Film History Fakelore

The linguists at Language Log are fond of picking on journalists who make fallacious claims about language. One hobbyhorse is the notion that the Eskimos have a hundred (or however many) words for snow. Not only is it incorrect, but its typical deployment in formulations like "if Eskimos have dozens of words for snow, Germans have as many words for bureaucracy" is a cliché. (Here is a nice list of such statements.) Thus they have two complaints about this kind of journalism: it is based on a misconception about language, and it is a kind of bad writing.

Film and media scholars might be equally irritated by mainstream writing about their field, and on similar grounds. Popular prose about media is often full of clichés and some of these clichés are based on misconceptions about film and media history. The passage that caught my eye most recently was in an article in the Washington Post by its film critic Ann Hornaday about YouTube:
One hundred years ago, the first moviegoers ran screaming from a French theater while watching a train pull into a station; they were transfixed by quotidian scenes of a baby eating lunch, a man being sprayed by a sprinkler and workers leaving a factory. Today we have a baby passing gas in a crib, and teenagers mixing Diet Coke and Mentos and cats, cats, cats.

Conditioned by "magic lantern" slide shows and serial comics of the 19th century, the earliest filmgoers at first didn't see film as more than just a series of still images. But then -- and fairly quickly -- out of the random, the daily, the incidental, a cohesive aesthetic emerged, born of film's distinct visual grammar and narrative power.
Here are two claims about early cinema, the former far more common than the latter, both based on no credible evidence that I have seen.[1] It is convenient for Hornaday's point to recycle these myths about the introduction of cinema. It helps make her discussion of web video appear to be grounded in an historical context for understanding the emergence of new media. But it doesn't excuse her offering bogus facts that we are expected to accept as though they are just part of common knowledge. (Aside from this passage and some other regrettably glib phrases--she calls the audience for YouTube "an eagerly narcotized booboisie"--the article is full of useful insights into the web video phenomenon and I recommend it.)

Popular writing that makes references to the history of film often relies on such an unofficial body of common knowledge about the topic, and much of it is at best partly true. You might have your own roster of favorite dubious notions about film history; these are some of mine.

-Moviegoers in the 1890s were panicked by the train's approach in the Lumière film L'Arrivé d'un Train.

-The Great Train Robbery was the first film to tell a story.

-D.W. Griffith invented or discovered "film language."

-The Jazz Singer was the first sound film.

-Citizen Kane is the undisputed heavyweight champion of cinematic masterpieces. This one generated its own saying: "X makes Y look like Citizen Kane."[2]

-John Cassavetes (or Sam Fuller, or Andy Warhol...) is the "father of independent cinema."

-Jaws was the first summer blockbuster and its success killed the more authentic auteur cinema of everyone's beloved early 1970s.

There are at least three problems with these assertions as they are typically made. First, they are historically inaccurate, are based on too little evidence, or simplify something rather more complicated. The Jazz Singer, for example, was not the first film with sync sound or the first feature film with a soundtrack. It was a hit feature film made with some synchronized dialog and singing and it had some role in influencing the creation of more sync sound features--a role abetted by promotional puffery from the film's own producers.[3] It marks one significant event among many in cinema's transition to sound. Putting it that way makes it more difficult to slip in as a factoid along the way to making some other point. It is rhetorically more effective to treat film history as a before and and an after, with The Jazz Singer marking the passage.

Second, these formulations are based on fallacies of historical reasoning. Popular discussions of history often fall back on certain habits of thought that professional historians consider highly problematic. In film history as in history generally, these include the "great man" theory that gives more credit to individuals than to other causes (structural ones, for example, such as economics, technology, and society). It makes a more compelling story if you put a great man like Edison or Griffith or Cassavetes at the center of it. But "great man" history often slights many important issues. Griffith's contribution to the development of cinema into a narrative art, which he himself advertised in the early 1910s, has too often been grossly overstated. Great man history makes the error of assuming that events may have a single cause.

Another historical fallacy we often find in journalistic film writing is the emphasis on firsts. It seems to make some kind of intuitive sense to try to identify the first instances of important things, but ultimately it is of limited value to the historian because firstness is not an explanatory notion. It doesn't often tell you anything about a category to know which instance of it came first. If Jaws was seen as innovative in various ways (e.g., in the way it was advertised and promoted), that is a significant fact. But naming it "the first summer blockbuster" is like pinning a ribbon on the movie. What does that gain us?

Finally, like the clichés about Eskimo words for snow, these bits of fakelore are evidence of bad writing. Good writing avoids facile analogies and conventional wisdom. Good writing is built on good ideas and respects the complexity of complex things.

As for the notion that early cinema spectators saw "a series of still images": does this not contradict the notion that early cinema spectators were afraid of an onrushing train? Who would be panicked by a series of still images of a train?

[1] Martin Loiperdinger, "Lumière's Arrival of the Train: Cinema's Founding Myth" The Moving Image 4/1 (Spring 2004), 89-118, discusses the centrality of this story to film history. Loiperdinger writes on page 94, "Are there credible reports from eyewitnesses that document the panicked behavior of the spectators? Apparently nothing of the sort exists." The article goes on to describe the film and its reception in terms not of confusing image and reality, as the myth suggests, but of offering the thrill of a "fantastic image of familiar reality."

Recent film history surveys either ignore the story of spectators frightened by the onrushing Lumière train (Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell, Film History: An Introduction; Douglas Gomery, The Movies: A Short History), or make clear that its veracity is questionable:

-"Apocryphal tales persist that the onrushing cinematic train so terrified audience members that they ducked under their seats for protection." Roberta Pearson, "Early Cinema" in Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Ed., The Oxford History of World Cinema (Oxford UP, 1996), 17.

-"From the platform, the camera observes the train in the distance approaching the station (legend has it that some spectators panicked as the engine appeared to come closer)." Robert Sklar, Film: An International History of the Medium (Prentice Hall, 1993), 30.

An earlier generation of film historians was less careful in evaluating claims of this sort and are among those responsible for spreading this story, as Loiperdinger discusses. "[T]he audience shrieked and ducked when it saw the train hurtling toward them," writes Gerald Mast, A Short History of the Movies (Pegasus, 1971), 33. Now even Wikipedia says that the story of the panicked spectators is bunk.

[2] These were on the first page of hits when I searched Google for "look like citizen kane":

-"[Kumbha Mela] makes Zabriskie Point look like Citizen Kane."

-"This cinematic Chernobyl [Millenium] made Gigli look like Citizen Kane."

-"[Dead Poets Society] was bad, but The Emperor's Club made it look like Citizen Kane"

-"[Blow Out] makes the San Pedro Beach Bums and Pensacola NAS look like Citizen Kane and Forrest Gump."

-"[The author's video of himself during Trial Skills Weekend] makes my commercial for the Awesome B and C Alarm Clock look like Citizen Kane."

-"Armageddon makes Deep Impact look like Citizen Kane."

-"[Britney and Kevin: Chaotic] made Crossroads look like Citizen Kane"

[3] For more on The Jazz Singer, see Donald Crafton, The Talkies: American Cinema's Transition to Sound 1926-1931 (U of California P, 1997), especially 516-531.


zoe p. said...

Love this. But you have to admit that those obviously rhetorical cinema myths show up again and again in film theory. I thought "The Wind in the Trees" was going to be all about this, but then it wasn't, quite.

Anonymous said...

Yes, great post, but I always thought that Thomas Edison was the father of independent cinema.

andyhorbal said...

Bravo! I'll be pestering more or less everyone I know to read this all week...

Video game criticism in particular is saddled with all sorts of misconceptions like these about film history. You see it in the calls for "gaming's Citizen Kane" or "gaming's Pualine Kael." the latter link includes this, even:

I recall someone telling me recently — who was it? — that film writing began a lot earlier than we generally realize. Even back in the silent film era, in the earliest part of this century, people were publishing little newsletters with film synopses and recommendations.

And I guess that’s about equivalent to the video game journalism we have today… jeez, are we only in the silent film era of video games? Is that heartening or scary?

Unknown said...

All in all, this is a great post. However, I do have a slight problem with the supposed "myth" about Citizen Kane.

You assert that Citizen Kane is crowned as the "undisputed masterpiece" and cite as supporting evidence the fact that Kane is often used in statements comparing the relative quality of two films.

While I would agree that falling back on such an overused statement is lazy writing, I think it's far more a factor of the position of Citizen Kane in the public consciousness. A reader isn't required to know whether or not critics place Kane at the top of their lists to understand that it's a much respected film and considered by most to at least be "one" of the greats. This allows the (lazy) comparison "X makes Y look like Kane" work.

Saying that "Armageddon makes Deep Impact look like Shichinin no Samurai" just isn't likely to resonate with most readers -- no matter how much the author may prefer Seven Samurai over Kane (or substitute any other great film).

(And for the record, you can substitute other great films in your Google search and come up with similar results -- try "look like The Godfather" for example.)

Anonymous said...

Since someone mentioned Pauline Kael, I'd like to add another myth to the pile of myths that need debunking. She certainly was not the founder of modern film criticism, nor did her critical methodology much resemble that of most contemporary film critics. Her actual writing bears very little resemblance to what people imagine it to be. There's a lot to be said for her, but neither of those two things should ever be repeated.

Anonymous said...

Referring to Citizen Kane like that is much like referring to Shakespeare. The former means "a great work of cinema"; the latter means "a great work of literature". It has little to nothing to do with any actual qualities of Kane; it's all about its status as a cultural touchstone.