the new platforms hold the promise of the availability of a greater number of titles, there are still such glaring omissions that the history of film as defined through DVDs and DV-Rs and video streaming remains partial and incomplete. But the willful ignorance of many who are now convinced that the history of film is defined by what they know is even more insidious than the commercial constraints of the current home video market.
Ed. 1. Among the more obscure names are Mauritz Stiller (Erotikon, 1920, Gösta Berling's Saga, 1924), Benjamin Christensen (Häxan, 1922), George Schnéevoigt (Laila, 1929), Esfir Shub (The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, 1927).
2. The critic Andrew Sarris (1928-June 2012) transmuted the “politique des auteurs” of the French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma to the Anglophone under the label “the auteur theory” as outlined in The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968. This spread the notion, then controversial in America, that the director was the real author of the film.
3. Since 1952, Sight and Sound magazine’s decennial Poll for the Greatest Films of All Time is respected as the most prestigious of all barometers of canonical greatness.
4. Institutionalized Censorship was fully enforced in America from 1934 and lasted till the end of the 60s, finally paving way to the present-day MPAA Ratings Board. The Pre-Code period (1929-1934) yielded films which were more adult in sensibility – unsentimental about love, brutal in its depiction of violence and free of any devotion to “happy endings” - than Hollywood would be three decades hence. To this period belongs films such as Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932), Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Josef von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress (1934), films which would be impossible to make after the Code and which was hard to see in America for several years because of its content.
5. Sylvia Sidney, star of such films as Street Scene (1931, King Vidor), An American Tragedy (1931, Josef von Sternberg), Sabotage (1936, Alfred Hitchcock) and most famously, three films with Fritz Lang, (Fury, 1936, You Only Live Once, 1937, You and Me, 1938). Helen Twelvetrees appeared in two cult titles from the Pre-Code Era, Tay Garnett’s Her Man (1931) and Bad Company (1931).